A few weeks ago, a woman got onto the subway at the stop after mine, and after awhile, she began to preach. At first, I thought she might have been the slightest bit crazy, because she started by quoting random lyrics to old-school church songs (but saying them, not singing them), and it’s not unusual in this city for people to get on the subway or walk down the street talking to themselves or to someone who isn’t there. (So, you know, I fit right in.)
But then she moved on to a series of verses from the Bible. (I think she may have been preaching through the Romans Road, but I’m honestly not sure, because I was actually trying to catch the end of the latest episode of Pod Save America on the ride in to work, and I was not paying attention. (Sidenote: the juxtaposition was really odd.)) But her voice continued to gain volume as she preached to a captive audience of New Yorkers on a subway, all of whom (including me) mostly just really wanted to go to work and be left alone.
So eventually, my attention was caught, in spite of how badly I wanted to ignore her, and in that moment, I couldn’t help but notice three things: 1) how incredibly uncomfortable and slightly miserable everyone around me looked; 2) how utterly foreign everything she was saying would sound, if you didn’t already know what she was talking about; and 3) how very badly I wanted to ask her why she thought this was helpful (but how socially inappropriate it felt to do so).
Later that day, I had lunch with a good friend I hadn’t talked with in a while, and he asked me if I missed being a pastor.
Well. Hi there, cognitive dissonance. Nice to see you again.
* * * * *
I’ve been asking a lot of questions over the past few months – about life and faith, about what I believe and why I believe it – and concurrently, I’ve been trying to pay more attention to it when something … well, twinges, I guess, for lack of a better word, in hopes of understanding why something bothers me. And one of the things I am finally ready to admit is that evangelism – at least in the sort of context in which I experienced it the other morning – can really bother me.
There’s a very prominent expectation in (at least evangelical) Christian circles that if you love Jesus, you will, of course, want to tell everyone – and that you should. The practical details concerning how have changed a lot over time, and can vary between denominations, but the mindset remains pretty much the same: if you’re really a Christian, you’re going to tell people about it, and you’re going to do everything you can to convince them that they need to become a Christian, too – and, of course, the implication is that if you’re not actively sharing your faith with others, then there must be something wrong with you.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, when I first started following Jesus, it was kind of a fad for churches and other Christian organizations to put out “tracts” – little booklets with clever little diagrams and Scripture verses about sin and hell and mankind’s need for salvation as “tools” to help Christians share the gospel with their friends and neighbors and complete strangers on the bus, and as a high school student, it never occurred to me to question whether or not this was a good idea. The very fact that handing anyone a tract felt scary should have said something to me – but at sixteen, I didn’t know that when I was encouraged to “step out” in spite of fear, because “perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18, NIVUK), that the verse was being taken completely out of context, and that maybe listening to my feelings would have been wiser.
In the mid-1990s, as a college student in discipleship training school, I was forced to get a little more artistic and gutsy about evangelism one summer – performing in street plays and putting on concerts in parks, but also knocking on random doors, or walking up to people I didn’t know and trying to start a conversation. It rarely went well, and I was never comfortable in my own skin when sent out with a group of friends to “evangelize.” But I did it a few times anyway, because I was told to. (Dearest strangers, I’m so very, very sorry.)
Eventually (and to my relief) by the early 2000s, it seemed like everyone around me finally recognized that maybe building relationships with people was a better way to go (ya think?) – but then … a new evangelical catch phrase emerged: “Be intentional.”
Being “intentional” about relationships means exactly what you’d think: purposefully putting time and effort into them. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Intentionality can be a very real expression of love – when it’s actually an expression of love. But when intentionality becomes a means to end – well, that’s when things get a little weird. As my friend Cathy says very pointedly in her (fabulous book) Bad Christian, “Love isn’t love when it has an agenda.” Yet I was actively encouraged to intentionally build relationships with people who weren’t Christians for pretty much the sole purpose of inviting them to church so they could hear the gospel (or so I could share it with them myself). And as a leader in my community, I was expected to model this behaviour.
I completely failed at it. Partly because I had two full-time jobs, and I didn’t have the kind of time it takes to build relationships with people I wasn’t already interacting with. Also because I’m an introvert – which doesn’t mean that I don’t like talking to people, but does mean that I’m careful about who I talk to and tend to prefer one-on-one conversations or spending time with very small groups of trusted friends – so purposefully looking for social situations that would make meeting new people possible wasn’t really up my alley at all.
But mostly because… well, deep down, I think it’s a really horrible idea to pick somebody to befriend simply because they don’t know Jesus. You should just become friends with people you like.
This doesn’t seem like rocket science.
* * * * *
And so I have spent most of the past 30 years feeling (on occasion) guilt and shame for not measuring up to a standard that I have quite honestly never really felt comfortable with anyway. And it makes me a little sad. That’s a lot of negative energy and emotion. But it doesn’t sit right with me that something we were really meant to do would make us so miserable; that just doesn’t make sense. And quite honestly – I’m not really sure that when Jesus told His disciples to “…go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you,” (Matthew 28: 19-20, NIVUK) that subway preaching, tracts, and weird relationships were exactly what He meant.
It’s not that talking about faith is a terrible idea. It’s just that there are so many amazing people in the world, and when we approach relationships with an agenda, we not only miss out on the opportunity to learn and grow and forge deep friendships that are based on who each of us essentially are, but we can also manage to offend a lot of people. No one wants to feel used, devalued, or disrespected, and while that may not be the heart-set of (some) subway evangelists or well-meaning friends, it’s how it can come across – and all too often, it’s what actually happens.
Genuine curiosity is what drives healthy and thriving relationships: Who are you? What are you thinking about? (The diversity of answers to these questions is fascinating.)
Jesus said, “My command is this: love each other as I have loved you.” (John 15:12, NIVUK) If we’re really going to live into what Jesus called the “greatest” commandments (loving God and loving our neighbors), then we really need to actually love people, regardless of whether or not they see the world the same way we do.
So maybe let’s shed this idea that evangelism is some kind of mandate that we need to live into in ways that don’t fit who we are and how we’re wired, and focus a little more on the point: that we live in a world full of people who want exactly the same things we do – to be seen, heard, known, loved, and valued for who they are.
What would it look like if we just did that?
Food for thought.
photo credit: © Depositphotos / Balazs
Simple Felicity is, at its heart, a blog based on the unshakeable belief that happiness really isn't all that complicated. Sometimes finding it can be - but happiness itself is pretty simple, and it's often found in the simplest of things: good food, good books, and good company. So those are the things I write about, along with a few other things that really matter to me, including faith and feminism.
A bit about me: My name is Happy. I have an amazing talent for misplacing my keys, a deep appreciation for whomever looked at the coffee bean and thought, "Hey, I wonder what would happen if I roasted this?", and road trips to Michigan are pretty much my favorite.
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