On a coaching call the other day we were discussing evangelism. Almost everyone on the call confessed an uncomfortable relationship with evangelism over the years (including myself!).
It’s easy to see why. Evangelism has meant “hard sell” techniques and questionable bait-and-switch tactics. Evangelism has also meant just being loose acquaintances with people and hoping they’ll accidentally fall into the kingdom.
These are the 2 ways most people fail at evangelism. They are certainly the 2 ways I failed at evangelism.
1. Arguing people into the kingdom?
It seems that many evangelism techniques from a generation ago focused on how to confront strangers with the “truth” and win an argument.
If you were serious about your faith, if you really loved Jesus, you’d go out of your way to confront random people on the streets and ask them important questions about their ultimate destiny.
- “If you died tonight, do you know without a shadow of a doubt that you’d go to heaven?”
- “Brother, do you know Jesus?”
Then you were equipped to answer all their objections and “prove” that the Bible was true. Because of your ability to destroy them intellectually they’d be forced into falling on their knees and confessing that Jesus is Lord.
If you were smart and relentless enough, you could argue people straight into the kingdom! (Spoiler alert: this does not work.)
Embarrassed by strong-arm evangelism
I have to confess an intense double embarrassment regarding these kinds of evangelistic strategies. On the one hand, I was embarrassed to use these techniques on others, and also felt embarrassed when others occasionally used them on me.
When someone accosted me in an airport or on the street and asked me if I knew Jesus, I felt slimed (even though I actually DID know Jesus!). The conversations felt so stilted and contrived that I could barely stomach them.
Isn’t that interesting? I was part of the same “club” as those people, but I felt like a pawn in their game when approached in such an inauthentic way. These people didn’t really care about me, they were just “doing their job.”
None of it felt right, but I was ashamed that I wasn’t more passionate about “sharing my faith.” I assumed there must be something wrong with my faith if I wasn’t more eager to evangelize strangers.
2. High-fiving people into the kingdom?
I responded to these confrontational techniques in the way that many others do—I backed off and simply tried to connect with people outside the church. I tried to get to know them as people, not prospects.
Which felt like such a relief! I figured this was how people would get to know Jesus and come to faith, through simple friendships where we were connected in our similarities.
But, to make a long story short, it seemed to bear about as much fruit as the other method (almost none).
As I’d get to know people, they’d find out I was a Christian, but that didn’t seem to mean much.
They’d talk vaguely about going to church as a kid, or even how they go to church occasionally now. Me being a Christian was basically just an interesting fact about me. Like someone with a nose ring or a passion for ballroom dancing or a Haitian ancestry.
My faith was interesting to them but not vital. It didn’t explain anything remarkable about me. It was just an interesting religious preference, like some people enjoy meditation and others go to church. To each their own.
There was nothing about me or my community that was confusing or intriguing to anyone. In their minds, I merged right into the background along with everyone else they knew: an interesting person with different tastes.
Learning to connect while staying distinct
So if “strong-arm evangelism” doesn’t work, and neither does “friendship evangelism,” where does that leave us? Maybe we should just give up on it.
Here’s the thing: whenever you find yourself having only two unsatisfying options, there’s probably another dimension to the problem you’re not thinking about.
So instead of thinking about these 2 ways we all fail at evangelism as opposite ends of a spectrum, think about them as emphasizing two necessary elements in an evangelism strategy that works. We need connection to people as well as distinction from them. Like this:
Remember the first way we fail at evangelism? We try to argue people into the kingdom. We accost random strangers and ask them about their eternal destiny.
These kinds of evangelism techniques are what we might call high-distinction tactics. Right out of the gate, I emphasize how I am different from you, and how you can become like me.
Of course the problem with this approach is that nobody cares! They can see you’re different, but the way you’re different is that you’re an insensitive busybody. And nobody wants to join the Insensitive Busybody Club.
Additionally, you have no relational connection with the person you’re speaking with! This is “strong-arm” evangelism: high-distinction, but low connection.
But of course the other way most of us fail at evangelism is when we swing to the other extreme: high connection, but low distinction.
This is when we simply attempt to “be friends” with people, hoping they’ll become Christians by osmosis. At the end of the day, you can’t call anyone to anything, because there’s nothing really distinct about you.
“Come join us, because we’re exactly like you!” is not a compelling vision, nor does it even make sense! You can’t join something if you already belong. If I’m no different than you there’s nowhere for you to move.
So without distinction, there’s nothing to call people to, but without connection, there’s no people to call!
Without connection, no one will listen. Without distinction, you have no message.
Without connection, your distinction looks suspiciously like a colonization program. Without distinction, your connection doesn’t lead anywhere.
Incarnation = connection + distinction
So what’s the third way? What the upper-right quadrant? It’s Jesus.
Evangelism in the way of Jesus is high connection AND high distinction.
Theologically speaking, the incarnation is the perfect embodiment of connection AND distinction at the same time. Jesus is 100% human being (connection), and 100% God (distinction).
He embodies full connection and identification with us in becoming (and remaining) human. He also embodies full distinction and differentiation from us in remaining divine and calling us toward divine life.
Practically speaking, because Jesus is the perfect embodiment of connection and distinction, we can look at how he related to those around him for a perfect example of how to remain connected and stay distinct.
He reached out to connect with people, AND he called them into the reality he was living in (the kingdom of God). He maintained his distinction from people even as he reached out to connect with them.
I’d love to hear from you in the comments… how does this matrix help you think about evangelism differently? How does it help you think about relationships differently?
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