The other day a friend of mine who is planting a church in New York City tweeted this: “The most aggressive, disturbing and overall frightening people I’ve encountered in Manhattan have been the street preachers.”
Most disciples of Jesus rightly don’t want to be associated with people like that, but I think that’s also a big reason many of us struggle to actually proclaim the good news. We can be kind and serve others and demonstrate the love of Christ in many ways, but many of us become tongue-tied and quiet when it comes to sharing the content of our faith, mostly out of fear of being associated with those people.
Evangelism has been on my mind lately. Deb and I have been talking with the leaders at Christ Church about it, it seems to be something God is emphasizing for our community this year, and it’s been an frequent topic of reflection and prayer for me. This post is a bit of a follow-up to one I wrote a few weeks ago on a key to recognizing “Persons of Peace.”
In that post I said that we probably won’t encounter too many persons of peace until we are willing to also encounter persons of “unpeace.” Thus it is mainly pride that holds us back from recognizing what Jesus might be up to in the lives of the people around us.
Similarly, our fear of being lumped in with mean-spirited street preachers or bigoted television personalities causes us to shrink back from actually sharing the gospel. Instead we have made efforts to distance ourselves from “those types” of Christians. “We’re not like those weird ones – we’re normal! Come and see!”
But often the problem with “those types” of Christians is not the fact that they are boldly proclaim the gospel, it’s that they’re hypocrites. Their gospel words don’t line up with the attitudes they use to say it. Their lyrics don’t match the music of their lives. Their proclamation is utterly divorced from any kind of embodiment of their message. Hypocrisy is the problem, not necessarily proclamation. (There is also the other problem of people proclaiming “non-gospels” or “pseudo-gospels,” but for the purposes of this post, we’ll just focus on hypocrisy.)
So it seems to me that we are throwing the baby of proclaiming the gospel out with the bathwater of hypocrisy and judgmentalism, as though the only way to proclaim the gospel is to be an inauthentic jerk. We need to find ways to reclaim authentic gospel proclamation, not avoid it out of fear of being associated with “those types” of Christians.
And we’re right to emphasize the need for embodied witness. We do need to demonstrate the love of Christ in our actions. The quality of our presence is the platform for our proclamation. We have chafed at seeing proclamation without presence, but presence without proclamation is just as hypocritical.
Some tout the phrase “Preach the gospel at all times; if necessary use words” (which St. Francis never actually said or believed), but from a biblical perspective, words are necessary. As one blogger said recently, “The truth is that faith comes by hearing, not by deducing through comfortable apprehension of good deeds. An implied gospel is a gospel fail.”
We need to reclaim evangelism as a more vital part of the ministry of the church. Part of the task will be training people in what the gospel actually is, and another part will simply be us getting over ourselves enough to stop worrying about how others perceive us. That’s the journey it seems God has our community on, anyway.