I recently returned from a fairly large international church conference held here in the U.K. While the worship and fellowship was great, there was something else that happened during the conference that really bothered me and got me to thinking.
I began to notice that every speaker—brought in from the U.K. and the United States—said essentially nothing new. The themes were conventional: Will the real Church please stand up? You need to confront this evil world with the truth; Don’t be upset if nonbelievers get angry when you confront them; You need to witness boldly to your friends, relatives and neighbors; Throw out all the garbage in your life, like depression, stress and anxiety and get on with the business of building the Kingdom; and so on.
Chances are, you’ve probably heard all those clichés in a thousand sermons before; or if you’re a preacher, maybe you’ve said them from the pulpit. I know I have.
We even heard one speaker share the story of how he witnessed to a nonbeliever on an airplane trip. That’s a classic story.
What I noticed is that it seemed to me like all the speakers excelled on heaping guilt and shame on the people listening. Now, I’m sure they meant well—absolutely sure of it. I know that in the back of their minds, the preachers weren’t thinking, “Hey, what I need to do is to heap shame and guilt on these people and make them feel terrible!” But motives aside, that’s what it seemed like to me.
But here’s the real kicker: After laying this heavy burden on those of us listening—about how we’re not doing enough for God, how we’re too afraid to confront the evils in our society, how we’re not measuring up as evangelists—someone would stand up in the front and ask people to come forward for prayer if they wanted God’s help in their lives: God, please bail us out. In fact, with God on our side, the message was clear: We can’t lose!
And the people came streaming forward—many with tears in their eyes—to ask God for help to unburden their lives of fear and stress and anxiety and to help them be a bolder witness so that they could go out and confront this evil old world with the truths of the gospel. And I couldn’t help but wonder if the whole thing wasn’t a bit presumptuous: God, please help unburden these people of the heavy load that’s just been laid on their shoulders. And while you’re at it, turn ‘em into winners for you!
The experience made me reflect on how church is done by and large and how those in church leadership really expect to motivate believers. What kind of Christians are churches trying to produce by this kind of motivation? It seems to me that many preachers use this type of technique Sunday after Sunday: Make people feel bad, and then turn to ask God for his help.
But I ask: Should churches be about the business of making people feel bad about their sorry spiritual state in the name of conviction? Do we really want believers out there confronting their friends, relatives and neighbors with the “truth” whenever they see those nonbelievers doing something wrong? Is this how we define evangelism?
It makes me wonder about the connection between this definition of evangelism and truly authentic relationships with nonbelievers. Should we as Christians befriend a nonbeliever only for the purpose of evangelism? That seems like a hidden agenda. And what happens when that nonbeliever doesn’t seem interested in the truths we’re peddling? Well, I guess it’s time to end the relationship.
My friend Mike Reilley in Portland asked me, “What is evangelism anyway? Is it nothing more than a twisted intellectual mind game in which I view every nonbeliever around me as nothing more than a statistic? If that’s the case, then my goal is to win them over to my way—by which I mean God’s way—of thinking.”
But what he said next really got through to me: “I really believe our current beliefs regarding what evangelism is drives us to dehumanize people, turning them into something I have to change. Ironic, isn’t it? The very thing that God gave us to make us most human we have turned into something that does just the opposite.”
And I have one final question: Why is it that for the most part, the Church just isn’t compelling? Why aren’t we more attractive to nonbelievers? Gee, I wonder. God, please bail us out.