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Service or Evangelism?

How we communicate with people about our faith is an issue that divides us. Some see it as the potential cause of every good thing—that if we just communicate correctly, then we will have gotten Christianity pretty much right. Others see it more as the symptom—that if we’ve got the internals sorted out in our relationship with God, then the way in which we relate to others will flow well as a result.

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I remember the worst words my friends have ever said to me. We were sitting in some restaurant somewhere, and I had finished my usual dribbling about What Christianity Means to Me.

“The thing we like about your faith, Craig …” Vincent paused for a drink while I sat back ready to take the compliment. What would it be? Was he about to praise the freshness of my insight? Could it be the way in which I was so rooted in both contemporary culture and ancient Scripture? Or was it simply the fact that I was such an example of purity and—yes, I could say it—humility?

“The thing we like about your faith,” Vincent repeated, “is that it actually doesn’t seem to make any significant difference to your life at all.”

There was not much to say to a statement like that. I just sat there, my mouth a cross between a smile and that strange twisting thing it does before you’re sick.

Later, sitting on the train that swayed me home to the suburbs, I took out my scalpel and got to work. Why had it hit me so hard? Were they right? What did this mean about my faith—was this to become the evening before the day when my beliefs evaporated and deserted me once and for all?

How we communicate with people about our faith is an issue that divides us. Some see it as the potential cause of every good thing—that if we just communicate correctly, then we will have gotten Christianity pretty much right. Others see it more as the symptom—that if we’ve got the internals sorted out in our relationship with God, then the way in which we relate to others will flow well as a result.

These divisions do strange things to us, molding us into comic stereotypes as we live closer to the margins. On the one hand, there are those who suggest that the only way to do it properly is to tell people about faith. Loudly. And often. For this camp, it becomes all about the words: words that persuade of the truth, words that will form into a simple prayer which must be prayed if eternal salvation is to be guaranteed.

The others favor more action and less talk. They’re the spiritual equivalent of badgers, with a faith that is surprisingly quiet and keeps its teeth well hidden. To the guys in the words camp, they’re the liberals—the postmodern relativists who have robbed Christianity of its guts, leaving it pallid and struggling on the roadside.

The truth is that both camps have gotten some things right. Both have gotten some things wrong. And both exist on the fringes of dualistic thinking where Christianity so often gets dragged, but in which it so often fails to thrive.

At the heart of the debate is a line often attributed to St. Francis of Assisi. “Preach the Gospel,” he is reported to have said. “And if necessary, use words.”

How do you feel about that? Breathing a sigh of relief that all that cold-call witnessing out in the street can finally be put behind you? Disgusted by yet another limp-wristed liberal patsy Italian excuse-muncher letting people off the hook?

The first time I heard it, I pretty much wept for joy.

When I was a teen I flirted with being an evangelist. Actually, I flirted with the idea of being an evangelist. I liked the idea of being so impressive and influential. It was only when I realized I’d have to actually talk to people that I went off the idea.

In fact, it was when I finally did start to talk to people that I began to realize that arguing them into the Kingdom of God was simply not what I believed faith was about. As I spent time at university meeting a whole new Benetton ad of friends, it quickly dawned on me that I didn’t just have to like Christians. And if I liked these weirdly shaped spiritual nomads, could there be a chance that God might feel the same way? If I hoped to make them think with my words, shouldn’t I allow them that same kind of possibility to influence my own thoughts and views on the world?

This was all very well and good, but it didn’t fit with the church I found myself in when I left university. There I was every Friday night—a 22-year-old with an English literature degree and a thing for suede jackets and turtle necks, joining my fellow believers in a new venture called friendship evangelism. This was it, we’d decided—the way to take old Franky’s advice about preaching without necessarily using words. We’d simply open up a venue, sell food and drink, play some music and get to know them—these 14-, 15- and 16-year-olds from the local town.

It made no sense to me. They wore sportswear even though none of them were on their way to or from a gym. They danced in big group circles or long lines or not at all. They clammed up whenever I stood near them, sensing my unease and sending off plenty of their own. They liked football. They thought smoking was a tool for social networking, and they hadn’t heard of Bob Dylan.

And we were supposed to be their friends. Correction: We were supposed to become their friends. We were supposed to make an effort to get to know them, to “come alongside” them in the hope that they’d want to come to church. Was I the only one thinking that this all seemed like the work of a cult?

I felt out of place, awkward, struggling for something to say. Not only was I supposed to be the adult, but I was supposed to be getting them signing up for a life of devotion to the Lord Almighty. It was all too much, and I ended up doing what I was never clever enough to do when I was younger: I hid. I had a sophisticated array of diversionary tactics to choose from, all designed with one single purpose in mind—to stop me from having to talk to the little buggers.

Why did I do it? Because I had to. I don’t mean that there was some strong religious conviction driving me on with it. It was purely the pressure from those running the church. If we belonged, we came along to these Friday night events. And when we were there, we made sure we talked to the kids. It all sounds pretty harsh and draconian reading it back right now, but it’s true. We were there to work.

These days I can see it all far more clearly, but at the time what made me so frustrated about it all was this: We called it friendship evangelism, but my real friendships, the ones where a bit of evangelism was needed and where I could deliver it—well, those friendships were dying. Why? Because I was too busy to spend time with them. I was hanging around with kids I didn’t like in the name of being their friend, and all the while my real friends were being pushed to the edge.

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Now I can see what it was about the whole thing that failed for me: I am the world’s worst salesman. And that form of evangelism was all about the sale. We set up our shop equivalent; had our opening and closing hours; and invited people to come in, browse and allow us to clinch the deal with them.

It worked. But not very often. A decade on, and there were only a handful of people whose journey of faith was going strong after having started back in the café. More significantly, the café idea got ditched years ago.

I eventually got myself extricated from my Friday nights of torture and got back to hanging out with my friends. The very same people who, years later, would issue the verdict that my faith didn’t really make all that much difference to my life.

I don’t think I can quite begin to describe how much St. Francis of Assisi bugged me. I was no good at using words, but when I kept it quiet I seemed to lose the transmission feed entirely. I was obviously a complete failure.

As ever, it’s the margins that offer infertile soil for faith. The truth is that the debate is not about whether we should favor evangelism or service. Surely the discussions need to be about the very nature of those things. Can we only serve through acts of physical kindness? Aren’t there times when the kindest thing to do is to tell someone honestly—but without the ridiculous notion of having to pressure someone into making a decision—about our own beliefs, questions and journey?

And won’t there be times when the most profound form of evangelism will come from simple acts? Think, for instance, about Jesus writing in the dust near the feet of the woman caught in adultery.

If this either/or is a false opposition, then there is one other way forward that we might look at. I heard someone once call it integral mission, and I only narrowly avoided losing consciousness through lack of interest. But through the haze I caught word of something that seemed like it might offer a way forward. It was the idea that as Christians we must care for the whole of the person, not just part. That means their physical as well as emotional needs, their relationship with God and their relationships on earth. Food, clothing, education, wholeness, faith—these are the issues in people that we must all address. They require us to break out of the molds.

If we open our eyes and see things in terms of these opportunities—rather than the rigid structures of whether we talk or don’t talk about our beliefs—something happens. We stop things being quite so much about us. What matters more are the needs of those around us. Those needs are vast and will require all our resources, ingenuity, patience and devotion—and the ability to not get stuck in any one camp at all.

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This article originally appeared in Neue Quarterly Vol. 01. You can subscribe to the Quarterly or buy individual copies.

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