Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Evangelism and Relationship

As my little church works through an adult education series on evangelism, I find myself this week reflecting on the dynamics of human relationship.

So much of what passes for "evangelism" in 'Murika these days is structured like a programming language.  It's prepackaged, preformed, and scripted to the point of absurdity.

Take, for instance, this painfully representative sample of a "soul-winning" script from an evangelical ministry. There are countless such scripts out there, each one as strangely, industrially joyless as the next.  

They all follow a particular pattern.  Start up a conversation with [NAME].  Ask [NAME] if [NAME] wants to go to Heaven.  IF "Yes." THEN JESUSPRAYER; IF "No": THEN PROCEED WITH SCRIPT.

Do not be distracted by the questions asked by [NAME].  PROCEED WITH SCRIPT.

It's a form of relating that's as impersonal as an automaton, utterly devoid of humanity.  It's as dead and formulaic as the talking points prepared for a politician, which don't vary no matter what you say to them.

"Senator, your hair is on fire!"   "Thanks, Bob, for that.  That speaks to my concern for liberty, and the constitutional freedom of every American to yadda blah blah yadda blah."

This approach to evangelism is, to be blunt, not the Gospel at all.

Why not?  Because it does not manifest God's love.  Love, after all, cares about people.  Love doesn't rush to decision.  Love takes its time. Love doesn't objectify.  Love engages.  Love doesn't trample over questions and conversation.  Love listens and connects.  It is not scripted, not rehearsed.  It's alive and organic and real.

To express the love of God, the love of God must be present.  Not just as a far off goal, to be achieved by any means necessary, but in every action.

The Gospel must both the goal and the method.

You cannot share what Jesus did and taught unless you are, in that sharing, doing what Jesus taught.  Meaning being authentically, fully, completely yourself, in all your flawed, redeemed mess.  Meaning sitting and listening to questions when they're asked, and answering not from a script, but from a truth you know because dagnabbit, you're living that reality out.

But how do you teach that?  It's too squishy, too amorphous, too ephemeral.  It defies the dynamics of the checklist, refuses to be quantified by the spreadsheet that tallies souls won.  It is not programmatic.  It is not institutional.

Perhaps the best way I have encountered, much as it pains my Presbyterian pride to admit it, is the Method of Methodism.  Not the organizational structure of Methodism, which is perhaps the most bizarre oddity I've ever encountered, the institutional equivalent of one of those dear-Lord-is-that-an-alien invertebrates you encounter in the deep dark of the Mariana Trench.  I went to a Methodist seminary for thirteen years, and I still can't quite wrap my head around how the heck Methodism actually works.

Instead, it's the fundamental genius of John Wesley's Method itself:  gather intimate groups of human beings.  Have them share honestly and openly with one another about their lives and their faith.  In that practice of organic connection, living and real and vital, souls learn what it means to really connect with other souls.  They learn what it means to love and care for one another, to encourage and build each other up.  They learn what Beloved Community means, because they are being that community.

And you cannot tell people about the Reign of God unless you're being it.

It's a longer, more challenging path.  But it's real.  And it's how good things grow.