The Dangers of Evangelism

I understand the basis of evangelism. There are lots of scriptural bases for doing it: making disciples of all nations, expanding our territory, and so on. Also, there’s a great feeling that comes with bringing someone over to your way of thinking and acting. There’s the sense of doing something good for them, plus there’s the validation of our own faith when someone else aligns themselves with it. Every new Christian is one more step toward ensuring that our churches, our faith, our stories or our values will be passed on for future generations.

That said, there are plenty of potential pitfalls in the process of evangelizing too. Depending on how you approach folks, there’s the potential that you’ll turn them off to a relationship with you all together, or what’s more, a relationship with your faith. Like it or not, you represent the entirety of Christianity to that person in that moment; that’s a lot of responsibility.

There’s also the implicit assumption in the evangelism process that I know something you don’t, or I have something you need. The way so many of us take this on creates an immediate power imbalance in the relationship that can be hard to overcome. There are also the problems of talking more than listening, making blind assumptions about the other person’s needs, background and values and going into the situation assuming the only person that warrants any change is the one we’re talking to.

But none of these is the most potentially dangerous element of evangelism.

Sometimes our zeal for sharing something that’s important to us blinds us to the havoc we can be wreaking in the process. We’re so intent on the end result we seek – converting the person we’re talking with to Christ – that we’ll say or do a lot of things we shouldn’t to get what we desire. We become salespeople for Jesus rather than partners in a relationship or equals in a conversation. And any good salesperson can tell you that there are two key components to closing a sale.

First, you have to be able to identify the need you’re trying to address in your subject. If you can’t recognize and articulate back to them what they need, it’s more or less impossible to sell them anything. Much of evangelism training focuses on this. We ask questions, dig into personal history, until we tap into that longing, that brokenness, that hurt that each of us has and would love to make go away.

That’s not the problem, usually. The issue arises in what we present as the solution to those deficits, ailments and vacancies. We’re taught that Jesus is the panacea, the one-time inoculation against all that is wrong in our lives. All we have to do is welcome him into our hearts and lives, and all will be better.

Except when it isn’t. Then, we’ve created a real problem, because the person we’ve evangelized still experiences hardship, doubt, struggle or lack, but we’ve told them that Jesus can fix everything. So where must the problem lie? The only option is themselves. They must have turned on God, rejected Christ, brought this on themselves. Time to double down, to try harder, maybe even be born again – again – to see if, this time, it sticks for good.

But it never does. Life is beset with struggle, suffering, bumps and brokenness with or without the Christian faith.  At its best, the faith is a discipline that helps us contend with such difficulties, relating to the very One who knew suffering so intimately, and yet still chose Love. Clearly, given the fates of Jesus and those early disciples who followed him, the call of Christ is not one of comfort, flawlessness or blissful elation every day of the year.

To sell it as such is false advertising.

What’s the alternative? Living as Christ-like life, as much as possible, reorienting ourselves over and over again toward the path of love, compassion, peace and reconciliation, regardless of the costs. Some will look on this as absurd, unnecessarily difficult, when the world tell us we should endeavor to surround ourselves with comforts and satisfactions that will make it all better. But this is as much of a false premise as the one sold by many Christian evangelists. Such indelible satisfaction simply doesn’t exist.

But there is something more attractive than the promise of satisfaction. We think that we want comfort but what we really long for is peace. Where does this peace come from? Consider Jesus’ own examples. He didn’t shirk from struggle, but rather found ways, through his faith, to make peace with his own journey. That is the point at which such lacks, deficits and struggles lose their power and potency. They don’t go away, but they cease to be come central to our lives, because they are placed in perspective when held up against a peace that surpasses human understanding.

This kind of peace is self-evident. It requires no sales pitch, no coercion. It stands as a beacon others tend to seek out. Let that be enough.

About Christian Piatt

Christian Piatt is the creator and editor of BANNED QUESTIONS ABOUT THE BIBLE and BANNED QUESTIONS ABOUT JESUS. He co-created and co-edits the “WTF: Where’s the Faith?” young adult series with Chalice Press, and he has a memoir on faith, family and parenting being published in early 2012 called PREGMANCY: A Dad, a Little Dude and a Due Date.

  • http://www.mymusingcorner.wordpress.com/ Lana

    I LOVE your book titled. I’m tired of censored Christianity. At any rate, I live oversees, around a lot of missionaries. I never try to convert people, but I do believe Jesus is their hope, and he is what can set them free. And I really am not talking about salvation. But their sexual addictions,their violence, these are root things that only Jesus can heal. It is not magic, its not a prayer, its not a moment of salvation, but I do believe in God’s power to do so.

    • http://www.facebook.com/jessica.ham1 Jessica Ham

      And with that, you just committed most of the things that this article is warning about.

      • http://www.mymusingcorner.wordpress.com/ Lana

        lol, I haven’t converted anybody, and I did not say I was a missionary. I said I lived around them. I just said I believed it was possible. I didn’t say I have done or committed anything.

      • SamHamilton

        How did she do that?

    • SamHamilton

      When you say that Jesus is their hope and that He can set them free, but it’s not salvation, what do you mean?

      • http://www.mymusingcorner.wordpress.com/ Lana

        well, I believe that salvation is a process, its not that I don’t believe in it. But that said, I just try to focus on helping people with their needs, regardless of their religion. I have friends that are Buddhists. I help them as a friend, not as a person trying to convert them. I would want them to help me regardless of mine. Free speech, right?

        But as for hope, there are kids locked up in cages for men to dispose of their use at any time in a place not too far from me. There are teams (all different religions involved) helping rescue these kids. Once they are rescued, their lives are still in shambles. I have worked with sexually abused children. Its awful, and I just don’t believe there is a psychological method out there to turn these kids around. That’s why I believe in miracles. Again, but this doesn’t mean I go around and convert people. I take kids on walks, honestly, that’s what I do, so people need to give me a break. No one in this part of the country finds me a threat.

        • SamHamilton

          I see, that makes total sense to me. Thanks Lana. I’m not sure what Jessica meant when she said you’re part of the problem.

  • Jo Ann Staebler

    This is superb, Christian. Thank you.

  • Mary

    Thank you. I don’t think that a lot of Christians understand how they come across to others. Even if they are sincere, when they use the “cookie cutter” methods of trying to convert people it just comes off as very phony.

    I have encountered a lot of styles. They are not always used on me, but I certainly see them tried on others all the time in religious forums. They range from being amusing to being downright obnoxious.

    Here are some examples;

    The “Used Car Salesman”

    I actually read someone trying to make a deal that went something like this: “Why don’t you just try our way and if you don’t like it, you are free to leave, no strings attached” So let me get this straight, I am supposed to convert to your religion, not because you have convinced me of its truth, but as a “try it, you’ll like it” deal. Somehow I don’t think Jesus was selling a “free trial” version of Christianity. Not surprisingly, he was also selling the “Jesus makes you happy” tripe.

    To make things clear, this guy was not talking about a church invite. He did not even mention his particular church affiliation. He was talking about CONVERSION and I feel his approach trivializes the whole process. If you are going to commit to yourself to a faith it has to be based on a serious conviction that it is true. I knew someone once who said she was going to get baptized into a church, “just in case.” In other words she saw it as cosmic insurance that she wouldn’t end up in hell, even though she had doubts about it.

    One thing that really bugs me about a lot of Christians is that they will try and sell you on something but when you ask questions they get offended and say that you are questioning God. No I am not, I am questioning your statements about him. The most condencending comments that I have gotten is that I am unable to understand the bible because I “do not have the Holy Spirit to direct my understanding”. That of course is not something that they could possibly know about me. Plus every dogmatic Christian claims that the Holy Spririt directs their understanding and GUESS WHAT, THEY DISAGREE ANYWAY.

    Guess what? If you claim to have sole dominion of the understanding of THE TRUTH, that isn’t the Holy Spirit talking, THAT IS EGO.(Which means Edging God Out).

    I debated recently with someone who insisted that we should go back to OT law and kill anyone who breaks “Yahweh”s Perfect Law” He was verbose about it but when I cited passages in the NT that make it clear that Jesus opposed capital punishment and asked for his input on it, he shut down and said that since I did not believe in God (which is not true) that I wasn’t qualified to interprete the bible. He made the very “generous” offer of being willing to explain it to me but only if I CONVERTED FIRST.

    That is an extreme example of course, but that attitude is very common among many Christians. If you ask questions you are told to shut up because you are “questioning
    God.”
    My position is that if you want to sell something that you should be prepared to defend your position, If you are not willing to do that, then keep quiet.
    One of the most amusing things that these people will do is accuse others of being “intolerant” and “close-minded” NO, asking questions is the ABSOLUTE OPPOSITE of being intolerant and close-minded. Being told to shut up because you are unwilling to answer them means that you are “the pot calling the kettle black”
    Sorry I didn’t mean this to become a complete rant, but honestly I don’t understand how Christians can expect to get converts by being obnoxious. When people critisize their methods they seem to be proud of themselves and claim that they are such good Christians because it says in the bible, “the world will hate you because of Me (Jesus).” What a convenient excuse for them!!!

    • Esther

      BOO HOO

      Madam Mary Rogers to me • 11 days ago −

      Esther it seems like you turn against everyone eventually. Jeff is not your enemy any more than I am. You seem to think anyone that disagrees with you is involved in some conspiricy against you.and your religion. I find it sad that you have so little trust in people.

      I can understand that you feel that you feel persecuted for being a Mormon, but I find it disturbing that you see any Christian who is not Morman as part of a theocratic conspiracy. Yes there are a lot of people like that and I, just like you, speak out against that but I don’t see that is true of all Christians.

      And accusing Jeff as being part of a conspiracy is not right. I never asked him to defend me in any way. Every thing he has said on this forum has been completely honest, to the point of offending some people. I gather from your posts that you admire his honesty even when you don’t agree with what he has said.

      He is just giving you his honest opinion on the matter, so he is just being what he has been all along. Notice he did not say that he agrees with my position on Obama.

      I think you owe him an apology. I don’t ask one from you, but he does not deserve your attack on his integrity.

  • L.W. Bigdick

    And then Jesus said, “Brethren, I can’t believe that the fucking Muslim won again!! I suppose that if I hadn’t been so busy masterbating to my Sarah Palin pin that I could have prevented this epic disaster.

    Although I’m not worthy of your devotion, please remember that I hung on that fucking cross for a long goddamn time for your fucking sins!!!”–Jesus Christ, as told to Chuck Norris.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Thomas-Ross/566122633 Thomas Ross

    I have always believed that the best Christian evangelism is “being the light that attracts”. Thank you for the article.

  • Vijay

    It’s interesting to read “Dangers of evangelism,” more so, as I travel back and forth between Eastern (India) and Western culture. Most of my life is geared toward witnessing as well as help other Christians witness/ or do evangelism. I believe (as well as my experience tells me) both living the Gospel/Jesus we preach, as well as proclaiming/ witnessing/evangelism is necessary. I see them as two sides of a coin and not contradictory. When I witness, I don’t tell people that all their problems will be solved, but yes Jesus has all the power to solve their problems. The path of Jesus is one that has joy as well as sufferings, as rightly stated by Piatt looking through a biblical “perspective.”

  • Kristina D

    There will always be someone who is trying to take advantage of others in the name of a higher cause.

    And because people desire to be connected to something bigger than themselves,

    It reminds me of this video I recently came across– it’s a
    cute little song about how Jesus and his followers actually Occupy Jerusalem.

    Anyways, here it is: http://youtu.be/a6akkb_afqs

    Which, it has a point.

  • http://www.washingtondcevangelists.com Washington DC Evangelists

    re: “I understand the basis of evangelism.” Not once did you state it. re: “expanding our territory” What are you Roman Catholic? That’s not from the Bible. re: “bringing someone over to your way of thinking and acting” You can’t save anyone, and thinking like a Christian or acting like Christian only condemns you to hell, “unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” re: “validation of our own faith”, you need validation for your own faith, you are not saved. re: “potential that you’ll turn them off” They are “turned off” already, only God can turn them on, see Ephesians 2:1-10. You should not be teaching anyone, how in hell where you able to write a book, oh wait, that’s exactly it, you are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s
    desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, and has nothing to do
    with the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he
    speaks out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of
    lies. John 8:44

  • http://mayawalk.ca/ Richard

    I too continue to wrestle with how the term might be ‘reclaimed.’ In particular, after a recent Panel discussion, I am struck by the extent to which people have been hurt by the ‘word.’ This is my most recent wrestling fwiiw: http://mayawalk.ca/blog-a-deacons-musing-lent-evangelism-ii/