Use words if necessary

(Stan T. suggested that this bit on evangelism might be more accessible reposted as a standalone piece, and I think he’s right. To avoid simply repeating myself, I’ve also added one more item to the list.)

1. Evangelism is hospitality.

Hospitality means opening up your life to share it with others. Sometimes that means sharing your home or your food, but here it means sharing that which is centrally and essentially important to you, the core of your identity and your source of meaning.

That seems kind of overwhelming — a bit more fraught than just inviting someone over for a cup of coffee. But in either case, it bears keeping in mind that this is what you’re doing — extending an invitation. And that this is who you’re dealing with — guests.

Guests are not obliged to swallow everything you’re serving, nor should they be compelled or feel pressured to do so. Your job, as host, is to defer to the preferences of your guests. Guests are not prisoners or detainees. If your attempts at hospitality cause your guests to feel more like prisoners — if you can see in their eyes the look of someone desperate to escape — then you’re doing it wrong. Stop. Step away. Let them go.

When you invite someone over to dinner, they will sometimes bring something with them to share in return — a nice bottle of wine, maybe, or some pie for dessert. If you turn up your nose at this contribution then you’re not being a good host. You’re not the only one sharing here and it would be unfair, not to mention rude, not to appreciate and honor what they’re sharing with you.

When I’m asked if I can recommend a good book on evangelism, I sometimes jokingly suggest Emily Post’s etiquette manual. Except I’m not really joking.

2. Evangelism requires relationship.

Without relationship, it’s not really evangelism, merely sales. Evangelism should never be anything like sales. This is not a transaction, not commerce.

People who are in a relationship with one another talk about those things that they regard as important. Unlike many white guys my age, I am not a member of the Cult of Golf. But since many of my friends are also white guys my age I often wind up talking about golf a lot. Why? Because they are my friends and it’s important to them. That’s how human relationships work.

Evangelism directed toward strangers often seems awkward and weird because it is awkward and weird. Evangelism in the context of relationship, by contrast, is natural and organic. It’s not weird when two friends talk about the things that are important to them. It would be far stranger if they didn’t.

A word of caution: It won’t do to try to start a friendship with someone as a means to evangelizing them. A friendship that exists only as a means to some other ends isn’t really a friendship at all. It’s more like the unctuous faux-friendliness of the salesman. We can all tell the difference between such professional chumminess and the real thing it imitates. Your local car salesman is probably a friendly guy, but he’s not your friend, he’s your salesman.

Life sometimes conspires to create encounters that bring about something like the trust and mutuality of friendship even if they’re not really part of any pre- or post-existing relationship. The train breaks down in the tunnel or the elevator gets stuck between floors and soon you may find yourself having one of those sacred, crossroads-of-life conversations with a complete stranger. You don’t know this person’s full name, you’ve never met before and you’ll likely never meet again, but despite that — or because of it — you find yourselves telling one another things you wouldn’t be able to say to the friends and family you have to live with every day. The old man next to you on the train says he had a child about your age, and because the train has stopped there in the tunnel he tells you something about that child that he’d needed to say for a very long time but had never been able to before. And because he told you that, and because the train is still not moving, you tell him things you also had needed to say — hopes, fears, dreams, confessions — that you had never before been able to articulate aloud.

That happens sometimes, miraculously. I don’t know that such encounters quite count as “relationships,” but they also can be, sometimes, appropriate contexts for what might be called evangelism.

3. Listen.

Like improv, evangelism is usually more about listening than it is about talking.

The Cherokee Baptist theologian Bill Baldridge tells a story about white missionaries who arrived at the Indian settlement. “We are here to tell you the story of our God and of salvation,” they announced.

The elders welcomed them, brought them food, and gathered around to hear this story. The missionaries, pleased by this enthusiastic audience, decided to go with the Long Version. They started at the beginning and over the next several hours they told the whole great Christian saga of creation, fall and redemption.

When at last the missionaries were finished, the elders thanked them. “This is a good story,” the elders said. “Now we would like to share with you our story.”

The missionaries were furious. Hadn’t these people been listening? Didn’t they realize that they had just heard the One True Story and that their old story, whatever it was, no longer mattered?

The missionaries abruptly left, shaking the dust off their shoes and heading out to find some other group more receptive to to their message.

4. Your story is not an argument.

Evangelism is often presented as something that starts with a sales pitch and ends in an argument. That’s wrong from start to finish. At its core, evangelism involves telling your story. That’s not a debate or an argument, it’s a testimony, a narrative (one that hasn’t ended yet).

Arguments about religion can be a lot of fun and they can sometimes even be productive. Their usefulness, though, is almost never a matter of persuasion, but rather of two friendly foes helping one another to clarify their own thoughts.

That’s the healthy version. In the unhealthy version, it’s more about two unfriendly foes using each other to reinforce for themselves what they already believe.

That distinction between healthy and unhealthy arguments has to do with whether those involved in the argument are willing to listen to and to try to understand what the other is saying. If they both are, then the argument may prove enjoyable and useful — and perhaps even marginally persuasive. But if neither one is really listening or really interested in understanding what the other side is saying, then all that’s going on is two people with their fingers stuck in their ears shouting slogans in an effort to drown out the sound of their own doubts.

The unhealthy argument about religion isn’t really concerned with persuading those who disagree. It functions mainly, instead, to reassure those who already believe and to help them buttress their faltering faith.

Those in need of such reassurance would do well to avoid attempts at evangelism. Better that way for all involved.

Anyway, my point here is not to describe how best to argue evangelistically, but rather that evangelism usually ought to avoid argument. Your story is not an argument. Stick with your story.

That story should tell more than just how or why or when you began to be a Christian. That’s how we evangelicals are often taught to present our “personal testimony,” but that’s like telling a story that consists of nothing but “Once upon a time.” Telling your story means telling what it means to you that you are a Christian — why this is the most important thing to you, how it changes and shapes and directs your life, how you wouldn’t be you without the faith, hope and love you have found.

Of course, if you’re telling this story to a friend, to someone who knows you and has known you for some time, then they may already know all of that.

And if you’re trying to tell such a story but you realize that you can’t say how the faith you are trying to share actually does change or shape or direct your life, then you may find that you’re going to need to tell a better story.

And the only way to tell a better story and still have it be your story is to start living a better story.

That’s probably why so many people seem to find it easier to get in arguments than it is to tell their stories.

5. Disciples, not merely converts

“Therefore go and convert all nations,” Jesus did not say in the Great Commission. That’s what we evangelicals call the passage in Matthew’s Gospel where Jesus sends forth his disciples for the last time. What Matthew 28 actually says is this:

Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.

“Make disciples” is a rather different sort of project than “make converts.” It’s a longer-term endeavor. Just consider Jesus’ own efforts. He spent three years working to make 12 disciples and, for all that, he still only had a success rate of 91.6 percent.

Thinking about evangelism as making converts instead of making disciples tempts us to think we’ve finished the job when we reach the point at which it’s actually only just beginning.

Maybe that’s part of why “conversion” has replaced “making disciples” — because it seems faster and easier. If you’re interested in speed, efficiency and quantity then converts seems to be the way to go. You can probably make dozens of converts in the time it takes to make just one disciple. Even more, probably, since if speed and quantity are what you’re shooting for, then you’ll probably wind up converting some people several times.

Concentrating on conversion instead of discipleship is unfair to those we’re trying to reach. It also, I think, winds up distorting our own faith, training us to believe that conversion is the main event rather than Square One. If we go around trying to make converts instead of trying to make disciples, in other words, we wind up doing the same thing to ourselves — we become people who are converts, but not disciples.

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  • Rikalous

    So you’ve accepted that your arguments and attitude do more harm than good, evangelism-wise? I’m glad we had this little chat.

  • BC

    Thank you, Fred.  This is the difference between the Billy Graham Crusade, which was in town for a short while and had many thousand converts, and a church in a neighborhood.  The church in a neighborhood will make the disciples.

  • Caravelle

    Good job !

    Okay, post-game analysis now. Do you think your part in this discussion was an effective evangelism tool ? Why or why not ?

  • If I can do a little armchair quarterbacking, I’m gonna go ahead and suggest that the main problem was too much listening and not enough talking. Don’t get me wrong, we saw plenty of condescending and inflexible out there today, but it still felt like it lacked certainty. I don’t necessarily know what the solution is, but I’m thinking something with a little more impact, you know? Maybe next time Monoblade could try some bold or capslock, or maybe just copy the content of any given post four or five times before hitting the submit button. Or try a sort of hand-made “sig” — I’m thinking something like:

    “Everybody’s wrong but me.”

    — Monoblade

    Personally, I think the extra step of explicitly attributing the quote to himself really drives home the fact that he doesn’t listen to anyone else in the entire world, but it can obviously be customized. And, of course, Monoblade would never, ever adopt a new idea from another person anyway, so I wouldn’t put money on any of these ideas getting put into practice.

  • Attacking someone’s beliefs doesn’t cause them to reject those beliefs. If anything, it will cause them to redouble their commitment to them, which can be an unfortunate situation when the beliefs involve things that have direct evidence for and against them in the real world — the most obvious way to confront counterfactual beliefs, such as the belief, for example, that homeopathy is effective as something other than a placebo, is to present the facts in opposition to the belief, but this often means that people who are emotionally invested in those beliefs will ignore the facts.

    Leaving aside the truth or falsity of your belief in Jesus, what you are describing is an entirely ineffective method of evangelism, that will leave people thinking you are an arrogant jerk, rather than converting them.

  • Attacking someone’s beliefs doesn’t cause them to reject those beliefs. If anything, it will cause them to redouble their commitment to them, which can be an unfortunate situation when the beliefs involve things that have direct evidence for and against them in the real world — the most obvious way to confront counterfactual beliefs, such as the belief, for example, that homeopathy is effective as something other than a placebo, is to present the facts in opposition to the belief, but this often means that people who are emotionally invested in those beliefs will ignore the facts.

    Leaving aside the truth or falsity of your belief in Jesus, what you are describing is an entirely ineffective method of evangelism, that will leave people thinking you are an arrogant jerk, rather than converting them.

  • So your argument is that God exists because the Word (i.e. God — see John 1:1) says so. Do you not see how this fails to convince those who do not believe already?

  • So your argument is that God exists because the Word (i.e. God — see John 1:1) says so. Do you not see how this fails to convince those who do not believe already?

  • Actually, technically the Word, used as a proper noun, refers to God. (John 1:1)

  • I thought I made it clear that I, um, try not to make Fluttershy cry. Didn’t I?

  • Seriously?  Pathetic.

  • Dan Audy

    This makes me think of a rather amusing (only in retrospect) argument I had with my father as a teen.  At that point my relationship with my father had deteriorated into an epic ongoing hateful argument where we both antagonized each other constantly in a never ending fight to prove that the other person was wrong (having long since given up being right). 

    My father yelled at me ‘You would argue with anything I say.  If I said that the sky was blue you would insist that it wasn’t’.  I, of course, disagreed angrily (thus proving him right) claiming that ‘only an idiot would think that the sky is blue – it only looks that way’, before going into a long and insistent argument about how something appearing a colour due to refraction was fundamentally different than an object reflecting non-absorbed wavelengths.

    So there you go a real live person who asserted that the sky was in fact not blue.  Not my proudest moment but pretty darn funny 15 years later.

  • Anonymous

    A bit late, but yeah, I wasn’t offering those figures as support for Chris Doggert’s claims, but just as information on the subject of the percentage of religion among scientists.  And I only have those figures because I happened to come across them last weekend.  There are probably more recent and more comprehensive surveys out there.

    Besides what you and chris the cynic have already said about them, it occurs to me that The Science of Superstition doesn’t really question the idea (apparently given in The God Delusion) that the members of the US National Academy of Sciences and the Fellows of the Royal Society comprehensively represent leading scientists, at least in the US and UK.  I’m not very informed on these sorts of organizations, but it seems to me that a term like “our best scientists” (as TSoS phrases it) would pretty much have to be open to debate.  I wonder how many Nobel Prize winners describe themselves as religious, for instance?

    Also, TSoS says that only 25% of the Fellows of the Royal Society even responded to the survey.  The author speculates that religious members might have been hesitant to respond.

  • Anonymous

    >My Little Pony


  • ako

    I thought you were going to give us the gift of your silence?

  • There seems to be an assumption (by Chris Doggest and even in TSoS to a
    much lesser extent) that what the majority of scientists believe about
    religion must represent the most valid sciencific view of the matter,
    but obviously that’s not necessarily true.

    Even worse than that, actually. Chris didn’t just assume that all scientists are atheists, or that this implies atheism’s correctness. He took atheism’s correctness as a given, used that to assume that all scientists are atheists, and used that to assume that atheism itself is thus responsible for all scientific achievement.

  • Anonymous

    Many atheists automatically go into argumentation mode when simply baring witness yields much better results.

    Damn skippy. Another blog that I am on has a bunch of rather outspoken atheists, who are about as charming when they state flatly that their beliefs are correct, self-evident, and that the world would be a better place if everyone adopted them as evangelicals are when they say the same.

    I’ve mentioned this a few times.

    Several of them do not seem to get it.

  • Anonymous

    Because I’m pretty sure if the Vatican came up with the smallpox vaccine, clerics would be preaching about it monthly.

    I believe Jenner was an Anglican.

  • Anonymous

    Our story is not an argument? You’re wrong, but in a sense, right. If I point at the sky and say “the sky is blue”, and someone says “NO IT’S GREEN”… Just what can one gain by trying to see it from their perspective? All you can do is hand down to them the Truth, and let them make of it what they will.

    You must be a ton of fun at parties.

    Do you have no curiosity at all about why someone might perceive the sky differently? Do you not have something in common, in that you agree the sky is there, and has a quality of color?

  • Anonymous

    If you think Judaism is a single question with a single answer, (and that that answer is Christianity) then you know absolutely nothing about Judaism.

    And if you think that Islam has pagan roots and Judaism and Christianity do not, then your ignorance of religious history in the Middle East is damn near complete.

  • I believe it is you who knows nothing about Judaism. Everyone knows Judaism can be summed up in a single word:


    The answer to which was of course found by enlightened scholars two millennia ago:


  • Anonymous


  • ako

    I think (and hope) it was meant to be sarcasm. 

  • I thought I made it clear that I, um, try not to make Fluttershy cry. Didn’t I?

    Yes, I was agreeing with you. Sorry if I didn’t make that clear.

  • My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic is a show about six young women who live and work in a small town not far from their nations capital. Despite their different personalities and outlooks, they are committed friends and work through life’s problems together. It teaches important lessons about respecting others’ differences, caring for others, and finding your place in the world while telling entertaining, funny stories through excellent writing, animation, and voice acting. It’s pretty much the best cartoon with combined appeal for children and adults since Avatar: The Last Airbender.

    Oh, and most of the characters are magic ponies.

  • Michael Straight

    Arguments about religion can be a lot of fun and they can sometimes
    even be productive. Their usefulness, though, is almost never a matter
    of persuasion, but rather of two friendly foes helping one another to
    clarify their own thoughts.

    “two friendly foes helping one another to clarify their own thoughts”

    What a great motto for talking about religion or anything we disagree about.

  • Consumer Unit 5012

    tell them why Christianity is the answer to Judaism

    What was the question?

    “Oh, Lord, why does this shit always happen to US?!” would’ve been an appropriate one prior to about the 1800s or so.   (Then Islam also jumped on the Antisemitic bandwagon, compared to their previous tolerance.)

  • Consumer Unit 5012

    If she says “These two things are different colors” and I say “No, they are the same color” we are both speaking absolute truth about what we perceive.

    Of course, the semantically CORRECT thing to say would’ve been “These two things seem to me to be the same/different color/s”.

    I’ve always liked Robert Anton Wilson’s take on General Semantics, and his lesson that just because we can SAY something that sounds absolutely certain doesn’t mean we should be is one that I think ought to be taught in gradeschools.

  • Consumer Unit 5012

    The Word says that His signs are written across the heavens.

    Have you actually gone out and looked?  Because a lot of people, myself included, have looked at the sky and not seen anything that we recognize as signs of God’s existence.  If you’ve actually looked and found those, maybe you could start pointing them out?

    Actually, all the stars in the sky are in fact arranged to spell out a divine and glorious message to God’s most important and beloved creations.  
    But we’re not them, so from OUR insignificant dust-speck of a planet, the stars just look random.

    Do You Believe That?

  • Rikalous

    Oh, Lord, why does this shit always happen to US?!

    When the big guy chooses a people, he chooses them for tough love. No wonder they let his kid get nailed to a stick.

  • Since someone’s going to post it anyway:

    It reads “We apologize for the invenience.”

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    10 years last month since he died.

    *is sad*

  • Let us all be thankful that the stars are arranged as they are, for only so do the Old Ones cease to live. Once the stars are right, and Great Cthulhu leads them forth from the drowned city of R’lyeh, we shall have all the signs we could ask for.

  • Anonymous

    Actually, what’s written across much of the sky (in the Northern Hemisphere, anyhow) are constellations whose designs long predate Christianity, many of which are drawn from Greek myth.  Heracles is up there, as is a unicorn and a physician holding a snake.  Also a housefly, for reasons I’m unclear about.

    On a whim, I wondered whether there have been any attempts by Christians over the years to remove all the “pagan” imagery in the constellations, so I did a Google search, and sure enough!

    Why do we live under a pagan sky? … Insofar as Christians are concerned, what now leers down at humanity on a nightly basis is something akin to a sleazy soap opera.  What ought to be the cosmic equivalent of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel is, instead, a billboard advertising the grotesque superstitions of a bygone age.  Rather than landing atop the trash heap of history where they belong, the idols and cult figures of the ancient world ended up stitched over our heads across the fabric of space.

    (Emphasis mine.)

    The author redesigns the sky to remove all those antiquated gruesome images, replacing them with friendlier, more inspiring Christian fare like … Sodom’s Cinders.  Whoops!  Also, you’ll never believe this, but there’s a guy nailed to a cross up there now.

  • Anonymous

    Bu-bu-but…there’s *already* a cross in the sky.  Yeah, you have to go to the southern hemisphere to see it but it *is* there.

    Maybe the person you quoted would be happier living in Australia. 

  • Lonespark

    Global warming?  The Angry White Doodz in my old office screaming about how their fellow scientists were being hoaxed by Obamacommunism to believe it was a problem were definitely not religious people.  They tended to view religion as a weak and womanly way of relating to the world.  Christianity and Judaism were suspect in that way (and they were super bigoted against Muslims) but indigenous and neopagan religions got so much virulant crap.  I know these guys aren’t necessarily the main base of the global-warming-denying party, but I have seen this strain in various places in the conservative movement. 

    (Damn, that was a hostile workplace.  And damn, I miss my job, even so.)

  • Lonespark

     I don’t necessesarily think talking about how great y’all are is in any way bad for a movement, especially one whose views are marginalized.  It can be tricky when some of the movements leading figures are privileged on many other axes, though.

  • Lonespark

    Right and it’s not like all religious people, or all religious traditions, are against QUILTBAG rights, or strong separation of government and religion.  It can be tricky for atheists and minority religions to make common cause, but I think we get a lot farther when we do.


  • Lonespark

    This comes up in Pagan circles, too.  I don’t think starting your own food bank is necessarily the way to go, but possible starting your own fund-raising group or political action committee could simultaneously serve your goals and raise group visibility.  Getting credit for the good you do doesn’t hurt.

  • Lonespark

    That holiday thing is one of many good reasons for diversity in hiring.

  • Lonespark

    I have been hearing a ton of great things about this show, so I really should check it out and inflict it on my children.

  • Lonespark

    Hey, don’t forget the Spindle.  And Earendil’s Toe.  Also a wagon?

  • Bernard

    No comments?  Erm – late as it is – it’s worth observing that Jesus didn’t only have
    the Twelve as disciples.  The Twelve were those who became *apostles* – well,
    apart from Judas.  And apart from the elected substitute for Judas.  And apart
    from Paul.  And … at some points in the Gospels Jesus seems to have quite a lot
    of disciples.  At one point (variously related) he doesn’t even seem to have Peter.

  • Actually, there are comments.  There’s just something broken that is preventing them from showing.

    Patheos people, if you’re listening, there is a need for tech support here.

  • Caravelle

    Yeah, I am fairly confident that such an iconic post that I remembered what it was just from the title would have had a significant comment thread associated with it.

  • Comments on older posts are only visible if you turn off javascript.

  • This shouldn’t qualify as an older post though.  It’s post transition and the posts on either side still have their comments intact.

    I’ve just noticed that it actually does tally up the comments, sort of.  If I follow I link directly to your comment I will be told there are 146 comments.

    If, on the other hand, I follow a link directly to the page I’ll be told there are four.