When I was a first year student at the University of Virginia in the late nineties, I was an on-fire evangelical. I designed my own evangelism tracts to print out in the computer lab and hand to people on the sidewalk. I wrote a salvation skit that our InterVarsity chapter performed with a Jars of Clay soundtrack on Rugby Road where all the frat parties were. But my greatest achievement was something we called the LoveFest.
It was an evangelism rally held on Valentine’s Day. Only I didn’t call it an evangelism rally. It was just a gathering to talk about how cool love is. In our publicity for it, we chalked “Free love is coming!” (because God gave humanity “free love” through Jesus’ cross). We invited people to share their own views about love, their poetry. We played the Beatles’ song “Love, love, love” as people entered the room. And I got a black gospel preacher to preach a sermon because I instinctively knew that a black man had a better chance of evangelizing white liberals. So basically my evangelism strategy was to pimp blackness; I still shudder when I think about it.
In other words, it was all a bait and switch, except that I was in complete denial about it at the time. I remember being confronted about it by one of my classmates who was an actual free love hippie. I wanted the LoveFest to be both a hippie love fest and a Christian evangelism rally that would convert people to Christianity. It could be both at the same time in my head; I didn’t see anything manipulative or deceitful about it. I’ve often thought back on that event and the way that it was paradigmatic of my life as an evangelical.
To be an evangelical in relationship with non-Christians is to be a living embodiment of bait and switch. This isn’t because evangelicals set out to be deceitful shape-shifters. It’s because our faith tugs us in two opposite directions at the same time.
On the one hand, we really want to love the people we feel called to share Jesus with, especially if they’re people we have long-term personal relationships with. The more we love them, the more we empathize with them and the more we want the gospel to make sense to them. We see what alienates them about Christianity and it causes us to define ourselves against whatever or whoever is making Christianity look bad to them.
At the same time, we are haunted by the thought that we might be compromising with the world or watering down the gospel to appease people. So we feel a sense of obligation to hold onto “hard beliefs” to prove to ourselves that we haven’t sold out. Some of those hard beliefs might include believing that 90% of humanity will be tortured forever in hell since they don’t know Jesus, that God cares meticulously about enforcing his rules and making sure people believe all the right things, that the Bible is absolutely historically and scientifically accurate, that homosexuality is a sin, etc. If evangelicals don’t believe anything that feels hard and uncomfortable to believe, it means we’ve probably sold out and fallen captive to worldly secularism.
Some evangelicals like me wandered away from the hard beliefs because they eroded over time under the withering critiques of the non-believers we wanted to evangelize. Other evangelicals went the opposite route: they lost interest in making sense to non-believers because they got locked into a game of proving themselves to each other through the harshness of what they believe. Other evangelicals live in the tension of hanging onto their hard beliefs and loving non-believers whom they believe God both loves unconditionally and hates enough to torture forever, which is a level of cognitive dissonance I wasn’t able to maintain. Most evangelicals are somewhere in the middle, masking their inner ambivalence with giddy, over-the-top let-me-be-your-BFF-ness.The thing is, evangelicals really do want to be your BFF. They’re not faking that side of themselves, as gushy and extra as it is. But they also think you’re going to hell unless they can get you to accept Jesus into your heart. It’s a lot to juggle when both of these thoughts are in your brain at the same time (at least it was for me). This is why many evangelicals would rather not be super-clear about what they believe when they first meet you. Because the hard things they need to believe to know they haven’t sold God out are unpleasant and awkward to share with people who aren’t yet saved. And some of them are actually unsure about these beliefs deep below the surface.
I don’t think the bait and switch of evangelical community is intentionally manipulative; it’s simply a natural manifestation of the evangelical psyche. As you’re getting to know evangelicals, you’re only going to see the manic BFF side. But as you become more and more embedded in their community, you’ll start to see the hard beliefs come out. Ultimately, the moment of truth comes when you try to become a leader in an evangelical community; that’s when you have to be fully indoctrinated with the hard beliefs.
While I would say that the bait and switch nature of the evangelical psyche isn’t intentionally malicious, it has caused a lot of harm, especially to members of the queer community who go to moderate evangelical churches. That’s why the new #ChurchClarity movement is very helpful and important and why it’s causing moderate evangelicals a lot of heartburn. For those of you who haven’t heard of it, #ChurchClarity is very simple; it’s an online database of churches that publishes their stance on queer inclusion and female leadership ministry, since many moderate evangelical churches are reluctant to put this information forward voluntarily.
I see another benefit to #ChurchClarity. I think evangelical Christians should own their beliefs openly. If it makes you feel uncomfortable to say aloud that homosexuality is an abomination, then pay attention to that. Maybe part of the discomfort is not coming from a sense of worldly peer pressure and persecution, but from the intuitions of the Holy Spirit. If it feels inconsistent with God’s nature to build an understanding of salvation around a hell that is a reactive wrathful punishment against 90% of humanity, then maybe that’s worth examining out in the open as well.
In John 3:19-21, Jesus says, “Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.” While I understand why many evangelicals have a bait and switch personality, if we are truly followers of Christ, we need to be people of the light who are transparent and open about our beliefs. If you are unsure about your beliefs, then be open about that. But hiding your unattractive beliefs behind a mask of giddy friendliness is not the way Jesus did things. Evangelism should not be a bait and switch.
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