TF: How Not To Do Evangelism

TF: How Not To Do Evangelism June 13, 2011

Tribulation Force, pp. 386-396

Reading the Left Behind series has caused me to re-evaluate many of the “Bible prophecy,” End-Times works I encountered before opening these books. The more I read of Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins, the better that Hal Lindsay and Donald W. Thompson seem.

Thompson was the auteur behind A Thief in the Night and its sequels, the premillennial dispensationalist thrillers that circulated in church basements and coffee houses for years before the age of VHS. Thief was not a good movie. The dialogue was awful and Thompson’s endearingly awkward cast of nonprofessional actors was never able to rise above it. But the guy did have some idea of what to do with a camera and how to make the most of his tiny budget, so he was able to create some memorable images. Thompson conveys the disappearances of the Rapture with a neighbor’s lawnmower, still running but suddenly unattended — a scene that is both simpler and creepier than any of the Rapture scenes in Left Behind.

Thompson’s movies are like a PMD version of Jonathan Edwards’ famous sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” — earnest, overwrought and unintentionally campy, but sprinkled throughout with memorably unnerving bits. Those movies were also made with the same intent as Edwards’ archetypal fire-and-brimstone rant — to frighten audiences into repentance so that the unsaved might be spared the horrors portrayed. It’s that intent, that motive of sincere if strangely expressed concern for others, that makes A Thief in the Night and its many imitators vastly preferable to the Left Behind books, in which one finds only very rare expressions of concern for those unsaved others, and in which those few expressions do not seem sincere.

Thompson was part of a wave of 1970s End Times mania and nearly all of the popular “prophecy” books, movies and albums of that time shared this fire-and-brimstone, repent-for-the-end-is-nigh desire to save the unsaved. This was true of Hal Lindsey’s books from that period, and of Larry Norman’s rock and roll records, and of nearly every other PMD ancestor of the Left Behind series. They were all urgently concerned with evangelism — with saving the lost before it’s too late. Their approach to such evangelism may have been horribly askew, but that was their intent.

I expected the Left Behind books to follow that pattern, but one of the many awful surprises they held in store was that they don’t. Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins invoke fire and brimstone, but not in the hopes of frightening the unsaved into heaven. Instead they present it as a kind of revenge fantasy — a variation of the “abominable fancy.” Their central message is not, “Repent before it is too late because I do not want you to suffer all these torments I am describing,” but rather, “You’ll see, you’ll suffer all these torments and then you’ll realize too late that we were right.”

Instead of “I Wish We’d All Been Ready,” LaHaye & Jenkins’ message is “We’re ready, you’re not — neener neener neener.”*

This is true in these books even in chapters like this one, presenting Rabbi Tsion Ben-Judah’s ostensibly evangelistic message. Ben-Judah’s message turns out not to be an upbeat, Billy Graham-style gospel of hope (“Good news — the Messiah has come and salvation is at hand”). Nor is it even a Jonathan Edwards or Donald W. Thompson-style message urgently pleading with others to escape the coming wrath. Ben-Judah’s message, instead, boils down to a reiteration of the core message of these books: “We’re right. You’re wrong.”

It’s worth pausing for a moment to consider how and why the authors came to believe that such a message constitutes evangelism.

It shows, I think, that the authors are unable or unwilling to consider how their message is likely to be perceived by others. That comes in part from an inability or unwillingness to listen to what others have to say. (Why should they listen, when they already know that those others are wrong?) That’s part of a larger lack of concern for or interest in others as actual people — real human beings who bring their own lives, stories, experiences and ideas to the conversation.

This lack of interest in learning about others goes hand in hand with the authors’ seeming lack of interest in learning about themselves, raising a chicken-and-egg question of cause and effect. Is their distorted and unexamined self-concept a result of their distorted and unexamined concept of others? Or vice versa?

For a sense of what I mean by this self-concept, consider that this whole business with Tsion Ben-Judah’s “research” is based on a flattering lie. It’s one thing to tell flattering lies to someone else. It’s worse to tell them to yourself. And it’s worst of all to then believe them.

The authors are pretending that this is why they believe what they believe and how they came to believe it. Ben-Judah’s research project is presented as a depiction of their “personal testimony,” as we evangelicals say — and more generally as the testimony of all real, true Christians. Ben-Judah was simply a disinterested, unbiased, rational scholar drawing disinterested, unbiased, rational conclusions from the study of sacred texts that are obviously and self-evidently authoritative to any such unbiased and rational reader.

This is how LaHaye wants to think of himself. It’s how he wants to portray himself as having come to religion. But that is not how it happened — for him or for anyone else. He was introduced to these sacred texts — these particular texts and not to other ones — and began to read them with a host of preconditioned and predetermined interpretations. His decision to accept those interpretations was shaped by his personal history and experience, by his relationships and encounters with others, and by a host of other variables including — most essentially, we Christians believe — the grace of God. The Ben-Judah scenario denies the existence and importance of all those other factors, presenting the rabbi’s conversion — and by implication, LaHaye’s — as something else, as simply an inevitable and undeniable intellectual conclusion reached from an honest and objective evaluation of data.

This is why — apart from all the howlingly awful errors and misapprehensions we discussed earlier — I cannot believe Ben-Judah’s story. That’s just not how it works. It didn’t work that way for me, or for LaHaye or Jenkins, or for anyone else. That is not my testimony or theirs or anyone else’s and so I cannot believe that it is Ben-Judah’s.

L&J have presented this “conclusions of research” myth not just to flatter their fictional representative (and thereby themselves), but also to accuse the rest of the world. Their false portrayal of how Ben-Judah came to be a real, true Christian also conveys a false portrayal of everyone who isn’t an RTC. They’re not just claiming that this is how Ben-Judah became a believer, but that this is how all nonbelievers became nonbelievers. Ben-Judah, they say, became an RTC from an honest investigation of the undeniable data. Therefore, if you are a Jew — or an atheist, a Catholic, an Episcopalian, Lutheran, Hindu, Mormon, Pagan, etc., etc. — it is because you are dishonest or because you are ignorant of the data or obstinately refusing to accept its self-evident truth.

All of us non-RTCs can thus be lumped into two and only two categories: the malicious and the ignorant.

The former category is necessary to make the plot of the Left Behind series palatable. The horrific suffering these books present for non-RTCs couldn’t be tolerated — much less enjoyed and savored — unless those others were portrayed as fully and consciously deserving such punishments. The damned here are thus portrayed a bit like the damned in a Jack Chick tract — as arrogant and deliberate deniers of what they know to be true. Like Nicolae, they hear Ben-Judah’s enumeration of the clear evidence and perversely choose to reject it.

The latter category, the ignorant, isn’t so much a subset of Them as it is a subset of Us. The merely ignorant are still innocent and thus are portrayed less as non-RTCs than as not-yet-RTCs. Since the malicious are unreachable, this latter category is the only real intended audience for Ben-Judah’s evangelistic message — or for the evangelistic message, such as it is, of the authors. The ignorant have never heard of Jesus, never been told what it is that Christians believe. Once they are told, they will either accept this obvious and compelling truth and convert to become RTCs, or else they will reject it for perverse and evil reasons and become part of the category of the malicious, the cackling, Chickian damned (“Har har!”).

That one might hear Ben-Judah’s message and simply not find it persuasive for any legitimate reason isn’t an option the authors imagine or allow for.

You may have noticed that these two categories of the malicious and the ignorant don’t seem to account for any actual humans you have ever actually met. The authors present them as comprehensive, but experience proves them to be almost nonexistent.

That’s why L&J-style evangelism will always be fruitless. A message intended for a nonexistent audience won’t be heard. And you cannot convince others of anything if you’re already convinced of something about them that just isn’t true.

This doesn’t just mean that the the authors are failing at evangelism themselves. It also means they’re setting up their readers to fail as well. Those readers are being sent forth with the expectation of encountering people who do not actually exist. They are being taught to expect to meet these imaginary innocent ignorant, the RTCs-in-waiting who have never heard of Jesus before and will gratefully ask to hear more — finding the message instantly persuasive and thus eagerly converting.

I don’t think that has ever really happened. Maybe once, but probably never.

And when this doesn’t happen for the would-be-evangelist readers of Left Behind, what have they been taught to conclude about those they actually do encounter? They have been taught that these people must all belong to that other category of the malicious and perverse deniers. So those readers’ hapless attempts at Ben-Judah-style evangelism are not just doomed to fail, they’re also designed to reinforce the Manichaean, Us-vs.-Them worldview that underlies LaHaye’s John Birch Society politics.

How convenient.

I don’t want to leave off here only saying that L&J have provided a manual on How Not To Do Evangelism. They certainly have provided that — offering a template for evangelism that seems designed to inspire ill-feeling on all sides and to be as ineffectual as it is unpleasant. But before we return to our journey through the instructively appalling pages of Tribulation Force, let me suggest a few things I think I’ve learned about a better way to approach this matter of evangelism.

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 Ben-Judah broadcast in Tribulation Force strikes me as the unhealthy kind of religious argument. Nothing in this chapter is really designed to persuade those who disagree with Ben-Judah’s or the authors’ views. It is designed, rather, 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.

– – – – – – – – – – – –

* The Left Behind series is thus a reflection of a larger cultural change in American evangelical Christianity. The earlier wave of PMD enthusiasm came at a time when evangelicals’ contact with the larger culture was primarily evangelistic, but by the 1990s when these books were typed, that contact had become primarily political. Where Norman, Thompson and 1970s-era Lindsey were oddball expressions of the hopeful, inclusive faith typified by Billy Graham, the Left Behind books are expressions of the partisan, militant, power-seeking faith of Jerry Falwell, James Dobson and Pat Robertson. They’re not primarily about invitation, but about identity. Not about drawing others to Christ, but about drawing lines between us and them and mobilizing “the base” as a special-interest voting bloc.

But then it’s not quite accurate to say that Left Behind is a reflection of this dismaying cultural shift. It’s more deliberate than that. Tim LaHaye was one of the central figures who worked hard to bring about this change in American evangelicalism. The John Birchification of American evangelical Christianity has always been his life’s work.

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