How do non-Christians feel about “being on the receiving end of the efforts of Christian evangelicals to convert them?” Or, putting it in Christian language, “how do unbelievers feel about having heard a Gospel that they didn’t believe?” I think the rephrase reveals some of the problems inherent in John Shore’s forthcoming attempt to revamp Christian evangelism based on responses to this question.
Perhaps most obviously, it takes a marketing approach towards a message that is, from the beginning, a self-proclaimed stumbling block and foolishness to those who haven’t believed it. But even from a marketing perspective, he seems to be working from a skewed sample. While he has no shortage of comments from perturbed non-Christians, he might have also asked Christian converts how they feel about having heard the Gospel from Christians before they came to believe. After all, it might be wise to have both sides of the story before trying to get one side to stop what they’re doing. That said, there are a few lessons to be learned from the comments that Shore posted, though I doubt they were the ones he intended.
First a disclaimer: It is not my intention here to discount any and every criticism of the ways in which Christians try to reach unbelievers. While Peter instructs us to always be able to give a reason for the hope that we have, he also tells us to provide it with gentleness and respect—two qualities that sinners (Christian or otherwise) tend to struggle with. Likewise, there have long been anti-intellectual and anti-doctrinal trends in American Christianity that ultimately confuse and obscure the proclamation of the Gospel. I would certainly recommend that every Christian learn their faith well and develop the rhetorical skills to communicate it to the best of his or her ability. That said, I don’t think Shore’s collection of comments are terribly helpful in that regard. I find that they reveal more about the unbeliever than about the evangelist.
One such revelation is that many of these unbelievers have absolutely no idea what Jesus actually taught. “Separatism” is the very thing Jesus warned against? Jesus taught a version of “loving one another” that precludes teaching them Christianity? The Law is Jesus’ core message? One wonders exactly where their views on Jesus come from. Are they talking about the same Jesus who said he came to bring the sword and divide mother from daughter, and so forth? (Matthew 10:34-35) The same Jesus who told his followers to make disciples of all nations by baptizing and teaching? (Matthew 28:19) The same Jesus who taught that his ministry was all about his death, resurrection, and the forgiveness of sins? (Luke 24:44-47) Some of these responders were quick to affirm that they have no problem with Jesus—just with Christians. It begins to look like this is only because they don’t have the foggiest idea what Jesus actually taught.
Perhaps their ignorance is understandable since they don’t follow Christ. What is less understandable is this: Though they may not know anything about Christ’s teachings, they are not at all shy about correcting Christ’s followers on the subject. Despite their ignorance, there were quite a few statements that Christians “need to go back to their Bibles, and take a closer look at Jesus.” To be fair, many so-called Christians are just as ignorant about what Jesus teaches as these unbelievers. Well, that much is a problem that Christians can and should solve. But when it comes to evangelism, there’s not so much we can do about the apparently invincible ignorance of our unbelieving audience.
The other revelation from these comments is the excessive sensitivity they belie. One writes, “The main thing that baffles and angers me about Christians is how they can understand so little about human nature that when, in their fervor to convert another person, they tell that person (as they inevitably do, in one way or another), ‘You’re bad, and wrong, and evil,’ they actually expect that person to agree with them. It pretty much guarantees that virtually the only people Christians can ever realistically hope to convert are those with tragically low self-esteem.” Read that again. Now, “one way or another” pretty much rules out the Christian’s rhetoric as the core problem between this unbeliever and his evangelist. The core problem is the scandal of sin. “How can these Christians actually believe this absurdity that there might actually be something wrong with me?” There is no way of dressing up Jesus’ statements that this is precisely the case without excising his teaching altogether. The Pharisees couldn’t believe or accept that they were sick and in need of a physician. Neither, apparently, can many American unbelievers.
Far more revealing is how often Christ’s recognition of humanity’s sinfulness (a teaching of which Christians are only the messenger) is interpreted as “hate.” Now, there’s no question that this is an unpleasant diagnosis to hear. In addition, one might disagree with the accuracy of the diagnosis without being considered overly sensitive. But calling it “hate?” Telling a person that they have cancer isn’t hateful. Neither is telling a person that they stand condemned before God. Christians aren’t the ones making that judgment—God is. A newspaper isn’t “hating” a criminal when it reports that they have been found guilty in a court of law. Neither are Christians when they explain God’s Law and His judgment on those who have broken it.
What does all this mean for Christians’ approach to evangelism? Not too much. Invincible ignorance and hyper-sensitivity are character flaws in the hearer, not in the messenger. Once again, good rhetoric is—unsurprisingly—good. Those with the aptitude for it should pursue it with diligence. It can’t hurt to clearly frame our message as what Jesus teaches. Neither can it hurt to be clear that the Gospel isn’t a new law that we must obey lest we go to Hell. However, these things are not a panacea that cures another person’s faults. Jesus warned us that the world hated him and will hate us because of him. While it is true that the world may sometimes also hate Christians because we’re jerks, we possess no ability to remove their hatred altogether.
Only the Holy Spirit can overcome these issues, and He does so through the very delivery of His scandalous message. Ours is simply to deliver. We should always deliver it with gentleness and respect. Likewise, those Christians who are at all thoughtful and articulate should not be less thoughtful and articulate when they speak about their religion. Neither should those who are kind cease to be kind when they speak about their religion. The Holy Spirit will, no doubt, work through that very kindness and articulation. But He has promised to always be in and with the message without ever telling us that he works proportionately with our rhetorical skill.
Our own popularity is immaterial to our task. Spread the Gospel. Tell it well rather than poorly. But don’t think that reception hinges on your skill and sensitivity.