Christian Evangelism As An Influence For Good
"I don't want to quit until we have brought the whole valley to Christ!"
When my wife and I first moved to the valley in which we live, we thought to help integrate ourselves into
the local community by uniting with a local Christian congregation. The denomination wasn't important and so we commenced
a series of Sunday visits to churches in our area.
At the first church we attended, the Pastor included the above sentence as part of the opening of his sermon.
His words reflect for me part of the historical proposition of Christian Evangelism: bringing souls to Christ.
Such has also been the substance of modern evangelism going back to old-time revivals in the early 1800's.
"Saved" or "having accepted Jesus as your personal savior" has been the most commonly avowed objective of most who have preached
the Christian gospel - and remains so today.
The premise elicits a question: Saved from what?
There is an almost unavoidable sense of condescension in the premise itself. It's part of what Bishop Spong
calls "institutional power claims by which Christianity has sought to present itself as an exclusive pathway to God."
There is an sense of ennobling that comes with the idea of having "seen the light" and now being included
among those charged with making "disciples of all the nations, baptizing them into the name of the Father and of the Son and
of the Holy Spirit:"
There is also, unfortunately, a hard-to-avoid and especially hard-to-disguise sense of condescension that
is communicated by many when an attempt is made to bring a soul whom we consider more lost than we to Christ or to help someone
we assume is in darkness to see the same light we have already seen.
There are many successful evangelists who are sensitive to and work hard to avoid a self-portrayal as someone
who believes themselves in possession of an exclusive pathway to God. There are, however, many others who cannot disguise
a sense of smugness, superiority and condescension and who in fact may not even be aware of their being perceived in that
Is "bringing a soul to Christ" something which Jesus actually taught and expected? It has been said in more
ways than one that the teachings of Christ taken literally would mean that Jesus would himself had to have "accepted Jesus
as his personal savior." Those who insist that such logic is frivolous open then a larger can of worms by insisting that such
a concept doesn't apply to Jesus because Jesus was/is God.
The whole point of God incarnated as Jesus is based on the idea that God became mortal to demonstrate, set
a pattern, and lead humanity down a path of salvation by overcoming the trials and temptations of mortality. If Jesus was/is
God, then the degree of trial and temptation could not have been the same to Him that it is to us. Jesus then ceases to be
a believable model with whom we can compare our own trials and temptations. Jesus had the "BIG ADVANTAGE."
"What Would Jesus Do?" then becomes a frivolous question itself.
Alan Watts expressed it this way:
"I find it easier to assume that Jesus was a man like ourselves who had a spontaneous (i.e.virgin-born) and
overwhelming experience of cosmic consciousness in which it became completely clear to him that "I and the Father are one"
and that before Abraham was, I am.
Watts goes on to say that
"The Gospel must therefore be the communication of Jesus' own experience of Godhood. Otherwise Christians put themselves
in the absurd situation of reproaching themselves for not following the example of one who had the unique advantage of being
God or, at the very least, 'the Boss's son.' It is thus that the 'saving truth' of the Gospel appears, not as Jesus' experience
of Godhood, but as his punishment for proclaiming it and that sanctity in the following of Christ is chiefly measured by the
degree of guiltiness felt in failing to come up to his example.."
Is a vision of Jesus as a collector of souls for whom he will activate his own "BIG ADVANTAGE" in facing a
terrifying day of judgment a useful tool of sincere evangelism?
Is the idea of being "fishers of men" misconstrued into an activity designed primarily to enroll names in
a mythical book of life upon which personal eternity hangs - based on a final accounting of good deeds versus bad deeds?
In today's world Christians exert considerable influence - mostly among "the choir" to whom soul-saving is
already an accomplished fact. It's also a fact that in today's world, some practicing Christians make both believers and non-believers
fearful and suspicious, especially those Christians who have publicly taken and proclaimed their religion into their positions
of political power.
Is the instigation of a global fear and distrust of Christians something that ought to be sought after?
Or is the dispelling of that fear and distrust a task that increasingly demands address?
Evangelizing - bringing souls to Christ - based on a belief in an exclusive pathway to God is in effect
an attempt at extortion.
Again, Alan Watts:
"To substitute a fear of God for the fear of the world is to exchange a finite terror for one that is infinite
- for the terror of everlasting damnation....But [Jesus] saw the possibility of overcoming it in his and our realization of
divine sonship - that is, in mystical experience."
Mystical experience of God is at the heart of all Christian objectives
regardless of terminology.
Individually, if the moment of recognition of "being saved" is not mystical it is not real. There's a psychology
to revival preaching. Many who have marched down to a place of acceptance at the feet of the preacher have been psychologically
touched -even manipulated - but still may not have had a mystical sense of a personal divine connection to being a child of
God. This is particularly true if there is not the accompanying sense of being divine in one's own right.
There is nothing exclusive about a mystical experience of God who is revealed to any mortal regardless
of belief or orthodoxy. This is where Christians can truly reverse the waning influence that is primarily a consequence of
focusing on exclusivity.
Jesus's most touchable or perceivable impact is in what happens in our lives when we adopt his lessons on
life about knocking and asking; on faith and trust. When one decides to try to live according to Jesus's example and teachings,
the results will be palpably experiential.
Trying merely to evoke a psychological sense of sinfulness, guilt and inadequacy that is then countered by
promises of forgiveness based on acceptance of a specified orthodoxy is an evangelism far short of the mark.
Jesus as a redeemer who died for our sins is a wonderful concept. However, that concept is not the essence
of what he said and did in order to influence people to better lives.
The idea that we should be so captured by a powerful understanding that Jesus died for us and therefor we
owe it to Christ and our eternal salvation by being better people is motivation through pure gratitude or guilt. The approach
may work some of the time but in the sophistication of the 21st century, that sort of evangelizing will fall on many disbelieving
Jesus opened his public ministry with these words:
"The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, Because he anointed me to preach good tidings to the poor: He hath sent
me to proclaim release to the captives, And recovering of sight to the blind, To set at liberty them that are bruised."
The last five verses of the 145th Psalm are a reflection of the Isaiah quote in which Jesus describes
"Happy he whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the Lord, his God., who made heaven and earth,
the sea and all that is in them; who keeps faith forever, secures justice for the oppressed, gives food to the hungry. The
Lord gives sight to the blind. The Lord raises up those that were bowed down; the Lord loves the just. The Lord protects strangers;
fatherless and the widow he sustains, but the way of the wicked he thwarts. The Lord shall reign forever; your God, O Sion,
through all generations. Alleluia."
As I have written in other essays, this is Jesus preaching the God of compassion, not the god who's primal
and primary obsession is obedience, judgment and punishment.
Jesus, quoting Isaiah, emphasizes that God is a God first and foremost of compassion. It is not an avowal
of authority based on God-come-to-Earth with the intent of redeeming mankind from all its sinfulness. It is an introduction
The ministry is not about enrolling names of the "saved" who will be given favorable judgment before the Bar
of God at some future time.
"Come unto me all ye who are heavy laden" is not the same as "go get them and bring them hither where we will
baptize them and enroll them."
From an evangelistic point of view it would seem that such labors are not as effective as they could be because
Jesus has been set on a pedestal of excessive reverence. The religious beliefs and convictions OF Jesus have been de-emphasized
by presenting Christianity as a religion ABOUT Jesus.
In so doing, perceptually, Christianity diminishes much of the essence of living life according to the Sermon
on the Mount, the Parables and the other marvelous teachings on living. Rather, Christianity appears as imperial and aggressive
in its insistence on doctrine and orthodoxy.
Bringing the valley to Christ is not the most appropriate agenda for encouraging peace and harmony in
the neighborhood. Even if one believes that if everyone were to become "saved", peace and harmony would follow, such is an
approach that has been tried for hundreds of years without the desired universal result.
Just as we have learned historically that forcing Christian religion on other populations accomplished little
more than cultural destruction, we ought to be able also to see that neither has utilizing the "same old, same old" brand
of condescending and imperial evangelism been successful.
The strongest contemporary congregations are not those that preach sinfulness, guilt and shame. Find any congregation
that is thriving and you'll find a congregation that is self-driven, motivated perhaps by wise preaching that emphasizes thoughtful
and practical application of Christian concepts in working on resolution to contemporary and personal issues.
You'll not find such a congregation driven by insistence on blind faith in traditional orthodoxy and dogmatic
You will find congregations organized among themselves into self-supporting systems guided but not dominated
by authority or charisma focused at the presiding levels of leadership.
Healthy and growing congregations with spiritual and material prosperity are not doing so in urban cultural
and intellectual environments because of a reliance of old-time evangelism, fire-and-brimstone oratory and appeals to blind
These congregations are congregations of actions, often sub-divided into like-minded mini-groups who share
similar life circumstances, for example, young married couples building young families. They pray together and play together.
When adversity comes, they rally around each other in prayer, sustaining and actual material support. They
do not keep score nor assume some sense of orthodoxy in worthiness. For the most part, especially with each other they are
or try to be non-judgmental and supportive.
Shortly after September 11, 2001, When Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson made their absurd statements about
a judgmental God withdrawing His divine protection from the United States of America and letting the terrorist act speak God's
divine wrathful judgment, they perfectly defined that sense of Christian thinking that is dying.
Evangelism at its most effective is seen in the strong congregations where outreach is vastly more effective
than the old-fashioned appeals to fear, shame and guilt. Literal thinking around orthodoxy is the dying aspect of modern Christianity.
If one must be literal, let him or her take literally Jesus's self declaration from Isaiah 61 as recorded
in the 18th verse of Luke 4:
"The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because He has anointed me; to bring goodness to the poor He has sent me,
to proclaim to the captives release, and sight to the blind; to set at liberty the oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year
of the Lord, and the day of recompense."