On evangelism

A few years ago, Jennie and I attended a Baptist church for a year or two. While we were there, they started a social group for “young adults”. (I used to work in a library, so I always think of that phrase in the publishing-industry sense of “younger teens”, but this church took it to mean something more like “twenties and thirties”.)

After a few get-togethers, someone raised the question of what the group should be named. And somebody suggested “POWER” — I think it stood for “People Of Worship, Evangelism, and Religion”.

After a brief hesitation, I spoke up against that name. For three reasons. One, it didn’t describe the group; how was anyone supposed to read that name and know it was a group for Baptist twenties and thirties? (Or even what religion it was, for that matter — could’ve been a group of Scientologists for all the name tells you.) Two, a group that calls itself “POWER” sounds waaaay too much like a white-power, neo-Nazi group. And three, the word “evangelism” is a real turn-off for some people. Including me.

They went with that name anyway. I think I may have gone to one more of their events before I dropped out.

Evangelism offends me for the same reason Fanta commercials offend me: they both start with the assumption that I’m a complete idiot.

See, faith is one thing. I don’t know whether I believe in God, but I do believe in faith. I’ve had the experience of leaning on faith in tough times. It got me through the time in college when I was thinking about suicide. In my case, it was faith in the strength of a friendship. For others, it’s a faith in God, or in themselves, or in freedom, or in their family. It can pull people through rough spots, and even help them turn their lives around. People lay down their lives for it. And it can help people stay alive.

I believe that faith can move mountains. I believe that it may be the most powerful force in the human experience. What I don’t believe is that my faith is automatically right for everyone else.

But where I stop is where evangelism starts: with a faith that is assumed to be the One Truth. And because it’s taken on faith, because it’s taken to be self-evident, it’s automatically beyond debate, beyond reason. It wasn’t reasoned into you, so it can’t be reasoned out. And everyone who believes something different is obviously wrong.

I posted about evangelism a while back, and Brad asked why I took offense at the idea. And he asked a pretty poignant question: do I see evangelists as being Obviously Wrong, Because They Don’t See Things The Way I Do?

I’ve been thinking about that. And I think the answer is, for the most part, no. I am only human, with the occasional arrogance and thoughtlessness that come with the package. But I don’t think the reason I dislike evangelists’ beliefs is just the fact that they’re different from mine.

Last September, one of the youth in our youth group asked me to be his mentor in our “Coming of Age” program. And that’s been interesting, and occasionally challenging — all the more so because he considers himself to be more Christian than Unitarian. He believes in God, and in Heaven and Hell. And I’m thrilled for him. He’s got it all figured out. (Well, maybe not all figured out, but certainly more than me.) And he’s got something to put his faith in. Pretty solid faith, in his case; he’s got a lot of strength and self-assurance for a ninth-grader. But he knows that it’s his faith, and he’s content to let others find their own way.

What offends me about evangelicals is not what they believe about God. What offends me is what they believe about their beliefs. What offends me is that they assume nobody else is capable of making up their own mind. What offends me is their… well, to put it bluntly, their arrogance. And their ignorance.

I don’t accept arrogance as a religious belief. And I don’t accept anyone who assumes everyone else is wrong. You can’t convince me someone is wrong until you can tell me what they’re wrong about — until you’ve at least asked them what they believe.

And even then, if it’s a matter of faith, you’re going to have a damn hard time convincing me that you’re right, and they’re wrong.

“Believe those who are seeking the truth. Doubt those who find it.” — Andre Gide (1869-1951)

Now, with all that said…

I’m usually wrong the first time. Like everybody else, I learn by making mistakes. And on some level, I really can’t believe that all evangelism is rooted in arrogance and ignorance. I just can’t come up with any other explanation. This is the sort of thing I tend to need someone else to explain to me.

So I’ll open the floor to you guys. I know there are some Christians reading my blog, and probably some of you consider evangelism to be part of your faith. So tell me. What’s it all about?

Speak up. Challenge my assumptions. (But expect me to challenge yours right back. This could be an interesting discussion.)

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