Can Evangelism be Redeemed?

In 2016, a photograph circulated on the internet of a group of young people in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. They were sitting in front of one of the museum’s most famous paintings, “The Night Watch” by Rembrandt. Yet not one of them was looking at the picture. Instead, they were all bent over, looking at their phones.

You can imagine the internet’s reaction. “The ‘distracted’ society. No wonder we’re in the shape we’re in now. Teach Your children!” and “What a sad picture of today’s society!”

However, the true explanation was different. The students had been encouraged to download a multimedia guide to the museum, and were learning more about the painting. Far from being distracted, they were actually being educated.

We say, “One picture is worth a thousand words,” but it is not always true. The CBC were wise some years ago to adopt the slogan, “Sometimes a picture needs a thousand words.”

The importance of words

The story of the young people in the Rijksmuseum is sad, but the consequences of misinterpreting a picture can be much more serious than that. If we had been first-century Jews, passing by the scene of the crucifixion, what might we have thought? “Ah, how sad. Those Romans are such brutes. I wonder if he was really a criminal, or another failed messiah, or just someone who got on the wrong side of the Romans?”—and got on with our lives. But to know truly what was going on—that this was the Son of God dying for the sins of the world—we would have needed someone to explain it to us.  

Walter Brueggemann is an Old Testament scholar, not an evangelist, but he puts this clearly: “At the center of the act of evangelism is the message announced, a verbal, out-loud assertion of something decisive not known until this moment of utterance.” Evangelism is passing on information that someone does not yet have. It is telling people things they do not know.

This is why I hold the unfashionable view that evangelism means talking. Talking about Christian faith. Talking about why Christianity is good news. Talking about Jesus. And yes, I am aware that that makes many of us uncomfortable.

St Francis never said it

In fact, you are almost certainly itching to quote Francis of Assisi to me. “Ah,” you will say, “but didn’t St Francis say, ‘Preach the Gospel at all times. If necessary, use words’?” Very witty. Everyone smiles when they hear this. We nod, often with relief.

But, actually, no, he didn’t say it. At least, according to historians, it’s 99% certain he didn’t. It’s as unlikely and incongruous as if Jesus had urged his disciples, “Follow your dreams.” For one thing, the first reference to the saying comes from 300 years after Francis’ time, which should make us suspicious. But then, even more significantly, in his lifetime Francis was known as a preacher, and he trained his followers to preach too. As Ed Stetzer wrote in The Washington Post, “using that statement [attributed to Francis] is a bit like saying, ‘Feed the hungry at all times. If necessary, use food’.”

Of course, the quotation does make an important point: Christ-like actions are crucial to communicating the Gospel. In fact, the reason people took Jesus’s spoken message seriously was that they had seen his actions.

However, right now, I’m just saying those actions are not what evangelism is. Jesus’s words were needed to explain the reality of his life. Words and actions go together precisely because they do not communicate in the same way, and it’s not helpful to equate them.  Evangelism means talking. As in the story of the Rijksmuseum—and the story of the cross—words are essential.

How then can evangelism be taken out of the red-light district of the church and onto the Main Street of the church’s life?

The integration of words and actions

Let me tell you a story. A few years back, I received an email from someone called Becky. She had been exploring the Institute of Evangelism website and reading some of the evangelistic articles there, and had some questions for me. But, she said, “I’m just so far away from where I think I ought to be if I become a Christian. I can’t imagine that I’ll ever be able to (or be willing to) make the changes necessary.” She told me she had been living with a married man for fifteen years, and she worked in the gambling industry, where she didn’t know of any Christians.

What had prompted this exchange was that a year earlier Becky’s sister had got married, and Becky had played the organ for the service. (I should add that she had not learned to play the organ for religious reasons.) The priest, Joanne, asked her if she might be willing to do it regularly, Becky said yes, and they became friends. They would go walking together in the hills around where they lived.

Becky began to ask serious questions about Christianity, did some searching on the web, and came across me. My role was to try and answer her many questions. I quoted C.S. Lewis, as I often do. She had never heard of him, despite having been a student at Oxford. I recommended the Narnia stories, and they blew her away. Here are some of her comments, quoted with her permission:

I found the whole creation scene [in The Magician’s Nephew] very moving. It has made me realise that rather than simply (!) being created, I’ve been called to life for a purpose. What have I been created (designed) for? Who am I meant to be?

The way Aslan accepts people and their failings [in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe] has made me understand much better how God accepts us (and question how I accept myself and others).

What are the things that stop me following Aslan even though I believe in him (like Susan in Prince Caspian)? This is one I really need to work on.

Then Becky moved to another church, this time in the city center. One of the staff at the church, Fran, noticed that she was new and invited her for coffee. They began to meet every two weeks, and the conversation quickly gravitated towards the Gospel. Fran, said Becky, was “really helpful but not at all pushy.” Eventually, after a conversation with Jo, Becky decided to become a follower of Jesus. She left the married man and left the gambling industry. Shortly afterwards, she was baptised.

Some time later, she met a Christian widower at church—George—and they got married. My wife and I happened to be in the area at the time, so were able to be at the wedding. During the reception, I suggested to Becky that we needed a photo of her “team”—Jo, Fran and myself. (C.S. Lewis was otherwise occupied, or he would have been in it too.) I treasure that photo.

There’s a lot to reflect on in that story. Did Becky need words? Yes: she read articles, she read Narnia, she listened to the words of Jo’s sermons on Sundays, and she had conversations with Fran. She asked me her questions, and I gave verbal responses. Words were essential. Was it necessary for Becky to experience the love of Christians as well as their words? Of course. The words would never have taken root without the love. Joanne loved her as a friend. Fran spent time with her and took an interest in her life. Even though my contact with her was via email, I tried to make my messages to her friendly, non-pressured, and honest. (We are still good friends today.)

That’s how healthy evangelism works. We may not be aware of it, but this kind of story is not at all unusual. Such stories can be multiplied a thousand times around the world. Becky’s story teaches me that there is a kind of evangelism where words are spoken in the context of loving actions, and which is wholesome, respectful, intellectually responsible, and (under God’s good hand) fruitful. And Jesus, our Trainer of Apprentices, can teach us how to do it.

(Some of the material in this post appears in a different form in my book, The Unfolding Gospel.)

This article won an award from The Canadian Word Guild for the Best Single Column, 2021.