As I enter my last semester of seminary, I have finally had to take that class I was dreading: The Ministry of Evangelism. Evangelism just seems to carry a negative connotation for me; I rightly or wrongly associate it with arrogance, superiority, close-mindedness, dogmatism, etc. I know this reflects my own prejudices as much as it does reality, but nonetheless here I am.
Our first book assigned was Christ of the Indian Road by E. Stanley Jones, a Methodist missionary from the United States who worked in India for much of his life. Given that the book was written in 1925, I girded myself for what I thought would be the inevitable paternalism and jingoism that I, rightly or wrongly, often associate with the past. How surprised was I to find a type of Evangelism I can maybe try on, even if I’m not quite yet willing to buy.
First off, yes, the book does have some paternalistic tendencies. But I ask myself, who among us doesn’t? Liberal paternalism, though often well intended, is a very real phenomenon. But once I got past that, I was continually struck that Jones identified the heart of my problem. Over and over again, the people he spoke with were vivified by the message of Christ. One after another, they told him, it is Christ who we want to follow; it is Christianity to which we object!
This felt oh so familiar to me. When I think about why I am reluctant to “evangelize”, it is never because I think Jesus is insufficient. I am not embarrassed by his radical generosity, his radical love, his solidarity with those who were oppressed even unto death. What I’m afraid of, to be frank, is that people will catch the spirit of Jesus and then come to our churches to find that spirit sapped. I by no means think that all churches are terrible or even that they are net negatives- but there is no church that doesn’t suffer from putting itself above Christ at times. The fights over theology, sexuality, the handling of money, and the mundane (building use, carpet colors, etc) have a tendency to distract a person (or a minister!) from that which we are called: to love and follow Christ so that we might be transformed into his image. Yes, this does involve considering theology, sexuality, economics and politics, but it all must be done while keeping our allegiance to the One who was able to rise above it all.
Jones writes, “Many teachers of the world have tried to explain everything- they changed little or nothing. Jesus explained little and changed everything” (187). How can I spend less time talking about Christ and more time changing my heart and the conditions of the world? How can I spend less time trying to convince and more time putting Jesus forward so that he might beckon us to follow? I glimpse somewhere in the distance an evangelism I can do- talking about this radical and redemptive person who is Christ. Oh may I find the way.