Can Christian Evangelism Be Harmful?
When I was a teenager, I found myself sitting in a massive auditorium full of Christian youth just like me. I remember the music being empowering, the volume turned up loud enough that I could no longer hear myself sing along. Kids jumped and clapped and shouted all around me.
I was at an evangelism conference for youth.
During one section of the conference, the speakers asked us to call as many friends as we could, who didn’t know Jesus, and ask them where they were going when they died. I remember feeling such deep guilt because I didn’t have any friends who weren’t Christians. Who was I going to call?
I called no one.
Instead, I sat amid 10,000 other teenagers in a gargantuan room talking to their friends on their flip phones. A somber chatter filled the room.
When next year’s evangelism conference came around, I felt both dread and excitement in my soul. I wanted to learn how to evangelize and do what Jesus called me to do in the Great Commission, but I still didn’t know anyone who wasn’t a Christian.
Looking back at what we learned and did there, I wonder if the whole experience had been more harmful than helpful.
A few years later, I was a young adult and helping lead students on a trip to the same evangelism conference.
That year turned out to be the worst of all.
That year the conference wanted to try something new and challenged all 10,000 angsty teenagers to go into the surrounding community and evangelize to at least one stranger.
The conference speakers encouraged the youth with the mantra, “awkward is awesome!”
Chaos and disorientation mixed with teenaged hormones ensued. A group of socially awkward students from my church gathered around me as their adult leader as we entered a large shopping mall to “share the gospel.”
By this time in my life, I knew something didn’t feel right with the whole scenario, so I directed my students to pray at tables in the food court instead.
But we weren’t the only ones to chose to go the mall.
I watched helplessly as groups of three to ten teenagers assaulted the poor patrons of the mall with outlandish questions.
“If you died today, do you know where you are going?”
“Do you want to go to hell?”
“If Jesus came back today and came to you, would He happy with what He found?”
“Do you want to talk about Jesus?”
Those questions asked to complete strangers still cause me to cringe. And, because there was such a large number of teenagers from the conference who went into the shopping mall to “evangelize,” even I was approached three or four times by that group.
I cannot imagine what it must have felt like to be an atheist, Muslim, or a part of any other religion on that day.
When is Evangelism Harmful?
Recently, I had the opportunity to record a podcast episode with Pastor Tom Kopp on our Beyond the Lines podcast. We talked about when evangelism can be harmful.
Tom mentioned a time an Uber driver picked him up at church, and the driver immediately felt the need to defend himself and ask Tom to not evangelize to him. He and Tom ended up having a great conversation.
When they pulled up to Tom’s house the man said, “I have not had this good of a conversation in years, and I least expected it when I picked you up at a church!”
To this Tom replied, “I’m sorry, because part of the reason you expect that is because we’ve been really bad at these conversations. We’ve made them a confrontation.”
So yeah, evangelism can be harmful. Are Christians called to tell people about Jesus and His AWESOME gift? Yes, but how we present this message matters. Later in the interview Tom made some powerful statements.
He said, “I think there are some narratives that we tell ourselves that give us permission to have bad behavior. Here’s what I mean by that. ‘Well, I want to make sure they know what I stand for, so I’ve got to tell them that I don’t do pre-marital sex, and you’re a pagan and you’re a heathen because you’re doing this...’ Why do I have to tell them what I stand for? When we do that, we do it in such a way that makes them feel incredibly judged.”
He went on to say, “when we teach evangelism we teach it in such a way where we have to do everything we can to rescue people from hell, because hell is a bad, awful, and rotten place… What if instead of trying to help people avoid the worst possible destination they can have, we invited people into the best possible relationship they can have.”
How Should We Evangelize?
Later in our interview with Tom, he talked about how we have made evangelism confrontational instead of conversational. It is miserable to see how often Scripture is taken out of context. Christians sometimes do this so they can justify themselves being jerks to others.
One of my favorite examples of this is the story of Jesus flipping tables in the temple. Christians have used this as justification for “tough love” toward those who don’t believe in Jesus. The rationale is because Jesus was confrontational in this one circumstance, then I can be confrontational all the time.
This use of Scripture to justify bad behavior is unfortunately common, but, if viewed from the perspective of the rest of Jesus’ life, this rationale does not hold water.
Jesus demonstrated with His life and words how to love people, even one’s enemies, in a revolutionary, self-sacrificing way. He asked His followers to give up their lives for the sake of others. He told His closest followers to value being humble over being respected.
In Colossians 4 the Apostle Paul says this,
“Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity. Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.” (Colossians 4:5-6)
Does that sound confrontational or condemning? No.
Our conversation is meant to always be full of grace not condemnation. The Greek word for always is pantote. It means, “at all times” or “on every occasion.”
So how are Christians supposed to evangelize? With grace at all times and on every occasion.
But what if I see them sinning against God? I need to tell them!
Do you? There is no biblical support for this claim. There is some support for helping guide a fellow Christian if they have gone down the wrong path, but that is always within the context of a deep relationship.
In the podcast I mentioned above, Tom Kopp said, “when you talk to people about the Gospel, let it be about, ‘you know, on my worst day I don’t have to question if I’m loved.’ When I think about who loves me, who believes in me, who cherishes me; the number one name that comes to my mind is Jesus.”
Let’s work together to share the message of Jesus’ love and acceptance rather a gospel that actively confronts people and judges them.