Our understanding and practice of evangelism are too often captive to stereotypes and false perceptions. Lewis Center Director F. Douglas Powe Jr. says we can redeem evangelism by moving beyond evangelism as marketing or manipulation to reclaim a Jesus-inspired vision of evangelism: witnessing to God’s transforming love in authentic ways.
Do people in your church avert their eyes or run quickly in the opposite direction when the subject of evangelism comes up? For many, the word itself conjures up unpleasant images of someone yelling at the top of their lungs on a street corner or strangers knocking on the door on a Saturday morning. Such stereotypes make it difficult for individuals and congregations to embrace a positive, effective approach to evangelism. How can we liberate our understanding and practice of evangelism from the weight of this emotional baggage?
Beyond manipulation and marketing
Negative perceptions about evangelism often flow from the idea that evangelism involves “doing something to someone else.” To evangelize is to convert, alter, or redirect the life of another person. The onus is on the believer to do something that changes the life of the nonbeliever. Defined in this manner, evangelism objectifies its “targets” and feels coercive.
Others think of evangelism in terms of marketing or advertising. The aim is to impress people, often with superficial appeals designed merely to get them in the door. While this approach may seem less heavy-handed, the truth is those on the receiving end can still feel objectified and manipulated.
Witnessing to God’s transforming love
Evangelism at its core should bring us closer to God and our neighbors. The Greek root word for evangelism is euangelion, which means good message or news, in particular, the good news of the transforming love of Jesus. Our role is not to do anything to anyone else but to witness to our own experiences of this transforming love. No disrespect to Hallmark but the real impact of love cannot be marketed. And evangelism can never be reduced to a campaign to manipulate or entice others to become believers or churchgoers.
To counter these misguided perceptions of our evangelistic task, we need merely look to the Gospels, the ministry of Jesus, and his holistic approach to inviting others to experience something new. Jesus never manipulated, marketed, or coerced. He was not focused on numbers or increasing his own notoriety by sharing God’s love. Instead, he helped people move toward wholeness and offered the good news that this is possible for all regardless of one’s circumstances.
The real deal
When we read about Jesus’s encounters with others, what becomes evident is that what you see is what you get. Jesus is not pretending to be something he is not. He is not making misleading promises. In many instances, in fact, Jesus’s words make people really consider if discipleship is for them (Matthew 19:20-22).
Those invited to follow Jesus are invited to journey with a community that may not always get it right but works hard at helping others experience who they really are so that what they see is what they get. Authenticity is key.
Authentic evangelism in the virtual realm
If true evangelism is inviting others to experience God’s transforming love as Jesus did, what does it look like in our new virtual reality? It is easy to see how online ministry can fall into the trap of marketing or simply trying to manipulate people into coming to church in person. How do we maintain a more holistic perception of evangelism given our new virtual reality?
While the modality of connecting is different in the digital realm, the goal is the same. It is still about sharing and helping others experience God’s transforming love. Connecting with others virtually does not change this emphasis. We are called to help others experience God’s transforming love and journey with them in becoming disciples.
Therefore, it’s important not to rely on online worship as your sole connecting point. Consider ways individuals can deepen their connection to the community in the virtual sphere. It may mean having virtual small groups where a deeper level of conversation can occur. It may mean one-on-one time with the pastor to listen to their story. But it’s important to find ways to help them deepen their connection to the community. When these various virtual entry and connecting points invite people into authentic relationship, they become something much more than a marketing pitch.
Evangelism should bring us closer to God and our neighbor, even if it is a virtual connection with our neighbor. Does this require more work in the virtual sphere? Absolutely! Even as Jesus shares the road, discipleship is not easy. Neither is redeeming evangelism from misconceptions and negative stereotypes. But Jesus gives us the vision to guide our work.
- Hybrid Evangelism: The New Reality for Congregations, a free video resource from the Lewis Center
- Doing Evangelism with Integrity by Priscilla Pope-Levison and Doug Powe
- Relationships are the Key Ingredient in Successful Outreach by Doug Powe