Monday, March 14, 2011

Friendly Evangelism: The Christian Imperative

Christians are commanded to spread the Gospel. I don't have chapter and verse, but D'Ma was kind enough to offer it in the comments: "These commands are found in the gospels, namely Matthew 28:16-20. They are found again in Mark 16:9-20 but appear to be a later interpolation." It's in the New Testament, of course - part of the transition from the God of the Israelites to the God who sent his only son to redeem the whole of the world. And, of course, it plays a prominent part in Christian oral tradition as well: it's the subject of sermons, stories, discussions, and songs.

Christianity has a strong oral tradition, though it varies in content and importance from denomination to denomination, church to church, Christian to Christian. I firmly believe that in some areas and on some issues, the oral tradition actually takes precedence over the written tradition - the written tradition being, of course, the Bible. In this case, however, the written tradition retains its dominance. I think that's mostly due to the letters of the Apostle Paul, but I'm really not sure - it could just be one of those things that's worded so compellingly and unmistakably that the oral tradition has trouble changing it.

This is kind of a problem, because it keeps the Christian approach to evangelism firmly rooted in a situation that has been out of date for sixteen hundred years.

The Christianity of the Apostles was very similar to a doomsday cult: Christians were an extreme minority, and they believed that the Messiah was coming back within their lifetimes to judge the living and the dead. Explaining the Good News was urgent, vital, and utterly necessary. The people that the early Christians were evangelizing had never heard about it before. Perhaps equally important, the Gospel was a deeply subversive story. There's only one God?[1] And His son was born to an unmarried woman, in a feeding trough in a barn, and spent his life as an itinerant preacher and sometime healer? And this holy son's great achievement, his one truly divine accomplishment, was to be tortured and die in a particularly horrible and ignominious fashion?

...It's a wonder that Christianity made it off the ground at all.

But the most successful stories often are subversive at heart, and a millenia and half later I have to explain why those ideas might have been a bit... unusual. Christianity isn't just widespread; in most places, it's the default. In some places, it's part of the definition of "normal" - if you aren't Christian, you're abnormal. Nowadays, the idea that most people in Western nations have never heard of Jesus is, frankly, silly. Christianity is so dominant that here in the 'States, even the adherents of other religions understand its broad outlines. Yet Christianity clings to this view of itself as a minority religion (and frequently persecuted at that), in no small part because the written tradition - the Bible - says that it must be so. In much the same way, Christian doctrine clings to the idea that non-Christians must never have heard the Good News of Jesus, or - failing that - must not have understood it.

The idea that someone could know, and understand, but still disagree escapes far too many people. The fact that these assumptions lead to Christians mainly evangelizing other Christians is actually kind of funny. Keep these thoughts in mind; we'll likely be coming back to them.

This leads me to two initial pieces of advice, if you wish to share the good news without giving offense:
  1. Do us the courtesy of assuming that we're already familiar with the broad outlines of Christianity. Odds are, you aren't the first to share the Good News with us.
  2. When a Christian starts making generalizations about why believers don't believe, cover your ears and walk away. The odds that they have anything useful to say are so close to zero as gives no odds.

Next up: Finding a workable goal.

Previous: Opening Question | Next: What is the goal?

[1] Monotheism in the Roman Empire was... unusual, and it was probably a big part of the reason why early Christians were persecuted. Accidental Historian has some comments about this.


  1. These commands are found in the gospels, namely Matthew 28:16-20. They are found again in Mark 16:9-20 but appear to be a later interpolation.

    I have to admit that before having doubts it was a mystery to me why anyone, having been told the gospel, would reject it for any reason other than their desire not to be accountable to God. On this side of doubt, however, I'm seeing that for the most part it has very little to do with that. Stepping back and looking at everything I've believed with a critical eye makes me ask myself..."WTH?" It all sounds so far-fetched and wholly unbelievable that rational people can reject it based on sound reason. Imagine that.

  2. You know, I've heard this idea - that unbelievers refuse to acknowledge God because they don't want to be accountable to Him - several times in the last couple of months. Do you have any idea where it comes from?

    I ask because it makes no sense at all, even from a Christian perspective. I mean, how would not believing in God keep you from being accountable to him? If God is what (from a Christian perspective) He clearly is - the Judge Of All The World, and omniscient into the bargain - why would anybody think that ignoring him could possibly make any difference?

    I can see where some Christians might think that atheists are just stupid, but the idea that we think that if we ignore God, He'll just go away? That's some weapons-grade stupidity, that is.

    Seriously, under what set of assumptions does that assertion make any kind of sense?

    Pardon the rant. It's just such an odd thing for Christians to say, and the folks who've said it to me are almost always telling me, in the same breath, that deep down in my secret place I must know that God really exists. ::boggles::

  3. I think the presupposition is there really is no such thing as an atheist. It's preached from pulpits everywhere. More or less it's the thought process that people are blatantly rejecting God because they don't want to follow the rules, in essence rebellion. Yes, those Christians(I speak from experience because I was one), honestly believe somewhere down deep you really do know there's a God.

    Fundamentalist Christians have a really hard time believing that anyone can believe there isn't a God. I now have your perspective on it. It's so...well...asinine to think that anybody would just blatantly reject a power that could make you burn for eternity(that's what those same Christians believe) just so you won't have to follow the rules. And no, closing your eyes won't make him go away if he's real.

  4. Yeah, I can see that. I can even see how people could have a powerful need for something to explain why others claim not to believe.

    I don't know, maybe it's just me, but I'd still want an explanation that made some kind of NFBSKing sense...

  5. Yeppers, that's what brings me here.


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