Sunday, March 13, 2011

Friendly Evangelism: Opening Question

In the best traditions of Accidental Historian, this post is brought to you by Jameson Irish Whiskey and a Canadian band called Twilight Hotel. (Except that if I were Geds, I'd be drinking some sort of Scotch. Also, I'd know the band personally. But I digress...)

Over on Bruce Gerencser's blog Fallen From Grace, Grace asked an interesting question. Since she asked me directly, and since she seems to asking in good faith, I'm going to make an attempt to answer. Before I get going, let me explain that, to the best of my understanding, Grace is a well-meaning evangelist for the same sort of kind, liberal Christianity that I grew up in. Here is what she said:

It does seem that the folks who are the most vocal about their faith, and out there doing evangelical outreach are the "turn or burn," group, and unfortunately secular people really do have the impression that this represents the view of all the church, the public face of Christianity.

I think people in denominations like TEC are almost afraid to do evangelism for fear of being identified as "one of them." The other concern is not wanting to seem pushy or disrespectful, or not wanting people to feel as if we always have an agenda, as if there are simply like this project, notches on a soul winning belt or something.

Where's the balance in all this? What really are the best ways for Christians to share their faith?

Grace is right, by the way. Most of the folks who actively evangelize (as opposed to evangelizing through service, or by example) belong to the more Fundamentalist / Evangelical denominations. So trying to be an active evangelist for respectful, friendly, liberal Christianity makes her something of a statistical outlier: liberal Christians tend to evangelize closer to home, when they do it at all.

That said: What really are the best ways for Christians to share their faith? This is an excellent question, and to be honest by most measures I feel completely unqualified to answer it. For one thing, I'm not a Christian; I haven't been for over two decades. For another, I have no formal training in theology, exegesis, or apologetics - Christian or otherwise. In fact, my only real qualification is that, in my years as an unbeliever, I've been deeply annoyed by a number of would-be evangelists and apologists.

Despite these experiences - actually, because of them - I wish more Christians would ask this question. In particular, I wish more evangelically-minded Christians would ask this of unbelievers. Because one of the biggest obstacles I see is that most would-be evangelists don't really understand why unbelievers don't believe - or how that's even possible. The best of these come off as sincere but laughably naive; the worst (usually the "turn or burn" crowd) are arrogant in their misplaced certainty, pushy or even bullying in their delivery, and tend to make God look like a colossal asshole. [1]

Obviously, I don't have the time (let alone the expertise) to write an entire book on this topic. So I'm going to limit the scope of this essay these essays rather seriously: this is advice for liberal American Christians who are interested in evangelizing (or even discussing religious matters with) atheists, agnostics, apostates, and other unbelievers - without giving offense, starting arguments, or driving people away. Some of it might be helpful in other circumstances, but if so, that was purely accidental.

So that's the context for this week's set of discussions. Feel free to chime in. If you think I'm being too charitable - and bear in mind, I am not addressing the more absolutist, controlling, destructive forms of Christianity - tell me why. If you think I'm misrepresenting the position of unbelievers, tell me how. If you think I'm misrepresenting Christianity, you're probably off topic - but what the hell, tell me why anyhow.

Next: The Christian Imperative

[1] We could debate the relative merits of these approaches, but that's kind of missing the point.


  1. Only point I would make is that most Evangelicals don't evangelize either. 10% of the members do the evangelizing, give most of the money, and actively work in the church ministries. Liberal churches match or exceed the Evangelicals in money or work but not in evangelizing I have never seen a liberal witness.

    I am not convinced Grace is a true liberal Christian. She is more like a confused, bi-religious evangelical than a true card-carrying liberal.

  2. I don't much about Grace - only what I've seen when she posts on your blog - so I'm giving her the benefit of the doubt. But it's an interesting enough question, and when I started trying to write out an answer, I found that I had a lot more to say than I expected.

    Whether any of it is actually worthwhile is another matter. {g}

    I'll be curious to see how people react as this goes along.

  3. Hey, as much as I love being a tradition unto myself, sometimes my posts are brought to you by bourbon or some sort of snooty beer. Also, there's only a 50/50 shot I know the band personally...

    I live an odd life, really...

    Also, hi, Bruce!

  4. Hi GEDS.

    Grace (aka Becky) is quite active in a number of non-theist blogs. It will be interesting to see how it goes.


  5. LOL, guys...I just caught this post, and Bruce's comment, not thinking anything would have been posted until the middle of the week.

    Bruce, is right, though, I don't self-identify as progressive theologically. I think I"m just this bog standard, orthodox, evangelical Christian in the classical sense of those terms. I'm just not a fundamentalist.

    For me, the Nicene Creed of the church is a sufficent statement of Christian faith. Basically my convictions represent the mainstream of the church.

    My name, Michael is Rebecca, but when I first started blogging some years ago I chose the handle "Grace." I actually thought that everyone had this screen name. Recently, I just started to share using my given name.

    But, hey , you can call me Grace, too.

  6. As far as names go, I'm fine either way. If you don't mind, I'll keep referring to you as Grace, since that was how I met you.

  7. Like my youngest son would say, I'm cool with that, Michael.


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