Selfish Evangelism

Featured — By on February 9, 2012 at 2:13 pm

To what extent are our attempts to convert our friends and family veiled plays at validating our fragile egos?

What is with our American obsession with approval? We all want it, need it, seemingly pine for it. We want to know that what we do/think/believe is okay and I imagine that as long as somebody disapproves we will continue our quest to validate our existence. Homosexuals will not be satisfied until the most conservative of religious denominations gives their tacit approval, Catholic parishoners who support family values will not sleep soundly until Bill Maher issues a full and sincere apology, and on it goes ad infinitum… Best I can tell, most of the things we need approved are on the following list:

Our physiques (Oh, the exertion! Oh, the exhaustion! Oh, the hours of laboring away in a room filled with sweaty strangers on treadmills, all in the name of “health”!)

Our aesthetic preferences (Oh, the arguments! Oh, the time wasted proving to your mother that the couch looks better under the east window! Oh, the dinner table arguments about whether or not The Office drags sans Steve Carell!)

Baptist Church Budgets (Oh, the knock-down drag-outs! Oh, the carnage that is the annual budget business meeting! Oh, the time wasted in deconstructing the youth minister’s pizza receipts!)

And most importantly, our ideological/ philosophical/ theological/ religious leanings.

As Americans we have been pandering for social approval in this area for years. And it never works and is usually worse than stupid. The first example that comes to my mind concerns Evangelical Christianity’s attempts to make Jesus cool/palatable to the “culture” at large. This was a bad idea because:

a) Jesus was already cool and seemingly everyone except the church intrinsically understood this,

b) the church at the time of this trend’s emergence was very much uncool, therefore their attempts to make Jesus cool were subject to their perception of what “cool” was, meaning that Jesus came out looking atrociously dorky,

and

Jesus is going to be offensive to everyone in some way (religious people, non-religious people, doesn’t matter. A tuner picks a fight with both sharp and flat notes).

It seems that presenting the message of Jesus clearly in a manner that was culturally normative would have been a novel idea. I mean, we have to assume that most Evangelicals in the 20th century were participating in popular social discourse about sports and television shows, so why not incorporate this natural, inherent familiarity with their native culture to inform their explanations of the gospel to that same culture?

Because furthering the gospel is not what the church was after. Secretly, we did not really care all that much whether or not people met Jesus. We cared whether or not pop culture thought Jesus was okay. Because we desperately hoped that pop culture would think that we were okay. If we ever really wanted people to “accept Christ” it was mostly because we wanted them to accept us, and we had this embarrassing guy named Jesus pursuing us and constantly making us look more like him, and consequently we had become a humiliating package deal. Oh, the awkwardness. Hilarity ensued. Pastors began to operate like Don Draper- endlessly rebranding Jesus in the hopes of selling some of our culture’s tastemakers on the whole religious system.

It is entirely possible that this attempt at recasting Christ in a more attractive light was motivated out of a desire for social validation. After all, we are all trying to make sense out of an awfully vexing world. Everyday most of us are confronted with a bizarre, disjointed series of facts and occurrences, some of which challenge our beliefs (Why does our God let natural disasters so disproportionally destroy the third world?, etc…). This can cause a lot of anxiety. How do we know we are putting the puzzle pieces together correctly? We are doing the best we can, but how do we know that our worldview is solid? How do we know we are right?

Social psychologists would say that we subconsciously succumb to informational social influence- meaning that we desperately want to feel right, to feel like we are accurately processing the world around us and when others see things the same way we do it validates our perception, makes us feel like we are seeing accurately. It is easy to be confident in one’s beliefs in a crowd that is shouting with one voice, affirming them. It is harder to do so in a pluralistic society. Consequently, some Christians choose to isolate from “the world” and stockpile pickles and bottled water while holding out for the rapture. Others try to convert the whole world, because if most of the people they knew agreed with them on the question of Jesus, then maybe they picked the right religion after all. They can roam the earth confidently, suspecting in advance that their after-life entrance exam is aced!

And I don’t mean to criticize anyone’s motives for evangelism because it is a biblical command and a beautiful thing and probably the most eternally meaningful spiritual activity that any of us can engage in. Heaven knows I am not as serious about it as I should be. But I do want us, as believers, to continually ask ourselves this:

Who justifies me?

Jesus?

Or a jury of my peers?

Why do I want each person in this world to agree with me about Jesus?

Because I want them to find life?

Or because it will make me feel better about my socially-questionable religious affiliations?

Where does my worth come from?

The ever-persuasive shout of society?

Or that dubious still small voice of God?

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    4 Comments

  • Wow. Just wow. So much truth packed into this.

  • Lynette says:

    Extremely thought-provoking…true on many levels

  • Logan Prince says:

    Good stuff bro! Convicting, but good. :)

  • Matthew says:

    I think you made some very accurate observations, but I believe one thing is missing in your piece, as well as in evangelical circles.

    During Paul’s missional journeys he used several different methods in reaching people. There is nothing inherently wrong in contextualizing the message so that people can find it applicable to their lives. But your list of questions helps us to focus on, what Paul writes in 1 Timothy 1:5, that “the aim of our charge is love.” He goes on to state that with this charge believers must be pure of heart and conscience, and have a sincere faith.

    These things point to the missing ingredient in much of the church today – people do not come to Christ because he’s cool, and not because some smooth-talker persuaded them… they come at the beckoning of the Holy Spirit. Too many times we focus on our strategies for sharing the gospel, or we come up with gimmicks that will draw people’s attention. I believe most of the time such things begin with the best of intentions. But without reliance on the Holy Spirit, we’re resting completely on our efforts and will fail miserably. We tend to think of evangelism as outward, but it must begin with internal contemplation and examination.

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