4 Reasons Why People Don't Evangelize: Impersonal, Preachy, Intolerant, Uninformed Witness
Several years ago atheist Penn Jillette, of illusionist duo Penn and Teller, shared a sermonette with Christians about proselytizing:
If you believe that there is a heaven or hell, or that people could be going to hell, or not get eternal life, and you think it’s not really worth telling them this because it would make it socially awkward…how much do you have to hate somebody to not proselytize? How much do you have to hate somebody to believe that everlasting life is possible and not tell them that?
Did you catch how Jillette equated not sharing the gospel with hating someone?
And yet it’s no secret evangelism has fallen on hard times. It’s a bygone word that stirs up images of forced conversations and awkward door-to-door witnessing.
Jonathan Dodson aims to change this perception with his new book The Unbelievable Gospel by recovering a believable evangelism, “one that moves beyond the cultural and personal barriers we have erected in contemporary evangelism to rediscover the power of the biblical gospel.” (14)
Because if Jillette is right, we and our people need a fresh word that compels us to love our neighbor by sharing the good news of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection in a way that’s authentic and winsome—beginning with a word about our motives for not sharing the gospel in the first place.
Dodson lists four so-called evangelistic defeaters—reasons why Christians often choose not to share their faith with others. Understanding them will give you and your people greater wisdom and discernment for gospel communication.
1) IMPERSONAL WITNESS: RELATIONSHIPS, WORK, AND FAITH
One reason people don’t evangelize is because it often feels impersonal. Dodson offers the workplace evangelist as a prime example of who people don’t want to be.
“She campaigns for Jesus in the office without taking the time to really know people…She blindly dismisses people’s struggles, fears, hopes, and reasons for unbelief, moving down the list to get spiritual pats on the back.” (37-38)
Like social media, witnessing is often more about us than others.
Dodson argues we can learn from Jesus to transform our impersonal witness into something authentic and personal:
- Ask questions;
- Focus on the heart;
- Steer conversations with love and wisdom;
- Value and affirm their insights;
- Tell heart-oriented stories. (47)
2) PREACHY WITNESS: SELF-RIGHTEOUS PROSELYTIZING
Another reason people find it difficult to share their faith is they don’t want to be seen as preachy.
“Because the ‘preachy Christian’ is a stereotype many in our culture are familiar with—and strongly dislike—we are often hesitant to bring up spiritual matters in our conversations for fear of being perceived as self-righteous.” (54)
Dodson helpfully makes a distinction between proselytizing and evangelizing to remove this stumbling block to clear the way to Christ.
proselytizing builds walls, while evangelism builds bridges. Why? Because proselytizing is motivated by recruitment. Those who proselytize try to recruit people to their team. A proselytizer puts his faith in rational arguments or social networks. (56)
Dodson urges us to change the “preachy” perception in three important ways:
- Return to the gospel and believe it ourselves;
- Let our actions do the preaching;
- Then let our words clarify the meaning of the gospel of grace.
3) INTOLERANT WITNESS: NAVIGATING PLURALISM
In our hyper-pluralistic age Christians are hyper-sensitive to being labeled intolerant.
Yet such a label shouldn’t deter us from sharing Christ’s story. Dodson helpfully makes a distinction between old tolerance and new tolerance.
Old or ‘classical’ tolerance says “other opinions have a right to exist.” (68) Whereas new tolerance insists “all opinions are equally valid or true.” (71)
Dodson argues God Himself fits the former mold: “Consider how God has been tolerant throughout history, permitting a wide array of beliefs, deities, and religious practices.” (69) Furthermore, “When we reflect on the Gospels, it is curious that Jesus never launched into tirades against the Romans.” (69)
Dodson’s point is that we Christians should respect and be patient with the beliefs of others, while insisting Jesus is The Way. He believes faith in Jesus should lead us to persuasive tolerance.
Persuasive tolerance starts with deep convictions, but without the motive of forcing or manipulating others to agree with us. We enter into dialogue with other faiths out of a genuine desire to learn and to share what we believe. We do not abandon our deeply held convictions. That would be inauthentic. Instead, persuasive tolerance extends people the dignity of their own beliefs, while also freely making a case for one’s own belief. (80)
4) UNINFORMED WITNESS: THINKING SECURELY
Finally, Christians are reluctant to talk about Christ because they’re concerned they won’t know how to respond to unbelievers' questions. Dodson challenges this excuse by calling us to embrace a “thinking” Christianity, beginning with the Bible itself:
the Bible underscores the importance of reason, frequently calling us to think and to engage our minds:
"And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength." (Mark 12:30)
"So he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and in the marketplace every day with those who happened to be there." (Acts 17:17; cf. 17:2; 18:4, 19)
"By faith we understand that the universe was created by the word of God." (Hebrews 11:3)
“Taken together, these texts teach us that the active engagement of our minds is necessary for worship, preaching, apologetics, and faith.” (87)
While Dodson acknowledges we won’t always have all the answers, he urges believers to know how to answer each person they meet, which is “the result of regular times of reflection, personal encounters with God, and the practice of conversing with others.” (89)
In reflecting upon these defeaters, Dodson hopes "to affirm and challenge these concerns in order to fill out a much bigger, more believable vision for evangelism," inspiring "you to be a more authentic, patient, and discerning evangelist." (102)
Next week we will continuing reviewing this book by looking at its central question:
How is the gospel good news to those we evangelize?
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