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What’s Wrong with Pressure Evangelism? Everything! — An Excerpt from Jonathan Dodson's "The Unbelievable Gospel"

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After graduating college and before heading to Washington D.C. to start a new life, I worked for Cutco Cutlery.

Yes, I pressured people into buying a $1000 set of kitchen knives!

It was a miserable three months, yet it opened my eyes to an aspect of Christianity we’re often blind to: pressure evangelism.

In his new book The Unbelievable Gospel, Jonathan Dodson says my pressure sale experience is exactly how many people feel when we begin sharing our faith with them:

The pressure we feel to share the gospel doesn’t translate into the loving concern we may genuinely have for them. Instead, our compulsion bleeds through, coming across as a pressure sale, and people feel like a means to an end, a project. Even when what we say is true and we have good intentions, the way we say it can make people wish we weren’t talking. (21)

In the excerpt below, Dodson further unpacks what’s wrong with pressure evangelism and what we church leaders can do about it in order to help our people share Christ well.

-Jeremy Bouma, Th.M. (@bouma)

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So what’s wrong with pressure evangelism? Just about everything. For starters, it reveals that we have the wrong motivation. When we talk with others, we aren’t sharing out of a sense of freedom, loving others out of the overflow of our peace and contentment in Christ. We are evangelizing to prove ourselves out of a misguided sense that the eternal destiny of others is ultimately dependent on our efforts. In the end, it isn’t love that compels us. The pressure to perform, to make the sale, presses down so hard on our hearts and minds that it distorts our message. We act and speak in unnatural ways. Often, we sound as if we don’t really believe what we are saying. The gospel we share is unbelievable.

There are several, common ways of evangelizing that have been popular over the past few decades. My point in sharing these is not to disparage them or suggest they haven’t been used by God. In fact, for each of these examples, the message is actually true in content, but disregards the context. As my Bible interpretation professor in seminary said, “Context is king.” In most contexts today, evangelistic techniques tend to feel canned. In Evangelism Explosion, for example, you need to memorize an outline. With the Four Spiritual Laws you often end up reading from a tract and turning the pages. Most of these past efforts were focused on nailing a presentation, not on understanding a person. And this priority — to get the message out there and be heard — tends to make others feel like they are a project. To be fair, this was never the intended goal of these evangelistic tools, and I’m sure there are many people who are still able to use them effectively. But in my experience, the most common result is a canned presentation, one that doesn’t really communicate God’s good news in a believable way…

While we can critique various approaches and methods, it isn’t always the methods themselves that are to blame for pressure evangelism. We have a choice. Certain tools and trainings may create fertile soil for pressure evangelism, but its motivational roots run deep into our hearts, where we are preoccupied with what others think of us. Because we desire the approval of our spiritual mentors, our peers, and even God, we end up evangelizing to impress. We’re like the teenager who works tremendously hard at a sport he doesn’t even like, just to get the approval of his parents. We try to earn our acceptance by performing for the reward of approval. When we evangelize in this way, we are try- ing to earn the unearnable favor of the Father.

As a result, our gospel isn’t believable. Why? Because our motivations don’t line up with our beliefs. We aren’t practicing what we preach. We may tell others that the Father loves them perfectly, that our salvation is based on Christ’s performance and not our own, and yet we are still motivated by a desire to earn God’s favor. As a church planter I was discouraged, in part because I wasn’t measuring up to my own evangelistic standards. Instead of relying on God’s sovereign grace, I felt the pressure to perform, to get higher numbers, to justify myself. If our church grew more rapidly through conversions, I could feel good about myself, about my performance. In these moments, my worth was slipping from the sure and treasured place of Christ, to the unwavering and idolatrous place of self. I preferred manufactured approval over the enduring approval of our heavenly Father.

When our evangelism is motivated by approval, “moments” of evangelistic opportunity devolve into something like this: “If I don’t do this, I’m gonna regret it” (performance), instead of thinking, “I can see this person needs the hope of the gospel, and I can’t wait to extend it” (love). The motivation of performance and the idol of approval short-circuit the motivation of love. Is it any surprise that people find our evangelism unbelievable? People are sacrificed on the altar of our efforts to gain God’s approval through our performance.

The truth we need to hear and believe, at a deep heart level, is that God doesn’t need you and me to accomplish his work. He doesn’t want to use us in a manipulative, detached way. He wants to give himself to us…

Paul was compelled to do all kinds of ministry in all sorts of circumstances, not to receive attaboys from God the Father, but because Jesus died to resurrect a whole new kind of humanity: “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (2 Corinthians 5:17). Paul isn’t performing; he’s truly living. He is living a whole new life that revolves, not around self, but around the Messiah who died and lives for him. His evangelism is utterly Christ-centered.

When we are motivated by performance, we are self-centered, and we end up riddled with anxiety. Jesus died and rose from death to liber- ate us from this nasty way of living. The old is gone and the new has come. You are a new creation. Don’t graduate from this. Sit in it and live in it. Tie your worth to the rock of Christ, crucified and risen. Train yourself to look at Christ and then at others with new eyes, until you too can see them becoming new. You are new—but there are lots of other people who aren’t, for whom Jesus also died, and they don’t know what it’s like to be liberated from performance and a million other sins. Jesus died to liberate them too.

Our vision needs to be reshaped by the resurrection power of Jesus. In the resurrected Christ we get a glimpse of heaven overlapping earth. Paul tells us what this transformation did for him. He no longer saw people “according to the flesh,” as numbers or objects to manipulate or to satisfy his own desires; rather, he saw them as potential recipients of God’s new creation work. He saw sinners, not only for what they had done in their rebellion against God, but as people who could become the very righteousness of God in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:21).

It’s not enough for us to simply see eternity in the balance; eternal math isn’t enough to keep the evangelistic heart pumping. We must see Jesus, over and over again, as the source and goal of God’s work, and we must look to him as the renewing power of new creation. Jesus is our motivation for evangelism, and the Father is calling us to count on Christ, more than anything else, and entrust our evangelistic record to him. Don’t count on methods, conversions, cultural savvy, or your church. Count on Christ, deeply, and you will communicate Christ freely.

The Unbelievable Gospel: Say Something Worth Believing

By Jonathan K. Dodson

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