Tag Archives: evangelism

Morality, the Afterlife, and other disjointed thoughts.

A couple months ago, I sat through a religious service as part of my family obligations.  You know, one of those things I go to because the vast majority of my family is Christian and being part of the family sometimes involves participating in their observances to some level.  Fortunately, it’s not something that I have to do very often and I’m able to manage through with ample amounts of patience and graciousness.  This particular service was particularly difficult for me, however, as it included a sermon that was hypothetically geared toward evangelism1.

One of the stories that the minister told was about an exchange between a couple of people during a lunch break.  He talks about one person who says that it’s not possible to be “make up for all the wrong we’ve done,” only to have another person, a woman, respond with “Well, that doesn’t mean I’m not going to try.”  The minister told the story from the point of view that found the woman’s response mystifying.

I didn’t find the comment mystifying at all.  In fact, I found myself in total agreement with the woman’s sentiments — or at least what I perceived them to be.  I do believe in doing everything I can to make up for whatever wrong I have done.  This is because justice is a central theme of my understanding of morality for me.  If I have done something wrong, then I have hurt another person.  It is my duty to do what I can to if not completely undo that damage, at least mitigate it to the best of my ability.  That is the moral thing to do.

I also consider it my duty to do what I can to help mitigate and even undo the damage that other people have done.  That’s another part of justice.  I do this kind of justice and seek to act morally because I believe that by doing so, I am helping to make this world a better place a little bit at a time.  Quite frankly, I want to live in a better world than we currently have, so I do what I can.

No, I can’t make everything perfect.  Some scars I’ve created will always be there, even if I help make them fainter than they originally were.  And being a fallible human, I’m still going to screw up from time to time and cause more wounds.  But that doesn’t mean that I won’t keep trying, just like that woman in the minister’s story.  If I stop just because I can never get it perfectly right, then I have “made perfection the enemy of good.”  And neither my sense of justice nor my sense of morality will allow me to do that.

The reason the minister found the woman’s statement mystifying and confusing is that he was looking at the statement in a different context.  He heard the original statement as “we can never make up for all the wrong we’ve done well enough so that we can go to heaven.”  He assumed the woman’s statement was her way of saying she was going to try to do enough good to cancel out the bad she’s done so she can earn her way into heaven.  Now, I don’t know if the woman meant it that way or was more thinking along the same lines I was when I heard her statement.  I’m not sure the minister really knows.  The point here, though, is that the minister — and at least some of the “unsaved” people he doesn’t understand — are coming from completely different contexts and understandings and that the minister doesn’t even seem to realize that.

For me at least — and I suspect for many others — acting morally and making up for those times our actions hurt others have nothing to do with trying to “earn” their way into an afterlife.  My understanding of the afterlife doesn’t work that way.  Morality is about the here an now.  Justice is about the here and now, not some future judgement with pie for the moral (and/or pardoned) people and whippings galore for the immoral people2.  While I believe in an afterlife, I do not believe its nature is determined by how moral or immoral I was in this life3.

In effect, the minister’s story looked completely different to me than it did to him.  And his failure to understand how and why it looked differently to me is the reason it didn’t have the “desired” effect on me.

1I say “hypothetically” because (1) I find it hard to imagine that anyone attending the service beside myself actually needed to be “evangelized4” and (2) as part of the alleged “target audience” of the sermon, I found it hard to believe that the arguments had actually been successfully tried out on anyone who either wasn’t already “saved” or at least highly sympathetic to evangelical thinking and theology anyway.

2One of the things I’ve noticed about many — though not all — evangelicals is that their idea of justice differs in mine int hat they seem focused almost solely on a system of justice in which the righteous (and/or pardoned) are rewarded and the unrighteous are punished.  To me, justice is about restoring dignity and well-being for all.  I don’t care that they person hurt someone else is punished.  I care that the person who got hurt is restored and the person that hurt them is prevent from hurting them again.

3In fairness, I tend to think we’re reincarnated and that this reincarnation is a desirable outcome, not something to be escaped.  I will also admit that one of the reasons I believe in making the world a better place is so that it’s a much more enjoyable place to celebrate the cycle of life in my future incarnations.

4Well, barring that whole thing that a lot of evangelical churches and ministers tend to think that half the people in their pews aren’t really “saved” and are just “going through the motions” of being a Christian.

Raised Right: Argument Without Engagement

In chapter three of Raised Right, Alisa Harris explores the confrontational approach  to both politics and evangelism she was taught in her youth:

Like Socrates I was a gadfly – always provoking, stinging citizens out of complacency, and melodramatically drinking the hemlock they forced on me in punishment.

I remember this mentality growing up.  The idea of remaining silent on any issue deemed important by certain Christian leaders was unthinkable.  The evil of the day — abortion, homosexuality, moral relativism, and the New Age movement all had to be soundly and unequivocally renounced at every opportunity.  (And sometimes, like Harris’s description of the county fair, it was up to us to create such an opportunity.)

And like Harris, I remember how those people who took issue with the heavy-handed tactics I learned were to be considered proof that I was doing the right thing.  After all, the BIble said that those of us who followed Jesus were sure to offend people.  So I had the perfect excuse to see reasonable criticism of my aggressive posture as mere rejection of the Truth I was proclaiming.[1]  In effect, I was set up to be obnoxious and see myself as a martyr.

Harris goes on to talk about the Four Killer questions that one of her evangelism mentors taught her and her peers to use:

  • What do you mean by that?
  • How do you know what you are saying is true?
  • What difference does it make in your life?
  • What if you are wrong and you die?

These were not questions I was taught to use.  I was taught standard arguments to use on different topics and techniques to force the conversation along a certain path.  Both approaches are based on the idea that what the evangelistic or political target actually thinks or believes isn’t important as in forcing the conversation int he direction you want it to go.

Harris describes the superbly beautiful way in which the Four Killer Questions not only accomplish their goal, but make themselves the ultimate universal approach to winning any argument:

This approach didn’t require you to refute, or even know, the tenets of Marxism or socialism or secular humanism because you strictly limited your conversation to asking these four simple questions again and again. If the Marxist responded with the same questions, you shot back, “What kind of evidence would you accept as proof?”  Since wed learned that his objections weren’t serious or even intellectually honest, that they were grounded in nothing but a stubborn blindness to truth, the Marxist could give just one honest answer:  “None.”

Of course, anyone who has been on the receiving end of the Four Killer Questions[2] or similar debate tactics could tell you, the most likely reaction to being thus heckled[3] is frustration, anger, and returned hostility rather than conversion.  In addition to the promise of “martyrdom for truth,” Harris’s mentors offered the perfect way to assuage any concerns about the ineffectiveness of the approach:

The Four Killer Questions brought the godless to Christ – later.  Those Four Killer Questions would gnaw away at the girl from Planned Parenthood or the guy with the dreads, eroding their faith in their worldview until someone else dropped along with the gospel message…

This is a convenient out, as it allows the person to imagine the “effectiveness” of their obnoxious behavior appearing out of their own sight, beyond their ability to objectively – or even subjectively – measure them.  In a way, it creates a fantasy where one’s “evangelistic efforts” are completely detached from not only the people being evangelized, but from any sort of results.

I’ve occasionally commented on the Former Conservative’s posts criticizing some evangelists’ approaches pointing out that “saving souls” is not nearly as important as “preaching the message” and that to such people, “evangelism” is an act of piety rather than an honest attempt at persuasion.  I think that in this chapter, Harris demonstrates not only the truth of that statement, but the ways in which such evangelicals rationalize the transition from the latter intuit the former, or at least the conflation of the two.

[1]  In fairness, some evangelicals do try to combat this notion.  For example, in college, the volunteer staffworker that InterVarsity Christian Fellowship assigned to my campus’s chapter often said, “The Bible may offend some, but that’s no excuse for presenting its message offensively.”  This isn’t to say her presentation of Biblical truth was always the best it could be, but at least she tried to make it clear that “being as harsh as possible as long as you’re convinced you’re right” was not an acceptable approach.

[2]  Harris provides a perfect anecdote that shows what I imagine would be a fairly typical reaction.

[3]  I think this is a far proper term to describe the intent and effects of this approach rather than “challenged” or “debated.”  Both of those terms suggest actual engagement with the substance of one’s positions.

I guess it was bound to happen at some point.

Tonight, I logged into Tagged to find the following message waiting for me:

Romans 6:23 “…the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord”… Do you know Him?

The person who sent it to me is not on my friends list, so I can only assume that he’s sending this message to random people on Tagged.  This makes him the online equivalent of door-to-door evangelists.  In my mind, it also makes him the online equivalent of a telemarketer calling me to sell something I’m not looking to buy, a Mormon missionary knocking on my door, or a door-to-door vacuum cleaner salesman (do they even have those anymore?).  In other words, like all those others, he’s a minor annoyance.

I simply don’t understand why people feel it is necessary or good to walk up to someone at random (or contact them online at random) and try to “sell” that person a particular religion.  To be frank, religion is far more important to me, and it’s something I’m only interested in discussing with someone I have an established, fairly well-rounded relationship with.  Anything else is just someone looking to make their next “sale” and gets treated like every other salesperson that decides to peddle their wares to me unbidden.

Of course, I do pride myself on politeness.  I don’t get nasty with telemarketers (unless they continue to press the matter after the polite “I’m not interested”).  I don’t get nasty with Mormon missionaries.  And I didn’t get nasty with this guy.  In fact, I sent what I felt was a rather polite reply:

I’m sorry, but I have a policy against getting into evangelistic
conversations with random strangers.  Please accept my best wishes and
a blessing for a full life, however.

Bye.  Smile

And with any luck, that’ll be end of the whole thing.

Update:  As I was making this post, I received the following reply:

I’m sorry about your policy.

God Bless

And I’d say that’s a pretty good place to leave the whole conversation.