Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Why "FYI evangelism" is an epic fail

From 80 Court Square, Harrisonburg, VA 22802, USA
Photo by litherland via Flickr
Story 1: When I was in my early 20s, working for a software company in Lawrence, Kansas, my boss used to call me on his daily commute from Topeka to Lawrence. He was clearly bored driving through the rural eastern Kansas landscape. (I made the same commute in reverse, as I lived in Lawrence and went to college in Topeka...I actually liked that drive.)

One morning he came into the office chuckling, saying he'd just seen something amazing on the way in. First, he passed a car with the "Jesus fish" affixed to the back of the car. Next, he saw a car sporting the "Darwin fish" (with legs, evolved; get it?!). Finally he saw a third car with the Jesus fish eating the Darwin fish! I can't quite recall but there may have even been a fourth car with some further episode in the saga, but the point remains: The "science vs. religion" battle was playing itself out before my boss's eyes, on the backs of cars. His response? Laughter. This is the only good and right response, because this form of communication sucks.

Story 2: When my 11 year-old daughter sees someone smoking, she says "Doesn't that person know they're killing themselves?" She's right; given enough time and practice, smokers are indeed killing themselves. So in the face of decades of research and anti-smoking PSA campaigns, why do people still smoke if they know it's killing them?

One reason is this: "FYI evangelism" doesn't work. Here I'm using the word "evangelism" rather loosely, because I'm thinking of pretty much any form of communication for any particular cause (religious or otherwise) that people feel convinced of and thereby compelled to: slap messages on a bumper sticker, print on a t-shirt, copy/paste as a Facebook status update or "like," re-tweet, or create a PSA campaign for. Basically I'm talking about disembodied communication (the "FYI" bit), messages that are divorced from everyday life in communities of shared language, practice, and purpose. Here's why these approaches fail...

Full-body knowledge
As virtue theory and a growing body of scientific research has argued, human beings operate mostly on "autopilot," or by habit. (See David Brooks' The Social Animal for a popular account.) While we are thinking beings (the "sapiens" in "homo sapiens"), we are trained into being the kinds of people we are by the complex social world(s) into which we are born and raised. Our bodies (including minds) are imprinted with the stories, teachings, and practices from that world, scripts from which we "read" and use to perform in/engage with the world. These forces are hard to resist, even if we learn to exercise some critical/rational mastery of the tradition(s) which raised us.

Put another way: The brain (locus of our rational thought) is but one part of the rest of our body, the entirety of which receives, maintains, and re-transmits our education/formation as we move through life. And as James K.A. Smith argues in Desiring the Kingdom, it's our "hearts" (or "guts") rather than our rational faculties that govern much of our daily life.

FYI evangelism fails because it doesn't hit us where it counts: the guts. Christian are better off dropping the act. But...

There is an alternative
So what does a more full-bodied Christian evangelism look like? In brief, here are a few marks:

  • Humble - Like Jesus, exhibiting an unassuming stance while not being opaque about what you're for. Meet people where they are. Don't be arrogant and paternalistic, "knowing" what "they" "need" before you even meet anyone.
  • Hospitable - If you and your Christian community don't or can't imagine having friends outside your fellowship, you're in trouble. Make friends with those who aren't like you, especially the marginalized. And don't form these relationships for the sole purpose of converting people. If that happens, and you have a natural opportunity for "giving an account of the hope that is in you" (1 Peter 3:15), great. Otherwise, just keep being a good friend and/or neighbor. God is the "converter," we are the sowers and waterers (1 Cor. 3:5-8). (This goes w/ the previous point of humility.)
  • Embodied in an actual community - Or "public witness as evangelism." If you and your community can't show the fruits/virtues of the Spirit (partial list, w/ a plug for humility) to a watching world, you're in trouble. Does your life together itself witness to the good news of Jesus Christ? If not, spend more energy on making good disciples out of those who are already "saved" before you march off on an evangelistic crusade to the unchurched.
Can you think of anything else that might contribute to a more full-bodied Christian evangelism?

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