Don’t Fear the E-Word, Part 1: Back in the Day

Michael Bradley - Graduation

Would you buy a get-out-of-Hell insurance policy from this guy?

First, a confession. This was supposed to be a video post. But it turns out, I don’t have a working copy of a decent video editor, so my recording is stuck in limbo. I offer instead this text post. Many of you will have a better time with this than if you’d had to watch my talking head saying it anyhow. :)

I want to add a bit more to the sketchy outline of what we’re hoping to accomplish in this blog. It seems like a good idea that before we go much further, I should talk about my particular experiences with … the “E” word, and then, in Part 2 on Thursday, I’ll share some thoughs that might be conversation-starters for where to go from here.

The “E” word can mean several things in various church chatter (ecumenism, emergent, etc.) but in this case, I’m talking about EVANGELISM.

It feels like most mainline protestant Christians treat the word “evangelism” like folks in Harry Potter’s fictional world treat the name “Voldemort”. It is so scary that people hesitate to name it, not to mention think about it, for fear of empowering the thing merely by uttering the word, as if doing so will inadvertently call down some cotton-candy-haired EVANGELIST to appear out of nowhere and thump us on the head with a bible.

That’s just a myth, though, right? A stereotype. It’s a stereotype of some smarmy preacher we dream up because it’s easy to poke fun at, easy to set up as a straw man, and it makes the notion of evangelism and evangelists easier to set aside and ignore as archaic and irrelevant. Isn’t it?

I don’t know. Maybe like so many other things that bear the label of “myth”, it may not be rationally factual, but still probably contains quite a bit of truth.

Here, at least, is my personal experience, a story of what it was like for me Back in the Day:

I roll in mostly Presbyterian circles now, but in high school and college, I was a Southern Baptist. As a senior in high school after a life of being mostly outside of church & religion, I had my conversion experience. My born-again “saved” moment.  It occurred in an emotionally manipulative Baptist revival service with an evangelist who preached salvation from eternal torment in hell only through kneeling at an altar, praying the sinner’s prayer, confessing the lordship of Christ and the depravity of the human. It was followed lickety-split with baptism by immersion.

And oh, I became immersed all right. I became actively involved in the youth group and in the general ministry of the church. I read my Bible, attended every event at the church I could, and took every opportunity to speak to the leaders of the church to help me get my Inner disciple revved up for a life of Evangelizing.

Before long I was that guy who went around neighborhoods knocking on doors, asking perfect strangers to come to our church and trying to sell them that blood-soaked insurance policy that is the only way they could get into heaven and avoid eternal damnation. And I was that guy who drove my unchurched family nuts and created divisions with some of them that took years to heal, and that guy who threw away friendships at school by prostlytizing in the hallways and dumping a full-ride college scholarship in theatre so I could travel 2000 miles from the wreckage I’d helped create at home to go to a Baptist school and study to be a baptist minister among like-minded baptists.

I was that guy. And believe me, there were lots and lots of other “that guys” for me to hang out with. It was brainwashing, coercion, almost, dare I say it, “cultish”. I’m not talking about some fringe group here, folks. I’m talking about the supposedly largest non-Roman-Catholic Christian denomination in America.

Evil Church Sign

Aw, what a nice sentiment. Makes me feel all wrapped up in the love of God.

Yes, I have some issues with that part of my past, if you can’t tell. Maybe we can unpack some of that in future posts if that’s where the conversation takes us, but for now, suffice to say, I was that guy. I was the nightmare evangelist.

Somehow, though, through grace and friendships and growing up a bit, I began to see that kind of faith, that kind of approach, that kind of rigid exclusivism, was not for me. I won’t say that some folks can’t make that style of faith work, and I won’t say that some people might not be responsive to that sort of approach – but for me, I just couldn’t do it anymore. I walked away from being a Baptist, walked away from evangelicalism, walked away from substitutionary atonement, four spiritual laws, selling people insurance policies into heaven, and all that stuff. And in doing so I walked entirely away from the notion of being an evangelist. Or so I thought.

Then as the years passed, I grew through various relationships, jobs, and experiences both secular and religious and my eyes were opened to different perspectives, different approaches, different ways of relating to the E word. Eventually I was led to become a part of Evangelism Connections. Basically, I’ve been awakened to the notion that when it comes down to it, evangelism is sharing the Gospel with people. It may be other things too, depending on who you’re talking to and where you’re coming from, but essentially I believe it is having conversations with people – telling your story, listening to their story, mutually talking about things that matter. And reminding people that we can follow Jesus and become ambassadors to something more, we can be changed and we can help change the world, not merely wait for some future event where we born-again insiders get to go someplace nice and avoid eternal punishment.

Still, I admit that’s a fairly broad and abstract way to think of it. And for all that, I can’t say that I’ve gotten over the scarring and the spiritual sludge that came out of my early experiences with evangelism. I still carry that baggage and it informs my ideas and thoughts more than I’d like it to. And I feel like there’s a pretty good chance that many of you might be in a similar place. Maybe for various reasons the E word is scary, or distasteful, or irrelevant to you.

The problem is, it’s pretty clear that Jesus has called us to do it anyway.

So we’ve got to deal with it. We’ve got to work through it. And we have to ask, “Okay, what next?”

And that’s where I’d like to take things in the next post on Thursday…

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