Tuesday, July 15, 2008

FGtNAE: Be Yourself

Someone finds salvation in everyone Another only pain Someone tries to hide himself Down inside himself he prays Someone swears his true love until the end of time Another runs away Separate or united Healthy or insane And to be yourself is all that you can do --Audioslave, "Be Yourself" When I originally conceived of the Field Guide to North American Evangelists it was pretty much a gag. I was going to write a single post with various types of evangelists, how to identify them in the wild, and what to do in the event that you run in to one. I'm still totally going to do it, but I kind of had to talk myself in to it. In the end I decided to run with the original idea (and even expand upon it. I'm pretty sure it will be more than one post), but to attempt to moderate in the space around it. Evangelism is an extremely sticky issue. It's the sort of thing that casts fear in to the hearts of non-believers and believers alike. I honestly believe that most people on both sides of the evangelism equation hate dealing with it. For the evangelizee it's an imposition, an invasion of privacy. For the evangelizer it's often a compulsory duty, engaged in reluctantly. I've always found that a little weird. I evangelize all the time without thinking twice. I evangelize on the very pages of this blog. Lately it seems like not an entry has passed without a hearty recommendation for Roger Clyne and the Peacemakers, Local H, After Tamerlane, or Xenophon's Retreat. When Woeful Budgie left a comment that concluded with a mention that I'd helped create a new RCPM fan, my second thought compared the sudden urge to dance in my computer chair that to the joy which a believer is supposed to feel upon hearing of a new convert. So why is it that I can evangelize without trepidation in the name of Clyne when I never could in the name of Christ? Was it because I wasn't dedicated enough? Did I not have enough faith, enough love, enough courage? Had I wandered too far off the straight and narrow and in to the world? In case anyone was hoping for quick answers, I hate to disappoint you. I really don't know what it was. I don't think there are easy answers. Instead of trying to answer, I'd prefer to tell my story. Maybe in that I can shed some light on the question and, hopefully, reveal my own biases for later on when I do try to explain the motivations of evangelists dissimilar from myself. By the time I transferred out to Western Illinois, I'd kind of cut out a niche for myself as an outreach guy. I'd spent the previous five years working in various capacities at my church. My first year in my church's college group was the first year of a new pastor and I eagerly joined the ministry team. I was pumped up about the idea of reaching people for Jesus and always trying to come up with new ideas. Even when I switched over to junior high ministry the following year and quit the college ministry team I ended up working with the pastor to come up with outreach stuff on an ad hoc basis. I spent most of that five years frustrated by my fellow college students, however. Whenever the idea of evangelism came up they complained of not knowing any non-Christians and being too busy. I had no idea how anyone could be like that. This particular frustration was mitigated when I got out to school, though. I had a car, an off-campus job, and went to a school that had about the same size population as the town it was in and I spent most of my time on campus. I suddenly understood exactly why a bunch of students at a Christian college in the middle of one of the most Christian communities in the U.S. didn't know any non-Christians. I never figured out, however, why so few Christians I knew at my state school seemed to know any non-Christians. Still, I took it for granted that people would know non-Christians. I knew plenty, including some of my closest friends. One particular friend became my non-Christian pet project. I prayed for him, mentioned him whenever the issue of evangelism activity came up and tried to be an example to him (which, as I recall, mostly manifested itself in the form of disapproval of all of his various non-Christian activities. I'm honestly still amazed he's still my friend and one of my first acts after leaving the church was to apologize to him for being such an ass). Between the college and junior high ministries I got a lot of training in ministry in general and evangelism in specific. I went to seminars on various topics about group and church building and attended a massive evangelism conference at one point. My bookshelves quickly filled with books about the theory and practice of ministry, discipleship, evangelism, and inspirational books from those who had experienced success in growing their ministries. For all of my knowledge of outreach, however, I was often forced to admit that I wasn't really doing that much work at it. I consoled myself with the idea that I was mostly a motivator and teacher and I'd be more active in evangelism later. But in the rare moments I was honest with myself about the idea, I had to admit that the whole thing made me profoundly uncomfortable. In the last couple years before I went off to school the college group transitioned to a service evangelism mentality. This was where we did random things like give hot chocolate to commuters waiting for the train on cold winter mornings and somehow tried to work in the fact that we did it to share the love of Jesus. I rather liked the idea and stored it away in my mental rolodex. I headed out to school filled with visions of lighting my new campus ablaze for Jesus. Toward the middle of the fall semester I joined up with one of the on-campus ministries. They immediately figured out that I was pretty much on the ball. The leader of one of the small groups asked me to help out with evangelism in his section of the campus. Then I was selected as Outreach Coordinator for the entire group for the following year. That year didn't go well. Let's just get that out of the way right now. The leadership wasn't particularly well organized heading in to the school year, there were deep personal conflicts, the group as a whole was pretty apathetic, and we had a tendency to blame our lack of impact on the campus on the students we were supposed to be reaching. It was, to put it crudely, a giant clusterfuck of bad times. The truth was, though, that I was dragging my feet. I didn't particularly want to be running evangelism, but I didn't exactly want to admit that to myself. So I'd have meetings with my team and we'd come up with ideas and I'd try to goad the group in to activity. Meanwhile, other people on the leadership team tried to push me to do the exact sort of evangelism that I hated and when I resisted they just went around me and did it anyway. Three events in particular stand out: 1. The other leaders decided to have an evangelism training day. Their plan was to teach everyone how to write up their testimony, which is the key part of any evangelism plan because for some reason that I've never been able to understand there's this theory that somewhere out there is a rabid atheist who has never before given a flying shit about Christianity but everything will change and she'll suddenly be like, "Oh, I get it now!" if I just show up and tell her the story about how I became a Christian when I was five. Anyway, six people showed up. Four of us were the leadership team, the fifth was my best friend on campus, a guy who showed up at everything, anyway and really, really didn't need to learn how to write up his testimony. The sixth was this dude named Joe. It wasn't a particularly inspiring event. 2. We decided to rent out the Student Union's bowling alley and throw a free bowling party for everyone on campus. I showed up with a bunch of my non-Christian friends. I was the only one. The group clustered at one end of the bowling alley while the people they were supposed to be doing the bowling thing for came in and out without ever interacting with group members. 3. Following that debacle (well, I considered it a debacle at the time), I decided to finally say, "We do evangelism my way or we don't do it." I started putting together service evangelism events, but also threw them a bone and decided to do something kinda-sorta like a witnessing evangelism event. Four people showed up to that one, including me and that only because I had to be there. I was actually relieved, as it meant I could quietly let that one die. I quit the group outright shortly thereafter, anyway, but that was due to unrelated circumstances. The events of my year from hell (due to the leadership thing among other factors) caused me to begin severely re-evaluating my faith and that re-evaluation was pretty much what brought me to where I am today. After a few detours.

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