Embarrassment and Evangelism image

Embarrassment and Evangelism

I have a theory about evangelism. Many Christians—and this includes me—have a habit of saying that things would be cringeworthy or embarrassing to our unbelieving friends, when what we really mean is that they would be cringeworthy or embarrassing to us. This can be benign, and lead to good outcomes: appropriately contextualised events, liturgy, music, websites, language, and even typeface (looking at you, Sans fonts). But it can be more insidious than that. Preaching on X would put off unbelievers (or more accurately, Christians). Spiritual gift Y is just way too awkward to be used in front of visitors (or more worryingly, us). Most commonly, I suspect: evangelism using Z would embarrass the pants off those who aren’t Christians (or more pressingly, me). So let’s not do it.

If that sounds familiar to you, then you might find this story from Matt Smethurst’s (forthcoming) Before You Open Your Bible encouraging:

When I lived in China, I got to know a college student named “James”; we’d met playing basketball and had become fast friends. But, just like virtually everyone around him, he had never heard about Jesus Christ.

Over the course of several weeks, I shared the gospel with him a few times. He seemed interested, and asked great questions, but he couldn’t disavow the atheistic worldview that had been ingrained in him for his entire life.

One day, I secured a copy of the Jesus film in his language, and we scheduled a time to watch it together. I had never seen it before and didn’t know what to expect. But given all the positive stories and statistics associated with the movie, I was eager for James to see it. I remember it was my last day of ministry for the semester—the winter holiday was about to begin, and my parents were arriving for a visit the following day. I was in a great mood. And when James and I sat down in my apartment living room and I inserted the DVD, my hopes were high.

I’m not sure if James heard a noise about seven minutes into the film, but if he did, it was my hopes being dashed on the floor. You see, James was a hip and modern college dude who had seen far more of Hollywood’s latest offerings than I had. The Jesus film, meanwhile, is on the cutting edge of 1979. Sure, the script is a verbatim presentation of Luke’s Gospel, but I felt embarrassed to be subjecting James to what I saw as subpar acting and cringeworthy cinematography—Is that Jesus levitating?—for two long hours. Honestly, I feared it would have a counterproductive effect, making Christianity look sillier to him than it did before. I was mortified and regretted showing him the film.

When the film ended and the credits rolled, I braced for his verdict. James turned and looked at me and, with sincerity in his eyes, simply said: “That was the best movie I have ever seen.” I was shocked. That afternoon, James placed his faith in Jesus Christ.

I’ve never forgotten John Piper’s comment on apparently embarrassing means of evangelism: “I like their way of doing it more than your way of not doing it.” This isn’t an argument for not contextualising, or being wilfully awkward; I am completely persuaded of the need for thoughtful, creative, wise and loving engagement, and I teach on it (and try to do it) all the time. But I am also persuaded that failing to do this is not our only danger here, nor even (perhaps) our greatest one. The apostle who became all things to all men (1 Cor 9:22) puts it this way earlier in the same letter: “We are fools for Christ’s sake” (1 Cor 4:10).

← Prev article
Next article →