Evangelistic interrogation

interrogationI was evangelized this weekend by a well-meaning, young seminary student.

He asked my wife and I if we would like some of his evangelism tracts. We smiled and said no thanks.

He asked, “Are you Christians?”

“Yes,” I confirmed, “we are.”

Someone else nearby came up and chastised us. “You’re Christians, and you wouldn’t even take his materials?” We explained that we didn’t think it was necessary for him to waste his time and paper on us. Better to let him move on. (I didn’t also mention that I know how these things tend to go and wasn’t feeling up for the song and dance again.)

“Did you even affirm him in what he was doing?” he asked. “He’s trying to do something important here. It takes courage.” No, we hadn’t affirmed him. We apologized. We affirmed him.

And then, the person who originally offered us literature asked, “So what do you believe a Christian is?” And here we were, doing the song and dance…

I told him I was a pastor, assured him that we believe in Christ, tried to let him know it was okay to move on. So he asked where I’m a pastor and again asked me to tell him what makes someone a Christian… This is where the kindly offer turns into more of an inquisition. The point where I’m quizzed about exactly what my faith entails to make sure I’m really a Christian.

Now there’s an element of this I can appreciate. I know many people who claim to be Christians mean only that they were raised in the Church and believe God exists, and perhaps even believe Jesus really lived and died and was raised. And I’m sure there are some Christian pastors whose faith doesn’t really meet the standards of what I would consider real Christianity.

But a sidewalk inquisition doesn’t strike me as the best approach here. It wasn’t my first. It won’t be my last. And frankly, I’ve just grown tired of them. Perhaps I’m wrong, but if I weren’t a Christian, I don’t think these uninvited interrogations would do much to sway me.

I generally know the answers I need to give to help people move along: “I have accepted Jesus into my heart, repented of my sins, and have faith in him alone for salvation.” Avoid saying anything about the Church and sacraments – as nearly all street evangelists see the Church and its sacraments as nothing more than functional. Don’t mention holiness either. They’ll start to suspect works righteousness. Your best shot at a quick conversation is vanilla evangelical Christianity.

All of that will help, but I’ve encountered a number of people who want more. They end up wanting to make sure I subscribe to the particular brand of Christianity they subscribe to. This weekend, I somehow ended up with my inquisitor “enlightening” me about the Greek words in various passages to help show me what they really mean. I told him I hadn’t come for a Bible debate and that it was probably best for him to move on, but he said he was very concerned that as a pastor I might be teaching people in error. Oh my…

I really do believe this young seminary student was (mostly) well-intentioned. But what were the odds that he was going to suddenly convince me, there on that sidewalk, that my understanding of God and Scripture and Christianity had been in error all this time? I’m not usually put in a disposition to make drastic change in my life through uninvited interrogations. Especially when they become demonstrations of how I don’t really understand the truth and need to change my beliefs. Especially when they come from total strangers. Especially when the strangers begin spouting off Greek words at me (which were either badly mispronounced or not real Greek words) to demonstrate their understanding and my ignorance.

I’ve begun wondering how common this experience is. And how common my feelings about it. We don’t generally welcome interrogations from strangers. We welcome them less when they move toward showing us our error. The whole conversation, from its very beginning, sets up an inferior (the [likely] ignorant interrogated) and a superior (the knowledgeable interrogator). Is this really the way to share our faith? There seem so many problems with it.

I believe there’s an urgency to share the gospel. I believe we have to find ways to do it – even when they may be uncomfortable. But should we do it in a way that puts the other person on the defensive from the start of the conversation? Is there a way to just as urgently and aggressively share the gospel and yet come from a position of service rather than a position of power?

Let me be clear, I’m not recommending timidity and passivity when it comes to evangelism. I’m asking whether we can do this in a way that doesn’t thrust upon innocent bystanders such a power imbalance. Can we share our faith with confidence and conviction without an air of arrogance and presumption?

And of course, I’d also like a way of understanding and sharing our faith that goes beyond some of that vanilla response I mentioned above. Something that shares with people a Church and sacraments that are deeply connected to the faith. Something that considers discipleship an essential part of our ongoing conversion, not just the cherry on top of it…

I’d really love your thoughts and ideas.

5 thoughts on “Evangelistic interrogation

  1. Hi Teddy,

    First, let me say that I follow your blog and really appreciate your approach and demeanor toward the topics you address. I hope we actually have the chance to meet someday. (I’m a United Methodist clergy.)

    Regarding this blog topic, it reminds of, I think, Lesslie Newbigin’s reference to the Church as the “hermeneutic of the Gospel.” The experience you had with the street evangelist boils evangelism down to the barest of threads of Gospel proclamation – saying just enough to elicit the desired response. That approach inevitably leans on high-presssure tactics, except when done by the most loving and personable of people able to use the cold-contact approach to good and proper effect. I am not one of them.

    Evangelism is truly relational. One of the reasons the church is so bad at it, generally, is that we lack the vision of the Gospel ourselves. I’ll stop or I shall start preaching…

    1. Thanks for this, Stephen. I think Newbigin’s description is right on. I agree that some street evangelists truly have a gift for sharing the gospel with strangers in a special and helpful way, but I also agree that it’s rare.

      We lack the vision of the Gospel ourselves…. You should have started preaching some.

  2. A friend e-mailed me this feedback, and I thought it was worth others seeing, too…


    I have had a very similar experience that you shared in your post; and I felt very frustrated as well. Several years ago I remember seeing this happen to a young teenager at a Barnes and Nobles bookstore (as an older man handed him a tract). The situation with the old guy and the teenager may have been worse, because he just handed him a tract and didn’t say anything and walked away . . . odd.

    I think it is hard for us, me and you specifically, to know exactly what works here. The reason I say that is because we have always been “Christians”. Maybe not the same way we are now; but we were never atheists or agnostics, etc. So; my point being; I wonder what non-Christians think of these interactions? Are they as put-off as we are, or as we THINK they might be?? Now, certainly it probably depends on the person’s personality and their receptiveness to strangers; but, I wonder if street evangelism works better to those that are NOT believers; and we as Christians just get ticked off because it is more of a nuisance because we already “believe”. The only people that I have ever heard complain about this is Christians. Take for instance Penn Jillette; the “penn of penn and teller” . . . he is a strong Atheist advocate. But, he has often been quoted as saying that he is happy to let an evangelist or Gideon talk to him about Christ; because his point is that if we (as Christians) truly believe in what we preach then how much would we have to hate him to NOT tell him about the love of Christ!!!

    Now, I am sure this isn’t true of all non-believers; but . . . just something to think about. And, I am not suggesting that your blog post suggests we don’t do street evangelism; I’m just throwing this ‘voice’ out there . . .

  3. Great post, Teddy. I hate cold-calling others, so maybe that’s why I hate being “cold-called.” I agree that the approach sometimes turns into an inquisition, which is normally the wrong way to go about it. For me, the most effective witness is from someone I know. Where there is an existing relationship, I have the ability to share about the more intimate thoughts and experiences that relate to the spiritual life. That is how I came to Christ. I heard a public proclamation of the Gospel (at a Jesus rally), but then talked to a Christian friend about it. It was the friend who helped me to see how I needed to respond to God’s love.

    In some ways, street evangelism can be a cop out. It substitutes for the hard and patient work of building relationships with neighbors and co-workers. But I think we need to encourage our people to look at the sphere of influence God has already given us by virtue of the neighborhood we live in and the people we work with. That is our evangelism field.

    1. Tom–not trying to be argumentative, but I really have to take issue with “street evangelism can be a cop-out” comment. If anything, one could make a strong case that NOT doing street evangelism for reasons you and others probably have is a cop-out. While, I feel very strongly that we are called to make disciples and build relationships with those in our sphere of influence; we have a much greater responsibility that just that. Personally, I don’t like to do street evagelism because I am not comfortable with that; but, Jesus never tells us that our work on earth will be comfortable-if anything we SHOULD be uncomfortable! If we truly believe in the good news of Jesus Christ we need to tell everyone; if not do we truly “love our neighbors”?
      In the end, there needs to be a balance, and we need to be respectful of people “on the street”; but, I would rather have Christians out in the world spreading the good news of the Gospel than sitting in their offices waiting for that co-worker to ask where they go to church.
      Thanks for the forum for this discussion; and, again, please do not take my comments negatively or in the wrong spirit. Blessings!

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