I've just come from a conference during which people shared a bit about their work in inviting others to church. Some of what I heard was creative and exciting. Some of what I heard was a bit troubling. In the wake of that conference, I am wondering, "When does the drive to be invitational become predatory?"
The United Methodist Church has done a terrible job in the area of evangelism. The word itself conjures all kinds of preconceived notions. For some people evangelism begins and ends with enticing or coercing another into praying a "sinner's prayer." Other people can't even talk about evangelism because they have had bad experiences with it in their own lives. Despite these different understandings of and approaches to evangelism, I think it is critical for the spiritual health of the church for Methodists to embrace again our evangelistic roots. After all, how will anyone come to experience the loving grace of God without someone inviting them into church, into a small group, on a retreat, or to go to camp. Faith begins somewhere, and for an increasing number of unchurched people, that place isn't in one's childhood home. It begins with an invitation, but it should never be predatory.
Let me tell you a little story. I went to college in Lynchburg, Virginia. While there I joined and attended a gym. A number of students from Liberty University also worked out in that gym. I eventually had to withdraw membership because I was inundated with questions about my soul from people in the locker room, on the stationary bike, and in the juice bar. It all started when a student from Liberty saw me reading my Bible; I was studying for a test in Introduction to the New Testament (I was a religion magjor). She came up to me in the locker room while I was waiting on a friend to complete her workout and we struck up a conversation. It didn't take long until she asked about the Bible and inquired about what small group I belonged to. When I told her that I didn't attend Liberty she expressed some surprise that I would be reading a Bible. That annoyed me a little bit - as though only students from Liberty could have an interest in the Bible! She then asked the dreaded question, "Have you been saved?" I answered in a smart-ass way: "From what," I asked. I shouldn't have answered in such a manner, but I was minding my own business and I felt trapped, invaded, and annoyed. From that time onward Liberty students sought me out wherever I was; they were filled with a fervor to save my soul. Eventually I withdrew my membership and worked out in my college's gym. What I'm sure to them felt like persistent invitation was experienced by me as predatory behavior. Regardless of what I said or how I acted they wouldn't leave me alone.
When does a church move from invitational to predatory? How we engage in evangelism is critical to how or even whether we are able to reach people for Christ and lead them into a life-long journey with God. Talking to people in malls, handing out tracts, and engaging in unsolicited dialogue with strangers are not behaviors that I will do, not because I don't believe in evangelism, but because I do believe in evangelism. Even if the person I corner isn't offended by my behavior(which I believe would be a significant majority of those approached), what effect does such a conversation have? What lasting effect can there be? I am not interested in someone praying the sinner's prayer; I am interested in building a relationship with someone that will lead to a life-long walk with God, a walk that goes deeper and deeper into faith and discipleship. Such a walk isn't concluded with a prayer after which a person is left to his or her own devices.
The question about invitation v predatory behavior isn't theoretical. I am finding more and more Methodists engaged in what, in my opinion, is annoying and even hurtful evangelism. I believe the only thing worse than no evangelism is off-putting/harmful evangelism. It's vital for us to tell our story of faith in such a way that others are attracted to a life lived in the heart of the Creating God, alive in the grace and power of the risen Christ, and invigorated and sustained by the power of the Holy Spirit. We don't have to strong arm people to this message. It is compelling and life transforming if we tell is simply and honestly, and, perhaps more importantly, live it gracefully every day.
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