Jesus Was a Crappy Evangelist

May 9, 2012

Jesus can make some situations pretty awkward.

A few summers ago, I found myself on the downtown streets of my city.  Yes, I was passing out tracts.  Yes, I was asking people if they knew where they would end up if they died that night.  I was doing this under compulsion, for the purpose of passing evangelism class in seminary.

The first night had gone horribly, because I had paired myself with a guy equally awkward at this as me.  So the second night, I latched onto a guy who was like the chief boy scout of evangelism.

Not that we made any converts that night.

Since then, the Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses and even some Baptists have knocked on my door, and none of them look like they’re actually expecting any more success at sharing their faith than I did.  But I take heart in this: Jesus did some amazing miracles.  He had some great teachings.

But he would be terrible at this.  Jesus was not a good evangelist.

Only One Way

I took evangelism class over the summer because it was a one week class.  A semester’s work could somehow be crammed into five days, eight hours each.

My professor was kind of a meathead.  He had one definition of sharing your Christian faith.  It was stopping strangers on their way to catching the bus.  He made fun of nancy-boys who watered down this definition and talked about “living” their faith.  He went on a tirade against Billy Graham.  The textbook was five-hundred incomprehensible pages he had written himself, illustrating how his definition of “sharing your faith” was the only valid one, and various Bible translations had diluted this definition, verse by verse.

There was one phrase that came to mind as he exhorted his own virtues and preached from his own book: theological masturbation.  I was glad to only be there for a week.

The Night’s One Convert

When it got dark, and no longer safe for a bunch of suburbanite seminarians to be hanging out on the mean streets, we carpooled back to our side of town.

There was one convert made that night.  A student and the professor practically carried a guy, falling down drunk, toward our group.  They praised God that he had accepted Jesus.  They gave him a card with the address for a local shelter, and we left.

Give me a break.

As we drove home, someone asked if the rest of us really believed everything our professor was teaching us.  The group was unanimous: no.

Jesus: Not So Good at Sharing His Faith

The thing is, it seems to me that Jesus was terrible at sharing his faith.

He gave sermons with no altar call.  He told parables with no explanation.  He performed miracles and immediately blew town.  He never knocked on doors (he said he stood at the door and knocked, but he wasn’t being literal about it).  He never asked people about where they would go when they died.  He didn’t ask people to accept him into their hearts.  He didn’t argue with people who rejected him.

But it wasn’t just that Jesus did it differently.  Jesus seemed completely ambivalent toward what people thought of him.  If they liked him, great.  If not, that’s their business.  Either way, Jesus had things to do, and trying to convince people to follow him was not on the agenda.

Yeah, Jesus was a crappy evangelist.

A Gift or Requirement?

At least, by our definition, Jesus was a crappy evangelist.

But that’s just the thing.

Jesus brought good news.  It was good news for hungry, hurting people.

Jesus looked at good news and faith and belief as a gift.  A free gift.

We’ve turned faith and belief into a requirement.

And the only good news we have to offer is that if people believe what we say, they’ll be in our little club.

And most outsiders look at us and say that’s the good news?  If I believe what you say, I get to go to church and be a Christian?  Thanks, but no thanks.

Am I right?  Was Jesus not the great evangelist?  Or have we changed the definition to something that Jesus didn’t do and most of us don’t want to do either?

40 responses to Jesus Was a Crappy Evangelist

  1. Hi Matt,

    You’ve touched a nerve here.


    You may find it hard to believe, but years ago I, John Cowart World’s Shyest Christian, engaged in a lot of street preaching. Can’t swear that anyone was ever converted, but I like to think I gave them something to think about.

    Looking back on it, I suspect that I was just showboating and hogging the spotlight, catering to my fleshly desire to be in front of a crowd. Jesus had less to do with the activity than I thought He did at the time.

    Yes, for me, sin is insidious; I even managed to make “reaching people for Jesus” evangelism into self-glorying self-promotion.

    Some old deacon once told William Carry, father of modern missions, “Mr. Carry, If God wants to convert the heathen, He can do it very well without your help”. I used to think that deacon was a creep; now, I think he was right on target.


  2. Great post, Matt.

    Great comments, John.

    Our task (duty) is to tell people of Jesus. What He has done for us…and what He has done for them. The Holy Spirit will take over from there. (He’s up to it)

    When we turn the gospel into ‘another law’ by making it into a carrot that people can either grab onto…or not…we distort the gospel.

    I’m a much bigger fan of finding the lost one by one, relating to them, getting to know their hurts and hopes and pain…and then speaking Jesus into that pain. And then letting it go. Praying for them, sure. But no pressure on them to ‘make a decision’, which is pretty much meaningless, anyway, other than to create some pride in ‘what they did’.

    The decision was made for them. 2,000 years ago on that cross.

    My 2 cents.


    • I totally agree. In our quest for decisions, we’ve lost our belief that it’s about grace. We’ve turned faith into another law to follow.

      • We’ve turned into a bunch of Pharisees. We’ve added more rules and restrictions and programs than was originally intended. As the Apostle Paul wrote, It’s about the cross of Christ. And if we make the church too “elegant”, the cross will “lose its power”. It will lose its meaning within the church.

  3. Great post and comments. I think it’s the arrogance of American Christianity that gets me here. Open air evangelism had an American origin, and a time and place that merited its use. I don’t get how stubborn people can be, especially in churches. We’ll say methods change but the message doesn’t, then cry like babies if anyone mentions not using tracts anymore. It’s just as ridiculous as refusing to use modern technology, but we have no problem with that one. I guess I’m saying if we want to use hundred plus year old tactics, why are we using cars and computers to do so?

    P.S. I had many an experience with this growing up, and on a trip to England an assistant pastor got angry because a University student was calling him a salesman. The student was right. It’s a sales pitch. Maybe there was a time for that to work, but that time has passed.

  4. The youth group at the church where I grew up was starting to get into the whole “hey, let’s wander around the neighborhood and save people!” thing just before I graduated and left town. And let me tell you, I have never been more relieved. I got yelled at by my boss at the mall enough times for not selling enough pairs of capri pants–how was I supposed to go sell Jesus to people?

    It’s great if the “random mugging” style of evangelism works for some people, but it really does a number on introverts. When I was younger, I was really convinced that something was wrong with me because I’m so uncomfortable with the whole practice–I was convinced that maybe I was “ashamed of the gospel” or maybe I wasn’t praying hard enough for God to “fix” me. Everybody else seemed to think that God would just zap me with the Holy Spirit and instantly take away my shyness, but that never really happened.

    It wasn’t until well into adulthood that I realized that perhaps it wasn’t me that needed to be fixed, and that maybe God also has a purpose for me that doesn’t involve turning me into the county’s best salesman overnight.

  5. I think it’s interesting that it’s recorded in scripture that Jesus tended to drive the crowds AWAY with his teachings. Those who didn’t believe thought He was crazy, and they would leave.

    In contrast, our churches tend to want to make everyone feel comfortable and welcome. We don’t want to run anyone off with hard messages.

    Jesus made a mission out of making people uncomfortable. And we make a mission of making them comfortable.

  6. As a shy introvert, I’ve never been a fan of street evangelism (or knocking on doors). The only people I remember being kind enough to listen to my middle school youth group presentation of “Steps to Peace With God” were people that, when we got to the end, said they already knew where they were headed – “heaven – but glad we could let you practice on us!”

    As an adult, I was privileged to be taught the book of Mark (at least the first half). We spent probably two weeks just on the first couple of verses – the ones about John the Baptist or John the Evangelist. Our conclusion at the end of that study was that the role of the evangelist isn’t to “convict” or “convert” – that job belongs to the Holy Spirit – our job is to “make the paths straight.” We are to clear the path so that they can have a face-to-face encounter with Jesus. But there’s a trick – if we put them on the defensive, then they’re probably not going to see Jesus because their own fists are in the way. Our job is to get them to lower their fists (i.e., stop making it a fight), usually by having a relationship with them, and then clear away the boulders in their path. Those boulders may be physical things (e.g., “I’m so hungry/homeless/cold that I can’t think about Jesus right now), they may be emotional things (e.g., “I’ve been hurt by the church so much that I can’t think about Jesus right now”), they may be theological things (e.g., “I can’t get over doctrine X, so I can’t even think about Jesus right now”). It will be wildly different for each person, so the relationship is key.

    Thinking that way makes the whole thing a LOT less personal, which makes it easier to keep your cool and not get upset at “rejection” since they’re not rejecting _you_, they’re rejecting the Holy Spirit.

  7. Was Jesus not the great evangelist? Jesus’ earthly mission was not to convert followers. It was to teach people what the Kingdom of God was like and to fulfill the law. He lived under the Old Covenant, not the New Covenant. That is why it is far better to look at what Paul did as a believer, than what Jesus did.

    Or have we changed the definition to something that Jesus didn’t do and most of us don’t want to do either? What we have done is taken sharing our faith apart from being led by the Holy Spirit and turned it in the the Evangelical High Mass. The Catholics have communion and we have raising your hand at an altar call. Religion, nothing more.

    I haven’t brought a lot of people to the Lord in my life time because God has only given me a few dozen opportunities to partner with Him. In fact the only one that did not come to Jesus was the one that I tried the sinner’s prayer and 4 Spiritual Laws on. He and I are still in touch. The rest were completely by the Spirit. I spoke things God had done in my life, and people began to weep and ask if they could have this God too. The last one was in Canada a few weeks ago. It was just like the woman at the well – God showed me a few things about her, and just looking into her eyes she was saved.

    If evangelism is your gift, then use it. If not, do what God has gifted you at! (1 Corinthians 12, Ephesians 4, Romans 12) there are lots of gifts that are needed to be the church; not all of them are selling Jesus wholesale.

  8. I’ve never been a fan of street evangelism, and altar calls always make me cringe. We’ve reduced this Christian walk to a formula and we measure our success in “decisions made” rather than lives actually changed. We contradict ourselves – claiming that it’s all about a relationship with Christ, but then pressing people to “cross the line of faith”. (I actually had a pastor who used that phrase ad nauseum.)

    Of course, it’s difficult to condemn street evangelism completely, because Peter, Paul, John, Stephen and many of the rest of the early followers of Jesus preached some pretty hard-hitting things in the central square without having established any kind of relationship first – and they often paid for it dearly. Some people are called and gifted to do such things. I just don’t think I’m one of them.

    • I don’t mind the typical “invitation” time that we have in our Southern Baptist tradition (not the revival “we’ll stay here till everyone’s ‘saved'” kind, but just the “if you feel led to share something with the pastor, come forward” kind). I feel like, if we’re not bold enough to present ourselves before the church body as new believers, then we’re probably not going to be living boldly for Christ either. I suppose you could say that a public baptism serves the same purpose, but I don’t see anything wrong with announcing to the world (and specifically to the church) that you have changed and you want to make sure a) people know about it, and b) the church holds you accountable for your decision.

      I see that as a very different thing from street evangelism. One is beating non-believers over the head with the Bible, the other is allowing new believers to share the change that has happened in their lives in a (theoretically) safe environment.

      • The invitation time you describe sounds rather different than my experience with the altar call – the kind I was thinking of involves a sermon or skit outlining the very basic “steps to salvation”, with an invitation to ask Jesus into your heart at the end. The pastor asks everyone to bow their heads and repeat the sinner’s prayer after him, “every eye closed, nobody looking around, if you made this decision for the first time today, just slip up your hand. I see you, thank you, bless you” etc. That’s the kind that makes me cringe – it has a similar feel as evangelism to me, reducing the gospel to a single decision at a single point in time, counting the number of hands changed with not much follow up.

        • Meant to say “hands raised” not “hands changed”.

        • Oh yeah…TOTALLY with you on that one…but more and more churches are doing away with the ‘invitation’ time and I think I disagree with that. Used to be, you had to “come forward” in order to join our church. Now that part’s optional. The only requirement is that you attend our “new members” class. Yay! You get to meet the pastor. Boo…no one else might EVER know you are now part of our church body, much less be able to support you in a new commitment.

          • At my church, if you show up enough times, everyone (except for that one guy with dementia) pretty much assumes you’re a member.

    • That’s what my prof said – it doesn’t matter if it works or not, because Paul did it! :)

  9. Loved this post! Thanks, Matt.

  10. Wow, I love this. Especially because it echoes a lot of what I just wrote the other day. In case you’re interested:

  11. Matt you’re a writing freak. You keep churning out great stuff week after week. Our whole ministry here in Paraguay is based in relationship. Sure we could jack up the volume on our door to door and grab a few people. But, would they be accepting Christ where they are or hedging against a perceived threat of hell?

  12. for the record: best. post. title. ever.

  13. First of all, I love the picture of Jesus with a tattoo. It is a good article and a good reminder that it is not really our job to convert people. That job belongs to God, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Furthermore, not everyone is called to be an evangelist, though we are all called to preach the good news. There does not seem to be a prescribed method in the Bible for preaching the good news, probably because Jesus didn’t use methods. He did what he saw his Father doing and, as Steve Martin noted, didn’t pay too much attention as to whether he was accepted or rejected by man.

    The biggest problem I see with most street evangelism is that it has a drive-in mentality: you go up to the prospect, you offer the gospel, and then, if the person does make a decision, you leave the person to fend for themselves. The only way to really make it work is to do the street evangelism in your neighborhood.

  14. I’ve had many good experiences sharing Jesus lately. We were encouraged in our VLI class to pray and ask the Spirit for opportunities. In all these situations but a few they just started out with conversations, several, about 5 of them led to further conversations over coffee and some prayer. I really am enjoying it and want to continue. I love meeting and talking with people (on most days!). I ran into some weird moments with a Mormon and JW because they were both very nice people and I really didn’t know where to go with it. I mostly listened to the LDS and offered to talk some more, he seemed wounded by rejection to some degree. I’m always open to learn more about sharing (or not sharing) my faith. Call me a heretic, but I believe the Lord wants me to share! Ha! Thank you for the post Mark and the food for thought.

  15. This is hitting right at the heart of all that I see wrong with church. 99.9% of it looks nothing like how Jesus and the Apostles did things. But how do you change a false mentality that is centuries old?

  16. Hi there!

    Well, I’ve been reading your blog for a while now and I find your articles amazingly interesting! I’m 16 and I’m from Lima, Peru. I don’t know if you know about the Christian atmosphere here in Latin America. Well, I come from a Christian family. We attend to a Pentecostal church, the Church of God in Peru (you can google the USA and the Peru webpages, and you will see a great difference in what we believe, although we are the same organization). When I was young, things were not really different from what it should be. But as I grew up, I noticed there were things that were not okay, like the fact that I could learn more about my doctrine on Wikipedia than in my own church, or that, at least in my case, the church was being guided to some strange mythical-like doctrine, full of dogmatism and prosperity/healing promises (which I also saw on your Christian Porn post, very funny by the way). And one of the topics that is also affecting is this speak-of-God-to-everyone-you-cross-with theory. Specially my youth leader, is really wishing to do this, to go around the neighbourhood telling every single person about Christ. People we have seen for ages in some cases, but we’ve never dared to talk to, not even to say Hi! I’ve always prefered the “make yourself an example” way to bring people to Christ. I haven’t done too much so far on that topic. But I think that is better to create a strong bond, pray, be there with them in their moment of need: always showing the love that God gave me. Like someone in an upper coment said: lower their fists. It’s hard because people (and the neighbourhood) at my church don’t usually deal with the things I deal with daily. Most of them go through economical problems usually. Just 2 or 3 are studying at university like me. Most of them are frustrated with their lives, or are in the way to. And they just won’t see it the way I see it. I think evangelism is really important. My mom has got a passion for evangelism. But is not something you have to do in an specific, “regulated by a man” way. Everybody has got a way to preach the good news to every type of person.

  17. I read Bill Hybells book a couple of years ago – “just Walk across the room”.
    It’s been turned into a course, with dvds and work books etc.

    While I am not too keen on evangelism courses I do like the principles behind his book, which I summarise as:

    1. Stop doing formal evangelism out of guilt
    2. Lose the christian jargon
    3. Make yourself available to God
    4. Listen for promptings of the holy spirit
    5. When prompted, do something – help / chat / whatever
    6. Be a friend (interested in them as a person not a potential convert)
    7. Be prepared to share your story / good news when asked

  18. Does anyone besises me think there are probably hundreds of ways to do evangelism? Inclluding street preaching, knocking on doors, walking across the room etc. It seems to me that the majority of folks seem to think that any method older than 20 years is unacceptable. Anything that makes them feel uncomfortable is no good. My guess the problem is not methodology. Most methods would work if people worked them.

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