It's a polarizing word. And a scary concept.
Both outside the church. And within it.
One of the reasons we believers have a problem with evangelism was described by the senior pastor where I worship. In his sermon yesterday, Rev. Mark Davis challenged our congregation to confront the common disconnect in Christianity between our perceptions of how evil sin really is, how real Hell is, and the fact that real people are facing a real eternity in Hell because of the reality of their sin.
True enough, right? You know what he's saying: that one of the reasons people of faith are loathe to evangelize - both within their spheres of influence, and outside of them - stems from our ambivalence towards sin and its consequences.
Even as a reformed evangelical, I still believe that one of the ways Christ wants me to express my faith in Him is to share it with others. Not because people won't be saved if I don't evangelize; God's sovereignty is greater than my disobedience. And only God, through the power of His Holy Spirit, can save sinners. Nevertheless, we usually express value for something by telling others about it, and isn't salvation the most valuable thing we have?
So far, you and I should be in agreement.
However, as I drove home from Dallas to Arlington after church yesterday, I realized that ambivalence about sin and the lostness of the unsaved has an even uglier precursor.
Losing Religion Behind the Wheel
As I battled through two traffic jams - unusual for an early Sunday afternoon - and an unplanned shortcut through some rough inner city neighborhoods, my own behavior caught my attention. It suddenly dawned on me how much antagonism I was directing towards other drivers. Not just frustration, but outright spite, disdain, and even malevolence against other human beings because of their lack of driving skills.
Granted, north Texas drivers will never be known for their politeness, competence, and logic. I thought I'd seen it all from New York City drivers, but here, I'm constantly amazed at how poorly people can drive and manage to make it to their destination in one piece.
Well, on a good day, I'm amazed. Usually, though, I'm disgusted and irate from witnessing all of the near-misses and brazen stunts by my fellow drivers. Perhaps because yesterday, I was being forced to backtrack, sit in abnormally-long lines of traffic, and arrive late for our Mothers Day lunch, I was particularly exasperated. But how much of an excuse is that for being so mean-spirited towards drivers I didn't even know?
And what does any of this have to do with evangelism?
Here it is: I suspect that the reason I don't evangelize has less to do with any disconnect between sin and Hell, and more to do with the fact that I'm basically an unloving person.
I even suspect that I'm not the only believer with this problem. Might the reason many of us don't evangelize have to do with the simple reality that we don't love others very much? We don't love the lost, do we? We certainly don't love people we don't like, or those with whom we don't share similar lifestyles. It's often hard enough to love the people to whom we're married or share a family, let alone people who vote differently that us, pay drastically different taxes than we do, or have spent less time in America than we have.
The cynical side of me would say that, yes, we enjoy our salvation and even bank on it when we want to sin. As a confession we recited in worship service several weeks ago said: we use grace as a tool to push our boundaries ever further from what is holy. Oftentimes, I think we love the sin of the world more than the sinners to whom we're supposed to be witnessing. And from whose world we're supposed to be separate.
Love in the Church
But it's not just the unsaved we don't love. Even in our churches, do we really love our fellow worshippers? How do you behave as you drive into and out of your church's parking lot every Sunday? Where I worship, things can get downright competitive in our cramped, urban parking lots. Even in the vast parking lots of an uber-modern seeker church in Dallas' suburbs, I've read parishioners complaining online about being terrorized by their fellow congregants in their luxury SUV's after church lets out.
Where I worship, about 90% of the people to whom I flash a smile don't even acknowledge my presence. And I've attended there 12 years. Many churches have almost given up trying to stop the chronic revolving door of visitors, unwilling to admit it's because there's precious little love in their congregation for people outside of the church's core cocoon of worshippers. Christian-based and Christian-blasting blogs and boards are littered with stories of disillusioned churchgoers who never managed to crack a church's cozy clique.
Need more examples? How about habitual latecomers (and aren't most people who show up late always late?), whose barging in on a service that's already started doesn't show love for those who are already worshipping, or who are leading us in worship. Nursery workers who skip their assigned week don't show love for the church staffers, other volunteers, and your church's children, who have to improvise without them. Even people who send e-mails and gripe a lot don't always show love in the way they address pastors who have been called by God to shepherd us.
And one of the biggies? That "tyranny of the weaker brother" that I mentioned a couple of weeks ago. Begrudgingly tolerating restrictions on certain activities because some people at church don't do them isn't love. Perverting the biblical freedom we have in Christ and then sulking because doing so might offend somebody isn't love. And going ahead with plans and programs in spite of rational evidence that doing so could violate another believer's legitimate conscience isn't love.
Granted, neither is it love for the weaker brother to lord it over those who want to exercise things they consider freedoms. The evangelical church has never struck a healthy balance on this issue, but it seems that nowadays, the resentment over the weaker brother has become more blatant. I don't know if there's any correlation between that and the conservative talk radio blowhards who have fomented political discord and rancor in our country. But evangelicals are becoming a belligerent and offensive group for all the wrong reasons. Both inside and outside the church.
Can Love Be Taught?
I'm not sure our pastors can preach or program this out of us. If we're not in tune with the Holy Spirit, and committed to loving the world as Christ loved it, even preaching on evangelism every Sunday probably won't produce much fruit.
If we don't love each other - and you'll notice I used an inclusive pronoun - should we expect to love the unsaved world around us? Because if we don't love others, we'll probably not care much about their future, which doesn't give us much incentive to evangelize.
Not that evangelism is proof of our faith.
But I'm pretty sure love is.