Rescued from Evangelism: A Discovery of Hope

A few weeks ago I was reading in 1 Peter about gentleness. There’s a phrase I’m very familiar with from my youth group days: Be ready to give a reason for the hope that is in you.

I used to think of this phrase in the context of evangelism. I felt the pressure to form a ready answer just in case anyone asked why I was a Christian or why I was happy. This caused a lot of anxiety–if you know me, I’m not much of a ready responder. I prefer to have some time to form my answer, to mull over questions and observations before responding. Typically when I have to respond quickly, I say something stupid and then spend the next few days replaying the scene in my head thinking, “If only I had said this! Or that!”

With this verse, I agonized a lot over apologetics…I did not feel smart enough to talk about all the topics that were allegedly attacking my faith. I felt victimized already by anticipating the persecution of people who supposedly wanted to ridicule my faith. How was I to respond to them?

I imagined arguments in front of a group of people (they were always in front of an audience) where my faith was destroyed by an intellectual person as I sat there dumbfounded, unsuccessfully trying not to cry. In short, I felt like I was constantly preparing to meet the faith bully on the playground.

What was most frustrating about this phrase was that I had to look to adults, books, videos, and youth retreats for the reason for my hope. Why did I have hope again? Oh yeah, I would remember, because the world is going to hell except for those who asked Jesus to live in a treehouse in their hearts. How do I say to someone, “Jesus changed my life, and if you don’t let him change yours, you’re going to hell” with gentleness and respect?  Even as a moronic teenager, I had a hard time swallowing that concept.

Was that what I was supposed to do to witness to someone?  Wouldn’t it be better to be a witness to their lives, to listen to their story, to be a part of their story?

How was I supposed to start a casual conversation with a friend to evangelize without making it seem like I had ulterior motives? Like I wanted to convert them? Because wasn’t that what I was doing?

One of my friends once said that the word evangelism is the one word at which both Christians and non-Christians cringe. I believe it. I remember sitting in my 300-person government class in college next to a guy who always seemed stressed out, and on that particular day, he turned to me and said, “Why are you always so happy?” This was it! My time to give a reason for my hope! An unknowing invitation to evangelize!  Don’t screw this up, Ashley!  His soul depends on it!

I fiddled with the strap of my backpack and whispered, “I don’t know.”  This was the time that I should have said the right to answer to every Sunday School question:  Jesus.  I felt like a failure in evangelism 101. It was an open shot, and I didn’t even hit the backboard.

But that downcast “I don’t know” was prophetic–I didn’t know why I had hope. I sat among hundreds of other intellectuals and wondered why I believed in Jesus. And I concluded that if I was going to continue to believe, and I wanted to, I needed a reason. I needed to figure out why.

So Peter’s words came with a lot of baggage and apprehension as I approached them a few weeks ago.

I realized that it didn’t have to be about apologetics or the 10 Commandments or street evangelism. Because all of those things made me feel stupid. Defeated. Anxious. Unequipped.

Perhaps instead we need to be ready to give a reason for our hope because we are met with hopelessness in our lives, be it in the Middle East, in our families, in our careers, in the environment, everywhere.

We are to combat despair with hope, but we don’t combat in army boots and heavy Bibles. We combat with light and cups of water and shared meals.

We pick up arms not to shoot down threats to a shaky faith, but rather to embrace each other.

Our shelters are not in trenches of homogenous factions but rather in the name of Jesus, the hope against all hopes.

Our loyalty won’t be to a political party or a building or a country. It will be to the Kingdom of God, to each other.

Because in our neighbors’ faces we see the reason for hope, we see the face of Jesus.

The Problem with Putting God First

Put God first. It’s a refrain that echoes in my memories of youth groups, retreats, safe-for-the-whole-family radio, pulpit rantings, and my journal entries repenting of placing God second.

You would think that if God wanted to be first place in our lives, He would be a fiercer competitor. You would think that if God wanted to hear, “Congratulations, you win! You get first place!” that He would be better at this competition. I mean, He’s God. We shouldn’t have to shove Him into the lead or give Him an advantage.

While this phrase is well-intentioned, meant to encourage people to evaluate their values and how they spend their time and money, it’s damaging the way we think about how God interacts with us.

The problem with putting God first is that it puts God in a ranking system. It puts Him in a system where He has to get ahead somehow–the God who said the first shall be last. We are saying that God–the one whose son washed grime and donkey feces off his friends’ feet, ate with the lowest ranking members of society, remained friends with the very man who would bring about his death, and bled out on a piece of wood–wants to win our human systems and be number one.

It’s understandable for us to think of God in this way. We live in a capitalist culture. We see honor in and give respect to those in first place. First placers are winners. Second placers are the best losers. So trying to place God in our systems of thinking is the natural result of living in a culture where the consumer has the power, the advertisements bombard consumers daily to influence their purchases, the one with the most money is the best, the nature of competition is that it drives up the standards of products, and the fittest survive. But this is not Kingdom thinking.

In the Kingdom, those who bully their way into deals do not win. Consumption is not mindless or a passive accumulation. Those in competition do not become better–they actually die of exhaustion and psychopathy. The least fit–the children, the orphans, the widows, the homeless, the mentally ill, the outcasts–are the ones who survive.

God doesn’t operate in the world’s systems. He is not a capitalist or a socialist or a libertarian. He is a subversive hippie, an anarchic leader, a paradox. He doesn’t play Caesar’s games or jump through Pharisaical hoops. He doesn’t demand that we follow Him. He doesn’t demand first place because He doesn’t compete.

The consequence of placing God first is that we become neurotic, paranoid statisticians, constantly evaluating our decisions to make sure they reflect that God is in first place of our lives, and beating ourselves up that He’s not, unaware that He is not anyone’s first place. Because what does that even mean.

God is the King of an upside down Kingdom, one that doesn’t make sense in the systems and governments we know. God cannot be found on the winner’s pedestal because He is in Creation filling the fields with flowers and blowing like the wind. He is in the flavors of the food at our table and the laughter of those around our table. He meets us in the mirror in the mornings, in our flowerbeds, in our bedtime stories, in our standstill traffic.

Though achievement and productivity are the stimulants that keep us running for worthiness, we have to set those ideas aside when it comes to the Sovereign God interacting with us. God’s story is not a linear ascent to the top.

He doesn’t want to be first. He wants to be with us.

The Search for Authenticity

I don’t sing songs in church that are cheesy. I used to feel guilty about this when I made eye contact with the song leader, but now I don’t feel bad. My goal in this is not to make the song leader feel uncomfortable or like he’s failing (which would imply that we congregants are there to boost the leaders’ egos). My intention is to bring an honest heart to worship.

A recent experience with one of these songs made me roll my eyes and sit down in the middle of the song because I couldn’t take it. I realize that sounds melodramatic and needlessly cynical, but let me explain.

We were singing “Anywhere with Jesus,” a song about carrying Jesus with us like a pet for safety and comfort, which is bad enough as it is. But then we got to the last verse. If you look at the lyrics of the song, you can easily replace “blankie” with “Jesus” in many instances, but the last verse is especially cringe-worthy:

 “Anywhere with blankie I can go to sleep,
When the dark’ning shadows round about me creep,
Knowing I shall waken nevermore to roam;
Anywhere with blankie will be home, sweet home.”

Do you see what I mean? Songs that are cheesy or that have bad theology are not rooting us into a rich sense of who God is. They’re giving us pat, deceptive answers for questions that are bigger than us.

This doesn’t just happen in songs. Just visit Lifeway or listen to an inspirational, safe-for-the-whole-family radio station, and you’ll find it. You won’t even have to search for it! It will slap you in the face and call it brotherly love. For example, I finished my degree at a small, conservative, Christian college, and saw a lot of well-intentioned advertisements that made me sigh disappointedly. One such ad was for a mission opportunity abroad, and the phrase irked me so much that it became the impetus for my senior project about the falsities of Christian language. Here’s an excerpt:

“I was sitting next to my husband in chapel one day, listening to the speaker, who was talking about a ministry opportunity in China. He held up the poster for his organization and read off their motto: ‘Take Jesus to China.’ Everyone nodded their heads in understanding and agreement, but I sat there puzzled. I leaned over and whispered to my husband, ‘Isn’t Jesus already there?’ He whispered back, ‘Do you think he’ll fit in a carry-on?’….

How the Church Club language is used can have a profound impact on the faith of those who use it. For example, the ‘take Jesus to China’ bit could lend to some warped theology. If American Christians are to take Jesus to China, then that must mean that he is not already in China. If American Christians have to take Jesus to China, then American Christians must be God’s chosen ones to give light to the nations, much like the function of Israel. If that is true, then the United States must be God’s favorite country. God bless America.”

And this artificial, cheesy, slogan-centered movement, which clearly has been around for awhile, is not overlooked by much of Western media. “Jesus, take the wheel” and “Modest is Hottest” and “WWJD” I’m sure have good intentions. But they are a caricature of what it means to follow Jesus. They tell a small, one-sided part of the story, and they’re often blown out of proportion by believers and unbelievers alike. And if the slogans are caricatures… what are we? A lot of the media portrayals I’ve seen that so many American Christians complain about or label as persecution are actually incredibly accurate. Sure, they’re parodies, but they’re parodies of an already parodied culture. Angela on The Office came from somewhere–she isn’t just a figment of the writers’ imagination. I know people that are like those portrayals. I’ve been those people. But this is not my point.

My point is that in kitschy phrasing and dumbed-down theology, we are setting ourselves up for spiritual failure. What I mean by that is that if our entire belief framework is built on trite faith phrases like “God won’t give you more than you can handle!”, songs like “I’ve Got a Mansion” (which is quite a greedy song that should have its own post), and shallow understandings of suffering (i.e. “God allows us to suffer to bring us closer to him” makes for a sadistic God), how will we grapple with loss? How will we confront tragedies that often seem senseless? How will we respond to a spouse struggling with depression? How will we react to moments in which our theology breaks down?

There’s a Chinese proverb that I read years ago that I still consider some of the sagest advice concerning spirituality: “The beginning of wisdom is to call things by their right name.” Sometimes we don’t know. Sometimes we can’t understand. Sometimes we’re afraid to admit something we believe to be true. Like God’s not listening to me. Or God is listening, but He’s refusing to act. Or God doesn’t love me. Hiding behind the dollar-store decoration of Western Christian phrases will not make the ambiguous and murky clearer. They will only throw cheap glitter in the air that clutters an already muddled heart.

There is an artificial quality, a sense of disingenuity in this enterprise, and I’m not interested in living in lies just to feel better. I’m not interested in clinging to things that look like theology but reek of church lady gossip.

To clarify, authenticity does not automatically equate with righteousness. But there is a connection between authenticity and sanctification. Between authenticity and growth. Between authenticity and a right heart before God.

We have to be an honest people. We have to be an authentic people. We have to say, “I don’t know” or “I don’t understand” instead of regurgitating poor theology that we heard in a song or from a pulpit or on the radio or saw on a t-shirt. Instead of clutching to the familiar synthetics, may we ask for clean hands and pure hearts.

An excerpt from “I’ve Got a Mansion” for those unfamiliar with the song:

I’m satisfied with just a cottage below
A little silver and a little gold
But in that city, where the ransomed will shine
I want a gold one, that’s silver lined

I’ve got a mansion just over the hilltop
In that bright land where we’ll never grow old
And someday yonder, we’ll never more wander
But walk on streets that are purest gold