Evangelists – the continuing image crisis.

Every culture has its dirty words.  ‘Evangelist’ has been a dirty word in the West for decades now.  Curiously the word is now embraced in the the West in the IT and web world where we have Apple evangelists‘Microsoft Evangelists’ and ‘social media evangelists’ which according to www.socialmediaevangelist.com is:

  • a leader (creative person);
  • a person who explains his or her beliefs about a social media to those who have little or no knowledge about the subject and thereby participates in Social Media Evangelism;
  • a person who enthusiastically promotes or supports social media;
  • a person who attempts to build a critical mass of support for social media in order to establish it as a standard;
  • An evangelist who promotes the use of social media through talks, articles, blogging, user demonstrations, recorded demonstrations, or the creation of sample projects.

Somewhere in the last decade the word has been taken over by the business world, cleansed of its negative connotations, and re-employed back into the vernacular.  The term still carries its essential meaning, that of someone who ‘spreads the word’.  A new film highlighting the common negative perception of evangelists is being previewed online in 10 episodes.  The Evangelist examines the issue of fundamentalism and its clash with liberal freethinkers.

A synopsis of the film on its website reads:

Danny Ziegfeld (Theodore Bouloukos) is the director of a local theatre company and stage-combat academy in Provincetown, Massachusetts. After his troupe abandons him, he sits on an empty outdoor stage by the sea, staring off into nowhere until 12-year-old Gideon Bellamont (Lucas Fox Philips) appears before him: a mysterious and highly articulate boy with long and curly flaxen hair and a mismatched military outfit befitting another century. Wielding a small sword and a milk jug, Gideon has no money and no home. Concerned for the child, Danny decides to take him home. Later that evening, Danny has a minor heart attack but, luckily, Gideon is there to call an ambulance. On his recovery bed, Danny grows fearful of his mortality and decides to adopt Gideon with the notion of training him to take over the academy one day.

Not long after they’ve settled into this new domestic situation, however, Gideon reveals that he is deeply religious and wants to spend all of his time converting people to Christianity. Despite his own apathy toward religion, Danny hopes that Gideon’s fanaticism is just a phase and agrees to help. Their efforts are freewheeling and endearing at first: Danny and Gideon enact staged miracles, wherein Danny pretends to rob pedestrians and Gideon saves them, attributing this “miracle” to God. But this method proves to be ineffective, and Gideon becomes evermore obsessed with his mission. While Danny struggles to maintain the theatrical training—and to be a good father—Gideon refuses to do anything but evangelize, construing increasingly radical schemes, to the point where killing in the name of God is not out of the question. The result is a darkly comic fable and allegorical critique on the excesses of fundamentalism.

The makers of the film set out their hope for the film to lead to dialogue:

At the heart of The Evangelist is a yearning for more communication between the religious and liberal freethinkers. Neither taking sides or making value statements, the film pits the two groups together and illustrates the dangers of intolerance. Danny is a fixture of Provincetown, a very eccentric and counter-cultural community, while Gideon is a self-serious, fundamentalist. Gideon and Danny are both stubborn and resigned in their ways, acting on their own behalf rather than trying to understand each other….More than anything else, our goal is to inspire dialog. We’d like for everyone—religious or not—to reexamine their ideas and just listen to each other. No one is entirely correct but no one is entirely wrong either. Our mission is to have a conversation with as many people as we can about the film.

Does the church need to redeem the practise in order to redeem the word?

If you’ve been a Christian for a while you may well have encountered evangelism of the kind that has earned it the poor reputation that the word now has when connected to Christianity.  when connected to Microsoft its fine, when connected to a Christian negative connotations apply.  It’s not secret that the church has had its fair share of high profile evangelists who have fallen from a great height in the full glare of media coverage.  These images have unfairly clouded the perception amongst average people, and therefore the image crisis is not necessarily something that can be slated home to the church.  The traditional ministry of the travelling evangelist is giving way to a church that is more missionaly engaged and less reliant on the ‘you bring ’em I’ll save ’em” modus operandi.

The average city worker would have been subjected to street preachers who more often than not adopt an adversarial tone and at times harangue pedestrians and engage in shouting matches with hecklers.  I have rarely encountered a street evangelist who hasn’t made me squirm, and I have been involved in my share of public evangelism activities myself which on reflection didn’t achieve very much other than reinforcing stereotypes. When done well, street evangelism is very effective, and it is a voice in the marketplace of ideas especially in cities where other ideas are being touted.  It does have a limited audience though, its not everybody’s cup of tea.

I like Arthur Stace’s style,  His contribution to public evangelism was much more nuanced than the sometimes brutal adversarial approach.  With his piece of chalk he set about writing the word “Eternity’ on the streets of Sydney. Arthur Stace wrote that word, in that elegant copperplate, in chalk and in crayon, for thirty-seven years, on the sidewalks of Sydney — over half a million times. No one knew who he was, and he preferred it that way. The mystery grew: the word had evident spiritual overtones — it was called a one word sermon — who was writing it, and why? But no one knew, for years and years. Perhaps this mystery, so long sustained, instilled the fascination. Perhaps also, it was the suggestive power of the word itself.

Two years after he died, the Sydney poet Douglas Stewart published the following lines about the graffiti artist:

“That shy mysterious poet Arthur Stace

Whose work was just one single mighty word

Walked in the utmost depths of time and space

And there his word was spoken and he heard

ETERNITY, ETERNITY, it banged him like a bell

Dulcet from heaven sounding, sombre from hell.”

(Read more here)

There’s probably not a whole deal we can do to change the image of the ‘evangelist’, because most of us aren’t going to engage in a travelling ministry ourselves or for the more hot headed, go down to the hardware store to knock up a sandwich board replete with “The end is nigh!” painted on each side. The best form of evangelism we can engage in is usually not recognised as such by the person being ‘evangelised’.  To be able to recommend and explain the Christian faith in a way that invites people to explore more and even to committ to themselves, without appearing to be standing on an imaginary soap box is certainly a worthy aspiration.  As a pastor I constantly tried to encourage my congregants to rely less on ‘tools’ and processes and more on natural relationships.

The Gospel shared in artificial contexts (street evangelism, crusades) certainly results in conversions. The Gospel shared in genuine contexts of relationship adds up to a lot more conversions, but because they don’t happen in one place at one time they will never generate headlines or impressive statistics.  Ask any church where most of their new believers came from and you’ll find that most come through the avenue of personal relationships with missionaly minded people who have supervised their exposure to the Gospel.

Perhaps the most damaging consequence of the negative perception of ‘evangelist’ is within the church itself.  Too many believers have associated evangelism with these same perceptions that people outside the church live with and they resolve that they are not capable of being an ‘evangelist’ and nor do they desire to be (if that’s what an evangelist is).  The consequence is that the baby gets tossed out with the bathwater.  The greatest response the church can make to the perception of evangelists isn’t to produce some new improved models who won’t be subject to moral failure (because we are all human), but to quietly continue the revolution.  Nothing quite beats an army of passionate people illuminated by Christ, keen to share what they have found.

Thanks to Hamo for the heads up on the film, which should be an interesting watch.