The Failure of Evangelism

Evangelism as we know it hasn’t worked. Either evangelism is so aggressive you want to get a restraining order, or else evangelism is so restrained you want to call it to order. Our strategies have been spectacularly useless at best, counterproductive at worst. We have lived through an exodus, but not of the biblical kind. So says Leonard Sweet in his book laying out a new vision for evangelism: Nudge. Leonard has some pretty controversial things to say about evangelism as we have known it and his vision for what should be in our new world.What does evangelism look like in a post-modern, and even post-evangelical age? According to Leonard Sweet its more about nudging than preaching, and less about introducing Christ to people and more about helping them see the activity of Christ in their lives. The very essence of his concept of ‘nudging’ is bound to lose him friends, particularly those fond of the stand-and-deliver kind of evangelism variety. If Sweet has his way, altar calls will remain a thing of the past, and nudging will be the new way in which we herd cats into the kingdom.

In the introductory chapters Sweet outlines his point very clearly:

“I believe the lifeblood of evangelism is not propositions, but prepositions. For God to do something through us, God must be doing something in us. If we are not always evangelizing ourselves, we have no business evangelizing others. In fact, it is usually as God’s grace courses through us to someone else that we become aware of God’s love in and for us. Evangelism is an invitation for broken people together to meet the Christ who loves broken people.” Pg 28

“Nudging is more about sowing than reaping. To be clear, nudging encompasses the full range of gardening – from dropping a tiny seed into the ground, to the loosening the dirt, watering, weeding, fertilizing, protecting from predators, picking the fruit, and even helping, in Jesus worlds, “the birds of the air….nest under its shade”. But every encounter is aimed not to “bring in the sheaves.”  Pg 29

“Nudging is more about dialogue than monologue, more Facebooking that blogging, Acts of evangelism intentionally scooch and shimmy people in the direction of the truth without the need for knee-bending, beat-my-back altar calls. Evangelists nudge the Jesus in people to sit up and take notice. Evangelists are nudgers, not shovers. Whereas evangelism has been known to violate others dignity, which I call the reproach approach, nudgers are not smudgers of the divine in people.” Pg 31

At the heart of Sweet’s case is the belief that it is arrogant for us to presume that we are introducing Jesus to someone.  Rather, we are awakening them to the activity of Jesus within them:

Nudge evangelism is based on the following three revolutionary notions…:

  • Jesus is alive and active in our world.
  • Followers of Jesus “know” Jesus well enough to recognize where he is alive and moving in our day.
  • Evangelists nudge the world to wake up to the alive and acting Jesus and nudge others in the ways God is alive and moving… pg34

No doubt many will find this notion troubling.  Coincidentally last Sunday night I listened to the powerful testimony of a young man, (just before he nailed his colours to the mast in baptism) reflect in a similar vein.  He was raised in a family that did not attend church and had no regard for God.  Working as a barman he met a young girl (who he was attracted to) who worked in the same establishment who had a qualitative difference about her.  She didn’t abuse alcohol and was not active in the party scene, but at the same time she was ‘cool’.  Something about her intrigued him.  He found out that she was a Christian and eventually accepted an invitation to attend church with her. After his first visit he adopted an open stance towards spirituality and began to meet with the youth pastor to explore the claims of Christ.

He eventually came to a point of commitment and subsequent to that in his ongoing meetings with the youth pastor explored the issue of predestination.  He came to the view that he was not introduced to Jesus at church, but rather, looking back on his life he could see the intervention and influence of Jesus in his life that only now became clear. He certainly came across more details through the church he connected with but they had simply help him understand the pre-existing activity of Jesus in his life.  His connection with other believers ‘awakened him’.  His faith decision did not come from an altar call, but rather from a long and patient journey with others who helped him understand a little more each week.  Throughout this time he was able to assess their credibility and the coherence of the Gospel message. As Sweet summarises:

“…nudge is not our working for God; nudge is God working in us and through us to bring to fruition what God is already doing.”

Personally I resonate with Sweet’s vision of evangelism, and I am very definitely a nudger.  I am hesitant however to pitch my tent exclusively in this territory because I believe that certain contexts may require a more propositional approach.  Many of the people I have worked with in ministry became believers through the kind of evangelism that Sweet believes ‘hasn’t worked’.  I think it did work very well in past contexts and also in some contemporary contexts.  Jesus had an incarnational approach to descipleship but he also called his disciples to follow him.  The call to action is still a critical part of faith formation.  Granted that does not mean that hellfire and damnation preaching followed by emotional blackmail altar calls is ok – it’s not.

After making his case about nudging the rest of the book is a treasure trove of quotes and methodologies for the consummate nudger.  In the words of another reviewer:

Combining the Celtic Fives with human sensory experience, Sweet points to evangelism beyond the evanga-script. Nudge evangelism moves from tract to following the tracks of the Spirit. Rather than assuming we “bring Jesus to anyone” Sweet points to our need to follow Jesus who has “gone ahead of us.” Nudge may well rescue the idea of Christian evangelism for many.

I learned more about the notion of ‘semiotics’ – the art of reading signs, “It is the art of making connections, linking disparate dots, seeing the relationships between apparently trifling matters, and turning them into metonymic moments.” (Don’t worry I looked it up for you: metonymy : the substitution of a word referring to an attribute for the thing that is meant, as for example the use of the crown to refer to a monarch)

I recommend this book for both individuals but especially for groups to read.  It provides an excellent basis for evaluating evangelism and its a great handbook for the intrepid nudger.

Have you read it and what do you think?