The Power Of Normal In Evangelism
It seems that many Christians are nervous or even petrified when it comes to evangelism. There appears to be an inherent tension associated with talking about our faith with people who don’t yet believe.
An oft repeated frustration amongst believers is that every day Australians don’t engage in spiritual conversations easily and don’t necessarily reflect openly on issues that are deeper than surface.
Leaving the truth of that assumption aside the social media age has well and truly been a game changer with respects to this. Communication through and across networks of people have been exponentially enhanced via social media.
Messages for the most part however are primarily relegated to the short form. Twitter is one of the most popular platforms and it limits posts to 140 characters. Long text based updates on Facebook aren’t very popular and instead memes are preferred vehicle of conveying thoughts, beliefs, humour, advocacy and even social pressure.
Australians engaged in social media platforms now routinely ‘Like’ or ‘Share’ memes that convey causes, often closely aligned to political affiliations and affections or positions to the left or right on the ideological spectrum.
There is one form of social media posting which attracts more attention consistently than anything else: simple human stories. And one particular site bucks the trend towards short form communication with stunning results.
One of my favourite Facebook pages to receive new updates from is HONY, (Humans Of New York). It’s a photoblog started by photographer Brandon Stanton in New York. Previously a bond trader he indulged in his passion for photography after losing his job in 2010 and began taking candid pictures of people in the street with accompanying stories. In December 2013, Stanton was named one of Time Magazine’s ’30 Under 30 People Changing The World’. So far over 6000 portraits have been gathered, his Facebook page has over 12 million followers and his Instagram page has 2.8 million followers.
Stanton doesn’t appear to project a particular angle on his blog, he photographs practically anyone who will agree, and presents his or her own commentary without interference. The result is a compelling stream of stories that pull you into the human drama that lies beneath the surface on every street, an otherwise anonymous place as people pass each other by oblivious to the rich connection they potentially have with each other if they had a chance to delve deeper into each others stories.
One story I noticed this week showed the power of a testimony unadorned by religious language and notions and the power of testimony from a brutally honest perspective. (Profanity has been obscured)
At time of writing the picture attracted 495,885 Likes, 16,308 comments, and 49,411 shares and counting.
The story attracted an enormous amount of discussion. Amongst the many expressions of support or criticism came this gem:
This comment itself generated an enormous response, including another gem:
It’s not often you hear an atheist say that they understand. Christians are conditioned to argue with atheists, and atheists alike to argue with Christians. Much of the way Christians post on social media often alienates those with no Christian beliefs. This simple story (which was not posted for specific evangelistic reasons but simply represents faithfully who the photographer encountered) seems to cut through.
Here’s some thoughts on why:
Firstly its a dramatic and vivid story, which immediately thrusts the listener thirteen floors up on a window ledge with a mans life in the balance as he rocks back and forth. The language is frank and expletives are used in the faithful retelling of the competing voices in his head, and the analogy used of being busted by his mother watching porn.
Subsequently the man telling the story does not present as religious. Herein lies a key determining (and frustrating) factor that we encounter in evangelism: people (in the Australian context) do not often like listening to ‘religious’ people articulate about their beliefs. There is a perceived power differential in the conversation: one party has more knowledge than the other, one person is trying to convince the other to agree to believe the same as them. One party has to move towards the other. The conversation is not perceived to be conducted on level ground.
The Power Of Normal
The story provided by the man in question has none of this symmetry. He seems to be a normal man who has had an extraordinary and powerful encounter with God. (It is clear by his language and analogies that his language has yet to be ‘refined’ by church culture). The story is hard not to contemplate, and hard not to be moved by it. It educates the reader about the capacity for people to encounter and be transformed by God. It appears to be the testimony of someone has no religious agenda other than to simply speak of what he experienced.
Perhaps this is an important lesson for Christians in evangelism: rediscover your normality and learn to speak and talk in a way that allows you to convey the miraculous nature of encountering God in a way that does not cause the listener to feel that they are dealing with someone with an ‘agenda’. “This is me and this is my story.”
Of course the process of coming to faith involves much deeper levels of conversation further down the track in order for the Gospel to be fully explained. At some point a deeper theological grounding needs to be given and important issues to do with repentance need to be covered. However, in order to prick the ears of people and gain an initial hearing, we need to equalise the encounter.
It’s clear from the reaction to this story that the testimony had a tremendous impact and many people were open and receptive to the message. I’m confident that this will be the case more often than not for any unadorned testimony where people don’t sense a power or knowledge differential.
Peter and John appearing before the Sanhedrin (Acts 4) have good reason to be anxious but simply declare that “as for us, we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard.” If we think of the process of evangelism as simply speaking about what we have ‘seen and heard’ as every day people we may find a whole lot less tension and a whole lot more receptive ears and open hearts.