Converting Marie: An Epic Evangelism Disaster (And What It Taught Me)

Kathy the Evangelist(Kathleen, the 19-year-old Evangelist)

Note: I’m continuing my series on evangelism, which started here.  I shared my thoughts and experiences on door-to-door evangelists, and now I’m sharing some of my own stories.

My career as an unofficial evangelist began in my first year of university.

I had been a Christian all my life and had been made to feel guilty about my failure to “share my faith” for many years already. But that year, when I was nineteen, I attended an enormous Christian Revival event with my youth group. After that I became On Fire for God and ready to spread the Gospel. It was a life-changing event. I became so ready to share my faith.

The first casualty of my newly-acquired fire was a friend from school whom I’ll call Marie.

We were both first-year English literature students who had met in our first semester, and were now taking a sociology class together. Marie was fantastic. On the outside, she looked like a very ordinary, very shy girl who liked to blend in. At first I had thought we probably wouldn’t like each other because she seemed so quiet and normal, and I was so “artistic” (I wore colourful vintage shoes and plaid pants and carried around an artsy notebook); but once I got to know her I discovered she was uproariously witty and terribly smart. Her humour was unlike anyone else’s I had ever met.

And after the Revival I realized that she needed to know the Lord, and that I would be the one to arrange the initial meeting.

So in soc class one day shortly after the event I passed her a note with a few lines of small talk, asking “How was your weekend?” or something customary like that.

She responded, and we went back and forth a few times like that while I planned my attack.

I decided to segue into my intended subject with, “So, what are your thoughts on spiritual stuff?” The question was a mere formality. I wasn’t really interested in her take on spirituality. I was just getting her primed for a lesson on what I thought about spiritual stuff, and I couldn’t just launch right into it without any warning.

She wrote back something about how she sometimes wondered whether this life was all there really was, or whether we were just animated “bags of bones” that came and went without any real meaning. Ahhhh, I thought as I read it. I have an answer for this.

My fingers quivered as I nervously filled up the backside of the page with the solution to the universe. I don’t remember exactly what I wrote – I think it was a combination of half-informed creation science material, mixed in with some smatterings of theology I had recently encountered and a few personal theoretical musings. In the end, I proved that God existed, that He created the world 6,000 years ago, that Marie was in need of a personal saviour, and that Armenianism was more true than Calvinism. All in one page.

Actually, I didn’t even get a chance to get to the good stuff before class was over so after we got up I walked with her to her minivan and continued to evangelize as we went along. I told her everything I knew (which wasn’t a lot) about the need to repent, about God’s relationship to time and space, and about the Bible’s historical validity. And also that evolution isn’t true. The more I talked, the more uneasy she looked. We ended up standing under a tree by her van, with her shifting uncomfortably from foot to foot while I picked twigs off the tree to make illustrations.

Eventually I could tell it was time for her to go and we awkwardly said our goodbyes. As she climbed into her van, a huge weight lifted from my shoulders. I had done my duty to Jesus. I had shared my faith.

I called out generously, “And if you ever have any questions for me . . .” I paused, looking for the right words, “. . . feel free to ask.”

“Oh good,” she said with a look of relief. “That’s all. For a minute there, I was afraid you were going to give me a pamphlet or invite me to a Bible study.” And with that she shut her door behind her and left.

* * *

We were never quite able to repair our friendship after that.

The semester soon ended and we emailed each other a couple of times. She was still very polite and even left me a funny little note on my car’s windshield one afternoon with a drawing of Helen, the enormous plush sombrero-wearing frog who lived in my Pontiac Firefly.

But I could tell that something had changed between us. Eventually she stopped responding to my emails.

We lost touch. We were no longer friends.

The next semester we didn’t have any more classes together and we didn’t see each other again.

In my evangelistic efforts, I had crossed over from being a real friend to being a missionary whose only apparent aim was to convert her. I can only guess that she may have felt a little used and dehumanized. As far as she could see, I no longer valued her intrinsically as a person and a friend, but only as a recipient of my Good News.

And that was so far from the truth. Marie was a brilliant person, a gifted writer, and a devoted and warmhearted friend. I genuinely liked her. After I totally botched things up with her, I found I missed her terribly. I missed her unique sense of humour and the fun conversations we had in the campus Subway. I had messed that all up when I decided to make her my religious project.

* * *

Nowadays, when I get an evangelist at the door, I can’t help but cringe to think that I was once that person to someone else.

What frustrates me about most door-to-door evangelists is how they don’t seem to give two craps about me – about who I am and where I’m at. They’re usually not interested in finding out what kind of a relationship I already have with God; they just want to tell me what it ought to be like.

For all they know, I could be Christ himself in the form of a drowsy, gnome-loving grad student in her slippers at the door; but all they want to do is preach to me. They’re not interested in two-way conversations. They see themselves as the teachers with something to offer, and me as the empty vessel waiting to be filled.

It’s insulting.

And I did that to Marie. I didn’t show any interest in her own thoughts or experiences; I just wanted to teach her what I knew.

Ever since my disastrous attempt to convert poor Marie, I have had to rethink the way that I – and presumably many other believers – think about evangelism.

The first thing I learned is that if you do not respect the beliefs of those who don’t share your faith, and do not value them as individuals the way they are, they will not have any reason to be care about what you have to say. People can sense when they are someone else’s religious project, and it doesn’t feel good. I know it from experience. I hate to be proselytized to.

Consequently, I don’t feel comfortable viewing the world purely as a mission field that needs to be blessed with our own wisdom. Rather, I like to see it as more of a grand seminar room, filled with allies in all shapes and forms. We live in a world full of wisdom and beauty to be acquired and shared with others.

Marie didn’t just need me; I needed her too. I’m certain she could have spoken wisdom into my own life if I had given her a chance, even if she wasn’t a “believer.” But I didn’t give her a chance. I shut that door when I decided that the conversation was a one-way thing.

And for that I am terribly sorry.

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  1. I totally feel you. I have evangelism regrets too. Maybe mine didn’t as dramatically affect any of my relationships, but I am still uncomfortable even just remembering them. I no longer feel a “need” to evangelize to others. Sometimes I wonder if it is a bad thing, and that my fire for God is somewhat diminished. I don’t know. But I agree with everything you posted here.

    On a somewhat related note, about two years ago I read Nourishing Traditions and it changed my life. I just love that book. And I feel this new desire to go proselytize my loved ones to convert them to this new way of eating. It’s out of love and regarding something I am passionate about. But at the same time I have these scars from trying to evangelize to my friend way back in middle school. And it feels too similar to me. It’s almost like the more passionate I am about something, the more uncomfortable I am about sharing it with other people, because I feel like I am trying to change them. And the stakes seem higher. I don’t know. Just my musings.

    I love your blog. Love.

    • Thanks for understanding, Rachel. And I TOTALLY get what you’re saying about becoming an evangelist for other issues you believe in. I’ve experienced the same thing! At one point I think I felt as passionate about unmedicated births and breastfeeding as I did about Jesus! :) Traditional foods and gently parenting are two other really big ones, too. I want people to know about them, because I TRULY believe they are good for people, but I don’t want to be pushy (because I know how badly that can backfire!). It’s hard to know how to be open and expressive without being aggressive. And it’s hard to not take it personally when they don’t agree with you.

  2. Just wanted to say- I love this! Of course there is a time and place to SPEAK the truth but I have always loved the phrase attributed to St. Francis of Assisi (who knows if he really said it): “Preach the Gospel. Use words if necessary.” Our kindness, personal interest in others’ lives, the way we live, are almost always more powerful than spoken words. Of course, we should always pray and ask the Holy Spirit to guide us if we feel called to speak, but usually, when you take enough of an interest in another’s life, the conversations will happen naturally.

    Anyway! Thanks! Love your blog!

  3. Amen and amen. Thank you for being so transparent…your story conjured up my own dreadful evangelistic efforts at about the same age.

  4. Oh man. Been there! I regret some of the ways I went about evangelism, but I will also admit that I wish I had the passion and zeal now that I did then. I would channel it differently now, but the energy isn’t there like it used to be. Everything used to be so black and white, and now it’s so complex; I think that’s been a major faith shift for me when I compare my early 20’s/college faith, to my faith now at 29.

    We had friends – well, “friends” – in Boston who were Muslims from Iran. Turns out they weren’t real friends at all, they were evangelists trying to convert us. They didn’t really care about us, and they certainly weren’t interested in anything we had to say. They just wanted to convert us. It SUCKED. We quickly caught on to this and stopped spending time with them. It left a really bad taste in my mouth and still serves as a reminder to never make another person feel like they made me feel. (Sidenote: we have MANY Muslim friends who have never tried to convert us, and some who have tried to convert us but are also really great friends who actually care about us and want to have a conversation, which is another thing altogether.)

  5. Oh yes, the GUILT. I had so much guilt that I wasn’t bold to share my faith. But the truth was in all my years at Christian schools (which I do not regret, by the way), I hardly knew any non-Christians (that part is sad).

    Thanks for sharing this, Kathleen!
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  6. This is a really amazing post; so heartbreaking, tender, and beautifully written.
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  7. you know, i had a recent conversation with a (protestant) friend who was trying to bond over the effects growing up in the ‘evangelism of the 90’s’ has on you…but i felt like i couldn’t quite relate or get a grasp on what she was talking about since i converted as a young adult (and missed that growing up – in addition to being in europe for high school). i think this post helped me understand a lot more the pressures she was referring to, so thank you for writing this! having an awkward one way conversation like that just sounds awful. on any subject, but especially on Jesus, something you feel so close to your most sacred values but that fall flat when you share them and come off as pushy or not respecting where a person is at in their journey. i feel like this in so many subjects in life, in person and online, which is perhaps why i have such a hard time updating my blog these past few years! i find it safer to avoid being misunderstood in person, which maybe explains my affinity for face to face conversations and appreciation for conversations on god in person. i think there is a balance in between having the confidence to speak precisely and with care on subjects you feel passionate about, without coming across as pushy or someone trying to peddle cheap wares. the truth and jesus’s gospel is so beautiful that usually us humans only end up sullying it when we try to ‘sell’ it in a quick 2 min. pitch. thank god he’s forgiving as we learn to better be his hands and feet.

  8. I find that I evangelize too, but with many topics, e.g., eating “right”, not spending too much, politics. It is so hard to remember that it is better to be a student (and servant)! Thanks for a great post (and reminder)!

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