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.
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.