The Number One Realization That Changed the Way I Do Evangelism

The Number One Thing That Changed the Way I Do EvangelismImage by Jim Linwood.

Note: this is a part of my series on evangelism, which started here.

There are a lot of reasons I’ve changed my approach to evangelism. A huge factor, of course, were my disastrous past attempts to convert people.

There are other reasons as well: a changing definition of salvation; a new view of nonbelievers as my equals and allies; and a new appreciation for genuine relationships and what actually changes a person’s heart. (I hope to get into some of these other issues in future posts as well.)

But the biggest change was in this: I went from seeing myself as a member of the oppressed minority – an underdog who needed to “defend the faith” which was under attack from the dominant society – to the realization that I am a part of the powerful majority.

As a white, educated, straight, English-speaking, Protestant Canadian, I enjoy the advantages of generations of white, educated, straight, English-speaking Protestants wielding the power of the Bible to oppress others.

It took me a long time to recognize my privilege. I don’t know how I didn’t see it sooner. I grew up being warned to watch out – The World was out to get me. And so I internalized this idea that as a Christian in North America I was a part of the underclass, the target, the prey.

Before, I saw myself as a part of the victim class. Gays, liberals, feminists, atheists, evolutionists, university professors, The Media – they were all scary adversaries, bullies out to denounce God and get their way. We, the weak and humble Christians, needed to stand our ground. We needed to invoke the name of the Lord to defend ourselves against brutal attacks. The World was out to get us.

And I understand now how we got this mentality. We read Jesus’ story, and we naturally identify with him and the early Christians. We too have committed our lives to following him. We read the stories of faithful followers being stoned or imprisoned, and we shiver.

Jesus and his followers suffered severe persecution. They were desperately poor folks, religious and ethnic minorities, during a period of time when the Romans held ferocious power. You could lose your life for being a follower of Jesus. Jesus warns us that the same can happen to us. We identify with these humble Jewish fishermen – we’re Christians, too! – and forget that in fact, if we were to translate that world into contemporary North America, we white evangelicals would be members of the Roman Empire. At our worst, we’re not even the Pharisees. We have way more power and wealth than that.

Sure, some of us are poor by North American standards. But we white evangelical Americans and Canadians still have power and privilege in our race, citizenship, education, and religious association (Christians make up the most dominant religious group in America, with evangelicals being the largest denomination. No other religion comes close. Not even atheism.)

And sure, some of us are really benevolent Romans. We donate and volunteer. Some even fight for justice and equality. But that will never erase our privilege as Roman citizens. We always still have more power and privilege than immigrants, people of colour, members of other religious groups, and GLBT folks (among others).

I have since discovered I don’t need to defend the gospel against powerful attacks from above nearly as much as I need to step down and apologize to all those who have been hurt by it. My job is to try to climb down from my advantaged position and make amends. My job is one of reconciliation.

If I want to be a missionary in this land, I need to come to terms with the fact that the first Christians to reach this land — my predecessors — did not bring good news. They brought tyranny, death, war and disease.  (To this day, many evangelicals continue to bring bad news to women, immigrants, GLBT people, and other minorities.) I (and people like me) can never be done repenting of what my forebears did to the people who first lived here. Our job of reconciliation will not be done until Jesus returns.

This understanding of my place in society has changed the way I “evangelize.”

Sorry: The Number One Thing That Changed the Way I Do EvangelismImage by butupa.

Knowing that I come from a position of privilege, I’m less afraid of “attacks” on my faith from non-believers.

I don’t live in fear that atheism and secularism are taking over society – we’re far from that here in North America. I fear that ignorant evangelicals (like myself) are a much greater threat.

I’m no longer scared of marriage equality for the LGBT community, or nervous about what they teach in science classes at public schools. I no longer worry about carrying an arsenal of arguments in my back pocket in defense of the faith. I am not a victim in this culture.

And while I used to view all non-Christians as potential projects – folks I needed to save, to introduce to Jesus — I now only see broken relationships that need to be healed. I need them to help me get to Jesus just as much as they need me. Perhaps more so, for Jesus blesses the poor and humble.

Recognizing what powerful white Christians have done in the past, I sometimes think our first and most important message ought to be something more along the lines of, “I am not a threat. I won’t hurt you. You have little reason to trust me, given our history; but I promise to serve you, respect you and love you.” (This, as opposed to the conventional evangelical message that goes something along the lines of, “You’re wrong and headed for trouble. But I have information that can save you. Once again, I have the upper hand.”)

I used to think it was important to make friends with people who were different from me so that I could teach them (about God and the Bible).

I now think it’s important to make friends with people who are different from me so that I can learn from them. What’s it like to be Muslim? To be black or Hispanic or Native American? To be gay? Because how can I serve them if I don’t know their experience?

As an evangelical, I used to see my role as a teacher and a savior. I now see my role as a student and a servant.

I still believe I have good news to share. But that good news is less about an abstract God in heaven who will save you after you die and more about a God who is lives upon the earth right now, desperate to serve and reconcile, through people like me.

My new ministry involves a lot less talking and a lot more listening, as well as acts of kindness and service. I’ve done a lot less talking about God since my eyes were opened to the reality of my privilege, and instead I’ve tried to make changes in my life to help bring heaven to earth.

It’s less about “Jesus loves you and can save you from your sins if you say this prayer!” and more about “I’m happy to serve you, just the way you are, because that’s what Jesus wants.”

The World is not my enemy. The World is not out to get me. The world is full of my brothers and sisters, waiting for reconciliation – with me, with each other, and with God.

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  1. PepperReed says:


  2. Adrienne says:

    I love this: “As an evangelical, I used to see my role as a teacher and a savior. I now see my role as a student and a servant”. As a Christian, I’ve felt very uncomfortable with even talking about God to others, feeling that faith is very personal. I appreciate your perspective in this whole series and I think this post especially will help me find that middle ground between proselytizing and remaining silent. It’s a lot of food for thought, but I wanted to thank you for the serving and I’ll digest it with care.

    I’m guessing this post was written with general terms/categorizations in mind, but I also wanted to give a friendly wave from a LGBT Christian. There are many, many LGBT people who have been hurt by Christians and Christianity and want nothing to do with the church… and there are others who are both LGBT and church-going Christians… and there are people in between those positions also. Again, I don’t think you intended to imply this, I’m just particularly sensitive to even vague hints that there’s no overlap between those two groups.

    • Hi, Adrienne. Thanks for bringing my attention to the (wholly unintended) implication that there’s no overlap between the LGBT and Christian communities. I’ve just recently started reading the work of some LGBT Christians (notably Justin Lee and Steve Gershom), and trying to become more sensitive to their experiences and perspectives. I really want to change the way Christians and churches think about and behave towards LGBT people (since it’s generally hostile), though of course as a member of the dominant group I myself am tangled up in all kinds of unacknowledged privilege. I’m sorry to have implied that there’s no overlap. That’s actually one myth that I’d like to see changed — that you can’t be gay and Christian at the same time! Thanks for highlighting the issue.

  3. I say this with utter sincerity: I, as an American, have a whole political party here that I truly wish would read this.

    I just wrote a whole book replying to your reply on the last post, so forgive my short response here. The length of this response is in absolute disproportion to my appreciation of it.

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  4. Christina says:

    As a non Christian in the south of America I have run into many well-meaning converters and it is one of the most annoying things. No one who doesn’t want to, will be converted. Hating and proselytizing only pushes people farther away. Your article was refreshing and inspiring. I hope you influence those of your faith to follow your example to build a better global community.

  5. This has been a very thought provoking series Kathleen. I’ve enjoyed hearing your experiences and thoughts.

    Any interactions I’ve had with door-to-door missionaries (we pretty much just have Jehovah’s Witness come around at my house) has made me feel like they didn’t even want to convert me. It was more like hi will you accept our brochure? Here you go, have a nice day. Never mind they didn’t want to hear what I might have to say, they didn’t even seem too interested in telling me what they believe. Granted I have a small experience with it, but still, doesn’t make me put my faith in door-to-door.

    I think that the church has lost sight of the idea behind the line of the hymn ‘They’ll know we are Christians by our love.’ How often does a non-Christian view the church as people characterized by love and charity? You might hear that about an individual or particular congregation every now and then, but not about the church as a whole.
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  6. SO beautifully written. So well said. I wish we would all know this more and more in our hearts and not just in our minds.

  7. Thanks for sharing such a personal part of your life. I can sense your genuine care here to “walk” rather than just “talk” as others have expressed, and I definitely think that comes through in your blog and the things you choose to write about. One thing this makes me think about is loosing that naivety that makes one think that “Oh, if people just knew the TRUTH about this then they’d convert! All they need to do is hear it! And I can be the one to tell them!” I don’t think there is any malicious thought in this line of thinking, its just, innocent and naive. To think that there’s nothing else standing in the way is just, not true. Like you mention, history does not always shine favorably on Christians as Christians have not always been Christ-like! And we all have a myriad of experiences that make our own personal story more complicated that just “we haven’t heard of Jesus”. Incidentally, I think this is one reason I like missionaries in a theoretical sense because they represent that hope that it really could be as simple as just accepting Jesus. Its our fallen world and nature that makes it so much more complicated.

    Also, I just want to comment that I’m so glad you clarified this further and continue to write on this subject! I knew it had to be way more than “people knocking at your door are RUDE” because, well, I just can’t live in a world where you’re not even allowed to knock on each other’s door and talk to them. I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about living in unity and in community and, well, I guess I’ll have more thoughts to that later.
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  8. So I was sitting in McAllister’s today, being smeared with mac’n’cheese and applesauce by my toddler and watching a mom bottle-feed her baby, and I started thinking about this series of yours. Because I think this concept of being a friend and servant rather than teacher and preacher actually applies to a lot of things.

    I mean, if you’re an advocate for something like breastfeeding, you REALLY REALLY want to see everyone breastfeed. But the best way to do that isn’t to jump on people you see using bottles. For one, there are a million reasons for a mama not to breastfeed–maybe it’s that she just didn’t want to or didn’t know she could, or maybe she had breast cancer and had a double mastectomy. You just don’t know, and it’s not helpful or right to judge her. All you can do is walk your own walk–breastfeed publicly, use normalizing language, whatever. And then, if you have a friend who’s having a baby, you can do more within the context of the friendship–share information, have honest discussions, and most importantly, offer real, tangible help, the help that she wants or needs, and not the help YOU think she needs.

    Because the people who jump on the bottle-feeding mamas, who are real in-your-face about it, those are the people that get labeled Breastfeeding Nazis and make my mom hate La Leche League, even though she breastfed all of us for a year each. I’m sure we can all think of Christians like that. It doesn’t mean you have to compromise your own beliefs. It just means that the best way to approach ANYTHING we’re passionate about is with compassion and love and listening ears.

    /end long-winded analogy ^_^

  9. Padmavati says:

    Hi there! I just wanted to say that I spent some time browsing your blog today and thought the way you live your faith is very admirable. You’ve shown a lot of self-awareness, self-knowledge and understanding of people, the world and society that I think many followers of other religions could also benefit from.

    I should mention that I’m a practicing Hindu and a pretty devout one, so as long as you’re cool with the fact that I’m not going to convert to Christianity, I’m happy to continue following your blog. You’re an interesting writer and in general I love reading religious blogs from people of different faiths. It gives me a lot of food for thought in my own life. (I’m not a blogger myself.)

    I warmly wish you the very best on your journey to Jesus.

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