Who doesn’t like some good ol’ fashioned evangelism? Whether its foreign missions, door-knocking campaigns, or that ambitious evangelism where you convert someone just by being a good person around them, evangelism is a central part of Christianity—for 2000 years, we’ve been spreading the gospel to Jerusalem, to Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.
Bringing others to the faith through evangelism is one of those elements of Christianity that almost everyone agrees is a good thing. You’ll find it mandated in Catholic catechisms and described as the “first duty” of Christians in the Westminster Confession. It’s emphasized in Stone-Campbell churches and the namesake for the strongest Christian movement in America today.
But there may be a price for this universal Christian mission.
The social and psychological pressure to convert others is unique in the Christian tradition. In few other religions, is the need to “share your faith” set on the same plane as praying and studying sacred scriptures, and it’s easy to imagine how the burden of this task might be too great for any individual. Inherently, evangelism is not a solitary task; it draws one out; it requires social interaction, intellectual argumentation, and emotional appeal; it is an often fruitless task, sometimes resulting in unparalleled joy, but more often concluding with damaged relationships and wounded souls. Pressure to engage in this evangelism is what leaves Christians in a state of constant anxiety—am I doing enough?
Growing up, I went every summer to Camp Blue Haven. It was a great place—couldn’t ask for a better way to spend a week of my summer break—but there was one part of it that I look back on with unease. One night out of the week, the counselors and staff would put on what they called Blue Haven Players and perform skits with various lessons. Some of them were funny, some were serious—I can’t remember most. But one I do remember was called The Letter from Hell.
The skit presented two people under two spotlights, one reading a letter, the other narrating the letter they sent. At first the narrator describes their long friendship with the reader and their sadness that they’re unable to see them anymore. Part of the way through, however, the narrator segues to their discomfort in their present location and their unhappiness that their friend did not prevent their going there. Eventually, the letter escalates until the narrator is screaming, lambasting the reader’s inability to save them from their fate, and finally revealing that the narrator is, in fact, now in Hell.
It’s a pretty emotional skit for a 13 year old to watch. But you know what, I get that skit—I get the attitude behind conveying how serious the situation is, the need to share the gospel with anyone and everyone lest they end up in that place of torment. I get it—unless, that is, there’s more to evangelism than we suspect.
Is there a possibility that the weight of conversion, of every soul we come into contact with, is not burdened upon us? Some would say yes, and they would point foremost to the work of the Holy Spirit. In this light, the conversion is not our responsibility; our only responsibility is that all are given the choice and are given the gospel. But the obligation to persuade and see it through to the end, that is not for us; it is the responsibility of that soul, of those they meet further along, and primarily of the Spirit working in them, allowing them to make true and free decision.
Others might point to, more controversially, the possibility of universalism. Christian universalism is of course the doctrine that people are eventually, in some way or another, saved. Universalism has never denied the beauty of the gospel and the desire that should well up in us to share that good news, but it does hold that evangelism is not a cloud that hangs over us. In the end, God will reveal his own justice in his unending mercy—and those that lived in darkness before will be shown the light.
Still others might point to the failures of language like “save” or “convert.” For them, our understanding of the entire faith must be revolutionized (something we won’t address here).
The last Sunday night devotional I went to, the task of evangelism came up. People were sharing in real sincerity the shortcomings of their spiritual life and for more than one person, they were embarrassed by their inability to share their faith. They confessed to the room, “I need to share my faith more. It’s just so hard—what does that say about me as a Christian?” It can hurt to hear people talk like this, for people to tear themselves up inside because they can’t complete the impossible task of sharing their faith with everyone. But maybe it’s not their fault—maybe we’ve set the bar too high.