Q & R: How do I Evangelize Evangelicals?

Here's the Q:

I am a 25-year old progressive christian attending an evangelical church in New Zealand. I used to be an evangelical (which is why I began attending this church in the first place), but over time I realised that a lot of the things I’d hear preached on Sundays (like biblical inerrancy, the divine inspiration of scripture and life after death) wasn’t really what I believed.

I still attend the church as 70%+ of my friends go there, and I do embrace the “essentials” of evangelicalism (like the Deity of Christ, the Resurrection of Christ, the Trinity etc). Theologically, I’d probably fall into the same category as people like yourself, Rachel Held Evans and Rob Bell - “Moderately Progressive Christians” (MPCs) for lack of a better term.

At least one of my friends at church is a fellow MPC. I’d wouldn’t be surprised if I discovered she wasn’t the only one. Brian, as I watch people sing along to songs by Hillsong Worship and Victorian songwriters at church on Sunday, I can’t help but think, “How many of these people actually believe this stuff?” Deep down, do they actually think Jesus did supernatural miracles and that every single page of the Bible is God’s infallible word to mankind? Or are there some people who, if they’re honest, don’t REALLY believe some of these things, but assent to them because they don’t know any other way of being Christian?

I’m sure there are people at my church in that (latter) category. And I really want to find out who they are and give them the support they need. The question is: How?

I’ve found that voluntarily opening up about my progressive views can lead to shock and even resentment from sincere evangelicals. Facebook statuses are a good way of getting a message to many people, yet sometimes these statuses are met with nothing but opposition (from sincere evangelicals). Asking questions in a casual, curious way is perhaps a better method, yet sometimes I’m not sure what questions to ask. What do you suggest?

Looking forward to hearing from you!

Here's the R:

Thanks for your note. It's ironic, isn't it ... When I was raised as an Evangelical, I had 0.0% doubt and 100.0% certainty that we Evangelicals were morally right, doctrinally superior, and "godly," and that they - secularists, people of other religions, worst of all, liberal or progressive Christians - were inferior, wrong, misled, etc. Anyone who disagreed with us, I knew, was wrong, and I, as a loyal soldier, quickly found an impressive list of counterarguments to vanquish my "opponent" (and, more importantly, reassure myself).

I know that many people of other traditions were raised with a similar sense of privilege and moral superiority if not supremacy.

It's remarkable to me now, after all these years, that many Evangelicals today can continue on in this state of either naive innocence or chosen naivete (which is hardly innocent). But I shouldn't be surprised. I'm sure people felt the same way a hundred years before I was born. I was just trying to be a good person, following what I was taught by people I trusted (who were just doing the same).

The words of Soren Kierkegaard come to mind (in "The Point of View for My Work as an Author: A Report to History"). He said that when a person is held in the grip of an illusion, you can't use a direct approach. You have to use indirect communication. He used vivid imagery that involved hiding behind a bush and when the person in the grip of an illusion walks by, jumping out, kicking them in the butt, and then jumping back behind the bush before the person can see you. In so doing, Kierkegaard said, you will accomplish what can be accomplished in no other way: you will have stopped the person in their tracks, caused them to turn around, and gotten them to ask, "What is going on here?"

The philosopher Charles Pierce described something similar under the term "abductive reasoning."

Bottom line, what you want to do is difficult and there is a good chance you will be squeezed out of your church if you try it. (Of course, there are worse things than losing your church ... like losing your integrity -- more on this below).

Here's what I recommend.

  1. Whenever you hear someone say something you think is untrue but widely accepted in Evangelical (or whatever) circles, simply say, "Wow. I see that differently."
  2. If they ask why or what you mean, simply say, "I used to see it that way, but now I see it differently."
  3. If they ask for more explanation, if possible, say, "I don't really want to go into it now. But if you'd like to ask me sometime in the future about the story of how my thinking has been changing, I'll be glad to share it." By postponing an explanation, you avoid getting into an argument now (where you are telling the other person he/she is wrong), and you set the terms of a future conversation: to share your story -- not have an argument. (Arguments are fine, but usually, they only serve to entrench people in defending what they already think. In my experience, it's the empathetic hearing of another person's story that opens me up to a different point of view. It's indirect communication, in SK's terms.)
  4. If they do come and ask you in the future, begin by saying, "It's very important to me to avoid getting into an argument with you. If you are sincerely curious, I'll be glad to share, but I'm not asking you to agree with me, and I'm not interested in an argument at all. Is that OK with you?"

One of my mentors speaks of the enormous power of a non-directive statement, and another speaks of the awesome power of learning to differ graciously. "Wow, I see that differently" is non-directive: you're not saying, "You shouldn't see it the way you do," or "You should change to agree with me." You're only defining yourself -- self-differentiating, if you will, and sharing your story with a curious person when it is asked for more than once, not imposing it on someone who isn't really interested.

"Wow. I see that differently," also exemplifies differing both boldly and graciously.

There's much more that could and should be said, but that's a start. You may be interested in my e-book, "Why Don't They Get It?" - available here:

https://brianmclaren.net/store/

Also, my next book will deal with this subject - Faith After Doubt (St. Martin's Press in the US, Hodder & Stoughton in the UK.)

 

I'm not saying that the above four steps will "work." They may, occasionally, but in my experience, they will usually only do so only after a long time of not working at all.

What this approach will do from the first moment is save you from inauthenticity. It's bad for your soul when your silence implies agreement or complicity with things you have come to believe are false and even harmful. It's bad for your community when you "disturb the peace" in ways that only cause people to retreat into their confirmation bias. (Again, see my e-book for more on this.) What we need are responses that challenge harmful viewpoints but do so in ways that open people up, make them curious, creating at least a tiny crack for some light to get in.

This approach will also give a gift to your companions: you will make it clear that they don't have to agree with you for you to continue loving them. You make it clear that agreement is not a condition of your friendship. That's a great gift indeed in fractious times like these.

Of course, it's important to remember that "Evangelicals" is a stereotype, and real people are not stereotypes. Some are like the rich young ruler in Matthew 19:16–23, Mark 10:17–22, and Luke 18:18–23. Such good people. So earnest. Even if they walk away from you, you can't help but love them. They've invested so much in one way of thinking that they've become theologically rich, which means that it's like a camel going through the eye of a needle to see things from another point of view. But others are struggling, becoming disillusioned, and desperately in need of someone with whom they can speak and think freely. A person who consciously and graciously differs in public or private could be just the kind of person they need to unburden themselves with and to find their way into a more expansive and humane place.

One last thing: it's important for you to have people like that too. If you have at least one or two friends like this -- maybe even outside of an Evangelical context, you will be freer to let your fellow church members not fill that role, and the more free they feel in your presence not to change, the more possible it will be that they just might change. A lot's at stake these days, as this NYT article makes plain: https://apple.news/AaGR4aAkSS7CD1OMD806e7g

 

Paul's words from Colossians are, as you'd expect, spot on:

Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.

 

 

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