“People can come find the church,” she said, “I’m not going to tell anybody to do something if they don’t already want it.”
“But people don’t know what they want!” I exclaimed. “Not in romantic relationships, not in dream jobs, not faith.” Holy shit, I thought, what am I saying? This week, over brunch with a dear friend, I got into a heated conversation about evangelism. We’re both from environments where “evangelism” is a bad word; it means manipulation and fear-mongering. I am not, by temperament, an evangelist, but here I was on one side of a plate of Indian spiced fusion breakfast potatoes, arguing in defense of something that always irritated me.
As I re-read the 2006 survey of U.S. Mennonites this week, I found a surprising statistic:
The church is shrinking; I know that, we all know that. But the corollary is: Mennonites don’t want it to grow. Abstractly, we do, but when it comes right down to us inviting people who don’t hang with us to come hang with us, we get scared. “I don’t want to admit to being Christian,” my friend said, “because people assume things about me that aren’t true.” I agree with her–there are times I still don’t own up to being a pastor, because I’m tired of answering questions like “Are you allowed to drink?” or “But you’re a woman–can you be a pastor?”
Maybe this is why it’s also true that “Mennonite evangelistic efforts are lower than for conservative Protestants in the United States.” Many conservative Protestants base their evangelism on Rapture theology, something that’s not only un-biblical, but at odds with many aspects of Mennonite theology.
The backwards part of all this is:
New Mennonites want to share about the church! Look. These are people who lived without Anabaptist theology for a while, then they discovered it, and they went, “Holy shit! This is exactly how I feel!” Many of these new Mennonites are disillusioned Christians, ones who say “I never thought I belonged in church until I showed up here.” It’s like Elizabeth and Darcy: she never thought they belonged together, until she did.
This is what I mean when I say people don’t know what they want. I never thought I wanted to listen to a Jewish reggae singer, until I did. I never thought I wanted a mashup of Taylor Swift and “goats that sound like people,” until I did. This is how the Gospel works! We find a thing that we like, and we share it. Do you ever listen to a song and then post it to someone else’s Facebook? Or watch a movie and then buy it for a friend? It’s like my mom turning on NPR in the car when I was 12, and I would complain, but by the time we got home, we’d pull into the driveway and sit with the car running, just to hear the end of the story.
That’s what sharing Jesus means. Did you ever notice how all the popular Jesus memes were created by non-Christians who don’t actually like Jesus? What if Christians created memes?
What if evangelism doesn’t look like what we think it looks like? This week a different Christian friend showed me comedian Eddie Izzard’s stand up bit on Paul’s letter to the Corinthians. (It’s funny; it’s also explicit, fair warning.)
I don’t know Eddie Izzard’s faith story, but for many young Anabaptists, his summary of Paul is pretty accurate. There’s parts of Paul we like: “don’t do bad things, only do good things, always treat your neighbor like someone who lives near to you.” Parts of Paul we don’t like: “you arrogant bastard, sending letters to an entire city.” And there’s parts we just don’t get: “never put a sock in a toaster, what’s all that about?” What if evangelism means being honest that sometimes we think Paul is crazy-talking? What if we talked about faith, the same way we talk about racism and poverty and other shit that needs to change but we don’t have all the answers to?
What if our faith really does respond to the world’s deep need? What if evangelism didn’t conjure images of purity balls and hypermasculine Jesus, but instead brought to mind pictures of hippies growing vegetables in the city and crocheting their own clothes? If that was the dominant image of Christianity–then, what would you think of evangelism?