If you have never had “deep tissue” or “sports” massage, I highly recommend it. It has a way of reaching deep into the muscles and tendons and sinews and healing tight places and old hurts that keep the body from running smoothly.
I think good evangelism is like a good deep tissue massage in many ways. By “evangelism,” I mean the broadest, most general sense of this: sharing the “good news” that Christians experience in their life with God in Jesus Christ.
I do not mean a) trying to convert people to Christianity out of a fear that others may perish in hell if they don’t become Christian; b) trying to get people to come to church and give money to the church so that it survives financially; c) telling people about Christ because Jesus told me to, and therefore if I don’t I am in big trouble with Jesus myself. Fear, greed, and compulsion are not of God. For those who feel that these three things are what the Bible tells us to do, I will happily engage in a longer, side conversation with ways faithful Christians read those Bible passages very differently.
For me, evangelism is something that often happens unexpectedly, unintentionally, but in some amazing and surprising manner. A student shows up in my office and suddenly begins to ask me about Christianity. A parishioner wants to have a talk about the sermon. A fellow commuter on the train asks me what church I work at. A co-worker asks me how I could possibly believe in the absurd claims of Christianity. A Muslim asks me if the Trinity is tritheistic (three gods instead of the One).
And then the evangelism just bubbles up: like that feeling of joy you have when a beloved spouse, niece, or friend has just walked off the plane; or that feeling of confidence you feel when you know you’re in the right place, that the boss likes you, that you’re okay the way you are; like the exuberant love of a new parent who can’t believe how lucky she or he is to have this amazing child.
Good evangelism is like deep tissue massage in that it is invited in some way. People came up to Jesus and asked him questions, or they chased him across a lake or followed him along the road. (That’s why he took frequent retreats!) When he told the disciples how to evangelize, he said to tell their story, and if people didn’t want to hear it, to leave them alone. It cannot be forced upon unwilling listeners.
Good evangelism is healing, for both the evangelist and the evangelized, perhaps in subtle and imperceptible ways. When someone has asked me to explain my theology of grace (the idea that God has freely given of God’s self in a variety of ways), and I call up things that I learned from childhood, from religious writers, from the Bible, I too feel the truth and amazement of it, and it’s like those long, slow breaths I experience when the masseuse stretches my limbs and muscles.
Good evangelism loosens tight places. Let’s face it: Some TV evangelism and some negative encounters (the 2 train in the Bronx) have made people feel very tense about discussing Christianity–or any religion at all. Sometimes when people ask me a question about religion, there’s an underlying tension: “Do you think I’m going to hell for not believing?” (Not in the way you mean. But we need to talk about what “hell” means.) “My priest/pastor told me X, and I can’t go to church anymore.” “How come other people have faith, and I don’t?” These are great questions, ones that cannot be answered through quick proof-texting. But when we talk about the things that have caused people spiritual and emotional tension, the spiritual lymph starts to flow again, and we have released each other from the tension of fearing what the other will say.
It increases flexibility. Evangelistic conversation and action (because sometimes evangelism is a gesture of good will, not words) have this amazing effect of stretching everyone involved. I love these conversations with people because they make me rethink my positions, wonder if I can or should think or express myself differently. And I hope that it makes the questioners more flexible in their attitudes toward me, Christianity, Jesus, and God.
Good evangelism goes deep, and so it might hurt. But that’s not due to a bad masseuse. Questions about whether there is a God, whether only one religion is true, whether you and I are chosen or elect or called–all of these come down to the ultimate reality of our existence in the universe. The theologian Paul Tillich diagnosed humanity as feeling deep anxiety due to our pondering the ultimate question: where am I going? That may not be everyone’s deepest question, but there’s no doubt that questions about religion and what they say about our existence go deeper than most of the questions that fill our days.
For this reason, good evangelism may hurt, but that’s not because Christ and God are a bad thing to hear about, and it’s probably not because the evangelist has said or done something harmful. It just tends to open up profound questions that are frightening to look at, or old pains about parents, teachers, or church leaders who hurt us. It touches old injuries and the scar tissue that has built up around them.
As seasoned a Christian as I am, I have been brought to tears again and again by the message that God loves me so much, just as I am, that God took on the strife-ridden existence of human life to show me the Way out. Really. I was reading Martin Luther’s commentary on Galatians, and he wasn’t saying anything I hadn’t heard in church or catechism since I was a child. And I was blubbering, albeit joyfully. The same thing happened when I heard a church choir singing, “There is a balm in Gilead.” Somehow, those words reached way down, to an old, deep hurt that said I was never going to be good enough.
There is a balm in Gilead. So scrap the blog title. Good evangelism isn’t like a great massage. It is a great massage with healing balm that stretches and strengthens and relaxes us into our deepest and strongest selves.