Low Anxiety Evangelism

Reading my own words in the last post made me nervous.  Evangelism scares me.  The very word still makes my spine sort of wiggle against the back of my chair.  I know this is specific to my odd liberal culture.  On NPR, in the New Yorker, and in most of the Episcopal Church “evangelism” is a dirty word. 

And so my plea for Christians to invest time in relationship building makes me nervous.  I have known and loved many “evangelicals.”  For so many Christians the stakes are still so high.  I remember sitting in Bible studies comforting friends while they cried because their parent or sibling wasn’t Christian.  We have made it beyond the middle ages and no longer proclaim, “convert or die.”   Still, “convert or burn eternally” just doesn’t seem that much better to me.

The thing is, I don’t believe that people go to hell for not being Christian.  I just don’t.  (In the advanced theological language of seminary I’d probably be somewhere between an Rahnerian inclusivist and a flat out pluralist universalist…but I’ll spare you the Greek).  What this means is that I can’t muster a lot of angst over the state of a person’s immortal soul.

Which is why I have a hard time buying one of the common arguments for evangelism.  The argument goes: “if we have something we value we tell others about it.  If it is true for your favorite computer, why not for your faith?”  Apple even calls their marketing strategy “Apple Evangelism.”  Following this line, I am definitely an Apple “evangelist” and probably an “evangelist” for Patagonia, Subaru, and a few other brands.  But I have problems thinking about telling others of my faith in the same way.

For me, faith is different than brand loyalty.  The consumer-driven world we live in tells me that the more people consume the same stuff I do, the more valid my choice is.  Part of the satisfaction of convincing someone to buy an Apple computer or a Subaru is that it reinforces my own decision.  We can all walk around in our Patagonia t-shirts together.  When I tell you about my chosen brands, there is a bit of anxiety over whether your will validate my choice with yours.

I think of the Christian path more like swimming.  I grew up swimming, and for years it has been my primary form of exercise.  I love swimming, and I could talk to you about what I love about it for hours.  But I don’t NEED you to love swimming.  I don’t need to sell you on swimming.  So my anxiety when I talk about swimming is low.  In fact, if you are a runner or a tennis player I would be happy to hear about what you love about your exercise routine, maybe even ask if I can join you the next time you work out.  If I’m talking to a friend who hasn’t worked out in awhile, I might ask them if they want to come along for a swim sometime.

Talking about faith this way is what I want to call “low-anxiety evangelism.”  I don’t need you to buy a particular brand I am selling.  I know that my spiritual practice helps me be a healthier person, but I don’t need you to validate my choice by making the exact same one.  The primary work in “low-anxiety evangelism” is to make sure that I am practicing, to make sure my faith is healthy, or I have nothing to share.  God doesn’t need a particularly effective, but overweight burned-out, sales rep.

As much as the word makes me uncomfortable, we do need evangelists.  But not for promoting our brand.  We need people who know the value of spiritual practice, who can talk about it with low anxiety.  It’s not about what happens to you when you die; it’s about how alive you are now.  We live in a world where fewer and fewer people invest time in relationship with the divine, where fewer and fewer people know the value of good (spiritual) exercise.  We need people ready to invite them to come outside and play.

Published by Mike Angell

The Rev. Mike Angell is rector of The Episcopal Church of the Holy Communion in St. Louis.

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