I've come across far too many angry evangelists for this to be a coincidence. Out we go, door-knocking, flyering a uni campus or getting into conversations on the streets. (I'm a believer in first contact evangelism so I'm often doing this kind of thing (see here and here).)
Almost always these are two-by-two scenarios, so there I am with a fellow evangelist and we get chatting to someone about Jesus. Within 90 seconds my partner is agitated. This happens all the time. Maybe the non-Christian is showing scant regard for the importance of their own soul. Maybe they're denying their inherent sinfulness. Maybe they have the temerity to question certain gospel events. But pretty soon the non-Christian turns out to have actual non-Christian views and my Christian partner gets antsy.
Suddenly the Christian turns the conversation towards the conviction of sin, the inevitability of death, the judgement to come etc, etc. All of these have their place - absolutely - but I often wonder whether these are raised out of frustration and the desire to sledge-hammer a way through a conversation that hasn't gone as planned. I don't think I'm imagining it. I think that there are a lot of angry evangelists out there. And not just "out there".
I still remember (with more than a wince) a carols service I preached at 12 years ago. Workers piled into our central London church for a lunchtime sing-song and some mince pies. I vividly recall drawing attention to the carol before my talk: "Do you realise what you've just sung? O Come Let Us Adore Him. Adore Him? Such praise of Jesus! Doesn't that turn your English stomachs?" Yes I used that phrase: "Your English stomachs." *sigh* I can still picture the looks, the shifting in the pews, the ultra-awkward festive refreshments afterwards.
I was trying to draw attention to the person of Jesus - how incredible that billions would sing adoration to Him even after all these years. But what came out was anger, snarkyness, frustration, superiority. Ugly stuff.
I see this kind of thing quite a bit. Christmas and Easter services are prime examples. The preacher is often found saying: "And where have you been the other 50 Sundays of the year??" with their tone if not their words.
What's going on?
Several reasons might be given for a Christian's angry evangelism:
- a failure to grasp the gospel (we don't see it as good news, so we put all our focus on "hard truths")
- a failure to grasp the nature of evangelism (we think of it as delivering an ultimatum rather than the offer of Christ).
- a failure to grasp the bondage of the will (that the unregenerate "cannot see" 2 Cor 4:4)
- a failure to have any non-Christian friends (such that non-Christians genuinely surprise and threaten us).
- plain old self-righteousness.
I think these are going on all the time in evangelists, in evangelical pulpits and, let's face it, in me. And it's ugly.
But let me here draw attention to something else going on. Essentially it's a view of evangelism that sees humanity as standing on either side of a "decision for Jesus."
Now there certainly is a vital distinction between those in Christ and those who are not. But this kind of evangelism revolves around, not Christ, but the decision.
On this understanding an "evangelistic sermon" is not so much a sermon full of the good news. It's a sermon imploring non-Christians to make a decision. Such preaching makes Christians feel bored (because they've already made the decision) and non-Christians feel got-at (because the preacher is clearly not addressing their own flock but taking aim at the visitors).
Let me suggest a far more important line that should define our preaching. This line is between the "life of heaven" and the "life of earth" - between God's righteousness and our sin.
Only one Person stands on the right side of this line. Only Jesus. The rest of us - Christians and non-Christians - are on the wrong side of His story. In evangelistic preaching then, we don't speak over the heads of Christians to hit our real targets - the unwashed. We speak to the children of Adam and reveal the problems of Adam. These problems are common to all, but praise God, there's a solution for all. Jesus is the "life of heaven", He is God's righteousness and He's made available to all. Christians need Him and need to look to Him constantly (not just in a one off salvation-moment). Non-Christians too need Him and need to look to Him for the first time. But the problems addressed are the problems of all and the solution proclaimed is available to all.
But what does preaching look like on that first paradigm...
Someone from the right side of the line condescends to preach to those below. And the essence of their message is an "arrow up" - it's an exhortation to make a salvation decision (the way that the preacher has already).
So preaching comes from on high and it's message is for those below to make their way up. Not so on the second model...
Here the preacher is on the side of the hearers - part of the same problem but also offered the same solution. And so this is the essence of the message: arrow-down! In the law, heaven does indeed stand above us and condemn us. What is revealed from heaven is, first, the wrath of God (Romans 1:18ff). But this wrath is revealed to all humanity and convicts all alike of sin. "But now a righteousness from God has been revealed" (Romans 3:21). Here comes the gospel and, once again, it is arrow-down as Christ is offered to lost sinners.
Christians need this gospel. Non-Christians need this gospel. No-one should feel superior. Everyone is humbled. No-one should feel uniquely "got at". Everyone is lavishly "given to." What place does anger have on this understanding.
But what understanding do we have? And how does it shape our preaching?