I am very angry at the commercial interest in the word Evangelism. I suppose I’m angriest because I see how perfect Evangelicals have made the word for marketers. What do I mean? Well, euangelion means to Christians the universe of good news entrusted to our way of being disciples. The Good News is Jesus Himself. Who Jesus is and what Jesus does to transform humanity cannot possibly be fit into any little sound bite or encounter. One of our greatest sins as Evangelicals has been to attempt to try to “maximize the gospel’s potential” by changing it so that it’s for as many people as possible. (Which I would say cheapens it so that it is for no one in particular.) Read Kittel’s account of the Gospel’s power and complexity:
“The Gospel does not merely bear witness to a historical event, for what it recounts, namely, resurrection and exaltation, is beyond the scope of historical judgment and transcends history. Nor does it consist only of narratives and sayings concerning Jesus which every Christian must know, and it certainly does not consist in a dogmatic formula alien to the world. On the contrary, it is related to human reality and proves itself to be living power. 1 C. 15:3: This “for our sins” makes the preaching of the death of Jesus into a message of judgment and joy. 78 The proclamation. . . does not present the resurrection as an incidental or isolated event but as the beginning of the general resurrection. The Gospel does not merely bear witness to salvation history; it is itself salvation history. It breaks into the life of man, refashions it and creates communities. It cannot be generally perceived (2 C. 4:3); in it there takes place a divine revelation. Through the Gospel God calls men to salvation. The preacher is the mouthpiece of God (2 Th. 2: 14). Since the Gospel is God’s address (1 Th. 2:2, 9), to men, it demands decision and imposes obedience (R. 10:16; 2 C. 9:13). The attitude to the Gospel will be the basis of decision at the last judgment (2Th.l:8; d. 1 Pt.4:17). The Gospel is not an empty word; it is effective power which brings to pass what it says because God is its author” (Gerhard Kittel, Editor, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Vol. II, pg. 731)
I’ll never forget my chance encounter with an Amway salesman who said he wanted to meet with me in order to talk about Jesus. He didn’t bother to inform me that he was an Amway salesman. He had seen me preaching on television and admired my enthusiasm for the gospel and the call to holy living. We sat together and he really buttered me up. Told me how effective I was in my presentation. Told me about how anointed the message was. I felt kind of awkward about that. At the time (age sixteen) I didn’t like the word preaching. I liked to call it sharing. But yes, I was taken with the Scriptures. I was “on fire” and didn’t want it to go out, ever. He opened his briefcase and pulled out some pamphlets. I peered at them and suddenly realized we weren’t talking about the power of the Holy Spirit anymore. I listened to him tell me about how much money I could make for the ministry by using my fire to influence others about cleaning products. Inside I got so angry I wanted to hurt this man. I felt violated in the very place that felt safest to me. Jesus had changed my life and now this man wanted to use my conversion and my witness to sell his cleaning products.
He saw that I wasn’t comfortable and he tried to help me understand. But the more he talked the angrier I got. I finally made it very clear I wasn’t interested. He reassured me I could use the money for ministry and said that if I ever needed money to call him. But he could never give me back what he’d taken from me, namely my innocence about the gospel message. Last month, when the new Evangelical Manifesto included the sentence, “The Evangelical soul is not for sale,” my heart skipped a beat. I thought to myself, “Since when?”
I recently learned of the blog “Church of the Customer.” Religion is life and so evangelism is befriending customers. It’s not even about the sale anymore, it’s about the hard work of making converts. Yes, my friend, they have coopted this word Evangelism. You know what? We gave it to them. We were showing in our demeanor that Jesus has always been free, the first one is always free. Evangelicals have been the ultimate sales people and we’ve offered everything that Americans could ever hope for. The marketing people want so much to be like us that it hurts.
Word by word, the Christian proclamation is becoming a commodity. The audacity is only surpassed by God’s patience and mercy. The gospel’s power to make us new creatures is not threatened by cheap imitations. No matter how far they go.