Is evangelism to blame? A Buddhist critiques our lack of godliness

On the Speak Life Podcast, Paul Feesey and I have been discussing the various scandals rocking the evangelical world — particularly those of Ravi Zacharias and Jonathan Fletcher.

While some have questioned our focus on these topics (when we’re meant to be inspiring evangelism), one listener had the opposite observation. Writing as a Buddhist he had some blistering criticisms of the evangelical church – a critique which I think is very worth considering.

Observation and questions

First an observation:

‘Christians are preoccupied, perhaps even obsessed, with bringing others to Jesus. The amount of time, money, ingenuity, effort, and sacrifices Christians expend to convert others is truly astonishing. You pray for it, have conferences on how to do it, celebrate it when it’s successful, vow to keep trying when it isn’t, donate money for it. Even the many admirable projects Christians have to help the sick and marginalised often have a conversion agenda behind them.’

Then come the searching questions:

‘Could Christians suffer fewer scandals if they paid less attention to converting others and more to transforming themselves? Might their time be better spent teaching congregations to develop self-awareness than encouraging them to evangelise their neighbours? Could it even be that the imperative to convert others is really a subtle, unconscious strategy to avoid looking at oneself?’

The shoe does fit, a bit

When we consider that Ravi Zacharias leveraged his status as a world-renowned evangelist in order to spiritually and sexually abuse his victims, when we remember how he told victims that ‘millions of souls’ would be lost if they blew the whistle on his sins, when we note how many scandals are hushed up because ‘So-and-So is a good man, doing a good work’, the shoe does seem to fit – at least a bit. And what of the whole orientation of the evangelistically-driven Christian life? When all the focus is on winning the lost, what place is there for looking within?

Our Buddhist listener continued:

‘How did [Fletcher and Zacharias] get that way. I am sure they started out as devoted, sincere Christians, but I’m just as sure that the need to fulfil “the Great Commission” led them to start making compromises, then exaggerating, then becoming a good actor, then becoming blind to their personal issues – pride, lust for power, sexual desire, etc. They had no time to look at themselves; they were too busy planning how to save others.’

How do we react?

We might react defensively to such critique. After all, if we had a cure for cancer and did not devote our lives to sharing it, that would be the unbalanced and unloving approach. That’s true. But does our listener have a point? I think so.

I think we have muddled a number of different elements in our theologies of church, mission and the Christian life.

First, evangelists have been divorced from the church. What Ephesians 4:11 has brought together – the ‘evangelists’ and the ministry of the whole body – we have put asunder. We send evangelists away on their solo missions when they’re meant to equip the saints for an all-of-life, whole-of-body mission.

Second, we have divorced pastoring from evangelising, imagining that seeking lost sheep can happen apart from the feeding and protection of the flock.

Third, we divorce in our thinking and practice the ‘building of the church’ from the ‘reaching of the world’, when in reality the church is God’s evangelistic strategy. And fourth, we consider our job to be ‘gaining converts’ when, more fundamentally, we must ‘offer Christ’.

Pyramid scheme?

The church is not empty, seeking to suck the world in, we are full and must flow out! Yet if we never consider our ‘fullness’ in the Lord Jesus, we have nothing to give. We become a pyramid scheme with little to offer our new recruits, except the expansion of the scheme.

What our Buddhist listener was urging us towards is, in fact, what will fuel a truly healthy mission. It’s the inward (and, more importantly, upward) look that will set our hearts on fire with a contagious love for Christ. He is the centre, not evangelism.

Glen Scrivener

Glen Scrivener is director and evangelist with ‘Speak Life’ in Eastbourne, which trains Christians in personal evangelism, in person, in podcasts and videos.