“Thank goodness that’s over,” you sigh, laying your head on your pillow. As the organiser of your church’s ‘wine tasting’ event, your day had been very full. First thing this morning you had been to a number of superstores to chase down the twelve required varieties. As the rain poured down, you loaded the cases into your little old car. Puddle water soaked through your shoes, but you reminded yourself that it was all for the gospel. You arrived at the church and helped arrange the room with a small number of volunteers. Just as you sat down for lunch you received a call from the expert who was going to lead the tasting but now needed to pull out. A few hours, a lot of anxiety, and many phone calls later, you found someone who could fill in for him. Your phone beeped again as you received a message from the friend you invited. Unfortunately she could no longer get away from work in time and wished you a pleasant evening. You felt really disappointed. However, having an official role made it much less awkward for you than for other members of the church family who arrived without a non-Christian.
Just as you finished briefing your serving team the clock struck 7.30 and the wine tasters started to arrive. They mingled and sipped for an hour, before you interrupted with three taps on the side of your glass. You announced that it was time for a talk entitled ‘How Jesus turns us from red to white’. A speaker you had invited spoke for a good 25 minutes on Isaiah 1:18, which had been printed out and left on various tables around the room. He spoke clearly and strongly about the issue of sin, and ended by calling his listeners to repent. The evening concluded with a final half hour for drinks to be finished. Only after a further hour of washing up and cleaning were you able to head home too.
The effort and urgency with which Christians are engaging in evangelism is highly commendable. In love many are acting upon the truth that men and women can be saved from eternal misery and brought into God’s kingdom only by coming to trust in Jesus (John 3:36). Some of us feel our friends would be helped by hearing God’s word from a third party, and so take our friends to a special occasion such as a guest service, football tournament, jazz night, craft evening, pub quiz or wine tasting event where the gospel is preached.
I do not wish to discourage fellow Christians from using invitational forms of evangelism. However, I do wish to question the way in which such evangelism is generally conducted. The Apostle Paul teaches us that Christian outreach should not use deception (2 Cor 4:2) and yet it appears that in two ways we are being far from transparent.
Are we transparent about what we are doing?
Vast amounts of time and energy are often put into running these special events. Organizing them often leaves us tired, stressed and out-of-pocket. So why do we put them on? Answer: because we know that our friends will hear about Jesus. That is why we bother. That is why we go through all the effort. The talk is the reason why such events happen.
Yet our guests could be forgiven for thinking otherwise. Admittedly, it does say on the invitation that there will be a ‘short talk’, but it is at the bottom in a small font. Instead we encourage them to come because of the fantastic activity or the ‘free’ food. When the talk itself comes, we might be seen to be further concealing the intentions of the event: we listen as if we are being addressed when we know it is only for our guests.
Such actions are understandable. Our friends and colleagues seem to have little interest in Jesus. We only emphasize the ‘non-religious’ parts out of a great desire to see them come. The reason why we listen to the speaker attentively is so that our guests might feel less awkward. The deep love we have for those around us is right and good. Nevertheless, according to the Bible, good intentions do not justify dishonest means; Paul says that he has “renounced… underhanded ways” (2 Cor 4:2). Are our actions transparent?
Are we transparent about who we are?
In order to make the event ‘work’, Christians often display unnatural levels of enthusiasm. We engage in the advertised activity as if it were our favourite hobby. In reality, many of us would much prefer to be doing something else.
A further charge of misrepresentation might be made: that we hide the way in which we are people shaped by the gospel. At our evangelistic events we do not engage rightly with the Bible. God’s word is a lamp to our feet and a light to our path (Ps 119:105), yet it is rare at events for us to feel challenged by it. “I’ve already repented and turned to Christ!” we might (somewhat naughtily) say to ourselves as the speaker applies the message. For it is rare that the application goes beyond this. Even at ‘evangelistic services’ the preacher is often so concerned that guests know that they should trust in Jesus for salvation that they fail to explain any other implications of the passage. Consequently, our guests leave with the false impression that the Scriptures are of little practical relevance to the lives of believers.
Having raised these two areas of concern, I wish to suggest how the situation might be improved: by being clear who a particular event is primarily for.
Type 1: Primarily for unbelievers
It could be that our event is primarily for the unbeliever. Apologetic talks, gospel presentations and courses such as Simply Christianity and Christianity Explored fall into this category. It might be perfectly appropriate to have food, music or other entertainment on such occasions. But the advertising should not suggest that these elements are the central focus.
Type 2: Primarily for Christians
On the other hand, the event might be primarily for the Christian. Church services belong to this category, as do home group picnics, church games nights and most youth clubs. As Christians it is natural for us to talk about our faith and how the hope we have in Jesus is sustaining us; one would expect this to be happening on such occasions. We may have some semi-formal input, perhaps a closing prayer or a ‘thought for the day’—at inter-church football matches something at the beginning would be helpful too!
The only thing needed to turn such Christian meetings into effective outreach events is guests! Despite being at the periphery of these occasions, outsiders can be profoundly affected and come to a saving knowledge of the gospel. No doubt the conversion of unbelievers will be a great prayer of our hearts, but the primary reason for running these events is not evangelistic opportunity.
In our desire for people to hear the good news of Jesus, are we being honest in our invitational evangelism, and authentic when we are together? Being clear who events are for might remove such doubts. There is every reason to keep running events that are primarily to help non-Christians come to an understanding of the gospel, but reason also for us to be upfront when advertising them. If these events could be run in addition to our regular church activities then God’s people will receive the attention they need and outsiders can come and see us as we really are.
This reflection is shared cautiously: I do not wish to undermine the hard work that has been put into such evangelism. It is shared humbly: I have organized the very events I am questioning! And it is shared prayerfully, that God may use it to bring about evangelism that is not only sacrificial and urgent but also transparently honest.