5 Things I Learned By Being the World's Worst Evangelist

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Picture 32.pngWe're excited to have author, journalist, and Brown University senior (he's still a senior!) Kevin Roose blogging with us this week. His new book, The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner's Semester at America's Holiest University is about the semester he spent at Liberty University. We'll let Kevin take it from here:

BY KEVIN ROOSE

Unlike their counterparts in the secular world, Liberty students don't spend their spring breaks drinking and cavorting at Señor Frog's. But that doesn't mean they don't head to the beach. During my time at Liberty, I decided to accompany a group of Liberty students on a spring break evangelism trip to Daytona Beach, Florida, where we attempted to convert drunken coeds to Christianity. For a week, we hit the beaches and nightclubs with gospel tracts in hand, hoping to convert the lost. Needless to say, I had some catching up to do.

1) It Can Be Hard to Wrap Your Head around the Concept

Picture 1.pngI tried to treat Daytona as a weeklong thought experiment. For one, a little mental distance was the only way I could keep myself from feeling like the Grinch Who Stole Spring Break. But more than that, it's the only way I found to place myself into the moral space of aggressive evangelism, to try to understand how well-intentioned Christian kids-- some of the nicest people I've met all semester-- ended up on street corners in Florida, shouting about hellfire and damnation.

All week, we heard talks like this one from our group leader Scott: "To me, here's the motivation to evangelize: If I'm a doctor, and I find the cure for a terminal illness, and I care about people, I'm going to spread that cure as widely as possible. If I don't, people are going to die."

Leave the comparison in place for a second. If Scott had indeed found the cure to a terminal illness and if this Daytona mission were a vaccination campaign instead of an evangelism crusade, my group members would be acting with an unusually large portion of mercy-- much more, certainly, than their friends who spent the break playing Xbox in their sweatpants. And if on this vaccination trip, you came across a terminally ill man who said he was "late for a meeting," you might let him walk away. But-- and I'm really stretching here-- if you really believed your syringe held his only hope of survival, and you really cared about him, would you ignore the rules of social propriety and try every convincement method you knew?

Maybe you would or maybe you wouldn't. It took me a while to realize that that's where these students were coming from, but for them, the choice was clear: the risk of being loathed and humiliated was far outweighed by the possibility that even one person would see the light.

2. It's Best to Target the Sober Folks

"Witnessing," as Christians call one-on-one evangelism, is much easier when the potential convert is sober.  I learned this one the hard way. As the nights wore on, and the secular spring breakers got drunker, I started having more and more conversations like this one:

"Excuse me, sir. Would you help me with an opinion poll?"

"Sure, go ahead."

"Who is the greatest person you know?"

"Hmm ... gayest person I know ... I'd have to say Richard Simmons."

Funny, perhaps, but not exactly productive. My friend Claire and I had an equally strange experience when we decided to approach a Rastafarian-looking guy sitting on the Daytona boardwalk, wearing parachute pants and a green-and-yellow basketball jersey. When Claire asked him about his thoughts on the afterlife (one recommended conversation-starter), the guy said, "Heaven is a state of mind, you know? You ever watch the Matrix? When Neo went to the Oracle, and he's like "˜Am I the one?' and she's like "˜No you're not, because you don't know.'  It's like that.  You gotta know, you know?"

"No, I don't know," Claire responded.  The man walked away, and Claire turned to me and said, "I think that man was on drugs."

3. The New Tricks of the Trade (Gastro-evangelism and the Bait and Switch)

As I learned in Daytona, methods of evangelism vary widely from group to group, and my group of Liberty students was hardly the only Christian presence on spring break. While we were proselytizing outside a nightclub one evening, we ran into another evangelism group, a youth team from a Florida church, who had set up a shaved-ice machine to make sno-cones for the clubgoers, which almost seemed like cheating. (Some Christians call this "gastro-evangelism.")

Another group, which was affiliated with Campus Crusade for Christ, has done something sneakier. A well-funded national organization, Campus Crusade rented the ballroom at a hotel next to a big night club and set up a fake party inside, complete with strobe lights, a security team, attractive models paid to stand outside the hotel and gossip loudly about the great party inside. When would-be clubbers entered the room, they quickly realize they've been duped-- instead of a bar specials and trance music, they get gospel tracts and a salvation message.

4. Learn to Evangelize like Kirk Cameron!

Picture 23.pngBy far the most effective witnessing technique I learned while in Daytona (and the easiest to put into practice), was the "Way of the Master" evangelism program, which was formulated by a New Zealand-born pastor named Ray Comfort and marketed by Growing Pains actor and evangelical pitchman Kirk Cameron.  The Way of the Master is based on a four-question sequence designed to demonstrate systematically to a non-believer that he or she is not, in fact, a good person "“ that all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God:

-- "Would you consider yourself to be a good person?"
-- "Do you think you've kept the Ten Commandments?"
-- "If God judged you by the Ten Commandments, would you be innocent or guilty?" (Judgement)
-- "If you're guilty, where do you think you will spend eternity "“ Heaven or Hell?" (Destiny)

The program even gives you a mnemonic to remember the order of the questions: WDJD ("What Did Jesus Do?").

5. But Just How Effective is It?

I thought when Scott was teaching us to evangelize that we'd be told to do some sort of follow-up with successful converts, if we had any. But there was no such procedure. If a new believer backslides, Christians are likely to believe that he wasn't really saved. In the book that accompanied the Way of the Master program, I found several sobering statistics about the percentage of apparent converts that stay involved. Peter Wagner, a seminary professor in California, estimates that only 3-16% of converts at a Christian crusade will stay involved.

Those were good stats for me-- they mean that even if I had managed to convert someone with my bad evangelism, there was only a slim chance it would matter in the long run. But the false conversion rate is profoundly depressing if you believe in this stuff.

As we drove away from Daytona and crossed the city limits, I asked my friend Brandon if he thought we made a difference. His response: "I mean, anything can happen when the Lord is involved. But personally, I don't think us being here was very productive."

Kevin Roose's excellent book The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner's Semester at America's Holiest University goes on sale nationally next week, but that shouldn't stop you from pre-ordering it today! If you missed Kevin's post from yesterday (on 5 Rules at America's Holiest University), be sure to check that out here.

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March 19, 2009 - 10:20am
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