If we are honest, we can all remember a moment when we were embarrassed by evangelism. Some of us might recall passing out a particularly bad tract with impersonal, formulaic outlines and oversimplified descriptions of Christian faith. We might cringe because, in that moment, we felt misrepresented and disingenuous.
Others of us might think back to a moment where we let fear and self-interest keep us from giving an account of the hope that is within us. We cringe not because we spoke, but because we remained passive and silent.
These embarrassing moments hold a certain power over us. The errors we have observed and committed in attempting to share our faith can make many of us (myself included) want to give up on evangelism. But what if, instead of trying to avoid embarrassing evangelism altogether, we conceded that there are aspects of evangelism that will always be embarrassing? This is especially true in an increasingly secular culture.
In reading the Apostle Paul, I’ve concluded that some embarrassment should be expected. Instead of trying to avoid it, what if we decided to let evangelism be embarrassing for the right reasons? Taking our cues from Paul, here are at least two ways we should expect embarrassment in evangelism:
1. Expect embarrassment for caring too much.
While there are many practical motivations for sharing the gospel, ranging from social concern to humanitarian good, the foundational motivation for Christians is a theological one. This is what fueled Paul. He had experienced firsthand the power of love that had stooped low. Paul testified in bewilderment to the love of God in Galatians 2:20, saying he lived by faith in “the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me.” Christian evangelism is modeled after and motivated by God’s costly love.
The inherent problem with this core motivation for evangelism is that godly love makes people uncomfortable. Most Western cultures define love in terms of individual autonomy and the expression of personal freedom. When people say we need more love in the world, what they actually mean is we need to leave people alone. The thinking goes that the more we let everyone do their own thing, the more loving we are. The rub comes when the invasive love of God infringes on the cultural expectations of being loved. If you go the way of the cross, it will lead to you caring deeply for others in a way that can be, well, embarrassing.
Christians by definition are Christ followers, and if we follow Him there is a good chance we will be misunderstood by how we love just as He was. Christ’s love compels us to pursue people relentlessly, to listen quietly, to serve humbly, to inquire thoughtfully, to give generously, to encourage honestly, and to challenge lovingly. If we resolve to love people the way He has loved us, we should expect some cringeworthy moments. If you love people more than they are comfortable with, you will risk being labeled, misunderstood, and embarrassed.
2. Expect embarrassment because you believe in the resurrection.
About 10 years ago on a busy south side street in Chicago, I had a cringeworthy moment when my valet co-worker asked why I was a Christian. I remember saying something to the effect of: “I confessed my sin and Jesus forgave me. He changed my life.”
My answer was canned, and my friend sensed it. Without skipping a beat, he replied, “That’s what they all say!”
His honesty took me off guard. I guess I was just one of the many Christians who had answered his question in a way that, at best, wasn’t satisfying and, at worst, was annoying. It was embarrassing to be called out for a rehearsed (albeit true!) response to the basic question of why I believe in Jesus.
Maybe you can relate. It’s hard to explain your Christianity with originality and brevity, in a way that is winsome yet bold and unflinching. If I’m going to be dismissed, I want it to be for good reasons.
I believe Paul’s speech on Mars Hill (Acts 17) has something to teach us about embarrassing evangelism. You may be familiar with this chapter since it is often used as a case study on apologetics. In verses 17-34, Paul models what it looks like to engage skeptics with the message of the gospel so that there are as few barriers to believing as possible. He overcomes these barriers to belief by observing the culture and knowing how to bridge the message to their context. Paul is willing to discuss his beliefs, but he’s not willing to be dismissed for being misunderstood. He speaks in their dialect, quotes their poets, addresses their idols, answers their questions, and challenges their hearts.
It’s a masterful presentation, and you would think that most of the people would respond positively to the witness of an Apostle. They didn’t. In fact, many mocked Paul: “Now when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked. But others said, ‘We will hear you again about this.’” (Acts 17:32)
They didn’t reject the gospel because Paul was arrogant or confusing. They mocked Paul because he believed in the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. On a more humorous note, you’d think that the resurrection of the dead would not be a huge hang-up for ancient Greeks (didn’t they believe there was a Minotaur living in a labyrinth on the island of Crete?). But this story shows us that the resurrection was no more believable then than it is now.
You can be the most tactful, reasonable, persuasive Christian in the world, but guess what? Whether you live in the U.S. today or Athens 2,000 years ago, people are going to reject Christianity because they reject the resurrection. The people standing on Mars Hill that day didn’t have access to the scientific discoveries that you and I do, but they still believed that when you die you’re dead. But know this: They weren’t mocking Paul, they were mocking Paul’s claim that Jesus rose from the dead. That might feel like splitting hairs, but this distinction offers us a bit of encouragement for our own day.
My suggestion is this: The next time you are asked why you are Christian, speak of the resurrection. The resurrection is, after all, in Paul’s own words, the linchpin of the gospel. If it did not happen, then we are wasting our time claiming to follow a dead man. The inverse is also true: If it did happen, we have no choice but to surrender everything to this Jesus and serve Him all of our days.
Let the resurrection be the linchpin of the gospel, the foundation on which all of its claims for forgiveness, restored relationship, and restored creation are answered with a resounding “Yes!”
In the end, embarrassment is not a sign that you are bad at sharing the good news. Rather, we can expect embarrassment when we care about people and tell of the resurrection. With this in mind, we can begin to move toward a place of confidence in the midst of our evangelism. Isaiah, a man who faced more public ridicule than any of us ever will, puts it this way: “For the Lord GOD helps me, Therefore, I am not disgraced; Therefore, I have set my face like flint, And I know that I will not be ashamed.” (Isaiah 50:7)