A misguided zeal?
A dilemma with his hairdresser leads Colin Sedgwick to wonder whether we have lost our evangelistic nerve
I seem to draw friends with somewhat eccentric methods of evangelism.
Last year I wrote about a lady who was very keen on “bus evangelism”. Which means, as the name implies, turning the top deck of a bus into a mobile pulpit and preaching the gospel to the unsuspecting passengers. Apparently it goes down pretty well in her native Nigeria. But it was, I have to say, rather different when I experienced it in the Ealing Road in Wembley.
And now, just the other week, another friend pressed into my hand a small metal disc. It was rather like a silver medal, and he suggested I give it to the young man who sometimes cuts my hair.
This young man is - no, correction, was - a Muslim, and over the months we have had some interesting chats about faith and about Jesus. I had asked people to pray for him, and my friend felt that “if appropriate” the little disc might be a useful tool.
So what was special about it? Well, on one side it bore the legend “Where will you spend eternity?” and on the other the words of John 3:16 (KJV). My friend reasoned, no doubt quite rightly, that whereas a tract or leaflet would quickly get thrown away or lost, something more durable might make an impact over months or even years.
I knew immediately that, in spite of my friend’s transparent sincerity, this was something I couldn’t do (and not only because of the KJV). It struck, somehow, an alien note. Too aggressive, perhaps? Too in-yer-face? Too redolent of the old hell-fire-and-brimstone evangelism you see in black-and-white newsreels?
But it niggled away at my mind over the next few days.
Why did I so instinctively recoil from this approach? Though the question on the disc strikes a jarring note, the fact is that as Christians we do believe (do we not?) that human existence doesn’t end at death; and the New Testament sounds some pretty solemn warnings about what lies beyond.
Not least Jesus himself. Who else spoke of the person who “gains the whole world and loses their own soul”? Who else warned of divine judgment and of “weeping and gnashing of teeth”? Who else conjured up the frightening image of “the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels”?
However literally or otherwise we choose to interpret such images, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that ultimate “lostness” is a real possibility for human beings. So “where we spend eternity” does need to be thought about.
I became aware as I reflected on this how far we have moved from the mainstream evangelical thinking of 40 or 50 years ago.
We have made “salvation” a much more this-worldly thing. We seem to have become more comfortable talking about the conservation of the planet, or the relieving of poverty, or the correcting of inequalities and abuses, than we are about the eternal salvation of the individual soul. We pour far more resources and energy into organising food banks - something any well-meaning group of people can do, Christian or otherwise - than into concerted evangelistic initiatives.
I’m not saying - God forbid - that these activities are not good. But it’s hard not to wonder if many of us have lost our evangelistic nerve. In the middle of the last century, the “social gospel” was pretty much a dirty word among evangelicals. But has it in fact quietly conquered? Deep down, have we become closet universalists, believing that in the end all will be saved?
All right, my friend’s little disc might well represent something we instinctively distance ourselves from. But does it in fact capture an aspect of Christ’s truth which we have allowed to fade from our thinking, and one which we need to recapture?
Back to my hairdresser. I said that he was no longer a Muslim - he said so quite vehemently when I asked him. But neither, he went on, is he yet a Christian. Still, he has clearly changed significantly.
I don’t know what has brought about this change (the sort of hair-cut I need doesn’t take long, so time for conversation is limited). Certainly, he has been reading a Kurdish New Testament and said he is enjoying it. I know too he has been sickened by the horrors perpetrated in the name of Islam.
Perhaps he is simply becoming slowly westernised after several years in this country. Perhaps his Muslim faith was never very deep anyway.
But I dare to hope that he is on his way to faith in Jesus. On August 11 he is heading back with his wife and young child to start a new life in his native Iraq. Whatever your take on “eternity”, will you pause, please, to say a prayer for him?
Colin Sedgwick is a Baptist minister, with many years’ experience in the ministry.
He is also a freelance journalist, and has written for The Independent, The Guardian, The Times, and various Christian publications. He blogs at www.sedgonline.wordpress.com
Picture: Stuart Miles/freedigitalphotos.net