Not all people who consider themselves evangelical Christians do these things, of course. That’s because a person is separate from an institution. Not only that, there’s a big difference between “churches that evangelize” and “evangelical churches.” The former applies to any church that encourages people to tell others about their faith in Jesus. The latter refers to denominations that are built on the premise of evangelism. So churches like mine (Lutheran) and mainline Protestant churches (Methodist, Presbyterian) are not considered “evangelical churches” despite the fact that they may do some evangelizing. However, some churches that evangelize can and do encourage behaviors that are far closer to evangelical denominations and evangelical culture.
There are some specific aspects of evangelical culture that are more common in some churches than in others, and those are the things that concern me most. For example, Calvinism and its offshoots always make me a little (or a lot) irritable. Some specific things common to evangelical culture (which may or may not be true of a given church or individual):
- Belief that people are either born bad or become tainted at some randomly appointed age (“age of accountability”)
- Pressure to work Jesus into conversations with non-Christian friends, family, and co-workers
- Belief that “salvation” means rescuing from eternal suffering after death
- Encouragement to make friends with people for the express purpose of converting them
- Hosting large-scale events to which people can invite others in order to either hear a salvation message or see the church in a positive light and return at a future time
- Pressure to bring friends and family to church services
- Door-to-door visits, mass mailings, newspaper ads, or in-church handouts used to bring people to church, frequently containing ambiguous, misleading, or provocative language in order to pique interest
None of that has anything to do with genuine relationships, no matter how hard a church tries to sell it as such.
When I was in college, I worked at a Christian camp. One part of our work was to present the message of salvation to the kids under our care. Now, let me just say, I love this camp. My own kids now go there, and I have no complaints about what they’re being taught. I am glad that they’re hearing about Jesus in a caring, fun atmosphere. If I had a problem with evangelism in general, I would not send my kids to camp–end of story. But as both a former employee and director, I am fully aware that the camp counselors often come from different backgrounds and may have learned things that are different from what our family and our church teach and believe.
This particular camp is a day camp, but there’s one overnight trip. As part of that, the counselors deliver a gospel/salvation message. One year, back when I was working, the other counselors decided to present the message in the form of a skit. In this particular atrocious story, a group of girls is in a car wreck, and they all die. One of them goes to heaven and the rest to hell. The last part of the skit is the girls, being pulled down by Satan, shrieking at their friend, “Why didn’t you ever tell us?”
I could not make this shit up.
I wasn’t part of the skit. My campers were all six and seven years old. They were absolutely terrified. One of the girls sat with me by the campfire afterward and sobbed, telling me she was scared that her parents were going to hell and that it was all her fault. It took an hour to calm her down. Needless to say, when I became camp director, I put a ban on that kind of skit.
Instead, they did the one about the teenage party girl who wants Jesus to leave her alone so she can get drunk and do some unspecified “bad” thing.* But, you know, Jesus loves her anyway.
Which is the other part of this–telling people that they need God because on their own, they are worthless. There’s a persistent, stubborn belief that Christians are good because we have the Holy Spirit and non-Christians are bad because they don’t. If a Christian screws up, then it’s because “we’re all still sinners.” If a non-Christian screws up, it’s because they didn’t have godly morality. If a Christian does good things, it’s because of Jesus. If a non-Christian does good things, it’s only out of selfishness or accident. Being convinced of the “truth” of these things is the only way some churches can get people to share their faith. It’s as though they’re saying our religion (yes, it is a religion) isn’t good enough on its own–we need to convince people of their need for it first, either by devaluing them or frightening them.
Which, when you think about it, is absolutely necessary if you believe that the fate of one’s soul rests on a specific set of beliefs.
Is it any wonder that my teenage self was terrified for the eternal souls of my family? I was the lone Christian, both in my immediate and my extended family. Skits–and teaching–like the one above are the reason I told family members that being gay was on par with being a rapist, in hopes that it would scare them into getting saved.
I was sixteen when my Jewish grandfather passed away. The Sunday following his death, I sat through a salvation message in Sunday school, watching a video on the eternal fate of the unsaved. By the end I was crying because of my failure to present the gospel to this man I barely knew and had been forbidden to tell I was a Christian. One of the adults made some noncommittal noises about Jews being “God’s chosen people.” It didn’t help. What if one of my neither-Jewish-nor-Christian family members died without knowing Jesus? Looking back, I truly think these people did not know what to say to me, because what I was going through was completely alien to them, far outside the reaches of their insight.
This is the screwed up kind of evangelism I’m talking about. Not the average, share-your-faith-because-Jesus-rocks kind of evangelism. I mean the sort that tells children they are “deeply broken” and frightens people into telling others about God. The kind that genuinely believes more than two-thirds of the world’s population–billions of people–are destined to fry eternally for the crime of unbelief.
I can’t get behind that. If that’s your bag, please find someone else’s eternal soul to fret over. If my failure to pressure people into belief in Jesus results in their damnation, then I don’t think I want to spend forever with that kind of God anyway.
*Probably sex, but these were little kids, after all. We can scare ’em about hell, but forget sex.