Evangelism is not the lunatic fringe movement it’s been made out to be.
A person on a street corner screaming “praise Jesus!”
A man in a white suit on a stage pointing to the camera and saying that you too can be saved as his audience weeps in joy.
Those might be the mental images when the words “evangelical Christian” come up. But, like most stereotypes, the caricature and the living, breathing evangelicals don’t quite jibe.
It doesn’t help that the terms used to describe the group aren’t clear.
“I think there’s a big difference between fundamentalists and evangelicals,” said Arthur Droge, a professor of humanities at the University of Toronto at Scarborough. “There is variety within fundamentalists and evangelicals, even though the media paints them with a very broad brush, as though they’re all nitwits.”
Observing evangelical Christians shows that they’re not. MissionFest, an evangelical Christian convention of sorts, took place in early March. No one preaching about hellfire could be seen. Exhibitors stood and calmly spoke to those who came up to them. Some people sat around and looked bored. Everyone looked like someone you would pass on the street without a second glance.
“It’s often easy for the media to pigeonhole a group,” said John Bowen, a professor of evangelism at Wycliffe College, a theological school at to the University of Toronto. “All people with this label we know are like that. Obviously, reality is more complex.”
It is the angry minority of Christians who froth at the mouth that get media attention and thus wind up in the public eye, Bowen said.
“There’s not much newsworthy in a nice Christian person who talks about faith in a natural way,” Bowen said. “That doesn’t hit the headlines.”
Most of the Christians who called themselves evangelicals interviewed for this article spoke intelligently and without any fervent, so-called-evangelical zeal.
Evangelists are a diverse group. Although there are is a right wing, according to Bowen, there are also more liberal members. There are those who worry about the environment along with those who don’t care about worldly things because they believe Jesus will come back any day now.
And just because some evangelicals are conservative, it doesn’t mean that they’re fundamentalists. The two groups are not the same. They might agree with each other in their views on God, Droge said, but their view of society is going to be wildly different.
A fundamentalist wants to break off from a society that has become impure, according to Droge, while an evangelical wants to be a part of society in order to affect it.
Not every fundamentalist agrees with that.
“I believe in the fundamental tenets of the Bible,” said David Harrison, the president of Bus Stop Bible Studies, the organization that put ads featuring brief Bible studies all across the TTC. It is a belief in going back to the basics of the Bible that makes a person a fundamentalist, Harrison said.
Harrison says that Bus Stop Bible Studies will not condone anything they feel is against scripture, like gay or adulterous relationships. However, trying to gently convince people they are doing wrong is better than taking a painfully hardnosed approach and condemning them, Harrison said.
“When you get overly conservative churches, I think they can do more harm than good,” Harrison said.
The association with extremism is one problem. The lack of knowledge about what exactly evangelism is makes for another.
Rock concert style, personality driven evangelism has served as the public face of the movement for decades. But things like heading out to the pub with friends to have a few drinks and talk about spirituality count as evangelism, too, Bowen said.
Evangelism can take the form of ventriloquism, as Randy Hicks of the Canadian Sunday School Mission does with a wisecracking puppet in order to appeal to kids.
Evangelism can even be done on a t-shirt. Wear Da Word is a company that sells pop culture Christian t-shirts. One of their designs imitates the Facebook logo and quotes a Bible verse. Another shirt they sell substitutes the word “Christ” for “Crush” in the Orange Crush logo.
“The whole world needs to know the gospel,” said Michael McKoy of Wear Da Word. “Another fast and cool way is bringing simple and plain shirts … and spreading the gospel that way.”
The blending of pop culture and faith points to something else evangelism has managed to do. It’s become mainstream.
Televangelism is the negative end of that. The scandals that brought down major televangelists like Jimmy Swaggart and Jim Bakker have left the word “evangelism” a touch dirty. Self-proclaimed healers like Benny Hinn leave some staring at the TV in wide-eyed disbelief. Bowen said that he knows people who watch TV evangelists like they would comedies.
But there are other, more docile examples of mainstream evangelism. Christian music has its own set of charts on Billboard.com. No American president since Jimmy Carter has failed to say that he is a born-again Christian, Droge said.
Perhaps some people forget the “Christian” part of “born-again Christian”. The gospels don’t have a strong emphasis on salvation, Bowen said.
“You could say that to be a follower of Jesus Christ is to be saved, but that’s not the way [Christ] prefers to talk about it” in scripture, Bowen said.
Christian writing after the Gospels paints evangelism as a job for Christ’s direct disciples, not necessarily for the common person, Droge said.
And it’s not just aimed at non-Christians. Bus Stop Bible Studies’ ads aim to give Christians inspiration, not only to bring non-Christians into the fold.
The experts spoken to agree that “those people” are out there. There are Christian extremists. There are those who view anyone who doesn’t belong to their own sect as a heretic. There are those that espouse violence in the name of their faith. There are hypocrites who tell others to sacrifice while living the good life themselves.
“I’m not going to pretend there aren’t those kinds of people,” said Hicks, the ventrioquist. “There are, as there are in most other religious expressions.”
There are going to be bad people in any group along with the good people. It’s usually easier to notice the bad. But, if you go out and speak with evangelicals, you’ll find something.
You might not agree with all of their views. You might even think that some of their views are crazy.
But you won’t think that they are crazy.