Why I kissed “Evangelistic Programs” Goodbye

way of the masterMy church signed onto this program in the early 2000’s when it was fairly new.  Like many evangelical churches, we “wanted to reach the lost” and thus ordered it for our church because of its promise to equip Christians to confidently lead anyone to repentance. And with a name like “The Way…” who would not want to sign on? It was co-produced by child star Kirk Cameron from the T.V. series “Growing Pains.” Ray Comfort, the other producer, provided the biblical framework. I was not comfortable with it at the time. These days, I would not even consider using anything resembling this program today. I’ve “kissed” programs like this good bye. But being that so many evangelistic programs make the same assumptions, I thought it worthwhile to expand why I’ve kissed these programs good bye.

Disclaimer: if you’re reading this and don’t have a Christian church background (regardless of whether you follow Jesus today or not), this will be somewhat of a “behind-the-scenes” view on things. Hopefully it won’t get too ugly for you. “Religion” can get VERY ugly. I hope you find some redemption in this.

The program was designed to bring anyone we meet to be feel convicted of their wrongdoing. That was not our experience though, and it’s not because we did not “train up.”  I and members of the church digested the entire package of CDs and training materials (par for the course in those days). We listened to antidote after antidote about how people from every background could feel the conviction of their wrongdoing                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                               …on the street, on the airplane, on the job, and in the grocery story, if we just followed the “program.” Specifically, we were trained to ask questions like “Have you ever lied?…Have you ever stolen anything?”   The program drove home the point that this is what Jesus did in the Gospels in his encounters with people; this was the way of Jesus, hence the namesake of the program. I did not agree, but I was a team player and went along with it. After we diligently trained, role played, and prayed, we were ready to hit the streets.

So we paired up two by two and began engaging people with “The Way.”  I’m sure there were “success” stories here and there. But I only remember the unsuccessful stories because they are more telling. After one of our outings, I remember some church members came back frustrated and surprised. Questions that were meant to provoke guilt and conviction of sin backfired.  “Have you ever stolen anything?” was supposed to generate a “yes” reply…perhaps even followed with a confession. Instead, we were met with responses like “No, I’ve not even stolen anything…have you?” This was not an isolated incident.  As the weeks passed, we learned that the program simply did not work for everyone; some people seemingly just don’t have a sense of guilt! One may wonder…does that mean such people are “farther away from God?” More on this question later…

In my experience, our church’s mixed experience with “The Way of the Master” was not an uncommon one. Many missionaries face similar frustrations especially among cultures where honor and shame are the predominant cultural values. This is because most church and missionary training programs similarly assume that provoking guilt is the only way to bring about conviction and eventual repentance of sin.

However, conviction of sin can come from shame as well as guilt. The “shame” component is unfortunately rare among evangelism tools and training, probably because most programs have been influenced by our more individualistic, western world. There are scholarly conversations about this topic that’s too much to unpack here. But here’s one of the more readable articles on the subject written by a great guy: “Should Evangelism Provoke Guilt or Expose Shame?”  This article summarizes a presentation given at the Evangelical Missiological Society and traces how both shame and guilt were originally embodied in the word “convict.” The talk then traces how the idea of shame was eventually removed from the sense of the word “convict.” It’s fascinating to see how we got to where we are today. “The Way of the Master” falls into this camp; it assumes guilt is the only way people can be convicted of wrongdoing.” Facetiously speaking, this program should be called “A Way of the Master” and not “The Way…”

The problem is multi-faceted. There’s little training in evangelical circles that acknowledges shame as a way God uses to convict people of wrongdoing. Neither does the word “shame” appear in many of today’s systematic theology books in spite of its biblical weight from Gen to Rev. And those who don’t respond to guilt have long been more marginalized, as if these people are more immoral or “farther” from Jesus. But the people from the shame cultures of  Central and East Asia are not “further” from God. Neither are westerners in North America and Europe more privileged because of the greater emphasis on guilt. Good News is for everyone, regardless of context and culture.

Another assumption many make is we need only be concerned about “shame culture” overseas. Decades ago, there were more reasons to believe that, especially before President Johnson opened up immigration in 1965.  For example, UCLA was 97% white in 1951 when Bill Bright founded Cru. “White America” was the context the “Four Spiritual Laws” were written into; it wasn’t that long ago when the quota for Chinese immigration was held to barely over 100, nationwide. What a different time that was. Today, minorities are the majority at UCLA along with a growing number of universities. In a few years minorities will outnumber majority culture among all U.S. colleges. So what if the “Four Laws” (or tracts like it) were written from a shame perspective instead? It would read differently, perhaps something similar to this illustration I wrote up in 2006.  

“Shame cultures” extend well beyond Asian countries and people.  Our young people don’t have morals” is a common misunderstanding. It’s so untrue. Rather, morality has shifted away from guilt and towards shame and it’s on the rise, especially with social media. Millennials represent an entire generation whose moral imperative is shame-based. ” There’s a reason why shame researcher Brené Brown’s TED talk entitled “The Power of Vulnerability” is in the top 5. Any anthropology, any missiology, any theology, any program that wants to be effective today cannot continue to assume a guilt-based only approach. Who would not be frustrated trying to use tools that were designed for a different age? 

“Some of the most kind people I know are atheist, and some of the most unkind people I know are Christian.” That came from a recent conversation with a friend, but it describes many other conversations I’ve been in. What people are reacting to is not so much Jesus, but being hurt and rejected by the church, “organized religion.” and with Christians who make others feel like a “project.” If and when I bring in the name of Jesus, many will differentiate Jesus from their experience of”religion” and “church goers.”  Not only are Christians seen in bad light here in San Francisco, the Bible is usually held with suspicion, especially when used in a bait and switch kind of way. At the end of the day, as a follower of Jesus, I seek to embody his heart, and to be the hands and feet of Jesus. Once that ground work is laid, I find myself easily able to engage one’s world view and narrative in a mutually blessed way. Yes, my views are tested, strengthened, and sometimes even beat up. In San Francisco, these kinds of conversations happen in both individual settings and group settings. For a couple of years for example, I helped lead a bicycle-driven inter-faith liturgy where the highlight was honoring the many sacred spaces we went to, since we had riders represented from many of them. And sometimes, I like to organize simple events for others to dialogue around world view, like the time I organized for a youth group from a Unitarian Universalists church to dialogue with my church youth.

Asking questions to provoke guilty feelings is simply something I could not see myself doing.  It would threaten exercising kindness, authenticity, and love to my friends who don’t share my world view. To the Pharisees and those who “ought to know better” (like disciples after some time), Jesus spoke truth. But to the adulteress woman, he showed grace when the others wanted Jesus to “come down” with truth. In a place like San Francisco, it’s much more important to embody the heart of Jesus, to be where he would go (like to our equivalent “Samarias”) and to be his hands and feet. This is the Jesus I read whenever he encountered those who needed his grace the most.

The title of this post may trigger for some the name of a book title from 25 years ago called “I Kissed Dating Goodbye.” At the time of this writing, its author had just announced separation from his wife, which is ironic, given the movement that book spawned. Summarizing what little I’ve read on the subject, that old book was criticized for over-simplifying relationships. Perhaps the author of the book discovered this the hard way. With all due respect, he seems to be taking responsibility for what he wrote a quarter century ago. But I titled this post similarly, to suggest how evangelistic programs are also reductionistic, just like that old book on dating. The people of San Francisco deserve better than that. The people where YOU live deserve better than that.  I’ve “kissed goodbye to dating” and I’ve “kissed goodbye” to programs like “The Way of the Master.” And I think Jesus would have too; it just would not have been his way!

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