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Evangelical Witnessing: Bait and Switch

SI Editor posted a link to this story about an evangelical effort to evangelize by discussing “Jesus without Religion.” Despite the fact that this is an utterly impossible proposition for true Christians, the students at the University of Wisconsin were sufficiently baited to come and, being thoughtful young people, were rightfully turned-off.

I thought it was going to be analyzing a history of Jesus without talking about religious aspects, but it was actually very theological,” said Evan Malagren, a local high school student.

Well, the local high school student is now just a wee bit more jaded about those slick evangelicals. He was too naive to know that what some sincere evangelicals say is not what they mean even though they think they mean it. And since so many of them sincerely think they mean what they say (“Jesus without religion”) they certainly can’t be trusted as intellectually reliable.

This story prompted a few thoughts in my flu-befogged brain.

1. There’s no need to be tricky in evangelism. ‘Nuff said.

2. But my second point is the reason for this post. Please indulge me as I take a hobby horse out of the barn and let it gallop for a minute.

Cutesy insights sometimes become meaningless clichés after awhile and finally seep into part of the culture and ethos of a people. They become our system of belief and the justification of many of our decisions and little do we realize any incongruity or dishonesty that may seem so obvious to those who have not been raised within the borders of our thought experience. Thus, an evangelistic effort on the part of sincere Christian people comes off as completely disingenuous.

Let me explain. For as long as I can remember Christians have relished the evangelistic tack of saying, “Christianity is not a religion; it’s a relationship.” Tack, I say, because this is supposed to highlight the very real truth of a personal relationship with the Father through Jesus Christ and simultaneously distance the Christian faith from traditional religions. It is also supposed to have the added benefit of baiting any religion-hater and thereby securing at least a few more minutes of witness time before they reject Jesus.

The problem with this strategy, however, is that it’s not true.

Christianity is in fact a religion. It’s a religion with relationship, but it is not just a relationship. Let it so be asserted.

The average college freshman in, say, the liberal University of Wisconsin knows at least half of the aforementioned assertion. The reason said student knows this is simply because of the dictionary definition of religion. Most of the dictionary definitions of religion can be emphatically applied to any kind of Christianity. Consider, for example, a few of the dictionary’s definitions and check if they apply to your Christian faith:

  1. “the belief in or worship of a superhuman controlling power” – Check.
  2. “a particular system of faith and worship” – Check.
  3. “details of belief as taught or discussed” – Check.
  4. “a specific set of fundamental beliefs agreed upon by a number of people” – Check.

You get the point. Christianity is a religion. The word religion may have all kinds of negative connotations that evangelicals wish to avoid, but the bottom line is that when we are addressing people from various backgrounds we must assume that our common ground is not only in the connotative meaning of words that we use, but more likely in their denotative meaning. Whatever religion may connote to various individuals, we all know what it denotes.

Granted, the word is not used often in the New Testament, but it is there. James said,

Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world (James 1:27).

James apparently is completely unabashed about using the term religion. So, why are we?

Frankly, I have enjoyed a slow disentanglement from a witnessing culture that was ingrained into me when I was growing up. I don’t try to figure people out. I’m just my plain self. And I speak the bald truth. In fact, I have found an advantageous perk in my witnessing when I say quite matter-of-factly that my “religion” is to be a Christ-follower. It has the unexpected bonus of distancing me from smarmy evangelicals. Evangelicals are those people who pretend that they are not in a religion to lure any secular sucker not smart enough to sniff out their trick. Whatever I am may be as creepy but they have to admit that I’m honest about it being a religion. People tend to keep listening until they catch you in a lie.

That’s why most evangelical witnessing goes nowhere. The lie is out of their mouth in the invitation: “Jesus without Religion.”


2 Responses

  1. Thanks for the post, Bob. Preached that James passage a couple years ago and felt the same way, just wish I could have explained it as well as you did.

  2. Well written, Bob. I absolutely agree. Have you read “Blue Like Jazz”?

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