Why Permission Evangelism Fails (even before you begin)

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It is all the rage to expect good and decent Christ followers to receive permission from non-followers before sharing about Jesus. I suspect this is primarily backlash from soapboxes and megaphones, colonializing missionaries, and manipulative priests. While it is right to revolt against flagrant abuses of freedom in Christ and outright oppression of the vulnerable, permission evangelism is as equally unbiblical as the tyranny that inspired it.

I understand permission evangelism from a salesman’s perspective. There is a requirement for trust – an invitation – to share about a particular sales product with a client before there can be any reasonable assurance of closing the sale. From good-intentioned resources like The Four Spiritual Laws to less-clearly-intentioned resources like Every Day a Friday: How to Be Happier 7 Days a Week, we have effectively reduced the Almighty Creator to a rudimentary sales pitch.

Please don’t programify Jesus with permission evangelism.

Permission evangelism assumes Jesus is a program more than a person – some product to be pandered rather than the Living Word that commands the planet’s orbit. When the beauty of the Gospel is reduced to a scripted walk-through of a list of bullet points, it is no longer a beautiful Gospel – it has stopped being good news.

Biblical allegory to marriage abounds. Evangelism is no exception – the vitality of the message is not in slick packaging but in raw intimacy. While technology attracts millions through glamorous shimmer, Jesus attracts billions with brilliant piercing life. Teaching people a form of evangelism that is little more than a clever program is “clean” and the easier to manage through “quality control” – and it absolutely suffocates the Holy Spirit’s power and the reality of actually following Jesus as a disciple!

Public displays of affections

Consider my wife: I don’t hesitate to mention that I’m married when talking to people I’ve just met. I don’t fret at length whether or not I should mention my marriage in a conversation with my neighbor. I don’t hold a strategy meeting about how to introduce my wife at my work holiday party. There are no publically held forums on whether I should wear my wedding ring when visiting with groups of single people (who may feel less able to relate to me, because I’m married). There is no merit to the debate of when or how to mention that I am a married man; I simply mention it, because I am.

Just like I don’t need to develop trust for people to know I am a man, I don’t need to develop trust for people to know I am a married man.

When I talk with people, my wife is part of the conversation – not by force or script, but because my life is naught without my wife. A friend asks me to join him at an event? Let me ask my wife. How was my weekend? It was great – my wife and I did this or that together. How was the work trip? Wonderful – except I missed my wife and made sure I talked to her each day.

It’s not that I’m trying to get my neighbor to fall in love with my wife – it’s that I am so in love with my wife! My intimate and intense love for my wife means that every aspect of my life revolves around her, includes her, and is for her good. My aim is not to coyly educate my neighbor about my wife but to simply live aligned with the love of my life. Nor is my aim to “leak” my wife onto people, as though she were a bladder problem I sometimes can’t control. Without intending to educate my friends, I’m often surprised by how much they know about my wife simply through normal, everyday conversation – but then they remind me how often I talk about her.

Hey guys, this is normal

While few people make it into my house without having already heard me declare my love of my wife with words, there would be no doubt left in their mind once they set foot inside the threshold of my home. The weighty reality of her tangible existence in my life is clearly revealed in my lifestyle – the décor of our home, the vehicle we drive, the way we eat – it is all shaped in large by my wife; to get fancy, it is a tangible declarative lifestyle that says, ‘I am married’. I’m not ashamed of it, either. I don’t change the pictures on the wall when my neighbor comes over for the game, nor do I change my diet when eating with single people.

The strangest part of all this is that my neighbor, single people, and others aren’t the least bit perturbed by my behavior. I’m not labeled as a fanatic outsider, not ostracized from conversations around pop culture, and I’m not berated for deferring to my wife’s preference for weekend plans. It is perfectly normal for a married man to have the dreams, preferences, and considerations of his wife taken into account in every thought, conversation, and activity of life.

You know what would be weird?

It would be stranger by far if my neighbor were to discover I’m married months after we’ve been living near one another. It is far more uncomfortable to show up at the holiday party at work with my wife and have people murmur, “Who’s she?” than to turn down a round of golf because my wife really wants to go visit her aunt.

And when one of those rare people cross my path who are truly offended that I am married or talk about my wife – no problem; we probably won’t have much of a friendship. I don’t try to pretend that I’m somehow not married simply to have a conversation with someone; my wife is my life and breath, I love her with my whole heart and she commands my waking attention, full of affection. If that doesn’t fit someone else’s preference, it isn’t my wife who gets cut out.

Perhaps I’ve made the point clearly enough: if we see our Identity as being a part of Christ’s Body and collectively as part of his Bride, then it is bizarre to engage in permission evangelism rather than tangible declarative lifestyle. We don’t leak Jesus to others, we live with Jesus and oftentimes others take notice.

Tangible declarative lifestyle

What should be abundantly clear by this point is that such a position toward evangelism is anything but permission to be rude, obstinate, or ornery. In fact, most Christians who prefer the soapbox often wrestle with the fundamental building block of Identity: humility. It is far more arrogant and often much easier to force my opinion on others. It is a constant act of laying down my prerogative to simply stand with my convictions without the authority to demand you stand by them also. Yet this is the reality of our lives – we have no power to affect the condition of the heart, no recourse to change the mind of man; it is the Spirit’s work, only.

Back to the allegory of my married life, the shift in perspective for many Christians is to stop thinking of evangelism as convincing others to fall in love. The question most of us should ask ourselves is not, “How many people have I led to the Lord?” (which I have other problems with, anyway) but, “What tangible evidence in my lifestyle suggests I’m in love with Jesus?” (hint: it’s not the bumper sticker, private school, or vitriol on Facebook)

A tangible declarative lifestyle is subconscious (I don’t have to remind myself each morning that I am married, since I wake up next to my wife). Tangible declarative lifestyle is anchored to the root of humility before Jesus that fuels the growing stalk of unity among his Church and flowers out into the reality of shalom in our neighborhoods.

Such a seedbed produces a perspective of evangelism more along the lines of declaring a pre-existing love. When our view of evangelism is simply speaking out of the tangible expressions that have resulted from a lifestyle of loving intimacy with Jesus, people are piqued by our simple confidence in the reality of the Almighty God in daily life.

Forced Marriage

“Convincing people to fall in love” – that’s the definition I gave many people’s experience with evangelism to be. Yet even a cursory reading of that sentence ought to cause many to chuckle: how on Earth can anyone think they can convince someone else to fall in love with something or someone? It’s absurd.

Ironically, teaching on evangelism often doesn’t even make it this far. In my limited experience, it often digresses into a complex regime aimed at getting people to accept Jesus. However, us accepting him is only a fraction of the choreography: the sweeping view is far more about love than acceptance. Perhaps a more authentic synopsis of popular views of evangelism are better expressed as convincing others to accept—.

Even at this point, the question is tragically hazy: accept what? My opinion of Jesus? Baptism? The reality that I will burn in hell without Jesus? Attending a worship service at your church? What exactly are we trying so hard to convince people to accept? (after they’ve given us their permission to try, that is)

And so, much of my life I had my view of evangelism errant on two counts: the first being that it was focused primarily on convincing others; the second that it’s final objective was to get people to accept the thing I was cleverly convincing them about.

It is no wonder to me that so many beloved friends are, at best, bewildered by ‘evangelism’, and often, at worst, completely opposed to it. Perhaps the feeling would be different if the methodology is pivoted away from slick sales pitches to center on a tangible declarative lifestyle that reveals a pre-existing love. And if, instead of convincing people to accept Jesus, we simply stand by our love for Jesus (in word and deed), we might find ourselves missing that familiar wrench in our gut when the name ‘Jesus’ carelessly slips into a conversation.

And when our perspective does pivot, we will no longer be captive to the program of permission evangelism. We will be freed to naturally and confidently engage with the love of our lives in every thought, conversation, and activity of life – and we will find that the people who surround us in life with know a thing or two about this intimate lover of ours as well.

K Livingston
K Livingston
I believe in dreaming big, working hard, cheering loud, standing tall, bowing deep. All of it because I believe Jesus = life.
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