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Not so Icky Evangelism

A couple of weeks ago, as Evan and I made our way from the incredibly lucky, free parking spot we found across from the Masonic Temple in Detroit, we passed a red pickup truck with a large homemade sign in the bed that read “Jesus Loves You!” I stopped and turned around to see the message on the other side. It was the same. “Ok,” I said and we continued on our way.

The line to get into the venue was incredibly long. Looking to avoid waiting in a long line, I asked one of the people managing the crowd about how long it was going to take. After politely deflecting any concrete answer, he became super helpful when I explained I was inquiring to see if we had enough time to pop into Temple Bar for a drink before the show, in lieu of waiting in line. With the knowledge that the band wasn’t going to start until 8:00, we walked past the admissions line that wrapped around the building and found ourselves in a much shorter line, waiting to get into the packed dive bar.


As we waited, the red truck we had passed earlier drove slowly down the street, along the long line of waiting fans. The fiddle interlude of the Violent Femmes’ “Jesus Walking on Water” rang out loud and clear from the truck’s cab to greet the waiting fans. I remarked to Evan that it was perhaps the most pleasant version of this sort of evangelism I had experienced. I wasn’t able to witness the reception this rolling messenger received as he continued along his route, but I noticed at least a few faces around me respond with a musing “huh” as the truck made its way past us, perhaps confused or intrigued by the message so specifically tailored to the awaiting crowd. We were, after all, there to see the Violent Femmes.


In April, when my friend Laura and I stopped in Nashville, en route to see the Mountain Goats, we also encountered someone who felt inclined to share their message with the masses. Her approach was far less pleasant. Through the packed sidewalks of Broadway street, lined with honky-tonks and gift shops, she shouted her story through a megaphone as she walked. Just a few feet behind Laura and I, her message was loud, abrasive, and nearly impossible to decipher. As someone who can be sensitive to certain types of sound, all I got out of it was nausea and a desire to cross the street as quickly as possible. 


Years ago there was a church that would send children door to door in my neighborhood. Their opening question was “If you died today, would you go to hell?” This approach turned me off from any message they might have had.


I have never been too keen on the idea of evangelism. Certainly, the countless times I’ve witnessed people with hateful messages plastered on signs, bellowing through megaphones at folks on the street has shaped my idea of evangelism. As has the greater cultural understanding of the term, associating it with a type of faith that shuns, rather than loves, and often embraces concerning Christian Nationalism ideologies. I do not want to be associated with any of that. As such, I’ve long felt uncomfortable with the E part of the ELCA. 


The Violent Femmes encounter got me thinking about forms of evangelism. The message was one of love, albeit superficial. I don’t know if, digging deeper, that person might think one can and should “pray the gay away,” for instance, but I certainly didn’t feel theologically assaulted by that brief experience. This led me to see what the ELCA might have to say about evangelism. 


A quick study of the resources available on their page about evangelism, what struck me was the focus on relationships. Nowhere did I see even a mention of anything resembling the “yell at people on the street” approach, or sending children door to door to ask strangers if they’re going to hell. Instead, the ELCA resources look at evangelism in one on one situations, as a part of our every day life. Reading through these resources, I realize that in the many conversations I find myself in with people about matters of faith, about the church, I guess I have been doing some form of evangelism, it just never occurred to me to call it such. Honestly, I still probably won’t because the word has too much icky for me, but I certainly will still talk to people. While I can be shy and awkward, that doesn’t feel too icky to me.


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