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~ The Case Against In-Your-Face Evangelism ~

Don Pollock of Outreach magazine described the exemplary leadership of Lt. Col. Christopher Hughes, 101st Airborne Division, reported in a National Public Radio news story aired in April of 2003. The presence of the heavily armed division on routine patrol was perceived threatening to a large group of Iraqi Shiites who feared destruction of their sacred shrine. The group of unarmed Iraqis grew into a mob of hundreds, thrusting their fists in the air, yelling, and slowly approaching the US troops.

Imagine the explosive potential of tragedy at that moment. It would not have been good military strategy for the Americans to keep retreating back from their position or mission, nor would it strategically acceptable for the troops to engage in hand-to-hand combat or a form of "crowd control" used to contain hundreds of angry protesters back in the states. As the Iraqis approached, the troops saw only one effective response, and waited for the order to begin firing. A tragedy was impending.

Lt. Col. Hughes surprised his soldiers. Through a loudspeaker, he shouted three quick, unexpected orders: Kneel on one knee; point all weapons to the ground; look up at the crowd with a smile. War-hardened soldiers must have thought their commander was getting war-crazed, but obeyed. Those at the head of the crowd suddenly stopped, dropped their hands and grew quiet. The rest of their number quickly followed suit, every one sizing up the situation. Less than a minute later, the Iraqis began laughing in delight, and American soldiers and Iraqi Shiites replaced their stand-off with pats on the back and friendly smiles. In a little while, the division continued on their assigned patrol, both sides waving their good byes.

Lt. Col. Hughes has some things to teach all of us about the rules of engagement in our arenas and missions. A lot of evangelistic endeavors adopt an aggressive, in-your-face mode of operation. Some even call themselves "crusades" and extol their mission to "win souls"..."Onward Christian soldiers, as if going off to war!" The unarmed Shiites were no match against the armed American division and Officer Hughs could have proved that to them and the world. But at what cost and would it have served the mission of peace?

As Pollock pointed out in his contemplation of the NPR story, all of us zealously guard our sacred shrines and places we hold in our minds and hearts against perceived threats. These may not be regarded sacred by others, but their pontificating of superior might and truth does little to "win" anyone's heart or soul. Most of us of all backgrounds do share the value and desire to be treated with respect and dignity, regardless of our faults and deficits.

A fundamental evangelical accepted a Catholic friend's invitation to attend Mass. Upon entering the church, he scooped up a handful of holy water from out of a hanging bowl at the door, then rubbed his hands together and wiped them off on his handkerchief. His friend whispered, "We consider that water consecrated for liturgical use. It is holy to us." He replied, "My hands were sticky and I know that's just plain old water." After leaving the church they both went to the man's home for an outdoor barbecue. After eating a couple of chicken legs, his friend went over to an American flag hanging nearby and wiped her hands on it. Her friend was aghast. "You are desecrating our flag!" She answered, "My hands were greasy and I know that's just plain old cloth." After a five-second stare at each other, they both laughed and shook hands. The man offered his sincere apology for disrespecting the holy water and she took the flag home to respectfully clean it.

During the following months, both continued amicable and respectful dialog about their spiritual faiths and learned much from each other. One day, when on the job, the man overhead a disrespectful litany of curses and condemnation of all Christian churches. Months before, he would have confronted the mockers of his faith with an assertive speech of his own, challenging them with his superior knowledge and devotional protectiveness. Instead, he metaphorically went down on one knee, pointed his weapon to the ground, looked up and smiled. "You guys know where I stand, but you can teach me something. I want to hear about the experiences you had with churches and what caused your disdain for them." His stunned co-workers sensed that he wasn't employing a clever tactic, but really wanted to know. So they told him in a thoughtful and respectful manner, knowing indeed his devotion to his faith. During the consequent months, this dialog continued off and on. No desecrating, disrespectful words were exchanged in that work place again. The evangelist learned from his detractors, and they, in turn, learned from him. Some sincere conversions occurred, not by pressure, clever arguments, or anyone abandoning their "weapons," so to speak, just pointing them downward and smiling at each other, inviting pats on the back, replacing defiance and resistance with sincere dialog, interested in learning from one another.

Which reminds me of another story, actually a joke, a teaching one. A couple rushed into a dentist office and begged for an immediate appointment. They needed to catch a plane overseas but tooth pain had to be quickly addressed before boarding. The man explained that treatment was needed right away, and, to save time, there would be no need for any anesthetic. "Just fix it now," he implored. "I admire your courage and resilience," said the dentist. "Where is the painful tooth?" To which the man turned to his wife and said, "Show him your tooth, dear."

That guy was zealous and assertive indeed. His mission was truthful, he and his wife really did need to make that flight. But at what cost? It is easy for us to demand or encourage others to sacrifice what we hold dear. It is difficult to hold ourselves under our own scrutiny and the scrutiny of others, calling on us to offer sacrifices of listening, learning from our "enemies," and embracing "rules of engagement" governed by the exercise of respect and dignity for others to the degree we expect it for ourselves.

Actually, the "rules of engagement" in evangelicalism have been exquisitely modeled by Christ and His apostles. It would be an affront to our Christ to rewrite them. Recall how He stated, "Learn from me, for I am humble and gentle."

John S. Hilkevich, Ph.D.
Spiritual Resource Services
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Spiritual Resource Services  © June 22, 2006

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