I can still remember the first time I ever had a Tim Tam. I’d never seen or heard of them before, and I was skeptical that this cookie from Australia was as good as my friends said it was. I was already an adult by this time and had enjoyed many different cookies (perhaps too many), but there was something about this chocolate covered wonder that took me by surprise.
Tim Tams are chocolatey and creamy, but also crunchy. The middle wafers aren’t overcome by the moisture of the filling. My first bite was one of disbelief. The rest of the cookie was in me before I even knew what happened. It was everything my friends said it would be and much more than I ever could have imagined.
You might be thinking that I’m either over-exaggerating or just really into sweets. Maybe a little bit of both. But Tim Tams changed my life, and I thought they needed to change the whole world too.
For a while, I took Tim Tams to different gatherings. I wanted other people to try them because I knew some people had never heard of them. I even brought over a dozen boxes to church one Sunday as a sermon illustration. Now, this phase ended pretty quickly after I realized it was unsustainable - Tim Tams are some of the most expensive cookies you can buy.
But for quite a while (and still to some degree), I was a Tim Tam evangelist. I wanted everyone to try them. But, I came upon a problem. As much as I wanted to, I couldn’t make people eat them. Even if I paid for them, some still decided not to partake. And that’s when Tim Tams changed from being just a cookie to an object lesson for evangelism.
The word evangelism comes from the Greek euangelion, from which we also get our word gospel. As a noun, euangelion refers to the good news, which, in the Christian tradition, means the good news of what God has done for the world through Jesus. As a verb, it means to be a messenger or bearer of that news. To be a Christian evangelist is simply to share the good news of Jesus Christ.
That sounds pretty tame, doesn’t it? Then we do so many of us have a bad taste in our mouths when we hear the word evangelism? I think one reason, at least, is that the church has done a poor job of it. Our history has been one of coercion, discrimination, and hypocrisy.
Can you imagine if I came up to you and offered you a Tim Tam as if they were the best thing in the world, and then you saw me eat Mr. Christie cookies as I walked away? Or if you said you weren’t really interested but I took a Tim Tam and shoved it down your throat?
In some sense, Christians are guilty of this kind of evangelism. We have offered a message that has lost credibility because of our actions that go along with it. We have offered the world a Jesus who seems to be okay with oppressive political power, sexual violence, materialism, and consumerism. Of course no one is perfect, and Christianity doesn’t teach that we can be, but there’s a difference between making mistakes in our pursuit of faith and willfully misusing the Christian message for our own personal profit.
Other times Christians have tried to force the gospel message upon other people, either damning them to social isolation or calling down fire and brimstone if they don’t accept it. In many parts of the world where faith and political power are closely entangled, people simply have no choice but to claim themselves as Christian.
So where do we go from here? Do we scrap evangelism altogether? Do we just let everyone do their own thing without telling anyone about the gospel? If that’s the case, then I have some bad news.
If evangelism is to share a message, we are all evangelists of something! Whether we like it or not, none of us can escape this because we are all alive, living in a specific context, communicating and interacting all the time. Our words, actions, schedules, social media content, and wallets all speak to what we believe and whom we serve.
None of us can live a neutral life. We all represent something. The question isn’t whether or not we are evangelists, but what kind of evangelists we want to be.
I think the church needs to realize where we’ve fallen short of our call to evangelism. It seems like we’ve become either wishy-washy or domineering with the gospel message with which we’ve been entrusted. What if, instead, we re-claimed this task and started living it out the way Jesus wanted us to? We get a hint of that in the letter of 1 Peter.
“Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect” - 1 Peter 3:15b
We must remember that what we’re called to share, through our words and actions, is a message of hope. It’s a message that God has not given up on creation, but is constantly working to bring us redemption and new life. We should be ready to tell people why this is and how this happens in our lives. But before we do that, we need to make sure the hope is really in us and that we are not simply evangelizing because it’s the right thing to do.
We are to share this hope with gentleness and respect. This goes for anyone we might come in contact with, from our friends, co-workers, and even our kids. This means listening to the other, treating them as you would want to be treated, and not forcing anything upon them.
John Bowen, in his book, Evangelism for Normal People, reminds us that evangelism is actually God’s work, not ours. It’s something that we are called to and involved in, but the end result is never up to us. It’s not our job to force an outcome but to trust that God is in control. He also reminds us that evangelism is an invitation, not coercion. We should invite people to experience God, to see for themselves that the Lord is good. That starts with our own transformation, a commitment to love the people we come in contact with, and a realization that everything is our lives determines the kind of message we will tell.