Much of what passes as evangelism today is telling people how horrible they are so that they can understand the enormous love and grace the gift of salvation is. Christians try to make people feel guilty and miserable so they can make them feel better later.
This is Passive Benevolent Behavior. (Yes, I made that up). Unlike the flip-side of passive-aggressive behavior, in which someone acts nice and friendly in order to cut down, belittle, humiliate, or obstruct someone or something, passive-benevolent behavior acts meanly with the goal of being nice in the end. Make people understand how guilty they are so they can feel hopeless in their guilt, and then offer a solution to the problem.
The main problem now (other than the fact that intentionally trying to make someone feel like they are worthless is emotional abuse), is that this line of thinking about sharing the faith, the Good News, doesn’t work any more because people generally don’t feel guilty any more. Things that were unthinkable fifty years ago, and unspeakable twenty years ago, are an accepted part of society today. And there is no guilt over that fact.
When well meaning Christians try to evangelize by pointing out how bad and guilty people are, and then offer the way out, they are following the “John the Baptist School of Evangelism.” This is the type of evangelism that calls a sin a sin in the most direct and confrontational way and let the chips fall where they may. John the Baptist could only be successful, though, in Judea. There he was speaking to a group of people (first century Jewish people) who had a common culture and a shared understanding of right and wrong thanks to the Law and Prophets.
John the Baptist would not have done well in Athens. Paul (in Acts 17) takes a completely different approach to sharing the Good News. There is no shared culture or understanding of right and wrong. And there certainly was no guilt over having altars and idols to every god in the known world. Paul was a very faith-filled Jewish believer in Jesus as the Messiah. As a Jew, he would have been disgusted by the idolatry in Athens. John the Baptist probably would have had even more harsh words than calling them a “brood of vipers.”
Yet Paul takes a completely different approach. He doesn’t try to make the Athenians feel guilty over an obvious (by Jewish Scripture standards) sin, but he uses what he can in that culture to point to Jesus Christ. Paul remembered that, first and foremost, the message of Jesus is a message of Good News, and not a kind of good news that can only be understood and accepted once people understand how worthless, hopeless, and disgusting to God they are. What kind of a message is that?
We would do well in the Church today to remember that we are in the Good News business. Let us not be passive-aggressive or passive-benevolent, but rather let us offer the same kind of hope, love, and grace that Jesus did and Paul did in Jesus’ Name.