The Negative Experience Gap 2

Several years ago I had a desire to launch a large youth convention out of my local church in Northern Ireland. The vision for the project was simple, yet ambitious: To create an event where adolescents from across the borough could gather together to encounter God through contemporary worship music, prayer and inspirational bible teaching. At the time, I was heavily influenced by the Passion268 conferences that ran in Atlanta every January and considered that something akin to this – though on a much smaller scale – might be both necessary and possible in my own context. So with my expectations through the roof, and encouraged by the two friends who had been supportive when I shared the vision, I poured my heart and soul over the next few weeks into getting the event off the ground. We called it Resolution, recognising that, next to the Holy Spirit, every successful youth event needed a cool name. Our name seemed fitting given that we planned to hold it a couple of days before the new year, and because the aim of the event was to encourage young people to resolve to follow Christ with their whole hearts, as the great revivalist Jonathan Edwards had done as a teenager.

To say that what actually transpired on the night of our first Resolution event didn’t exactly meet my expectations would be the understatement of the century. I had harboured imaginings of around one hundred young people encountering God enthusiastically, without inhibitions, in an atmosphere of worship and awe. What in reality occurred was a gathering of around seventeen people in a sports hall with awful acoustics and a broken heating system, indulging a makeshift, mediocre praise band and wishing that the speaker would hurry up and finish so that they could get back into their cars to warm up. I was hugely discouraged. I’d invested a lot of time, money, imagination, emotional energy and spiritual expectation into this venture and what transpired was a mere shadow (and a freezing shadow at that!) of what I had hoped for. I locked up the sports hall after the event feeling embarrassed that I had failed and with the only resolution in my mind being that I’d never attempt anything like this again – it simply wasn’t worth the risk!

Fast-forward ten months and one of my friends who had attended that night caught me completely off guard one day by asking: ‘Can we do Resolution again this Christmas?’ Call it peer-pressure, but something in me told me not to dismiss the suggestion despite how negative my former experience had been. So, with a little more time to plan and promote the event this time round, and applying some of the lessons we had learned from the previous year’s mistakes, a few of us set about organising Resolution one more time. What transpired was one of the most memorable and significant evenings in my early Christian life: Several hundred young people turned up (I still don’t know how they all heard about the event); the presence of God was  palpable; young people unashamedly poured out their hearts and voices in praise to Jesus; and scores of students publicly committed their lives to Christ. We continued Resolution biannually for several years after this. It wasn’t always as big or powerful as this second event, but that evening taught me a humbling and invaluable lesson: Negative experiences are no indicator that God wants you to abandon something. Had it not been for the pressure I felt when my friend laid down the expectation that we ought to run Resolution again, I would never have returned to the project; my initial experience was simply too disastrous and personally disappointing. But trying again, with all the sense of foolhardy risk, uncertainty, and personal vulnerability it required prior to what we saw God do that night, was the right thing to do.

It doesn’t take a sage to recognise that each of us have a natural aversion to returning to situations where previously we have had negative experiences. It’s basic human instinct to not put ourselves at risk if we can at all avoid it. And the aphorism once-bitten-twice-shy is no more true than in the context of Christian evangelism. Many believers avoid any kind of personal public witness to Jesus simply because of how unpleasant their previous experiences have been. This might be a product of negative things that we have observed in the name of Christian evangelism: an animated individual effectively shouting the Gospel at high street shoppers through a loud speaker system and in the language of the King James bible perhaps; or the sordid and disingenuous efforts of some evangelist who attempts to emotionally manipulate people into making decisions to follow Christ with all the guile and strategy of a used-car salesman. It may well be that our rightful distaste for many of the methods of evangelism we have observed, as well as our lack of awareness of any truly positive expressions of the practice, forces us to sidestep any opportunities we may have for sharing our faith with others. More often than not, however, the evangelism vacuum that can emerge from negative experiences derive from personal disappointments or senses of failure akin to my first attempt at Resolution. It might be that we plucked up the courage to invite someone to an Alpha course only to be shot down and made to feel like an idiot; we might have genuinely tried our best to share our faith with others only to have been confronted with intimidating questions or assertions that we had zero answers to; we may have been involved in evangelism teams in the past only to have been made to feel inferior by people evidently more confident and competent than ourselves; or it might be that we have a friend or loved one that we have been sharing the Gospel with for years without receiving even a scintilla of interest – let alone spiritual breakthrough – in return. Whatever the specific negative experience(s) might be for us personally, it is important to be aware of it and talk about it with both God and others. At the end of this article, why not take some time to think about what, if any, those negative experiences might be for you? If it helps to reflect upon it by writing your thoughts down in a journal, do so. Then take the experience to the Lord in prayer, as well as perhaps to a trusted friend or Christian leader. God is neither surprised nor disappointed with you because of these experiences. He is a loving Father who longs to hear about it and process it with you so that you can move forward. The first step in that process may simply be to identify and own the experience rather than bury it. As the author Terry Pratchett once said: ‘Before you can kill the monster you have to say its name.’[1]

So if we do find ourselves more than a little evangelism-averse due to negative or disappointing past experiences, what ought we to consider so that we can positively move forward and not allow such incidents to paralyze us with an unhealthy fear or even sense of self-pity? Here are a few thoughts…

First, it is important to remind ourselves that, ultimately, our participation in sharing our faith with others is a matter of obedience, one that transcends our personal experience, whether positive, negative or somewhere in between. Many areas of ethical decision-making in life involve what is often called cost-benefit analysis: we evaluate what the right thing to do is by weighing the expected resulting benefit of doing something against any potential risks or costs that doing so might incur. Christian evangelism is not so consequentialist. The mandate for our evangelism is, in the end, not determined by that evangelism’s outcome, nor our personal experience of it, but by the fact that Jesus commanded us to do it (Matthew 28:18-20). This is not to say that God does not take our experiences and concerns seriously, nor is this reality intended to be used as a rod to spiritually cajole people into sharing their faith by riding roughshod of over their personalities and understandable anxieties. It is simply to say that such personal dynamics and experiences, though extremely important to consider, cannot ultimately be leveraged to circumvent God’s expectation of our public witness. Isaiah was told ahead of time that his witness for God would be universally disregarded (Isaiah 6:9-13), and though Jonah knew his preaching in Nineveh would be hugely successful, he considered this a negative experience because he didn’t want God to be merciful towards his enemies (Jonah 4). Yet none of these realities were legitimate determining factors in whether or not these prophets ought to bear their witness. That came down to one factor alone: God had told them to witness and it was up to them to obey. Our public witness is no less a question of obedience. Imagine getting to heaven and meeting Isaiah – whom tradition tells us was sawn in half for his obedience in witnessing for God – and telling him that, though you claimed that Jesus Christ was your Lord, you disregarded his command to share your faith with others because someone once embarrassed you by turning down your invite to a Christianity Explored course. Awkward.

Though this first consideration might feel like the throwing down of a gauntlet, it is important, secondly, to remember that it is a truth that also offers us a tremendous reassurance: If the most significant factor in whether we get involved in evangelism or not is ultimately faithfulness to Jesus’ command to share the Gospel, it will therefore be the most significant criterion by which God will judge our evangelism. In other words, what God expects of each of us in terms of our evangelism is our faithfulness in obeying his commission to do it, not how ‘successful’ or emotionally fulfilling we may find every occasion of it to be. In the Parable of the Talents in Matthew 25, I am always struck by how both of the good servants receive precisely the same commendation, ‘well done good and faithful servant’ from their master even though, quantitatively speaking, one has produced two and a half times as much as the other.

This deeply encourages me because it implies that, in appraising our service, this master is the kind of auditor who will not merely consider the bottom line of apparent ‘productivity’ in evaluating success, but will both recognise that we have often been given very different levels of ability and opportunity to others. He will judge us according how faithful we have been with the capacities He has given us individually, not in how more or less productive we have been relative to anyone else.

If what God is, in the end, looking for in our evangelism is to be faithful in obeying his command to share our faith in accordance with our personal abilities, opportunities and personalities, this ought to liberate us from the bondage of judging our ‘success’ in, or ‘experience’ of, evangelism by comparing it with others or by holding our efforts up against some other criterion of triumph other than God’s expectation of our humble faithfulness. Many people’s negative experiences in evangelism come from an unhealthy – and, more importantly, ungodly – comparison with others that creates unrealistic expectations that they then judge and often condemn themselves in the light of. Jesus’ yoke is easy and his burden light (Matthew 11:28). Even the great apostle Paul – who would have graduated summa cum laude by any worldly standards of evangelism proficiency – refused to allow himself to be appraised by such standards, knowing that it would only lead to the bondage of pride or shame. Instead Paul said:

…it is required of stewards that they be found faithful. But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by any human court. In fact, I do not even judge myself. For I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted. It is the Lord who judges me. Therefore do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart. Then each one will receive his commendation from God.[2]

This means that we can be patient with ourselves in our evangelistic efforts. We can make mistakes, we can bear disappointments and frustrations, and we can continue steadfast in lovingly sharing our lives and faith with the seemingly uninterested in full assurance that these are not deal-breakers for God. All God ultimately asks of us is to be faithful and allow him to fully disclose the success of our efforts at the right time – a judgement that I believe may well disclose more than a few surprises when we realise just what mysterious triumphs God has achieved with things we once considered disappointments!

Third, remember that any mistakes or weaknesses you may have experienced in our evangelistic efforts don’t define you. It is so common to pluck up the courage to evangelistically put our head above the parapet, only to be dispirited by a negative experience or realise how inadequate we are, and then allow that to dissuade us from ever trying again. Perhaps some other Christian foolishly even made a comment about your abilities that majorly discouraged you? Remember that evangelism is always hard but, like trying anything new, is particularly hard for those who don’t have much experience of it. To expect that we ought to be able to do brilliant evangelism the first few times we try is like someone who watches the Ryder Cup, gets inspired to play golf, and expects to complete 18 holes at the local links course in a round of 62. 99% of the time what will actually happen is that that person will get onto the course and within about two holes discover that playing golf is much harder than it looks on TV. A round of golf can be a very embarrassing and painful encounter in such moments and, speaking from experience, it’s very easy to return home and never want to play again. Christian witness, like golf, is a dynamic enterprise. No one is good at it the first few times they do it, and the only way to overcome our fears and weaknesses is to keep stepping up to the evangelistic tee and taking a swing at it.

When I think of not being discouraged by negative ministry experiences, I think of the figure of John Mark. Although the details are sketchy, it is clear from Luke’s account in Acts that John Mark mistakenly opted to abandon Paul and Barnabas in Pamphylia (Acts 13:13) and return to Jerusalem. Rightly or wrongly, Paul no longer trusted Mark and refused to allow the young man to join them on their second missionary journey when he had returned to them in Acts 15. Barnabas disagreed with Paul’s decision, presumably because he believed in Mark’s potential and was willing to give him another chance, but the dispute led to he and Paul to permanently separate from each other. Talk about a negative experience! If I had been John Mark and knew that the great apostle Paul felt this way about me, I don’t think I’d ever entertain any form of ministry ever again. Thankfully, Mark had Barnabas who believed in him and was willing to patiently and encouragingly support him. Eventually, Mark would serve God alongside Peter (1 Peter 5:13), an experience that equipped him to be the first individual to write a Gospel account, one that now occupies our New Testament canon. And, remarkably, even Paul changed his mind about Mark. At the end of his life, when all others had abandoned him, Paul outlines his needs and gospel priorities to Timothy, one of which was: ‘Get Mark and bring him with you, for he is very useful to me for ministry.’[3] The grace and space that Barnabas gave Mark in allowing him to make mistakes in Christian ministry – to grow through those mistakes rather than in spite of them – proved fundamental to the progress of Christianity, progress of which we, even today, are beneficiaries. All of us need those Barnabas figures in our lives, and especially in our evangelism lives; those people who reflect God’s patience with us in allowing us to grow, all the while completely committed to our realising our full potential. Who might these people be in your life?

Finally, remember that many of the most significant things in life inherently often involve risk and, therefore, the potential for negative experiences. That is not to say, however, that avoiding them is the right course of action, nor that in doing so we will not detrimentally impact us in other unanticipated ways. C.S. Lewis once highlighted this danger in a discussion on the risks inherent to love. As anyone who has ever truly loved will know, loving another person is an innately vulnerable thing to do. Many a person who has offered their heart to another only to, at some point, experience the trauma of having it rejected can understandably become significantly more hesitant about allowing themselves to be put in such a position again. Indeed, should we decide that the only guaranteed way to avoid such painful experiences in the future is to never allow oneself to truly love again. As that lesser-known sage Tina Turner once sang: ‘What’s love got to do, got to do with it? Who needs a heart when a heart can be broken?’

Lewis warns us against the dangers of these myopic approaches to self-protection:

There is no safe investment. To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. The alternative to tragedy, or at least to the risk of tragedy, is damnation.

Sharing Jesus with someone – which is, after all, an act incredible of love in itself – is equally vulnerable. Whatever our experience or apparent levels of success might be been previously, there is simply no guarantee that our next evangelistic opportunity won’t end in rejection, embarrassment or (sometimes worse!) indifference, no matter how proficient a communicator or faithful to the Gospel we might have been. Granted, we may safely avoid these particular negative experiences if we choose to retreat from any meaningful opportunities to share our faith. Yet, as Lewis warns, doing so will not leave us unchanged, but may, in fact, eventually render us both ignorant of, and impervious to, the needs of lost people, as well as impotent to do anything about those needs by directing those people to Jesus. That, by any standard of Christianity, would surely be a far greater tragedy.

So whatever previous experiences of evangelism, let us today, like Peter when he had toiled all night and caught absolutely nothing (Luke 5), be prepared to get back out there and cast the net again simply because our Lord asks us to. For, ultimately, our ethical basis and mandate for doing evangelism is not determined by how successful we can expect to be, nor by any risk-benefit analysis, nor by any guarantee that we won’t experience anything negative, but simply by the fact that our Lord has told us to do so. Even if our evangelism to date has felt very much like having toiled all night and caught nothing, who is to say that our being willing to go back out and cast the net one more time at our Lord’s command, might not on this occasion produce some form of miraculous catch?

[1] Terry Pratchett, Shaking Hands with Death (London: Corgi Books, 2015).

[2] 1 Corinthians 4:2-5, ESV.

[3] 2 Timothy 4:11, ESV.