We live in an increasingly pluralistic society. Ironically, it tends to celebrate diverse religious views while criticizing attempts at religious conversion. Critics accuse evangelism of objectifying the people it seeks to convert. What should Christians make of this claim?
To objectify people with our actions simply means to treat them as objects or tools rather than as persons. Often, it’s to use others as a means to an end rather than treating each and every human being as an end in and of themselves. If Christians fail to honor, respect, and love the person we’re witnessing to, it’s possible we could be guilty of this charge.
However, we should also realize there’s nothing inherent to evangelism that objectifies people. Rather, evangelism respects the intelligence and agency of others while simultaneously considering them as immensely valuable individuals.
Evangelism can and should be a holistic way of engaging others in an effort to convince them of what’s true and good. Without a doubt, it involves a concerted attempt to change another’s beliefs. And this aspect of evangelism is the primary reason why some people find it so offensive.
But evangelism isn’t inherently objectifying or disrespectful. When done correctly, attempts to convert others respect and dignify their personhood as thinking, rationalizing, feeling, and autonomous human beings. As Christians share, testify, argue, and persuade in our evangelism, we treat others as free individuals capable of a reasonable response.
Attempts to convert others respect and dignify their personhood as thinking, rationalizing, feeling, and autonomous human beings.
There’s absolutely nothing about such actions that disregards the humanity or agency of another. Trying to convince others of what we believe—on any number of topics—is essential to a flourishing human community. Disagreeing, debating, sharing opinions, and seeking to change each other’s minds is part of what makes society so valuable. Done the right way, it can lead to personal growth and cultural improvement.
Where We Go Wrong
Does all this mean it’s impossible to objectify others as we evangelize? Unfortunately, that’s not the case. Even if our intent is to seek the good of another, our approach and methods can err. When our actions start to look more like manipulation, coercion, self-absorption, deflection, or deception, we may be guilty of disregarding the personhood of those we’re striving to reach.
One way this happens is by viewing others as projects or treating them like numbers on a list. We can care more about accomplishing a task or feeling good ourselves rather than seeing others as souls in need. Or maybe we steamroll people with our ideas and arguments. We can care more about what we have to say—our declarations of the good news—than about their specific concerns or questions.
Maybe we learned a certain way of presenting the gospel, and it becomes formulaic. Or maybe a certain explanation of the gospel was essential to our conversion, so we go back to it over and over with others. But are we leaving room for the Spirit to move within the heart of another as he wills rather than as we do? Are we treating others as those made in God’s image, valuing them as unique individuals, and caring about their specific needs?
No Mere Mortals
There are many ways we can get evangelism wrong when we speak with others. But perhaps the worst error we can make is failing to evangelize them at all. Because, as C. S. Lewis memorably wrote, “There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. . . . It is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit—immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.”
Are we treating others as those made in God’s image, valuing them as unique individuals, and caring about their specific needs?
The people we pass every day are immensely valuable. In our culture today, there are a thousand messages seeking to distract us from this eternal reality—from our eternal reality. But we must not miss it.
Ultimately, the aim of all we do is to glorify God. However, this isn’t the only reason we evangelize. The two great goals of loving God and loving neighbor go hand in hand. Alongside the desire to honor God there can and should be the desire to seek the good of our neighbors. We should care deeply about how our fellow image-bearers will spend eternity. Immortal horrors or everlasting splendors?
Christians can have confidence that when we evangelize, we’re recognizing the present dignity and the eternal value of those we’re speaking with.
But while we can be confident, we should also be cautious. We should consider our motives and methods in evangelism to make sure they’re in line with the Christian duty to love our neighbor. Such love will care enough to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ to our neighbors. It will ensure they’re respected, cared for, and loved, regardless of their response.