12.19.2008

Evangelism lessons from Penn

Being from a mainline, Lutheran tradition, evangelism is unfamiliar territory for me. Its one of those activities, like dieting, daily flossing and skipping Christmas cookies, that I know I ought to do, but somehow never get there.

The community I am part of is very good at testifying to our faith through actions. Collecting food and gifts for the needy, and serving in an essentially secular setting such as a food pantry, shows that someone cares enough to do something, but not necessarily why I care enough to do something for them. Interestingly, in the food pantry I volunteer at from time to time, which is run by the local ministerium, the waiting room has some religious posters but when I have been there there is never religious conversation.

Many of us mainliners are allergic to faith sharing and positively avoid anything that smacks of proselytizing. And with good reason. Approaches that focus on “are you saved?” and “you’re going to hell if you don’t believe what we do” have made many people resisting to even engaging God’s story.

I was fascinated though to come across a video by Penn Gillette (the talking half of Penn & Teller) on Tony Jones’ blog this morning.



In this episode of Penn’s vlog he offers an unusual reaction to the act of being “proselytized” after a recent show.

“I don’t respect people who don’t proselytize,” Penn says.


If people of faith – or, for that matter, atheists like Penn – believe that they know something that can help another person, they have a duty to share it, he says. If you saw a truck bearing down on an unawares pedestrian, he says, you’d push them out of the way; why not for something “more important” such as “eternal life.”

Penn’s view of the non-proselytizing position was a whack upside the head:

“How much do you have to hate somebody to believe that everlasting life is possible and not tell them that?”


It often sounds patronizing and self-serving when Christians cloak their attempts to proselytize in terms of “love.” But how interesting to hear this condemnation of the sin of omission, of failing to tell the story, from a self-professed non-believer!

Now he is certainly not suggesting that it’s a sign of love to threaten or cajole. In that quote I think he is getting at a message that is more life-giving than soul-saving. And therein is a great lesson for “evangelism,” however we conceive it.

If you watch the video, its clear from the way Penn pauses in the midst of telling this story that he was touched by the simple offer of a Gideon Bible from a fan who genuinely engaged him. Not convinced, mind you. His atheism is intact. But he clearly appreciated the love shown by this fan.

There are a couple of good tips modeled in Penn’s encounter with this unknown believer:
  1. Engage honestly. This fan didn’t stalk Penn and thrust his beliefs on him. He engaged him about his show and then simply shared what was important to him.
  2. Be nice, and sane.
  3. Make direct eye contact. This is a deeply personal contact, that makes one vulnerable, and it made an impression on Penn.
Rather than being offended, or labeling the man as a “religious nut,” Penn comes away from the encounter with a positive view --

“This guy was a really good guy… and he cared enough about me to proselytize and give me a Bible”

– with a note and several ways to contact the giver.

Penn says that “I know there is no God, and one polite person living his life right doesn’t change that.” But one polite person does make a difference, by simply sharing something that is important on his own journey. In the simple interaction Penn discerned the man’s goodness – and “with that kind of goodness it is ok to have that deep a disagreement.”

So what do you think? Is Penn’s reaction atypical, or is he on to something? Should we look at opportunities to share our story and our faith as something less scary, and more life-giving?

1 comment:

The F said...

Penn gives us something to chew on for sure. It definitely gives me something to think about because it's the missing link to my puzzle. My friends have noted that I'm not a pushy Christian and they love that, but I don't feel I've told them the essentially important part about my faith. This is what Penn is talking about. You've got to tell your friends that there is a Heaven and Hell and that if they don't accept Jesus, that you're going to Hell. Somehow we have to tell that story in the way that this man told Penn.

Thanks for sharing this.