There is something of a trend in Christian circles to record evangelism encounters and post them on YouTube for the world to see. On the whole, I am sure this is a good for God’s Kingdom. Christians see other Christians boldly proclaiming the Gospel and can be encouraged to do the same. They can learn good arguments to make and become familiar with relevant passages of scripture when engaging the same crowd (Mormons, pro-choice folks at abortion clinics, etc.) Or we can learn about a ministry and see firsthand what it is doing and decide whether or not we should lend it support through social media shares or even financial resources.
Whereas such a practice was done in relative isolation, now, with Go Pro cameras and YouTube, tens of thousands of people can watch Christians engage non-Christians in public squares and challenge them to give up their false beliefs. I have watched some of these videos and learned from them. I also enjoyed watching them as they’re actually pretty good entertainment. If the evangelism is done with the right combination of love, grace, zeal and reverence for God, I’m all for it.
But I sometimes wonder if those who watch it do so for the right reasons. Do they watch these videos to really be encouraged to do the same kind of evangelism and to mimic the techniques of the expert in the video? Or do they think they are engaging in a kind of by proxy evangelism by watching? Do they just think its cool to watch a Mormon exposed for his false beliefs so they can be more self-assured? Or do they intend to find a local Mormon stake or temple and do the same? I am concerned that we have tens of thousands of folks watching others do evangelism and “like” it. But I’m pretty certain we do not have tens of thousands of street-level evangelists in America. To what extent should we encourage the watching of these videos if there is no real desire to do the same?
There are other concerns I have about this practice. Do these videos help to cultivate “celebrity evangelists”? There’s no doubt that they do. And while celebrity preachers, teachers and evangelists in the church should encourage others in the Church, I think they tend to suppress “ordinary” and less exemplary teaching, preaching and evangelizing in the Church. Pertaining to evangelism videos, they might in fact suppress budding evangelists just as often as they encourage. As one who struggles with evangelism but seeks to do it, I am not encouraged when I watch others who are experts at it. I’m discouraged, because I realize how much I need to grow in the area. I’m tempted to stop evangelizing in my local area and instead hand out flyers that read, “Watch these videos on YouTube. The expert evangelists has already addressed your concerns and I would just be a cheap replacement.”
And then what about the people who are the, well, shall we call them “victims” of the evangelists? If you’re a Christian watching – and I say this from personal experience – you know how easy it is to have little regard for the person being evangelized. The defender of abortion, the brainwashed Mormon, the village atheists with their bad arguments…these are all deluded people who are about to be taken down and outmatched by God’s Word. If I’m really honest, I’m not sure this isn’t the Christian version of “Evangelism MMA” or our gladiatorial games.
But how really should we view these people who, because they’re in a public space can legally be filmed, have their ignorance put on the Internet for tens of thousands to view? I’m not defending them, for some of them actually defend horrid things, like murder and a hatred of God. But do we think using them as pawns in our social media efforts is best for their soul? Or will we crush them if and when they realize they’ve been evangelistically punked? When we confront others with the truth, very rarely will they do anything in that moment but defend their position. If we’re lucky, they will think about our arguments in quiet times when the Holy Spirit will not let them go. But if the encounter lives forever on YouTube, will they ever leave that public posture of defensiveness? While the evangelism itself may be done with love, is it loving to use them as a kind of pawn in our training videos, especially if so few of us actually use them for such a purpose?
This also gets to one of my complaints with apologetics at large. Sometimes, the whole enterprise feels like nothing more than preparation for encounters that will never take place. Sometimes apologetics feels like cooking school but never cooking an actual meal for anyone else to enjoy. If we are watching other people do all of the evangelism without having a time, place, and date to do evangelism yourself, you should stop watching. Turn off YouTube, find a street corner and start handing out some tracts.
Because you can’t evangelize by proxy, and at some point, you need to stop prepping and start cooking. If you think that watching other people do evangelism is almost as good as doing evangelism, it is not. Not even the same ball park. And the same could be said for attending conferences, listening to podcasts, reading apologetic books, etc. Learning is necessary, but it is no substitute for actually evangelizing.
If and when I am fortunate to leave the desk and do evangelism, I have become convinced it should be between me, the other person and the Lord. I have actually shopped for GoPro camera equipment thinking that perhaps I could mirror some of the popular YouTube evangelists, as I have a lot of similar interactions. But I decided against both the purchase and the practice. Again, I am NOT saying others are wrong for recording evangelism events. I am saying that I had to look deep within and ask myself, “Why are you evangelizing? So other people can see you and admire you for so doing? Or because it is an act of worship, the kind of worship that God will see in secret?”
When we make evangelism a YouTube sport, I am worried that we will make the objects of our evangelism the enemy, that we can be enticed to seek our own glory, that we can become obsessed with viewing and downloading statistics, and that we can puff up ourselves with conceit. I’m not saying it should never be done. I’m only saying that there is no evangelism by proxy. If you watch it, you ought to be doing it. And for those who do record such adventures, may God grant you true humility and love for the people to whom you are bringing Good News.