I have reached the point in my journey of understanding the life and work of Dr. King where I’m now trying to get a better grasp on those who directly influenced him. Most recently, my efforts have been turned toward the autobiography of Mohandas Gandhi, one of Dr. King’s more significant inspirations.
In 1893, at the young age of 23, Gandhi journeyed to South Africa to do some legal work for a family friend. It would be here where many of Gandhi’s views on politics, religion, and the ethics of non-violence would be forged.
It wasn’t too long after his arrival in South Africa when Gandhi encountered a Christian community who tried to evangelize him. For obvious reasons, I am particularly interested in his formation of religious thought as well as his religious experience. Unfortunately, this early encounter with a Christian community left a lasting negative impression of Christianity on Gandhi.
Perhaps we can redeem this “bad recipe for evangelism” by looking at a few of these poor ingredients and discern better ones for our own evangelistic efforts today.
- An Unhealthy Environment for Exploration
Gandhi was introduced to several individuals in this Christian community; none of them seemed particularly interested in what Gandhi himself thought nor the questions he had. From his first day onward, Gandhi was put in situations where many people would pray for his salvation, but he gives no evidence they ever inquired about his beliefs or objections to Christianity.
One of the individuals whom he appeared to have the most contact with was named Mr. Coates. Gandhi described Coates as “not the man easily to accept defeat.” At one point, Coates confronted Gandhi about his wearing of Tulasi-beads saying, “This superstition does not become you. Come, let me break the necklace.” As it turned out, this necklace was a gift from Gandhi’s mother and was deeply meaningful to him. Coates showed no interest in such personal detail before this confrontation.
Gandhi continued to describe Coates as one who “could not appreciate my argument” for the necklace, “as he had no regard for my religion.” The lack of respect for Gandhi’s personal story, cultural expression, or religious belief all contributed to an extremely unhealthy environment for Gandhi to genuinely explore the Christian faith.
One of the most important things we can do today to create healthy cultures of evangelism in our churches is to make space for people to ask open and honest questions without being met by hostile defensiveness from believing Christians. Such space would show deep concern for the those who are exploring our faith. To whatever extent we want people to try to genuinely understand our Christian faith, we ought to go above and beyond to understand where they might be coming from: their personal story, experience with Christianity, past and present religious faith, and so on.
There are several ways we might go about this. We could hold meetings for honest dialogue in neutral spaces, such as a brewery or a park. If we want to keep our evangelistic classes and groups from feeling combative or threatening, skeptics and non-Christians ought to greatly outnumber Christians who are present in these spaces. Opportunities for dialogue – such as Q&A’s after a service – could be a regular part of life together as a church.
- The Burden of Books
I don’t mean to beat up on Mr. Coates too much, as I do believe his efforts were probably genuine! However, another “bad ingredient” Coates added to this recipe was in the books he gave to Gandhi. Here is how Gandhi described these resources:
As we came closer to each other, he began to give me books of his own choice, until my shelf was filled with them. He loaded me with books, as it were… I read a number of such books in 1983. I do not remember the names of them all…Parts of these were unintelligible to me. I liked some things in them, while I did not like others. Many Infallible Proofs were proofs in support of the religion of the Bible, as the author understood it. The book had no effect on me. Parker’s Commentary was morally stimulating, but it could not be of any help to one who had no faith in the prevalent Christian beliefs. Butler’s Analogy struck me to be a very profound and difficult book, which should be read for or five times to be understood properly. It seemed to me to be written with a view to converting atheists to theism. The arguments advanced in it regarding the existence of God were unnecessary for me, as I had then passed the stage of unbelief; but the arguments in proof of Jesus being the only incarnation of God and the Mediator between God and Man left me unmoved.
Note a number of key terms Gandhi used to describe these books: unintelligible, “had no effect on me,” “could not be of any help,” profound and difficult, unnecessary, “left me unmoved.”
In my Reformed tradition, our instinct for evangelism seems to be, like Mr. Coates, to simply fill people’s shelves with books. Many of these books are good – for the right person, at the right time. Often, however, evangelistic literature is better used if it is read first by Christians and then employed in our own conversations with individuals. In other words, my fear is we want books to do the heavy lifting of evangelism for us, rather than engaging in genuine relationship and dialogue ourselves.
In addition, our instinct to simply give away books seems to betray our confidence in the authority and transforming power of Scripture. I can’t help but wonder what difference it would’ve made for Gandhi if Mr. Coates had simply sat down and read the gospel with him instead?
Don’t get me wrong – I know that people still come to faith by reading evangelistic books! Mere Christianity, Confronting Christianity, and so on are very good books to give out – for the right people. We need the ability to discern which books are most helpful for each individual. If we’re not careful, our non-Christian friends may end up like Gandhi, finding our arguments unintelligible, difficult, and unmoving.
Our good evangelistic books cannot do all the work for us. They can be useful tools within meaningful relationships for certain people. Wisdom is needed.
And we can never doubt the life-giving power of simply reading the Scriptures with someone else!
- A Bad Gospel
Mr. Coates introduced Gandhi to another man who is left unnamed but is simply referred to as the “Plymouth Brother.” This man preached a bad gospel to Gandhi which was limited in its efficacy, scope, and understanding of Scripture. Here is how Gandhi remembered this presentation:
You cannot understand the beauty of our religion. From what you say it appears that you must be brooding over your transgressions every moment of your life, always mending them and atoning for them. How can this ceaseless cycle of action bring you redemption? You can never have peace. You admit that we are all sinners. Now look at the perfection of our belief. Our attempts at improvement and atonement are futile. And yet redemption we must have. How can we bear the burden of sin? We can but throw it on Jesus. He is the only sinless Son of God. It is His word that those who believe in Him that have everlasting life. Therein lies God’s infinite mercy. And as we believe in the atonement of Jesus, our own sins do not bind us. Sin we must. It is impossible to live in this world sinless. And therefore Jesus suffered and atoned for all the sins of mankind. Only he who accepts His great redemption can have eternal peace. Think what a life of restlessness is yours, and what a promise of peace we have.”
This gospel presentation was not just dismissive and arrogant, it was downright bad. It was narrowly focused on Gandhi’s need for atonement, and thus tried to create a sin/law complex which was not in any way moving to Gandhi. This presentation was absent of any of God’s beauty, his attributes, or his love for his creation. Where is the promise for the changed heart Jesus gives us, the power of his Spirit in us, and our ability to have victory over sin now in this life? This gospel merely promised deliverances from the consequences of sin, without any hope for joy in a new life with Christ.
Gandhi was honest in response to this man: “If this be the Christianity acknowledged by all Christians, I cannot accept it. I do not seek redemption from the consequences of my sin. I seek to be redeemed from sin itself.”
Our gospel has a good word for what Gandhi desired! We are promised real deliverance from the power of sin now (Romans 6:1-14). Even if this victory over sin may not be total in this life, we are also guaranteed a complete victory over sin when we are with Jesus in glory (Romans 8:23, 1 Corinthians 15:54, Hebrews 12:23, etc.)! Life by the Spirit means we are delivered not just from the consequences of sin, but even now our affections are being changed so we might more and more love like Jesus (Romans 8:9-11, 1 John 2:7-17).
In our fear of saying too much, do we overreact by saying too little? We who value being “gospel-centered” must be careful that we are not limiting the scope or efficacy of our gospel to be merely focused on atonement – as important as this is.
- A Hypocritical Witness
This Plymouth Brother did not only preach a narrow gospel, but he lived one. Gandhi would recall that soon after this gospel presentation, this man “knowingly committed transgressions, and showed me that he was undisturbed by the thought of them.”
It is important that our words clearly communicate the beauty of life with Jesus. It is just as important – if not more so – that our lives show we believe what we are saying! A true word spoken with a false way of living is a sure recipe for poor, ineffective evangelism.
Here we find, then, the secret ingredient for our own evangelism recipe: believing and living the gospel for ourselves.
In our desire for others to know Jesus and believe his gospel, we must not forget the importance of knowing Jesus and believing his gospel for ourselves. The effective evangelist will, therefore, be one who walks repentance with humility, grace, and gentleness.
When we do, the rest of our ingredients have a way of coming together themselves, even if they’re in unequal and unmeasured amounts.