Vacuum Cleaner Jesus

As a minister and especially as a future church planter, I have read many books and articles on evangelism. Out of much of the more traditional Evangelical material, the underlying pattern for personal evangelism remains pretty much standard. The steps for sharing one’s testimony goes as follows: step 1, tell your audience what your life was like before Jesus. Step 2, recount how you first encountered Jesus. And, finally, tell what your life has been like since meeting Jesus. It is a fairly standard practice and many of the personal testimonies I have heard follow this exact same pattern.

If this sounds kind of like a sales pitch, it seems to be by design. Evangelism Explosion by D. James Kennedy and other such programs modeled their approach to personal evangelism on door-to-door sales tactics of vacuum cleaner salesmen and the like. It isn’t a terrible system in that it helps people who otherwise would struggle with speaking to strangers share how Jesus has transformed their lives. And, indeed, a transformed life is truly the greatest testimony of all. However, the system simply cannot persist as the primary model of evangelism. Immediately, at least, pragmatic issues occur. Door-to-door sales are simply not effective anymore. Ask yourself: how many door-to-door salespeople have you encountered in the last several years? If you are like me then not even one. Sales people have learned that people are not as likely to welcome a stranger into their home to sell something to them. We are too private and already too inundated with advertising. Marketing people have learned this, has the Church?

Now, there are even deeper, more theological issues with this approach. One is that it assumes that all Christians must have gone through some sort of crisis experience at some point in their lives. As the son of a pastor who has known Christ in some capacity his entire life, I would find myself robbed of any sort of testimony. Yet, wouldn’t the fact that I have been a disciple since my youth itself be a testimony? Wouldn’t the presence of a godly mother and father, of Christian grandparents, be a gift I should thank God for? In this schema, it would seem to be quite the opposite. I have, at some points, believed myself in some ways lacking something, as I did not have some sort of climactic story of redemption to share. Instead of a single dramatic moment, I have little moments in which I have grown over time to know Jesus more and more.

A far larger problem resides in the formulation as a sales pitch. A before-and-after approach to personal testimony works as long as we remember that our lives may not resemble the fantasies of the common American. We cannot promise that a life with Jesus will help us meet our personal goals, become better workers and lovers, or even help us heal our broken families. Indeed, Matthew 10:34-37 seems to indicate that sometimes life in Jesus will break our families instead of mending them. Often life with Jesus, by our standards, will often become worse rather than better. Can you imagine Peter or Paul giving the kind of vacuum cleaner testimony we’ve described? “Hi, my name’s Peter. Before I met Jesus, I owned a small fishing business with my brother and my father. Then, after I met Jesus, I was crucified upside down!” Or perhaps, “My name is Paul. Before I met Jesus, I was a respected pharisee. Now, people throw rocks at me everywhere I go! Turn to Jesus!” Of course, in defense of Kennedy and others, they typically do not fall into the sort of Jesus-brings-the-American-dream testimony I’m now mocking, but often that is precisely what it becomes. When we form our personal testimonies as a sales pitch, it is easy to appeal to the pragmatic concerns of a culture that is used to being sold to.

There is another way of doing this same thing. There is another way to show the world how Jesus has affected your life. It is to live a life of beauty. It is to live a life so Christ-like that people cannot help but be attracted to it. Will Willimon, former Dean of Duke Chapel, likes to tell the story of how many of the students in his Wesley Fellowship would go on missions trips and return to North Carolina changed. They decided to abandon their former career path and give their lives to fulltime missions work. Their parents would then call Willimon angrily, asking how their child’s life could get so off track. Presumably, these parents sent their children to Duke University, one of the most prestigious universities in America (bragging on my Alma Mater here a bit) in order for them to have successful careers as lawyers, engineers, or something of the sort. They did not invest in their child’s education and future in order for them to throw it all away because of some missions trip! Their story is not a pragmatic one. It doesn’t make sense to invest in a difficult, expensive university just to leave it all behind. It isn’t pragmatic, but it is beautiful.

The Christian life is not one of pragmatism. It simply does not make sense to bless those that abuse you. It doesn’t make sense to give to all that ask. It doesn’t make sense to die on a cross for the very ones that crucify you. It doesn’t make sense, but it is beautiful. So, this is what we have to offer — a beautiful life that is worth imitating. We cannot promise that God will give us a successful career and a nice car. Instead, Jesus promises a cross. But with that cross comes beauty and joy and hope and love and God himself. And there is resurrection. Amen.