This might not be the type of question you’d expect to find in the pages of a Christian magazine – or from someone whose belief in Christ and ability to pay their mortgage is inextricably linked – but hear me out.
If a good evangelist is defined by the standards of people such as Billy Graham or Luis Palau, I am not sure Jesus is up there among the greats.
Those ministries were characterised by crystal-clear messages on how a hell-bound sinner could ‘course correct’ towards heaven. The process was simple, often reduced to three steps. There was no ambiguity about what was being asked. You either ran to the altar to pray the sinner’s prayer, or you remained unsaved.
The evangelists I grew up listening to (with a peculiar mixture of terror and boredom) were in the business of providing clear answers. But Jesus’ approach was different.
The New Testament records Jesus as asking more than 300 questions. He was also the recipient of well over 150 questions in return. But he only directly answered three of them.
In contrast to the seeker-friendly, concise and easy-to-follow sermons of Billy Graham, Jesus told coded, enigmatic parables. They were and still are easily misunderstood and often defy easy interpretation – and this is by design. He even told his disciples that only a portion of the audience were meant to understand his teaching (Matthew 13:10-17). Large numbers of his followers quit because his instructions were too difficult (John 6:60).
There’s also a stark difference between the types of outcomes that Jesus seemed to be chasing and those pursued by the modern evangelist. Some people received physical healing without any particular theological impartation. Others were told to “Go and sin no more” (John 8:11, NLT). Yet another was told to sell all of his possessions (Luke 18:22). And one baffled religious expert was told he needed to be “born again” (John 3:3). Quite understandably, he had no clue what this meant.
So why was Jesus so mysterious?
Perhaps the answer to that question is, partly, revealed by my own reaction to these different ways of teaching. After a traditional evangelistic sermon, I find my curiosity has been quenched and I am self-satisfied, ready to move on with my life. And yet it can also feel hollow, and somewhat uncompelling, compared to the provocative, mind-bending teachings of Jesus.
His questions get under my skin. They wake me up in the middle of the night. The open-ended stories leave me wondering if the older son ever did join the prodigal son at the party (Luke 15:11-31) and which character I am most like in the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37). His gospel begs to be explored and discussed forever – not just checked off a to-do list once we’re ‘saved’.
So was Jesus a bad evangelist? Responding to an earthly evangelist’s altar call and choosing to follow Jesus was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. But it is Jesus’ telling of the gospel that keeps me curious and, ultimately, following the narrow road (Matthew 7:13-14). I’m still working out what he meant by that…