The Parable of the Sweater: or, Why Evangelism Can Drive People Crazy
How do you evangelize when people aren’t interested in the Gospel? They don’t feel a need for it, they think it’s silly and embarrassing, it interferes with their daily lives, and they just don’t want to hear about it. One approach is to try to work in appeals to the Gospel in conversation – to look for an opening and point out that Jesus really is the answer.
Many Christians don’t understand why this approach often backfires – sometimes spectacularly, as if the evangelist had just stepped on a verbal landmine, sometimes quietly, as if a glacial chill had settled on the room. Why doesn’t this approach work better? Why don’t people open up and take the opportunity to talk about the Gospel?
I’ve been there, on that side of the conversation. It’s hard to explain straight-up, so let me tell you a story. Call it the Parable of the Sweater.
The sweater in question is a gift from your Aunt Muriel, whom you barely know. “I’ve been saving this for you, dear!”
You open the box, and there it lies – the nightmare Christmas sweater. It is bright red. It is hand-knitted, and lumpy. It has dancing reindeer, holding up a banner that says “Have a Ho-Ho-Holy Night.” It has bells sewn onto it. And pom-poms. And there are little googly eyes glued onto the reindeer faces. The dancing reindeer.
And it’s not even Christmas — it’s February. The horror, the horror.
“Uh… thanks, Aunt Muriel… I’m sure you took a lot of time making this. Uh… it’s very thoughtful.” Then, when you get home, you shove the ghastly thing into the back of the closet and try to forget it.
At the next family gathering you’re chatting with her, and after a few pleasantries about how the nephews and nieces are doing in school, she says, “So… have you worn the sweater yet?”
“Uh, no, Aunt Muriel. It’s, uh, not really the right season for it.”
“Sweetie, a little Christmas spirit is welcome any time of the year! Don’t you like it?”
“Uh… oops, look at the time! Gotta run!”
A few weeks later, you’re sipping lemonade at the family barbecue when Aunt Muriel sits down beside you. “Dear, you look cold. (Kids these days, they wear shorts and flip-flops all year round, what is the world coming to?) You would really feel a lot better if you wore that sweater I gave you. Do you still have it? I can make you another one if you want.”
“Um, yeah… Hey, Uncle Bill! How ‘bout them Chargers?”
Now imagine that Aunt Muriel had told all her friends and the rest of the family about this wonderful sweater, and every single time you showed up at a family gathering, some nice little old lady put her hand on your arm and said, “Sweetie, have you considered wearing that sweater? I know it’s August, but it gets chilly at night.”
You would have to be a saint not to lose it at some point. “ENOUGH with the freakin’ sweater already! I hate it! I hate reindeer, and especially dancing reindeer, and if I never see another cable-knit article of clothing in my life it will be too soon!”
You probably won’t talk to Aunt Muriel much after that.
Imagine another possibility. The sweater is just as hideous, but Aunt Muriel doesn’t bug you about it. She just carries on being the same loving, sweet aunt that she always is. And you can’t help but think that maybe you ought to wear the sweater, at least once, just to show her that you care enough about her to (shudder) embarrass yourself in public.
So one crisp fall day you drive over to visit Aunt Muriel, and after you get out of the car (looking around to make sure no one sees you), you put on the sweater. Just to please Aunt Muriel, just this once. Yeah, you feel really dumb. But gosh, it’s actually really warm and cozy. Anyway, Aunt Muriel is glad to see you – and you know, you realize you’ve never talked with her that much, but she’s a really sharp lady, who’s been through a lot. And you drink tea and have cookies and talk, and before you know it, you forget about the stupid sweater, because Aunt Muriel is really interested in hearing about your life, and the trouble you have at school, and she doesn’t tell you exactly what you should do and how you should feel, but she listens, and yet at the same time you know she’s not the same as all your friends who just say “do whatever feels good.” There’s something there – you can talk to her, and maybe you don’t agree with everything she says, but – well, maybe there’s something in it, after all.
And the sweater… it’s still hideous. But when you get home, you fold it up neatly and put it in the drawer, instead of shoving it in the back of the closet.
And one of those days, you might even wear the sweater in public. Maybe. Just maybe.