I'm sure many of us have encountered what Jason Stellman terms 'Jesus is Better than Drugs (or Sex, or Money, or Power) Evangelism'. I know my own evangelistic efforts have sometimes rested on this presumption - the presumption that the pleasure of knowing Jesus and serving him is better than than pleasure gained from anything this world has to offer. I hear a lot of testimonies that follow this line too. There seems to be several problems with this approach to evangelism.
First, the Christian life promises to bring more present pain than present pleasure. Consider all the things Jesus said would accompany following him - homelessness, persecution, tribulations, rejection, a cross. Think about Moses for a minute. Moses had all the pleasures of Egypt for the taking. Women, food, drink, power, prestige...the list could go on. How does wandering in the desert with a group of malcontents compare? Well, on the level of pure present pleasure, it doesn't.
The second problem with the 'Jesus is better than ______ ' approach to evangelism is happy pagans. What do you do with them? I remember a student who came back from teaching abroad. It had been a great, but disturbing semester for her. She was in a country that is highly unchurched and secular and had few Christian friends. Yet, they were all happy, well adjusted, fun. That didn't match with what she had assumed about life apart from Christ. She found she didn't know how to witness to happy people, and wasn't sure she wanted too. Should she pray for a catastrophe in their lives so they'd be unhappy, hurting, etc., so they'd be ready to hear how much better Jesus was than the parties and fun?
Certainly some pleasures are sinful, self destructive, and harmful. Heroin. Promiscuity. Drunkenness. Certainly the list long, but not all pleasures make the list. A cold beer, a hot pipe, sex with a spouse, walking in the woods, swimming in the ocean, puppies, a hard days work, friends, children. None of those things are sinful in and of themselves. How do I witness to a neighbor who isn't involved in any self destructive patterns of life, who seems to have it all, who is happy and loves life? I don't think 'Jesus is Better than _______' will cut it.
In addition, I'm nervous for what happens to converts who've accepted the 'Jesus is Better than _________.' What happens when the pleasure of sitting through a sermon doesn't measure up with the pleasure of the drugs? Will they be disillusioned? Will they feel deceived? What will happen when pain enters their life, especially if it's pain associated with their decision to follow Christ?
As evangelists, we don't offer greater present pleasure. In fact, we ask people do give up some present pleasure and accept some present pain - the key word, if all the italics hasn't clued you in already, is present. It's not that the warm feelings we get from worship are necessarily stronger than the feelings we get from other forms of pleasure, but the joys we are offered in Christ are eternal, not temporary. Certainly the pleasures of heaven will outshine the pleasures of this earth in degree and duration, but we only get foretastes of those pleasures now. In fact, it requires a good deal of faith to see how the promises of greater and more lasting pleasure - faith because it is not now a present reality. Read Hebrews 11:23-28 and notice Moses' focus on the future rewards and the faith it required! The present reality is that we, for the cause of Christ, forgo sinful pleasures, keep the good things God has given in this life in their proper perspective (which is why we're ok if our stuff is plundered, our friends desert us, our lives are stolen, etc. - see Heb 11:36-40).
An approach to evangelism that focuses on the temporary nature of these pleasure seems consistent also with the them of Ecclesiastes - vanity, vanity, it's all vanity. Not all sinful, but all vain because it all vanishes. Not so with our eternal reward in Christ.
Stellman writes, "Moses did not give up earthly misery for earthly joy; he gave up earthly joy for earthly misery. Why would he do this. Because his faith provided him with 'an assurance of things hoped for, the convicition of things not seen' (Heb. 11:1). In other words, the only reason anyone would trade present comfort for present pain is because both are just that - present... they will soon give way to a joy at is eternal, on that transends the successes or failures of this age."
An approach to evangelism that focuses on the eternal (and future) nature of joys in Christ is not only more honest and realistic, but also opens up the doors of evangelism to those who aren't necessarily 'down and out'. Again, Stellman writes, "All people - even the ones with nice houses and expensive cars - are equally plagued with a longing to escape the fleeting and temporal confines of this age. This in not because their worldly happiness is a farce, which allows us to concede the point rather than secretly wishing we could slash their tires in order to prepare them to hear about 'the happiness that only Jesus can give.' Rather, all people inwardly experience this angst because they have been created for eternity and are hardwired for frustration with anything less."
The apostle Paul deserves the last word,
"So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal. "
(2 Corinthians 4:16-18 ESV)