“Preach the gospel at all times and, when necessary, use words.” —Francis of Assisi
This past Thanksgiving, Yale professor David Gelernter wrote a surprisingly positive op-ed for the Wall Street Journal about fundamentalists and conversion. In America, he noted, “Christians are a solid majority on a winning streak and many non-Christians are scared to death, of ‘Christian fundamentalists’ especially.”
Why? They believe that “fundamentalists are inherently intolerant and want to stamp out all religions but their own.”
Now, we know that isn’t true. But I can’t help agreeing with Gelernter that “the fear of Christian fundamentalism that haunts a significant minority of Americans ought not to be casually dismissed. Some groups still see it as their duty to make converts of non-Christians. History suggests that they should approach their mission with exquisite tact or their designated target populations will soon come to hate their guts.”
Touché. While I do believe it is my privilege (as opposed to “duty”) to draw people closer to love—which means, hopefully, they will someday become a Christian—I wince at memories of my not always exquisitely tactful attempts in the past. “Your language is just strange,” a friend once wrote me, contrasting my Christianity with that of an author he deeply admired, Madeleine L’Engle. “Madeleine is a Christian, but it doesn’t seem so much a part of her the way it does you. It doesn’t define her.”
At the time he wrote that, I felt smug. Well, she must not be as close to Jesus as I am. Of course, my identity should be derived from Christ! Now I see what he was getting at. Perhaps because of my insecurities, I sometimes relied too much on the lingo and music of my evangelical subculture to define myself, and I assumed that joining that culture was integral to knowing Christ.
Frederick Buechner, though a Christian writer, also takes issue with conversion tactics. “[With] some of those who specifically refer to themselves as ‘born-again Christians’ … you get the feeling that, to them, it means Super Christian. They are apt to have the relentless cheerfulness of car salesmen. They tend to be a little too friendly, a little too soon … They speak a great deal about ‘the Lord’ as if they have him in their hip pocket, and seem to feel that it’s no harder to figure out what he wants them to do in any given situation than to look up in Fanny Farmer how to make brownies. It is not for anybody to judge the authenticity of [their] spiritual rebirth, or anyone else’s, but my guess is that by the style and substance of their witnessing to it, the souls they turn on to Christ are apt to be fewer in number than the ones they turn off."
Paul writes about a similar phenomenon in 2 Corinthians: “We are not, like so many, peddlers of God’s word, but men of sincerity.” Peddlers—that brings to mind Jehovah’s Witnesses knocking door to door. Like so many—apparently even in Paul’s time a lot of people were peddling their God.
How does Paul contrast Christians with religious salesmen? In the same passage, he says that God “uses us to spread the aroma of the knowledge of him everywhere. For we are to God the pleasing aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing” (2 Corinthians 2:14-15). God does the work of conversion, not by dispensing us like a million Amway distributors, but by loving us so much that we can’t help loving everybody else. That love is like sunshine washing into the souls of all we meet.
In the Gospels, Jesus never sells or packages Himself. His words—far from four spiritual laws on an index card—tend toward the crypticness of a U2 song. He intrigues the disciples into following Him by inviting, simply, “Come and see.” He moves and speaks in mysterious ways.
As His followers, we will only be effective when we treat people as human beings rather than checkmarks on our heavenly to-do list. This was reinforced for me recently when I heard about the makeover of our local Crisis Pregnancy Center. A professional consultant from a national evangelical organization came in, and the first thing she said was, “Take the Bible off the table and shelve it inconspicuously with the other books.” Volunteers and board members protested, but she maintained, “Women who come in here need to know this is about them, not our religion. They need to feel safe and loved, not a target for conversion.”
Compelling Versus Convincing
That Yale professor, though generous toward Christians, doesn’t like being sold God’s love, either. Gelernter admitted, “Though I spend a fair amount of effort trying to convince friends and colleagues that their hostility to Christianity is ignorant and bigoted, when a deadly, earnest, young Christian approaches, displays an infuriating though subliminal holier-than-thouness, and tries to convert me—it happens rarely, but occasionally—I metamorphose for an instant into a raging leftist.”
Christianity requires a recognition of, and deep respect for, each person’s freedom. This is only following Christ’s example—He gives us almost unfathomable freedom to reject him. C.S. Lewis noted that “God cannot force, he can only woo.”
Rich Mullins, one of the most beloved evangelical musicians in the history of Christian music, was wooed rather than won by words. He once said he was a Christian “because I have seen the love of God lived out in the lives of people who know him. The Word has become flesh and I have encountered God in people who have manifested his presence; a presence that is more than convincing—it is a presence that is compelling. I am a Christian, not because someone explained the nuts and bolts of Christianity to me, but because there were people who were willing to be nuts and bolts, who through their explanation of it, held it together so that I could experience it and be compelled by it to obey.”
We call forth the blooming of a soul through our reflection of Christ’s love. We don’t need to push like a child prying open a rose. Our Gardener takes His time, working at a pace we can’t comprehend. “He has made everything beautiful in its time” (Ecclesiastes 3:11). Both souls and flowers bloom at a rate that is usually imperceptible to the human eye. That’s why love is patient.