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Do I Have to Sell God?

Evangelism today necessarily emphasizes dialogue rather than monologue, relationship rather than impersonal contact, a life that is lived and a story that is told.

Around the middle of the 20th century, a number of young men, eager to win the world to Jesus Christ and frustrated with the procrastination and ineffectiveness of churches, moved outside the church and founded a number of important parachurch organizations. These new institutions tended to specialize in reaching certain demographic sectors, such as college students, people in the armed services and substance abusers. Though these leaders had the best intentions, there were a number of unfortunate developments:

1. Many Christians came to think of evangelism as “delivering a message.” The idea of listening to others neither occurred to them nor seemed important. For that reason, evangelism could be performed en masse, over the radio or through pamphlets handed randomly to strangers. Christians who engaged in this type of evangelism seldom worried about how their words were perceived, because they felt they had done their job if they got the message “out there.”

2. The message that evangelicals communicated to non-Christians was often a distilled version of the faith and therefore an oversimplification that not only missed important elements but actually misrepresented the truth. They reduced the profound message of the New Testament to bite-size pieces of information, supported their assertions with biblical quotations (from Romans 3:23, 6:23 and John 3:16, for example) and then delivered an urgent appeal for a response.

3. Individual believers were given the impression that their job was to “close the deal”—to pressure others to make a decision regarding Jesus after being exposed to the Good News, even if this was their first encounter with the Christian message. The hard-sell aspect of witnessing or evangelizing is what average Christians found the most uncomfortable and disturbing part of the process. They felt like they had to be hucksters or telemarketers for Jesus.

4. Christians were often made to feel guilty if they did not take every single opportunity to force the topic of salvation into every conversation and encounter with family, friends, co-workers, fellow students and strangers. After all, if the hallmark of being a Christian was evangelism, then every believer should be forcing the issue all the time. People were on their way to hell unless Christians intervened by letting them know that Jesus died for their sins. So Christians felt obliged to do things that on some occasions seemed socially inappropriate, rude, unnatural and beyond their abilities. Understandably, their presentation was generally perceived as forced, awkward and obnoxious.

Evangelism today necessarily emphasizes dialogue rather than monologue, relationship rather than impersonal contact, a life that is lived and a story that is told.

Dialogue is, of course, two-way communication. Living in a pluralistic society requires Christians to listen as much as they speak and sometimes to listen more than they speak. Our right to speak in public is earned, in part, by our willingness to listen to others. Jesus’ apparently free-flowing conversations with Nicodemus and the Samaritan woman are models of how to concern ourselves first with people and then with the message we present. That way they can understand and discover its application to their needs.

We also have a new understanding of the Good News. It calls for radical change and allegiance. In the New Testament we find communal, social and political concerns, as well as personal concerns (as in, “personal Savior”). The fact that Jesus addressed physical need as well as spiritual need, that He cared for people on the margins of society and turned a critical eye toward hypocrisy, expands our understanding of what the Gospel is and does in community.

Many Christians today have a high regard for the greatest and second-greatest commandments—to love the Lord our God with all our heart, strength and mind; and to love our neighbor as ourselves (see Matthew 22:36–39). The application of these commandments is evangelism as Jesus demonstrated it and comes before any sort of methodology, publication or script. The type of evangelism that is concerned only about winning souls, while neglecting the needs of individual men, women and children, is a contradiction of Scripture, which tells us that God made humans in His image and that salvation means wholeness as well as rescue.

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According to many, especially younger believers, it is not their job to convert people. The word convert has gone through a conversion since the time of the King James Bible. The Latin origin of convert simply meant “to turn,” and in the New Testament it is the believer who turns himself away from sin and toward God. The contemporary definition of convert is to “change something,” and in religion it means to change people to your religious point of view, but that is not how it was used in the Bible. I think we will always have a sense of doom if we go through life thinking we have to convert people. We have the choice to turn our own lives around, but God has not given us the power to turn around anyone else. What we can do is live a changed life and explain to others how God worked that change and that He is willing to do the same for them. But we cannot change them.

Younger Christians do not put much emphasis on programs, such as discipleship classes, where believers receive more information than they can retain, are challenged to strive toward impossible goals or are given the whole Christian life in neat sequential stages that have little to do with real-life development and spiritual warfare. Instead of worrying about how much information believers can acquire and disseminate, younger Christians concentrate on the type of person Christianity produces. Are we merciful, generous, kind, full of love and integrity? In a word, are we good people? Those who live outside the Church do not care what we believe, but they watch us to discover what Jesus does with a person’s life when it is given to Him.

Every Christian is an advertisement for the faith. The most effective evangelism is a life transformed by Jesus Christ, a life that reflects His goodness and love, a life that is dedicated to alleviating pain, redeeming society and taking care of the planet and its ecosystems. If we are not transformed into the kind of people who reflect Jesus Christ, then what is the point of talking other people into becoming Christians? Either it works or it does not work. If it works, the evidence will be in your life; then people may ask you to explain “the reason for the hope that you have” (1 Peter 3:15 NIV).

Chuck Smith Jr. is the senior pastor at Capo Beach Calvary in Capistrano, Calif. This article is adapted from his book Frequently Avoided Questions: An Uncensored Dialogue on Faith (Baker Books, November 2005), co-authored with Matt Whitlock.

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