As the Body of Christ on this earth, we have been given the mixed blessing of being His representatives and ambassadors on this earth.
As I write this article, I sit in Denver International Airport on Christmas Eve. Apparently, Christmas Eve is a popular day to travel. Strangers, quiet chatter, iPods and impatience abound. And it has got me to thinking about evangelism.
Most likely, most of the people around me are headed for an eternity in hell. If Jesus was right, and my instincts tell me He was, the door is narrow and few take it. As the Body of Christ on this earth, we have been given the mixed blessing of being His representatives and ambassadors on this earth, commissioned to carry the enormous weight of the Gospel message and make disciples. As such, we are often strongly encouraged (read guilted) into speaking of our faith with people, friends and strangers alike, as often as possible.
And here I am wondering if I should interrupt the rough-around-the-edges gentlemen to my left who is reading and tell him about Jesus. It would probably be wise for us to consider our tactics before we go about evangelizing.
First, those who will make a decision based upon a single hearing of the Gospel message will be few and far spread. This is true even if the message is presented coherently and positively. To pretend otherwise can only be the result of either arrogance or ignorance.
Second, our culture is inherently hostile to those whose only interest is to push an agenda without a real concern for the person. Evangelizing to strangers is a bit like door to door sales. These are people who you will likely never meet again, you’re interrupting something the person would obviously rather be doing and you’re coming in uninvited. The odds are stacked against you.
Third, a sales pitch under these conditions is more likely than not to make the experience for the “buyer” rather negative, and any person with common sense will tell you that a negative experience takes multiple positive experiences just to make up for the one negative. Imagine if a single person were to have multiple negative experiences.
Now, lets appeal to the logic behind that typically used to spur us to evangelize strangers. The most important message ever known to man is one that should be heard and understood by as many as possible so that as many as possible might come to faith. First, I want to praise the spirit behind this. It certainly takes the predicament seriously and, I believe, is motivated by a sincere concern for others. That said, sincerity is not an excuse to go about this hard work foolishly. If we truly want for our efforts to return maximum results, we should be far more concerned about the quality of our efforts rather than focusing so much on quantity. As much as we would like it if the Gospel message possessed magical abilities to bypass its presentation and sink deep down into the hearts of the listeners, we must deal with the harsh reality that this is simply not true. Presentation matters. The sooner we let this affect us, the better.
With that in mind, then, lets explore some basic principles that can guide us as we seek to fulfill that great commission:
Build a Relationship
As I mentioned earlier, without an established relationship in place, any attempt at witnessing is essentially received as well as a door to door sales pitch. Every person, including you, wants to know that they are cared about. Before trying to tell someone about how much they are loved by God, try showing them that love to them by taking a genuine interest in who they are, where they are hurting, how they might need help.
Don’t Force It
There are many ways to begin a conversation about faith and God without asking “If you died tonight do you know where you would go?” While the heart behind these questions is sincere, these questions tend to be very off-putting and create a lot of tension from the onset of the conversation. Try instead to casually mention how your faith might affect an area of your life. If they seem interested at all, continue the conversation. If not, change the subject. Acknowledge that for many, spirituality is an area of their life that they are not very comfortable sharing about and should you try to tread into that area uninvited, you will be met with hostility. Take comfort in the fact that as you build relationship, these conversations will come with increasing frequency. Embrace those instances as your opportunity to talk about the Gospel and don’t overstay your welcome there.
There is so much untapped power in questions. Asking questions can be incredibly effective for several reasons. First, it’s disarming. Questions put the ball in the other person’s court to do with what they would like, but it doesn’t force them one way or another. Second, it shows that you genuinely care about the other person and that they are not just another hurdle for you to clear. Third, questions are the back door to a person’s heart. Getting to know someone’s story, where they’re from, what they’ve experienced, what is important to them and why lets you in on who they are and it enables you to see how the Gospel message might be beneficial to this person.
Discern the Spirit
As a general rule of thumb, it is probably best to avoid trying to evangelize strangers. However, God may prompt you to speak to certain people in certain circumstances. In that case, do as you’re told! But keep in mind that you are still caring for a person, not just making a sales pitch. Show the person that you genuinely care about them, ask questions, share the truth in love and do what you can to continue the relationship beyond this initial encounter. Exchange an email. If nothing else, as this person may have additional questions and you may be the only one this person knows to come to.
I’m now in a different terminal at a different airport waiting to board my connecting flight to Portland. There are different folks around, now. The guy sitting on the bench across from me is of particular interest to me: A short, pudgy, obviously hardened Hispanic male in a leather jacket and an uninviting scowl on his unshaven face. He was on my earlier flight. We’ve made eye contact several times. I’ve done my best to communicate with him non-verbally. A quick smile, a nod. I am friendly. You’re not scary. You are loved. Unbeknownst to him, I’ve even prayed for him. I probably won’t initiate a conversation with him unless we happen to sit next to each other on this next flight, but hopefully he knows I would be open to it. Who knows what God might be saying to him right now?
At this stage of my relationship with this man, perhaps the nonverbal, limited love I’ve shown to him is enough. May God do something beautiful with these pitiful seeds.