When my husband and I were in Bible school one of the required classes the first semester of our freshman year was an evangelism called Evangelism Explosion. The class was based on a book by the same title that was considered the text on evangelism at that time. The book popularized witnessing as a systematic strategy with clearly defined methods and design. The basis of engagement centered around two qualifying questions that proved a person’s need to be saved. The ultimate goal in any interaction with a person was conversion.
After 12 weeks of training and equipping our final assignment was to go the University of Washington campus and use our newly acquired skills and lead someone to Jesus. I walked on campus that day with the premise that it was up to me to convert someone. Armed with a clever presentation of the gospel, a programed plan of action, and solid argument of my faith, my job that day was to convict, confront, and convince people of their theological errors and have them believe and behave as I do. I was terrified.
“Um, excuse me, if you were to die tonight do you know…”
“Oh, okay. I will get lost.”
Not only did I not lead anyone to the Lord, by the standards we were taught, we were a dismal failure.
Tragically, this way of evangelism took a top-down approach and emulated an air of superiority, control, and manipulation. Sharing the Good News became more about how I could impress others with my elaborate knowledge of the Bible or mount a good defense if anyone questioned my faith.
Much too often this approach became an “us verses them”; I am right, you are wrong. It became about the haves and the have nots; those who were in and those who were not. Those were not were seen as a threat to be discredited at all costs.
More often than not, it turned us into mean people. If you don’t think so, try disagreeing with someone’s belief preference. (I am not talking about sound doctrine. Sound doctrine is essential in matters of faith. But even then, we must exhibit grace to those who disagree with us that they might be won over by our love for them.) I don’t know about you, but I have been on the receiving end of such things and it has been neither kind nor pleasant. Tragically, our faith became a belief system to be defended at all costs and our superior posture rarely changed anyone’s life.
Ultimately and most troubling, people became our projects. If someone by chance accepted Christ, we considered their decision like a notch on our belt, and walked away self-satisfied we got another one “in the kingdom.” There was no further need for engagement or discipleship because the goal was always about an end result. We were off the hook for engaging real, hurting, and broken people.
What we discover is being well taught does not make us more loving. Knowledge alone does not necessarily transform our hearts. Mindy Caliguire wrote, “It is entirely possible to keep acquiring more and more information about the Bible but be less and less transformed by that knowledge.” Without pulling any punches, Brennan Manning wrote, “The idolatry of ideas has left me puffed up, narrow-minded, and intolerant of any idea that does not coincide with mine.”
There is something wrong when we care more about being right, than how we treat other people.
A few years ago after a morning service, we met a young woman in our lobby.
“How did you happen to come today?” I inquired.
“I was at a gas station this morning and I asked someone pumping gas if there was a church nearby. They offered me a ride here.” Yay, them.
She had tattoos and piercing in all the visible places, dreadlocks down to the middle of her back, and ragged layers of clothing. She had dirt and, what seemed like grease, crusted under her fingernails and she certainly didn’t smell like me. She also had a pit bull by her side.
We introduced ourselves and I asked her her name.
“My rail name is Spider.”
“Tell us about your name and what it means to ride the rails,” I genuinely and inquisitively asked.
Spider told us how she had been riding the railroad cars (underneath and illegally) for almost three years. We learned about a subculture of rail riders and the difference between and hobo and a vagabond. (She was NOT a hobo!) We also found out that she was raised in a preacher’s home in Texas. She spoke lovingly of her daddy and she knew he missed her, but she had not called home in quite a while. I asked her what kept her from going home. She said she was on a journey that she needed to take right now. She spoke with an understanding of grace. She was kind, articulate and respectful. I think we could have been friends.
“How can we help you?” I asked.
“I need to get to Portland by tomorrow. The coal car headed that direction doesn’t leave the station until Tuesday,” she responded. (The rails riders know all the traffic patterns of the trains.)
“How about we buy you a ticket so you can ride inside the boxcar,” I suggested.
With a little encouragement, we convinced her to do so. We loaded Spider and her dog into our car. We first drove to our home. I ran inside and poured almonds into a gallon zip-lock bag (for protein) and did the same with some dog food. We asked about her favorite fast food restaurant and responded, “Arby’s.” We grabbed her two sandwiches and headed for the train station.
My husband approached the ticket counter but when the cashier saw Spider’s dog she refused to allow her to board. No amount of persuasion worked.
“It’s okay,” assured Spider. “Just take me to the highway and I can hitchhike to Portland.”
When Spider noticed our hesitancy, she assured us she had done this many times before.
“Have you ever had a bad pick up?” I asked.
“Just once,” she replied.
We started down the interstate highway and Spider instructed us to take the first on/off ramp to drop her off. “People haven’t yet got to full speed on the on ramp and they are more willing to pull over,” she explained.
We prayed with her before we got out of the car with her. I reached into my wallet and gave her everything I had. As I placed the bills in her hand, I looked in her eyes and said, “Your daddy loves you very much. Promise me you will call him.”
“I will,” she promised.
We left Spider on the side of that interstate on ramp and pulled away with tears in our eyes.
These stories are two very different ways of sharing the good news of the gospel and the hope we have in Jesus. No one wants to be our project.
Everyone has a grace-filled story to be told if only we will enter his or her story and listen.
In 1 Corinthians 9:19-23, the Apostle Paul writes, “Even though I am free of the demands and expectations of everyone, I have voluntarily become a servant to any and all in order to reach a wide range of people: religious, nonreligious, meticulous moralists, loose-living immoralists, the defeated, the demoralized—whoever. I didn’t take on their way of life. I kept my bearings in Christ—but I entered their world and tried to experience things from their point of view. I’ve become just about every sort of servant there is in my attempts to lead those I meet into a God-saved life. I did all this because of the Message. I didn’t just want to talk about it; I wanted to be in on it!” ™
Instead of being right, what if the sharing the gospel includes a willingness to remain fully and personally present, without judging or the need to fix or “save” another person. This means allowing that person to be seen, heard, and valued just as they are. When people know they are loved, all sorts of possibilities open up. What if our faith is not a static belief we tenaciously cling to, but a way of living and moving gracefully in the world? What if our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy? Romans 2:4 tells us, “It is kindness that leads to repentance.”
Instead of requiring immediate conversion as the litmus of our witness, perhaps listening to and loving them where they are allows kindness and grace to begin to form their lives. In very undramatic ways, we get to play a part of someone’s journey to find healing and wholeness. Perhaps, then, somewhere along the way, without them even knowing it, they fall in love with Jesus simply because we loved them as Jesus does. Instead of worrying if we are doing things right, what if God measures our lives by how we love?
This means every conversation matters; every act of kindness matters. It could be most transformative thing we do.