A few days ago, I had a physical therapy appointment and encountered a fellow who was rather “in-your face” about the Lord. And by “in your face,” I specifically mean, in my face.
As I was checking in, he walked up to the counter, loudly greeting the gals working there, and then shouting “Praise the Lord!”–about something. My first thought was, good for this guy. He loves the Lord! I’m happy for him! (and I genuinely was).
But we had a second encounter a few minutes later as we were both exercising on the recumbent bikes, side by side. “When did you have your surgery?” he asked me, assuming that I had the same knee replacement surgery he had recently undergone.
When I explained that I hadn’t had surgery, he quickly interrupted me to let me know that his knee wasn’t healing as fast as expected, but that “the Lord is good!” I agreed heartily, gave a reassuring smile and finished my time on the bike.
A few second later, I was doing another exercise and talking to the therapist. And the guy overheard me say that I teach theology at the University of Valley Forge. He immediately inserted himself into the conversation and began hurling a barrage of Bible verses at me, and at everyone else in the room. He was quite loud about it, and frankly it made me a bit uncomfortable. Thankfully, the therapist interrupted so that I could get back to focusing on my exercises.
A few minutes later, we found ourselves on tables next to each other, once again doing similar exercises. He asked me, “what DAY did you get saved?” Adding, “that’s the most important day of your life.” I wasn’t really in the mood to try and explain to him that biblically, salvation is described as both an event and a process; plus, I was sure that this information would fall on deaf ears. So, to humor him I gave him the 90 second version of my testimony, and then turned back to my exercises.
He was clearly unsatisfied with my answer, because after throwing a few more random Bible verses my way, he proceeded to say, “well, we’ll finish with this…”
Wait, what? Finish? Is this a church service? An inquisition? What does he mean “we’ll finish with this”?
Whatever else it meant, it surely meant that he was in charge of this encounter and it didn’t end until he decided it could.
He went on. “You can always tell somebody who’s on fire for the Lord because they love to talk about Him. They just can’t help it.” The implication was clear. He was convinced that since I didn’t match his enthusiasm for boisterous biblical sound bites, I clearly wasn’t “on fire” for Jesus.
I smiled, shook his hand and went to work.
Looking back, I think that this is actually how a good number of people in the church think evangelism should be done. You declare your faith. You cite the Bible. You pressure people into accepting it. No discussion. No debate. No room for doubts or nuance or mystery or questions.
Yet, when I look at evangelism in the Bible, what I see looks nothing like this.
I see Jesus eating in peoples homes whom He’s just met, like Zacchaeus.
I see Him asking questions. Lots of questions. Do you want to be healed? Where is your husband? Why did you go out into the desert? What does the law say? How do you read it? Where are your accusers? What’s in your wallet? (ok, not that last one, at least not in those words).
I see Him meeting with the down and out, sometimes to tell them how great their sins are but often to tell them how great is the grace of God.
Or, think about Paul. When Paul engages in evangelism we see him reasoning with people. Making a case. Engaging with culture (and appreciating it) as with Mars Hill.
We see him in the synagogues often, talking to Jews and God-fearers, those who already displayed some interest in spiritual things.
Put simply, what I see in the New Testament is a far cry from “verbal-assault evangelism” because it’s evangelism that takes work, that takes time, investment, study, knowledge, prayer, patience, and empathy.
And most importantly, it takes the leading of the Spirit. This is the point of Jesus’ baptism at the Jordan. Its the point of the disciples waiting in the upper room. Its the point of practically the whole narrative of Acts, which casts the mission of the church, as one writer puts it, “not so much the planned extension of a building, but as an unexpected explosion!”
And this kind of evangelism, to me, seems more crucial than ever in the times in which we live. In a world that by definition is “in your face”–perhaps Christianity’s greatest treasure is to be in people’s hearts and minds and homes and lives–in order to share the gospel authentically, organically, practically, and relationally.
But, don’t get me wrong. I’m not squashing enthusiasm or passion for the lost or suggesting we don’t talk about sin. I am only suggesting that we steer clear of methods that are indeed more about us than about those around us. As I looked around the room as my new friend lambasted the world with his convictions–what I saw as a lot of people rolling their eyes, shaking their heads. And I don’t blame them. His version of Christianity was not invitational. It wasn’t the kind of thing that made outsiders say, “hey, whatever that guy’s got, I want some.” No. It had the opposite effect. There was no effort to enter the lives of others. There was no effort to listen. No effort to hear, to understand, to know, to love. And it made people think, I suspect, that if that is Christianity, I’ll take a pass.
Simply put, in a faith defined by the incarnation of God in human flesh, a faith defined by the greatest act of condescension in history, we have woefully lost our way when our methods shun any form of condescension of our own, any form of sacrifice, any form of becoming all things to all people in hopes that we might win some.