As a Christian, I have been the recipient of some really bad attempts at evangelism.
One of the most puzzling was a fairly long airplane ride. I don’t recall talking to the person next to me at all – perhaps we each read a book, did Sudoku puzzles, or flipped through the SkyMall brochure to make fun of the amusing products for sale (like an Alien Flying Saucer Statue – seriously).
Anyways, after we landed, she stood up, got her bag from the overhead bin, dropped an evangelistic tract into my lap, and then walked off the plan without saying a word. I suppose I looked like I really needed salvation. So why didn’t she at least introduce herself?
Another time I was in a subway system, walking to a train. A man came up to me and asked me quite earnestly if I was “born again.” Taking in the situation, it seemed this complete stranger needed a really clear answer to his question. So I told him, “Absolutely. I have placed my faith in Jesus Christ for salvation. I love God.” But any hope that this answer was satisfactory to wrap up the conversation were quickly dimmed.
“But are you sure you’re really born again?” he queried. This savvy follow-up question was accompanied with a revelation: he opened up a huge book with what I presume were his personal drawings of heaven and hell. With considerable enthusiasm, the man asked me if I would prefer to go to heaven (which looked relatively pleasant in his depiction) or hell (which appeared to be positively horrifying) when I died. I emphatically assured the man that I desired to go to heaven, and believed with all my heart that I was ‘born again’ by God’s grace. However, I don’t think anything short of allowing this man to repeatedly baptize me would have satisfied him that I was saved.
Two examples, both unpleasant. One was disappointingly passive; the other, almost frightening in its aggression.
Many Christians sincerely feel the obligation to evangelize – to tell others the good news about Jesus’ death, resurrection, and offer of forgiveness for our sins. But few of us do. These statistics, from a study on Christians and evangelism, highlight the tension we feel:
The study conducted by LifeWay Research found 80 percent of those who attend church one or more times a month, believe they have a personal responsibility to share their faith, but 61 percent have not told another person about how to become a Christian in the previous six months.
In other words, something is keeping Christians from sharing their faith. Why is this?
I believe that one of the most common reasons Christians don’t share their faith is that they have a poorly developed “evangelistic imagination.”
What do I mean by this? For instance, in Acts 1, Jesus charges his disciples, “you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.”
For too many Christians, applying this can sound like:
- I should sell my home, learn a completely novel language, and share the gospel on the other side of the world.
- A megaphone. No, wait: a megaphone and a sandwich board. Hold it. A megaphone, a sandwich board, and tracts with flames on them. This is what Jesus was talking about.
- If only Christianity was more relevant. Perhaps I should try out some fashionable Christian band t-shirts and get a necklace with a cross on it. A tattoo of a Bible verse – in Greek, no in Hebrew, wouldn’t hurt… and some Christian shoes – as Romans says, ‘blessed are the feet of those who bring good news.’ Maybe I should go shopping this weekend…
For whatever reason, we tend to have dramatic ideas about what it means to bring the gospel to the world. The result? We think of evangelism as something off-putting, weird, and uncomfortable, so we find ways to avoid doing it.
Have you ever had thoughts like this? If I really loved and obeyed Jesus, I also would be willing to wear that sandwich board at the traffic intersection! Lord, help my unbelief. It is thoughts like these that keep us from actually sharing the gospel with our friends.
But what if we imagined something completely different?
It’s this simple: Think about one of the best conversations you had with a friend in the past week or two.
Stop reading for a second. Just take a minute and vividly remember that conversation.
Now: What made that conversation so great? Enter into the feelings, recollect the environment, re-imagine the relational dynamics.
What if that conversation was about Jesus and doubt, love and disappointment, hard circumstances and grace, music and poetry, and finding faith in God?
Every week I meet up with students at Harvard, Boston University, and Boston College Law School. We have great conversations. We talk about the mundane details of life: papers and exams, sleep or lack of sleep, friendships or lack of friendships. We discuss their studies and the Christian way: bioethics, philosophy of law, God’s calling, and more.
And with those seeking God, I often discuss two simple topics: ‘what do you believe, and why?’ and, ‘what is Christianity, and why is it true?’ How do I make sure they’re interested?
Here’s the big secret. Are you ready?
I ask them what they think is interesting.
Its actually really easy once you think about it for a minute. For instance, try this one: “I’m curious, do you ever think about whether God exists?”
I mean, there are thousands of good questions available to start up great conversations about faith. Whatever questions come naturally to you are probably going to be better than memorizing a canned list of ‘great faith conversation questions’ that I write up (though I may do this sometime, just to spark your own creativity).
I certainly believe in equipping, training, and preparation. There are dozens of articles on this site about apologetics so you’re intellectually ready for the hard questions. But sometimes that can get in the way of just going for it. You love God. You love your friends. You have great conversations with them about all kinds of things.
So here’s the challenge: this week, ask at least one friend what their thoughts are about God, religion, the meaning of life, or another topic related to spirituality. I’d love to hear how it goes – send me an email or share with me on Google+ what God does!