The young, hip couple from North Chicago was returning home from an exciting concert in the south suburbs. As I traveled next to them on the commuter train into the city, they drew me into their conversation here and there – about English literature, about the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and a variety of other things. Interspersed throughout our interaction, the wife would delve into the book she was carrying, one about practical Zen.
She paused for a moment, and excitedly glanced to her husband and reflected on a passage she was just reading, something about meeting others of similar belief for encouragement’s sake. The otherwise pleasant husband’s countenance immediately darkened, and said, “I don’t want to talk about personal spirituality! I’m tired, grouchy, and have no interest in discussing that right now!” The wife silently withdrew into the comfort of her book for the remainder of the train ride.
My Evangelistic Evolution
Within the last couple of years, my mindset toward spiritual conversations has shifted. Although I’ve been in ministry in a variety of capacities for about 15 years, I’ve not always been comfortable in bringing Jesus Christ up in my interactions with those who don’t know Him.
When I became a Christian at 20, I was willing to talk to Christians about Christ, but was nervous to broach the subject with non-Christians. Therefore, I hardly did.
When I was 25 and working in college ministry, I had become a little bit bolder in my conversations concerning Jesus once I actually started them, but was still hesitant. When I did begin spiritually focused dialogues, though, I’m sure people could see that there was a hidden agenda behind my questions.
When I was 30, I was leading a youth ministry, but was so focused on discipleship that evangelism wasn’t a personal priority nor a collective one.
I am now 35, and, within the last nine months, the Lord has begun eradicated my apathy and fear of sharing Christ with others. Last September I went to an evangelism conference near Chicago. The basic gist of this conference was to encourage believers to begin seeker-sensitive small groups that would allow the spiritually curious to engage in dialogue about Jesus, about God, about the world we live in, and about the Bible, all in a setting that made the unchurched person feel welcome and comfortable, helping them discover for themselves the answers to their questions.
This three-day conference started off with something called “Outsider Interviews,” where two non-Christian women were on stage with a moderator who interviewed them about their perspectives on Christianity and on Christians. The hundred or so attendees were in shock at the women’s brutally honest answers. It hurt to hear for the first time that Christians were seen as judgmental, arrogant, condemning, unapproachable, and unkind.
The remainder of the conference was spent in learning about a paradigm shift in evangelism. If the spiritually curious aren’t willing to step through the doors of a church to find their answers, then we have to go out to them. Plus, I learned how important it is to offer genuine friendship whether that non-Christian chooses or rejects Jesus.
Since January, I have been helping lead a neighborhood group. For six weeks we went through a Bible study on the last week of Jesus’ life, and now we are going through some tough question discussions (i.e. “Why does God allow suffering?” or “Don’t all religions lead to God?”). One woman in our group and I had a side-conversation, where I asked her, “So, do I understand you correctly, that you’re willing to accept Jesus as A way to God, but not as THE way to God at this point?” She explained that, no, she hadn’t made that decision yet, but that she was still willing to consider Jesus as THE way. She said, “I am still searching.” Up until that conversation, I was under the distinct impression that she was okay with any religion and that Jesus was just a peripheral character in the eternal big picture. For her to explain that she was still open to the idea of Jesus being who He said He was, “the Way, the Truth, and the Life,” validated this seeker-friendly small group approach in my mind.
In Genuine Pursuit of People
This past week in a study on the Gospel of John I’m doing with some young men at my church, we read chapter 9, where Jesus heals a man who is born blind. The religious leaders interrogate the guy, his parents, and Jesus about why and how this miracle happened. The formerly blind guy stands up to the leaders, and they through him out of the Jewish temple, preventing him from being able to worship God in the context he’s known his whole life.
What happens then? Jesus goes out looking for this guy. He pursues him. Once He finds the formerly blind dude, Jesus cuts straight to the chase. He doesn’t talk about the weather or about the awful treatment the Pharisees gave the guy. Jesus asks him if he believes in the “Son of Man.” The guy explains that he does not, but asks Jesus who it is, and Jesus reveals that it is, in fact, the man he is talking to. Jesus revealed Himself to this man as the Messiah, the completion and fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecies, the One who would save us from the penalty of sin! On the spot, the man believed, and responded to his interaction with Jesus by worshipping God!
My hope is that I will pursue people. Not in a creepy sort of way that makes them feel like I have a hidden agenda or that I’m only interested in their response to Jesus. But I want to make friendship a priority – not only with those who know Jesus, but those who are yet to know Jesus. My goal is to show these people, Christians and non, the love of Jesus in my words and deeds. Not in an awkward sort of way, I want to bring up spiritual things in my conversations with people in the natural flow of the give-and-take. Genuine friendship.
I believe that “success” in evangelism needs to have a new definition. Many people rate success on the number of people who accept Jesus, who say the “sinner’s prayer.” Paul explains in 1 Corinthians 3:6 that several people are involved in the process of bringing people to Christ. Paul planted the seed, his associate Apollos watered it, but God made it grow. I think a biblical view of evangelistic success is faithfulness. Did we initiate conversations about Jesus when we were provided an opportunity? Did we pursue friendships, even if it was with someone not of like mind? Did we rearrange our priorities to allow time for friendship building, even if it meant sacrificing something fun?
I pray that each of us will make it a priority to seek God’s direction in all things, in particular about sharing Christ with people, and that we’d be faithful in doing what He prompts us to do.