I have never really understood the whole idea of personal evangelism. It’s not that I don’t see the point. I just don’t think it’s all it’s cracked up to be. I have never really been good at sharing my faith; at least not with complete strangers. You would probably never see me wandering the streets, Bible in hand, sharing the gospel message with anyone whose attention I can grab. I have never stood on the street corner preaching to all within earshot. I never understood the point of tracts. I’m not the guy with numerous stories about how I shared my life story with the guy sitting next to me on the plane; resulting in a confession about how he had turned his back on God countless years ago and screwed up his life, culminating in his tearful admission that he needs Jesus. (I have to stop here and let you know a few things. To begin with, I am not condemning these types of encounters. Nor am I condemning these practices altogether. I am simply adding to the conversation and trying to understand my faith a little more.) To be completely honest, I don’t think I have even one story like that. As far as I recall, I have never even prayed the “sinner’s prayer” with a single soul (another idea I don’t totally understand). If you have been a Christian any number of years—or days for that matter—you might view me as somewhat of a failure. You might even conclude that I obviously don’t really believe Jesus sets men free. And for that, I can’t really blame you.
Not too long ago I began to deal with the guilt (and envy) that ensued upon hearing stories of these “successful” evangelists. The two logical conclusions I quickly came to were, 1) I am not really a follower of Christ (afterall, we are called to share his message); or 2) This model of evangelism is missing something. Of course, I wasn’t about to think I had been wrong all these years about my salvation. So I did what anyone in my position would do. I set out to prove everyone else wrong! The conclusion I came to was eye-opening, to say the least. To me, it always seemed those evangelism stories only served to put another notch in the spiritual belt. I wonder if they were truly converted. Perhaps these people were just overcome with emotion. Or maybe they just said some prayer in hopes they would quit being pestered about surrendering their life to Jesus.
For the longest time I used to feel guilty about my lack of “personal evangelism.” Not anymore! Several things occurred that helped take away that guilt. It started to subside after a chapel during my junior year at college. The guest speaker opened his message asking a show of hands for how many of us had “lead someone to the Lord” (many of us had in mind experiences similar to the ones I previously mentioned)—to which several hands went up. Then we were asked how many of us have shared our faith with anyone (the number of raised hands more than doubled). He went on to open our (or at least my) eyes and share with us what “leading someone to the Lord” really meant. It was then I began to realize the gift of evangelism (although we view evangelists as rock stars of the faith) is no more or less important than any other spiritual gift. The other thing that helped to eradicate that guilt was a spiritual gifts test, which overwhelmingly showed I am not an evangelist. Don’t get me wrong, evangelism is a great gift, just not one everyone has been blessed with. In my mind, the gift of evangelism is pretty useless if we take it out of context and elevate it beyond any other gift. (On a side note, if we think any of us has the power to “lead someone to the Lord” on our own, we are sadly mistaken and need a dose of humility.)
Recently, I have also been trying to better understand the Great Commission. I have to tell you what I hear Jesus telling me in that particular passage. You might be surprised to find that He isn’t telling me to share the Gospel with all who will listen (although that is part of it); rather He is telling me (and you) to go and make disciples. The former is really just words; the latter is words and actions, ultimately culminating in a relationship. (It is here I could tell you several stories about how I have built a relationship with my neighbor without pushing the Gospel on him. Although he hasn’t repeated any prayer, that I am aware of, I feel as though I am helping him to see the reality of Christ). Preaching the Gospel will only take someone so far. It may just get them into heaven, but is that all we really want? (That is another discussion entirely.)
I like to compare our evangelism tactics to the customer service techniques employed at big corporations like Wal-Mart (don’t judge me for shopping there). When I am finally able to track down a “sales associate” (why is it everyone has such a technical position anymore) and tell them of my quandary, they usually point their finger in some obscure direction and tell me the item I am looking for can be found in such-and-such an aisle. Instead of taking the time out of their busy schedule to physically walk me there, in order to make sure I actually find what it is I’m looking for, I am offered lame directions that usually result in more aimless wandering. The same is true of us when we try to evangelize the “lost” (a term I am beginning to hate using). When someone finally works up the courage to open up to us, we try to give them some formula to find salvation, i.e. Roman’s Road, the Four Spiritual Laws, the Sinner’s Prayer. We simply tell them that Jesus can make them moral, offer them freedom, save them from that addiction, or heal them from their infirmity. We tell them these things because it is much easier than reciprocating their openness, honesty and trust. It is easier to offer some obscure “truth” than it is to walk with them along the journey to find that truth. In the words of a friend of mine, “sharing your faith without a willingness to share your life is pretty lame!”
I think where we have gone wrong is trying to entirely separate evangelism from discipleship. In my mind, there is so much overlap, they just might be one and the same; either that or they are inseparable. Let me try to make this simple. We tend to think of evangelism as simply converting someone to our beliefs and discipleship as putting action to those beliefs. While the former may happen in an instant, the latter may take a lifetime. To separate the two and to simply evangelize the lost hasn’t really solved anything. It may have given us (in our mind at least) a few more notches on our spiritual belt. We may be able to add numbers to our church statistical report. We might have even gotten a few of them into heaven. But has it really lead to a true and lasting salvation; one that not only saves from hell, but helps to make life here on earth “as it is in Heaven.” If we try to evangelize without a relationship, we are just adding converts. And God knows Christianity doesn’t need any more of those. What Christianity needs, is more true disciples.