One summer at InterVarsity’s Campus by the Sea, a fellow student shared this story: While he was sitting on the grass at school, reading a book and eating his lunch, several Christians had approached him. They learned that he was an atheist and gave him a rundown of the gospel. At the end, they asked if they could pray for him, to which he agreed. He related to our group: “I said yes so they would leave me alone. They walked away high-fiving each other, but it did nothing for me spiritually.”
To them, the interaction was an encouragement. Yet to him, it was an interruption. Same circumstance, vastly different interpretations. I’d like to think that I’m more attuned to spiritual needs than those students were and that I know how to handle each situation. But the truth is, I’ve made the same mistake, even with my close friends.
In college, I often invited my agnostic best friend to my church group. He attended the occasional social outing or special event. One summer he started coming consistently. I could sense a change in his heart. “Don’t get too excited. I’m just here to make friends,” he clarified. “I have no intention of converting.”
Though I appreciated his honesty, I felt a little embarrassed.
Had I appeared too eager for him to come to faith? Of course, I wanted him to know Jesus. But I didn’t want to appear like an evangelical used-car salesman. Many people are wary of a “Christian agenda” to convert. Some view us as that “friend” who’s always pitching you pyramid schemes.
People don’t like to be sold. Our friends don’t want to be treated like projects.
Don Everts and Doug Schaupp write in I Once Was Lost: “[N]ever treat people like projects. Give your heart.” They go on to explain a five-stage framework for postmodern evangelism—the first step of which is to establish trust. People must know that we have their interests in mind. But trust alone isn’t enough either. Friends may recognize our good intentions and yet still say, “What’s right for you isn’t right for me.”
Neither are evangelistic tools enough. In fact, they can be counterproductive. Excited to apply the Five Thresholds Everts and Schaupp developed, I promptly categorized my small group members into them. I wanted to help each person grow. Before long, however, it resembled the very type of project the authors had warned against. I had missed the point.
Remember: There is no formula. Tools like the Five Thresholds are helpful for identifying heart postures, but they don’t change hearts—the Spirit does. When we put trust in our tools, we place undue pressure on ourselves. We idolize control and assume a role that only God can fill. We become impatient to see conversion and end up treating people like projects.
That’s a losing proposition all around. It’s no wonder many people—believers and non-believers alike—share a distaste for “evangelism.” But good evangelism isn’t necessarily “done”; it’s lived out.
And we as the Church must start by trusting God more. The greatest challenge to our evangelism isn’t a hedonistic culture or a relativistic worldview. Nor is it scientific reasoning or religious pluralism.
No, it’s our own faithless witness. In church, we sing songs of how great and able our God is. Yet we act like he could use some help. We seem to believe that our neighbors are somehow less reachable than prior generations. We think that we must make church more seeker-friendly, worship music more contemporary, biblical stories more relevant. We work as though we love God’s Church more than he does.
Sure, modern society may be diverse and complex. But when it comes to longings of the human heart, “there is nothing new under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:9).
People are searching for God. They may not express this desire explicitly or in religious terms. But our neighbors long for a hope that stands firm, a peace that transcends reason, a love that perseveres. And our Lord Jesus—who is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow—is enough for them, as he is for us.
Author Skye Jethani, speaking at Mariners Church a few years ago, renewed my understanding of evangelism: “The primary purpose of the Church—before mission, before healing, before transforming the culture—its first purpose, is to give a ravishing vision of who Jesus Christ is and let him draw people to himself.”
As we center ourselves on Jesus’ goodness, we will focus less on our inadequacies. We will worry less about our neighbors’ perceived obstacles to faith. And we will treat people like people, not projects.