Forget apologetics. Forget signs and wonders. If you really want to excel at evangelism, there is one golden key worth more than all the others – LIKE the people you are reaching out to with Jesus. Since we often get really messed up with doublespeak when we talk about what it means to “love”, I’d like to submit that the real issue is whether or not we LIKE “them.” In general*, we can’t bring people to Jesus that we don’t like.
What is evangelism, first of all?
A student of Greek will quickly explain that evangelism involves sharing good news, being an ambassador, etc etc. And that’s all good and true. Evangelism is part of our kingdom role of being priests and kings. Malachi talks about one of the jobs of a priest:
“True instruction was in his mouth and unrighteousness was not found on his lips; he walked with Me in peace and uprightness, and he turned many back from iniquity. 7“For the lips of a priest should preserve knowledge, and men should seek instruction from his mouth; for he is the messenger of the LORD of hosts.” (Malachi 2:6-7)
Sharing the knowledge of God both with believers and nonbelievers is incredibly important and is our honored role in the Kingdom. I’ve heard people often quote, St. Francis in saying, “Preach the gospel, and if necessary use words.” But the reality is that words will always be necessary. We are to help people UNDERSTAND things about God, and share knowledge.
BUT – if our view of evangelism is just about TELLING people something, shoving a sign or a track or a well-rehearsed message at someone, I don’t think we’re going to get very far with real humans with that approach. At least, I never saw much come of my own efforts at evangelism when I approached people with that mindset. Evangelicalism for a long time has I think based much of its lifeless attempts at sharing the good news with people on a misapplication of one verse:
“so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.” – Isaiah 55:11
This verse is often used to justify completely violating or at completely impersonal attempts at sharing Christ with people. Under this mindset, all that matters is making people hear words. It doesn’t matter if the message comes to them in any real understandable form, or if it has any personal connection to them… simply shouting at them is good enough, for God will make any words we shove at them “not return void.” Though an explanation of why that’s a bad way to read that verse is well beyond the scope of this blog post, that’s not what this verse meant when it was written, and I don’t think its what it means for us today.
LEARNING A DIFFERENT WAY
My relationship with being an emissary of the gospel really started to change a few decades back when I stopped trying to be a “good witness” (which is evangelicalism-speak for “hiding all your sins and faults from nonbelievers in order to supposedly attract them with the perfection of your life now that you are a believer in Jesus”) and instead let a non-Christian friend see me “for real,” as I shared with him the depths of the depression I was in, as well as my intense struggles with God at that time. When he suddenly up and decided that Christ was real and he wanted in on the Kingdom when I was contemplating how best to hurt myself, I started realizing that my first “convert” was teaching me something about how Christ makes Himself known to people – and it wasn’t by me being fake and seemingly having it all together in front of non-believers.
I also started learning that it wasn’t about shoving impersonal sentences at people that supposedly were “the Word of God that won’t return void” to them. Some wise person shared with me that every person in existence is already in a relationship with God, and that He has been dancing with them their entire lives, carefully cultivating a conversation with them. I started to understand that my job as an evangelist was not to plod on into that conversation like a bull in a China shop, but to respect it – and to learn to peer into how God has already been engaging with that person, and that person with God – and to enter appropriately into THAT conversation. Just as the Holy Spirit is one who “comes alongside and helps” I started to see my job as a colaborer with Christ by the Holy Spirit, agreeing with the Holy Spirit in coming alongside a person being drawn to Christ, rather than coming at them. Good evangelism is midwifery, and while some babies are born on their own, much of the time someone helps the baby along.
But how does one come “alongside” the process, already in progress, of the Father drawing someone to His Son Jesus? This is where I would say that there is no replacement for GENUINELY LIKING the people one is trying to reach.
Liking People is the Opposite of Alienating Them
It’s almost too obvious to write about, but people don’t generally want to hear what someone has to say when they sense hostility coming at them from the speaker. Instead, most humans put up walls, and get defensive. This is why standing on a street corner holding a sign and shouting, “The end is near! Repent or burn!” is probably one of the worst images that our society has of Christians…and of evangelism. It would take an extraordinarily humble person to want to subject themselves to learning from someone who approaches them full of condemnation and hostility.
But an even more subtle form of hostility that Christians present to nonbelievers comes from an “us/them” perspective. If we walk into a relationship with an us/them mindset means it we carry a type of “alienation” to the relationship with nonbelievers before we’ve even started. It puts a wall up between oneself and one’s target or uh, “victim” because us/them is a form of alienation already in play. Most of us have experienced this: when you have an “us/them” perspective in your approach to someone, they will feel like a project to you – and the person will eventually sense they are a project in the evangelist’s eyes as well. If you manage to convince the person that being a project is ideal, and a spiritual thing, then you might be able to bring them to the point of becoming your disciple where the project mentality can continue even past the point of their conversion. But generally people feel a bit creeped out at being someone’s project.
Ideally, evangelism should be “incarnational.” Incarnational has at times been a Christian buzzword, but it’s a good one. It means that neither of these two above things are in play – there is no hostility, and there is no us/them mentality. “Incarnational” describes what God did when He put on human flesh and became one of us. It sparkles; there is a closeness about it, a warmth where the one who is incarnated is identifiable and now as one of those he or she has now become. They are tangible and relatable as “one of us” now to the culture they have stepped into. In fact, we don’t just share a message, we become the message, as the apostle Paul wrote:
“It is clear that you are a letter from Christ, the result of our ministry, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts…” 2 Cor 3:3
In order to BE the letter, we need to be able to be known, to be seen. This is true even with all our messiness; the point is that as we relate to God and He relates to us, our history with Him marks us and writes something into our souls. And this is available for those we walk with to read. This is Christ incarnated into us, even as we are incarnated into someone else’s world.
But uniquely, all the gifts and beauty of the realm from which the incarnated one has come are brought into the realm of the society and reality in which she or he is now involved…and those gifts are offered for the taking in a very personal, connected way. Someone who is incarnated brings their pre-incarnated identity into their incarnation. But incarnation is a position “in the middle” of where they are coming from and what they are stepping into; for the person who has been incarnated takes on the identity of the people he or she steps into to become, as well as the flavor, the struggles, the atmosphere and rhythm and likeness of them as well.
INCARNATION SETS US UP FOR CONNECTED SYMPATHY
As all of humanity was made in God’s image, it was because He wrote, as it were, a prophecy in human flesh of Himself which was waiting for fulfillment: we were made in His image, so that at the right time, He could come to us in our own image. And thus He did. And there were many reasons for this, many specific benefits and necessities, one of which was so He would know what is like to be us….so that He could fully relate to who we are and what we go through.
The writer of Hebrews captures this in Hebrews 4:15 –
“For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who was tempted in every way that we are, yet was without sin.”
And this is INTENSELY important. It brings us back to my opening point about LIKING those we want to reach. For too many years the type of Christianity I was in treated Christians as “real” people while nonbelievers weren’t worth really knowing or being friends with. They were simply objects to be captured. But as I kept trying to keep in step with the Spirit and how He was moving in someone’s heart and life, I found those people becoming real to me in a way that makes me now ashamed to admit how I treated people as evangelistic objects. When we like someone, we get to see them as a real person, valuable and truly worth being connected to, and having real friendship with. And we find ways to sympathize with what they are going through. If we can’t sympathize with the things keeping someone from seeing Christ clearly, we’re not going to reach them very easily. Examples:
I love to reach agnostics and atheists. Why? Because I genuinely ENJOY atheists and agnostics. I tend to think of atheists as one of God’s gifts to the church. When the church tries to make theology that is inhumane, or nonsensical, sometimes it takes a bunch of atheists to bring us to our senses. This doesn’t mean that every criticism or critique a nonbeliever makes will turn out to be valid. But I love the fact that these guys challenge us when we get too lost in the clouds with stuff that just doesn’t make sense.
I also can relate really well to these folks because I know what it is like to be unable to believe in something, even when I wanted to. My own testimony involved coming from a place of unbelief, struggling really hard to find out if there was “anything out there” and having a really hard time taking a leap of faith to find out. Some Christians would never believe how many atheists and agnostics have told me they really WISH they could believe in something – or that if “Someone” were there, they really wish they could know that. And especially for those folks, I get it.
And when I hear people bash atheists as if they are somehow deliberately in rebellion against God, that there is something ugly and hateful about someone honest enough about their doubts as to say, “I don’t know if God is real” or, “I’m pretty sure he isn’t there”, it really upsets me. I would rush to most atheists defense in a moment, because many of them are intensely truth-hungry people that I just want to help them find how to truly find Him, and the army of rancorous Christians shouting at them about how horrid they supposedly are sure doesn’t help.
You’re not going to win an atheist or agnostic to Christ by telling them that God doesn’t care about how they try to be a moral person; they were never being moral for the sake of God anyway. You’re not going to draw them in by telling them by telling them that without God they have no basis for ethics or morality, because they know you’re wrong. Quoting at them from a completely different context out of the book of psalms the verse, “The fool says in his heart there is no God,” just affirms to them that you hate them, that you call them a fool, and you’re quoting at them from a book they can’t relate to anyway. Again, all you’re doing is putting up that wall of alienation and hostility for them that Christ died to take down. And that is the opposite of the incarnation. And besides, Jesus gave dire warnings about calling someone a fool.
We can win atheists and agnostics to Christ by putting ourselves in their shoes, being honest with ourselves about our own doubts and difficulties at times walking in faith. We empathize with them by being a real friend and letting them see our real struggles – and victories – with Christ. We sympathize with them by walking with them through their questions about God, being honest about not having all the answers for them, while appreciating these people for who they are and what they bring into our lives, and how God is using them before they even know Him. We show Him to them by just being who you are in a real way, talking about Him and His truth in authentic contextual ways that are real to our lives, and giving them all the room in the world to do the same – knowing that a real God is lighting the way forward for you and them together to figure it out.
One of the surest ways NOT to draw Muslims to Christ is to have all sorts of ideas about them. I continually run across evangelicals that think they’ve got the “Muslim thing” figured out because they’ve learned about a half dozen ugly statements from the Koran about hating infidels or something. They also tend to approach those verses in the Koran the way Christians approach their own Bibles – not realizing that Muslims may have their own reasons for approaching those texts differently (just as Christians have their own reasons for approaching Deuteronomy differently than nonbelievers often assume they do.) But none of that really is the point anyway – you can’t learn a culture just by studying some of its documents ; you learn a culture by hanging out with people.
You can read the Koran from cover to cover 1000 times and still understand next to nothing about muslims, because to some degree, it doesn’t matter what a holy book says – it matters how the people who believe in it interpret it and live it out (or don’t live it out.) There are many, many cultural things that affect how any particular Muslim will view themselves as a Muslim, and view the teachings of the Koran. There are various nationalities, various sects in those nationalities, various levels of commitment, various understandings of how to interpret the Koran, and there is folk Islam with its own sets of beliefs. There are militant Muslims, there are devout yet peaceful Muslims, there are disinterested Muslims and disaffected Muslims. And just as there are many different cultures of Christians (nominal Catholics, Bible banging Baptists, serious Catholics, liberal Baptists) there are many many different categories, movements, and personalities of Muslims.
But no matter what, one can’t LIKE a Muslim without hanging out with him or her and really getting to know them. As long as Christians regard Muslims as “the enemy” rather than approaching them as their next best friend, one will never have the privilege of getting to be part of their Islamic friends’ exploration of their own prophet, Isa (Jesus).
But this requires learning to LIKE Muslims. I have found that practicing Muslims are inspiring in their adoration and love for God. Their reverence and awe for Him are beautiful, the way they seek to involve Allah (and even Christian Arabs call God, Allah) in everyday life puts many Christians to shame. One thing that seems to be fairly universal however is the importance placed on hospitality; if you can let yourself be invited in, the value of hospitality in this culture in many cases completely transcends any anti-Christian sentiment you might fear your Muslim friend might hold towards you. Muslims tend to value their guests very highly, and its a great way to get to know them and learn all the things there are to like about them.
And as far as sympathizing goes; I know what it is like to have a works’ mindset in approaching God, and I think many Christians have at some point in their relationship with God a similar experience from which to relate to Muslim religious experience. Instead of judging devout Muslims for approaching God with a works mindset, I find myself being reminded of how I’ve struggled with the same thing, both before and after knowing Christ. And many Muslims are not necessarily even approaching God that way either – it’s important to get to know what is actually going on in the lives of one’s friends.
On the flip side, I’ve met young Muslims so in rebellion against the teaching of their parents that they were taking steps with their lives that the God who cares for them would not want them to take. Sometimes sharing my own sins and stupid decisions and how “Allah knows best” (Allah is just the Arabic word for God) is the best way I know how to help a Muslim-culture friend care about knowing God – and Jesus – when everything about God seems irrelevant to them.
WHOEVER IT IS, LIKE THEM
The main point is, we will be most effective with the people we like enough to truly relate to them, and probably be completely ineffective with people who we are only sharing Christ with as some sort of a duty, or some sort of niche on our Christian-y belts. I’m also not writing this to give folks an excuse to shrug off reaching out to people they don’t LIKE or don’t GET. But instead, I’m writing this as an encouragement and a challenge to the church to stop making ourselves “feel good” by how we can look down on those “foolish, God-hating Atheists”, or those “evil satanic Muslims.”
Joshua and Caleb set themselves apart from the other men who “spied out the land” of Canaan because they liked the land they saw, and they thought it was a good land that God was ready to give them. The other spies looked at the land as being too full of strongholds for their trouble. Likewise, do we approach people like they are cherished and beloved by God, and that the things keeping them from Christ are not that big of a deal? Do we find them delightful and enjoyable and know they are a hair’s breadth away from the Kingdom, and that God is near them? Or do we put up walls of fear and hostility that just don’t need to be there, which alienate us from them and them from us, ultimately cutting us off from our inheritance and the blessing of walking in Kingdom relationship with them?
We’re called like Jesus to love and serve people, and one of the biggest differences from serving someone from a place of superiority verses authentic incarnationality comes down to one thing: Do we authentically like them? If not, I do think it’s worth asking God to show us how.
* Footnote from first paragraph: I say, “in general” because, heck, God can do anything and when God is really moving in someone’s life, they may not need much human involvement at all – whether you or I hate them or like them may be completely immaterial. But in most cases, we’re talking about the actual action of evangelism here, where we are the tour guides taking someone by the hand and showing them all the sights along the way and leading up to an encounter with the cross and the resurrected Christ.)