I remember the first interaction I had with my ex-fiance. We didn’t really know each other personally, but we would engage in conversation and do some activities together. A few months and several interactions later, we began to date one another. Still more months and interactions later we got engaged.
This is a fairly typical story. Two people meet, get to know each other, and then after a time they continue making deeper and deeper levels of commitment to one another. Engagement, as well as marriage, are two moments which solidify a certain depth of commitment between two people. It is odd for us to think that two people would meet for the first time, chat for a few minutes, and then immediately commit the rest of their lives to one another. Even in arranged marriages there are people who understand the individuals well enough to know if that kind of relationship will work, and there is still a ‘leading up-to’ time where the two people are at least aware of what is going on.
Why is it, then, that we tend to see evangelism as a ‘blind marriage’ occasion? We think it’s crazy for two people to get married if they have only know each other for a few hours (or even days), and yet we impose that kind of perspective on our un-saved neighbors. I would like to propose that we rethink our understanding of evangelism.
To be perfectly honest, I never felt comfortable inviting my friends to church with me. While I was in youth group, we would be asked several times to bring our friends to church for special occasions or for Wednesday night Bible study or whatever. I would always feel awkward about this. It’s not because I didn’t think God was important or that salvation didn’t matter, but it’s because whenever I did invite my friends I would hear the messages they were hearing and it would unsettle me.
“You’re an outsider.”
“You don’t know what’s going on here.”
“You don’t know who God is.”
“You need to dedicate your life to Jesus tonight!”
My friends were seen as outsiders, as strangers, and in order to feel truly welcomed they needed to get with the program and convert. Then, and only then, could they be a part of the community.
Now, I know that this was not the intended message of the youth leaders or laypeople. However, these were the messages that were communicated through what was said, how people acted, and what people said about our friends when they weren’t there. And I am as guilty as everyone else for sending these messages.
Now I have another story to tell:
when I was about five, I remember coming home from church and climbing into the top of my bunk-bed and asking Jesus into my heart. This is my conversion story, and it is entirely made up.
The truth is, I don’t know when I was saved. I can’t point to a calendar and say, “here, on this day, I became a born again believer!” I do know that at some point I did, but I don’t remember how. I remember something about a Sunday school teacher talking with me about it, so maybe it happened then? I don’t know. I do know that I invented a story because people kept asking me about my conversion experience and when I came into a relationship with the Lord, so that’s where the bunk-bed conversion story came into play.
Honestly, I don’t know when Christ became my savior because I don’t remember a time when I didn’t know who Jesus was. I grew up hearing about him all the time. I would pray to him before meals with my family, and I would hear about him at church. I never had an opportunity as an infant to not know who he was. And this is why I believe there is a big weakness in how we do evangelism.
One of the biggest assumptions we seem to build off of when talking about evangelism is that people who are not Christian do not have a relationship with Jesus. I think this is one of the most harmful and, frankly, ignorant assumptions we have. There is rarely anyone in the United States who does not know who Jesus is. You can ask anyone, “Who is Jesus?” and I believe most people will give you an answer. Everyone knows who Jesus is. Everyone has feelings about who Jesus is. Everyone has some sort of a relationship with Jesus, even if that relationship is simply an acquaintance.
So why do we approach evangelism as if they don’t? Why do we talk to non-believers as if Jesus is some total stranger to them? Why do we treat them as if they couldn’t tell the difference between Jesus and George Bush? And why do we assume that he is not already working in their lives?
The problem with not recognizing a relationship that is already there is that we then set up all kinds of persuasive arguments aimed at getting people to like Jesus. We talk about his character, what he did, what he does, and what he is doing as if Jesus were on a blind date with this person.
But what if evangelism became more declarative than persuasive? More acknowledging that coercing? More about revealing a God who is already there than introducing a completely foreign concept?
If we are to take this perspective seriously, then evangelism isn’t about trying to get someone to marry a complete stranger they just met. Instead, it is about helping someone develop a relationship that is already there. I didn’t get engaged the first moment I met my ex-fiance’. That didn’t happen until months into our relationship. Similarly, expecting someone to surrender their entire lives to a being whom they hardly know is expecting too much (and I would contend is ultimately damaging in the long run).
What does this say about that moment of ‘conversion,’ then? Maybe when someone becomes a born-again believer it is not a moment when they first enter into a relationship with Christ. Instead, it is simply the moment when Christ went from being ‘some guy I know’ to ‘Lord’ and ‘Savior.’ I am not trying to say that the salvation experience is not important, but we ought to consider the implications of suggesting that Christ is completely unknown to people who aren’t saved.
I sense that our views of others, and creation as a whole, could benefit greatly is we seriously begin to open our eyes to the work that God is already doing in our world and in the lives of those around us. Maybe we would begin shedding ourselves of an ‘us/them’ mentality and simply see ourselves as being on a different stage in this journey. No one is a stranger to God, and who are we to take people on blind dates with a ring in our pocket?