(…And now for a completely controversial post! Over to you, Janel.)
Several years past, my husband and I were selling our little yellow house by owner. It was one of those crazy years when we were covered in toddlers and preschoolers. For every house showing, we’d shove all the kid detritus into the washer, dryer, and dishwasher, lay down some vacuum tracks, and scurry off to the playground just in time.
I remember standing in my garden when she rang: A realtor eager to sell my house for me, rattling off her exuberant pitch. At first, I was honored she called (“Your house is so cute!”) and interested to hear her spiel. But soon my shoulders fell. I was getting a subtle vibe she cared more for her agenda than she cared about the needs of my family. I politely declined, sighed, slid my phone back in my pocket.
Weeks later she called to confidently schedule a showing for one of her clients: “I’ve got someone who’s perfect for your place. I’m going to sell your house today!” Her certainty buoyed my sagging spirit. We rearranged our schedule entirely, cleaning in a frenzy. Of course it was in vain, and her words meant to inspire assurance left my frazzled self…smoldering.
It’s a lesson, I think, in a lot of things (my own stupid reactions included!). But I think of that a bit when I consider talking about what I believe; about the One who’s changed my life so profoundly.
To put it simply: sharing with people the faith that’s given me so much life has to flow directly from loving them. If I slide my agenda before my concern—we must get this person saved! Hellfire, brimstone, etc. etc.—I’m the annoying gong, the clanging cymbal; the car alarm everyone wishes would shut up. People don’t hear, “God loves me!” They hear, You didn’t even respect me enough to really see me.
It’s a similar phenomenon to what I’ve realized after living in Africa. Often we Westerners give—quite generously and sacrificially—because it makes us feel so good to finally do something. And in all senses, we should! But at times we give in a way that actually cements Africans in handicapping cycles of poverty. When we don’t take the time to understand the nuances of their need—and I am certainly guilty of this—we can be guilty of loving our own desires (to assuage our guilt, to feel happy about giving, to help, etc.) more than their needs.
I have very limited exposure to evangelism methods. But I do believe there has been a vast generational shift in how our culture is reached with the mind-blowing message of grace and true peace. Though there was unquestionably a time for tracts, formulas, massive events, and the evangelistic equivalent of a “cold call”—and many are still reached this way!—those techniques can offer a knee-jerk rejection, particularly for Gen X and younger. (Christianity Today seems to agree with me on this.)
They can even stoke the fires for future flat-out rejections.
As I once heard from a pastor (my paraphrase)—the Cross is offensive enough. We don’t need to add to the offense with insensitive social skills. I can’t say that it’s Jesus that offends people…when I’m actually being socially inappropriate. (Picture yourself with someone of another religion approaching you in the same way. Would you feel uncomfortable?)
That doesn’t mean I shouldn’t talk to the woman next to me on the flight, or the one on the beach, or express something God’s done on Facebook. This doesn’t dampen my boldness, or the frequency with which I diligently work to extend this gift to people. It just means that in this culture where people can sniff out an agenda a mile away, my boldness and sense of urgency must proceed solely from deep regard for the person in front of me. Just like with my kids—all agendas for them must proceed from that source. (In contrast, I heart the concepts Tim Keller communicates in his podcast on Public Faith.)
We get into trouble when we care more about how many people came to Christ than how many will have the fervent, time-intensive discipleship to make it out of the gate. We enter dangerous territory when we equate salvations with some sort of spiritual pelts on the wall; when achievement surpasses concern. As the late theologian George Buttrick wrote wisely, “Genuine love sees faces, not a mass; the good shepherd ‘calleth his own sheep by name.’”
Full disclosure: I’m a people-pleaser extraordinaire—and our culture, too, is hyper-conscious of never offending anyone when it comes to personal beliefs. Often we’d rather have someone suffering in the necrotic tissue of destructive behavior than gently tell the truth and risk hurting their feelings (gasp!) or angering them. So I need to acknowledge the cultural water I’m drinking, so to speak, encourages me to add fabric softener to my courage; to justify my selfish comfort with “not offending anyone.”
True care propels me to let people, even strangers, know the fullness that’s finally satisfied me; finally filled all the holes in my soul. But I can rest in faith in God’s control over their souls, which helps me be patient to listen to the person in front of me and hear their “soul holes”. I can be content to maximize opportunities as a full-on planter, waterer, or harvester in whatever stage of a spiritual journey I encounter someone: for His honor.