Over on Beliefnet, I was involved in a discussion about evangelizing, and telling about the Gospel. I thought it might be worth posting here, what I wrote there:
There was a time when I was rigid and frankly hostile to challenges, especially from non-Christians. And yes, I will agree that some people do like to ridicule our faith and the people who profess it. However, in the main people are often skeptical of a faith which makes the outrageous claims that Christ did, and what’s more, some of the people who carried the name had none of Christ’s love in their deeds, so that many more people have been hurt by Christians, and so have strong reason to mistrust the claims of someone else telling them they must embrace what for them was a cruel enemy.
Now then, I have been through many things in my life, and one thing which has always struck me as important, is that every person is different. Consider Christ’s example. Did He speak to the temple merchants the same way He did to Matthew? Did He treat Caiaphas the way He did Joseph of Arimathea? This difference is not at all to say that Jesus was unfair or prejudiced, but that He recognized the different natures of different people, and treated them according to their heart. Unfortunately, we cannot use the same perfect discernment as our Lord, but we do well to keep in mind the different characters of the people we meet. In time and with experience, we learn what each person is about, and how they think. For better or worse, most people here have a pretty good idea of what I am about in mind and person.
So, how to tell the Gospel? I won’t pretend that I have all the answers, but it really does seem obvious to me, that the Gospel is Good News, and should be delivered in a way which carries the joy and hope God intends for us to receive. There have been many fine evangelists over the years, but also many who have chased people away by their manner and aggressive tactics. It helps, I think, to remember that we are only instruments, and not the force which makes any difference. If someone chooses Christ, it will be because of the Holy Spirit, not because I ‘sold’ the Gospel well. So, I choose to be a witness by making sure, first, that I am living as well as I can the love of Christ. If I am not loving, then I am an hypocrite, have far more serious things to address than whether I am increasing the church membership. But if I live by love, then I may hope to share what I know with anyone interested in receiving it. It is never right to force my beliefs on others, or to demand they agree that I am right. Jesus Himself did not do so, and I am in no way his equal by right. It may seem to be defeatist to not press on in preaching the Gospel after a rejection, but we cannot know the path another person may walk, or what they may choose later on. In any case, Grace is not a thing which may be compelled, so if it is not accepted, then we receive our peace back to ourselves. Anything else comes of the self and bitterness, and would spoil the fruit.
Further, there are those Christians who treat the Gospel as if it were a product to be merchandised, and conversions a goal to be scored. I have no way of knowing, honestly, whether the people I speak with have truly accepted Christ, nor would I wish to know. I have been told that I have helped some to see Christ in a loving way, and if so that would be good, but it is not right that I should presume that I hold any right to pride or a claim to accomplishment; at my best I am only pointing out to someone a great gift which I myself received freely, and if I take airs of importance to myself, it would lead me to sin and hurt the very people I believed I was helping. One member, made a point earlier that she does not keep track of the good things she does, and I applaud that spirit. If you do not dwell on the good or evil in the past, you are free to do good and receive joy in the future. If you focus on the love and hope granted to us by God, rather than on the petty measures we humans so often fall prey to, you can more easily share that love and hope with other people. Consider the Good Samaritan in Jesus’ parable. By doctrine, the Samaritans do not understand the true LORD, but are mistaken in their beliefs. For all of that however, when the man was robbed and left for dead in the road, it was not the Priest or the Pharisee who was his neighbor, but the Samaritan who stopped and gave the aid he needed. And the Samaritan, though he gave freely of his time, effort, and money, did not speak a word of dogma to the man he helped; his focus was on the love for his neighbor in need. Shall we then, when we see a need, focus on a point of religion and doctrine, or shall we help with no thought beyond doing what is needed?
Consider also the thief on the cross. If there was ever a man I’d like to have lunch and a long conversation with, it would be this man. In all His life, Jesus was never at true need but once. For all His poverty, Jesus never complained of want. For all the humiliation of preaching the true Gospel directly to people, as Immanuel and Messiah Himself, only to be rejected by men unwilling to part with their pettiness and self-sold bitterness, Jesus never condemned the towns and cities which laughed at Him. Even Jerusalem, when they cried out for His blood, He did not curse, but mourned for. But there came a time, when (having taken the whole world’s sin throughout all time on Himself), it was required that the perfect Father reject His own Son on the cross, and Jesus cried out in despair. In that instant, Satan had his cruelest opportunity, but this thief simply asked Jesus to remember him ,when Christ came into His kingdom. It was the one moment when God in the flesh had need of something from Man, and this one time a man delivered, speaking in faith words so simple they are often missed, yet in consequence they carried the same faith and hope which Christ Himself had so often offered to all men. A lifetime of hearing only ridicule and rejection was made good in one sentence in faith. If our Lord could bear that, we should be careful to take whatever we receive in good grace.
It falls to each believer to carry his/her burden as it is appointed to them, but it seems to me that sharing the Gospel is a happy thing, not a chore but a pleasurable privilege. It also seems to me that we ought to consider how it delivered. Many years ago in school, I was being taunted by a group of thugs at school, and I told them that I would pray for them. That earned me a nasty beating, as it gave them the accurate impression that I considered myself to be their better, and their reaction was the predictable anger one sees in a person who considers themselves to have been deliberately provoked. On other occasions, I missed opportunities to share the Gospel, instead choosing to talk down to the person I was addressing, conveying contempt for their person instead of truly trying to meet their needs. After all, when Jesus met people, He often began the conversation on surprisingly mundane things. He did not require people to become His disciple in order to help or heal them, but gave His service freely. Remember when Jesus healed ten lepers, and only one came back to thank Him? Jesus did not then curse the other nine, nor did He deny His help wherever He was able. We are charged then, not to fling the Gospel in the face of someone who is not a Christian, but to seek people out and help as we can, and only offer the Gospel if and when the person is open to receiving it. When the person is clearly not interested, it will accomplish no good to press.
Now, here at Beliefnet it is reasonable to believe that people are open to exchanging perspectives and opinions, especially here at the Debate boards. It is normal practice here for opinions to be presented but also challenged, for perspectives to be considered but also sometimes missed. In five years, precious few have changed their beliefs on a major level (though it does happen), but many have re-examined their beliefs because of an experience with someone. I am happy to say that quite a few people have reconsidered old assumptions about what a fundamentalist Christian is, because of some enlightening conversations we have shared with each other. But a large part of that comes from understanding that I also respect other people’s beliefs. I will never be a Pagan or a Muslim, but that does not prevent me from accepting the truths such believers have learned from God, nor from respecting the person for their heart and mind. I have encountered the love of God in many people who do not call themselves Christian, and it reminds me that I do not know all His ways. What does not make sense to me now, I trust to His care and direction. I tell of my faith and why I hold it, and do my best to speak with reason and respect. You will do as you think best, of course, but I hope these thoughts will be of some value.