UMNS Photo by Kathleen Barry
Gleaning at General ConferenceUnited Methodists are great at outreach projects such as this, but not good at sharing the faith that motivates them to such good works, writes Dalton Rushing.
I sometimes have the happy occasion to train first-time mission team leaders. People who take mission trips are some of my favorite people, and so I always enjoy our time together. We talk about what to bring (double the money and half the clothes!), how to be culturally sensitive (watch what you do with your hands!), and how to deal with conflict in the team (be the boss!). We talk through logistics, travel health, team selection, and anything else that might help these brave leaders once they step onto the mission field. There is a lot to cover! Mission work is complicated. The training session takes the better part of a day.
For everything else we cover, the thing we inevitably talk about the most is evangelism, and I have learned to block off a good chunk of time for this discussion. The team leaders never bring it up on their own, not really sure how to broach it. But as soon as I say the word “evangelism,” it can take us an hour to talk through the issue.
When I first started doing these trainings, I would wonder how adult Christians—many of whom have grown up in the church—could have no idea about how to share their faith. It is not simply that many of us have questions about how to do evangelism in a new culture: it is that we are often unsure how to share our faith, in any culture, including our own. We feel inadequate in the responsibility of bearing the message of Christ.
To put it bluntly: we are excited about mission but petrified of Jesus.
Now, this formulation probably sounds strange to you, and if I am honest, I will admit that it sounds strange to me, too. Nobody should be afraid of Jesus, least of all faithful churchgoers who attend worship twice, three times weekly, and who are now preparing for mission service. But it is true. We are afraid of sharing their faith in places with which we are not familiar. Many of us are afraid of sharing our faith at all.
I should tell you that I totally understand the fear.
We are afraid of sharing their faith in places with which we are not familiar. Many of us are afraid of sharing our faith at all.
There was a time in my life when “evangelism” was a dirty word, and I rejected it completely. You could hardly blame me, with all the awful things I had seen done in the name of the Gospel. Perhaps you have seen some of these tactics, too. I have had more than one person tell me I was going to hell because of this or that belief, but my experience is nothing compared to some of the horrendous ways that Christians “evangelize.”
I once read a note from a doctor who had just returned from leading a mission team to a remote part of South America. He and his group were doing great work, inoculating kids against a deadly disease that was completely preventable. All the children needed was a simple medication, and the doctor and his group had plenty. In his note, he said, “We gave out medicine to 327 children, and we received 327 confessions of faith.”
Well, no. Perhaps the children mouthed the words, but there was no true conversion going on. I do not doubt the power of the Holy Spirit to work in dire situations, but the implication—which might have been stated; I do not know—was that if you wanted to live, if you wanted the medicine that the doctors were waiting to give you, you were going to tell them that you accept Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior, whether you understood what you were saying or not. Just say those words, and the medicine you need to live is yours.
How cruel! This is not the kind of love that we read about in the Gospels. This kind of approach is closer to blackmail than Christian love. The medicine you desperately need is right there, and all you have to do is pledge allegiance to a god that you might not have met before, whom you may know nothing about. Simply agree to upend your entire belief system right then and there, and the medicine is yours.
The aims are good, of course. I have no doubt that the doctor and his group meant well. It is hard to fault them, too, for the life-saving work they were doing. They meant well, but good intentions are not enough.
Take Paul and Barnabas, for example. There was no question that they had been called to the work of evangelism. The Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” You just do not get a clearer call than that! Paul and Barnabas went out with the clear blessing of God, and they marched right into the synagogue and waited for their turn to speak. Paul was a well-regarded teacher, at least in the Jewish community, so they let him speak. Much of Acts 13 is comprised of his long sermon.
They had suffered, he said, but God was with them, promising them a savior. Salvation had been a long time coming, and it had finally come in Jesus.
And it went well. Paul and Barnabas shook hands at the door, and the folks in the synagogue raved over the sermon. “Oh, I hope you come back next week,” they said, which is what you tell the guest preacher as you exit the church, no matter whether the sermon was good or not. Still, many of them followed Paul and Barnabas, and I am sure that it seemed to Paul that the call from the Holy Spirit was real: that it had not been a dream, that God was doing great things through their ministry.
If Paul was riding high on his sermon the previous week, it was not long before the facts of life brought him back to earth. The very people who had complimented them the previous week, the very ones who followed them, pledging allegiance to their God, well, these people were now denouncing them, contradicting every word they spoke and ruining Paul’s hard-fought credibility among the Jews. If this is how you treat me after I offer you the Word of God, never mind altogether!
Paul’s experience is a big reason people tend to run screaming from evangelism. Why put the effort into evangelizing—and it can take up a lot of effort to work up the courage—when the possibility exists that we will be shot down completely, run out of town and publicly contradicted by those who we thought were listening? What if they do not listen? So we do things like avoid talking about our faith completely, or requiring—implicitly or explicitly—a conversion in order to receive medicine, ensuring success. Only, I would bet that if you went back to that remote village in South America today and talked to those children who had received that life-changing medicine, you would not find a Christian among them. There was no follow-up after the doctor’s visit: no teaching, no discussion, no relationship. Only a small white pill, a paper drinking cup, and a temporary conversion. If that doctor went back to that village today, I expect that he would be as frustrated as Paul and Barnabas after being run out of the synagogue.
Rather than wallow in their frustration, which is probably what I would have done, Paul and Barnabas turn their focus to the Gentiles, who are quite interested in hearing from them and learning about God. The rest of Acts continues the story of the evangelists’ successes in gentile territory, and the gentiles “were glad and praised the word of the Lord.”
What Paul and Barnabas learned, and what drives me when I think of evangelism, is a two-fold approach to spreading the Gospel. First, listening to God is key. Paul and Barnabas did not go out without considerable prayer.
Listening only to God in prayer is not enough. You must also listen to God in other people. This was part of the problem in the synagogue, and it was all of the problem in the remote village in South America. You cannot properly share the Good News without being in relationship with other people. Those children in South America spoke the words of acceptance, but how much good could have been done in the name of the Gospel if that doctor and that team had taken the time to actually build relationships with those kids? How much relationship was missed?
Of course relationship is vital to evangelism. But relationship is a two-way street. I am leery of those who say they are going to another country or culture to “bring Christ to the people.” There are so many problems with this statement that I am not quite sure where to begin. If one believes he is “bringing Christ to the people,” the implication is that he is unwilling to find Christ in the people.
Think of it this way. Even if I come to you with the knowledge of the Gospel, which I consider to be the greatest piece of knowledge ever shared among humans, how dare I expect you to simply accept it without my listening to you, my being in relationship with you, my willingness to share in parts of your life as you share in parts of mine?
If I am not willing to share with you, then I am trying to force feed you, and what reason do you have to listen to me?
Share in relationship, however, and entirely new worlds are opened up. If you are willing to listen to me, and I am willing to listen to you, then God is glorified. The theologian Howard Thurman says this: “If I hear the sound of the genuine in me, and you see the genuine in you, I can go down in myself and end up in you.”
What a wonderful image! Imagine, evangelism not as proselytism without regard for another’s point of view, but as a relationship through which God is glorified.
And here is a bonus: when Paul and Barnabas began to share the Gospel in a way that was open to the needs of others and the will of God, the world was opened to them. I do not know of much news better than that.