Is It Intolerant to Evangelize?

Years ago, my wife and I were doing the touristy thing at the Pike Place Market in Seattle.  Pike Place is a historical mall made of up of dozens of small shops.  It’s the spot where they–famously–toss whole fish through the air when you place your order.

We didn’t see any flying fish, but we did see evangelists.  When my wife and I emerged from the market onto the streets of downtown Seattle, we discovered not only painters and homeless folks, but tract-distributors and sandwich-board wearers.  A big guy blocked our path.  “Is Jesus your Lord and Savior?” he asked, staring down at me.  I was an earnest young pastor, so rather than trying to avoid the encounter, I took up his challenge.  “I am!” I said brightly, upzipping my vest like Superman to show him the cross hanging around my neck.  “Not only that, but I’m a pastor!”  The man glared silently at me.  “You better be,” he said.

Thus was my brush with a real, honest-to-goodness evangelist, a guy who had the mix of guts and grit to accost people on the street for Jesus.  I have to admire his pluck, his commitment to the Great Commission, though I wince a little at his methods.   

Some would go further than questioning his methods.  We live in a moment in which evangelizing–sharing our faith in Jesus–sounds like an act of intolerance.  The overriding value of our society’s emerging ethical regime is acceptance.  Let people be who they are, believe what they believe.  Anything that calls into question the absolute commitment to I’m-OK-you’re-OK is mean-spirited, ignorant, and hateful in the worst way–and who has time for haters?

Yet Jesus gave the Great Commandments–love God and love others–before he gave the Great Commission–evangelize the nations (Matthew 22:37; 28:19-20).  His order was intentional.  Evangelists speak good news–the meaning of the Greek word evangelion–and the good news is an encounter with the God of love.

I mean this in an ultimate and theological sense: God has reached out to humanity in love (1 John 3:1).  God’s love for us incites our love for others (1 John 4:19).  But I also mean it in a basic, everyday, conversation-on-the-street-corner sense.  

Jesus claims to be the “way, truth, and life” the only way to come to the Father (John 14:6).  Jesus claims that he came that we might “have life and have it in abundance” (John 10:10).  Jesus taught and healed and brought liberation to all those who were bound up by the old demons that have long oppressed humanity.  And he sent his disciples–his crack students–not just to tell others what he had done, but to share in and continue and expand his work.  To evangelize is to pass on the flame.  Sharing our faith is sharing an encounter with the love of Jesus.

One of the places others will encounter Jesus is in our lives.  When we share our faith, we speak, we invite, we talk about our journey.  But we also share our lives.  This is why the apostle Paul wrote to the Thessalonians saying “We loved you so much that we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well” (1 Thessalonians 2:8).

No great insight here: words and deeds have to match.  But it goes even deeper.  To share our lives is to come with reverent love toward the lives of others.  We honor their stories.  We expect God to be in the mix somewhere, and so we’re like Moses before that burning bush.  We take off our sandals.  After all, when we hear someone’s story, we’re standing on holy ground.

Approaching others’ stories with reverent love requires patience.

Once upon a time, my wife and I sat in a lady’s living room.  It was our second visit, and she had been kind enough to invite us in on both occasions.  I had decided that the second time was the charm, and so I made my evangelistic soft pitch.  It didn’t go badly.  But it didn’t go well either.  It was mostly a lost-in-translation moment.  After all, how do you speak of Jesus when don’t even speak the same language–if not literally, then at least figuratively?  And we did not speak the same cultural language.  There was a profound gap between us, and in my impatience, I had failed exquisitely to mind it.

I’ve occasionally gotten it right.  I’ve found my voice and spoken with love and walked right along with people into Jesus’ eternal invitation.  These have been the times when the door has opened up, times when I’ve schlepped boxes out of a flooded basement, times I’ve sat on a bench alongside folks while they smoked and talked about life, times I’ve listened in the living room while they flung their angry where-was-God stories at me.  I listened.  And I spoke.  I told them about where I find hope, about the truth I stake my life on.  It always comes back to Jesus.  And it always looks more like patient, reverent dialogue than stuffing a tract into a stranger’s hand.

The questions that drive us to these open-door moments are human questions: Why am I here?  Who is God?  What happens when I die?  Bringing the good news of Jesus to bear on these human questions is to take them seriously.  It’s to meet people wherever they’re at and to invite them to take a step toward God.  

To share the good news of Jesus is an act of love.  

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