Recently, I have been involved in exchanges with Pagans at The Wild Hunt blog. One of the claims made by some respondents is that Evangelicals are only concerned about evangelism. The impression some of the Pagans have of us Evangelicals appears to be: regardless of how nice we Evangelicals seem to be or how much emphasis we place on the need for an irenic tone and civility in dialogue and in relationships, such traits simply serve as a ruse for evangelism. Many believe our overarching approach and underlying tactic is bait and switch. How do I respond?
As an Evangelical, I am committed to the “evangel”—the good news of God’s grace revealed in Jesus to bring forgiveness of sins, peace to the nations, and restoration of the cosmos to God through Jesus’ person and work. As an Evangelical, I am also committed to God’s gracious engagement of others in and through Jesus. The Apostle Peter said that we should always be ready to share the reason for the hope that is within us, and to do so with gentleness and respect, as we reverence Christ as Lord in our hearts (1 Peter 3:15). It is wrong for us as Evangelicals to manipulate situations so as to have opportunities to share; manipulation, no matter how subtle, is far from gentle and respectful. We need to trust that the Spirit of God will provide us opportunities to share the good news of Jesus Christ. I must be sensitive to the Spirit’s leading, and to the needs of others with whom I desire to share the good news of God’s grace in Jesus. The Spirit will never manipulate. Nor should I. As a Buddhist friend once said to me, Evangelicals should gently lead people to Christ rather than push or force them toward him. Wise advice.
Now for a litmus test: Would I continue to desire to be friends with someone, if I were to realize that the person in question would never come to desire to know Jesus personally? If I were to say “no,” it is hard to imagine that the person in question would consider me to be relational. For all my talk of personal relationship with Jesus, “personal relationship” would function as a cover for getting the job done and getting people’s decisions for Christ. Of course, I want to see everyone I know come to trust in Jesus personally for their salvation. But I have long-standing relationships with people who may never come to express interest in knowing Jesus personally as Lord and Savior. While this grieves me, they are my friends. They will ever remain my friends, as long as we live. I will not force Jesus on them. Why should I, when Jesus doesn’t force himself on them? Again, I always need to be ready to share, and to do so with gentleness and respect, when given the opportunity, but never to force it upon someone, and always to remain true to my friends no matter how they respond.
Moreover, it is important to keep in mind that the Great Commission of sharing the good news of Jesus throughout the world (Matthew 28:18-20) flows out of the Great Commandment and the commandment that follows it. While I am passionate about the Great Commission, I need to be concerned for all Jesus taught, obey all that he taught, and teach those I disciple to obey all that he taught, too. The summation of the Law and Jesus’ own teaching is set forth in Mark 12:30-31 (See also Matthew 22:36-40): to love the Lord God with all one’s being, and one’s neighbor as oneself. Hopefully, this is my primary concern: loving God above everyone and everything, and loving my neighbor as myself. Of course, concern for evangelism comes into play here as a vital expression of such love. Still, while I have no control over someone being converted to Christ, and will not try to force someone’s hand or heart, I do have control over whether or not I will love someone as myself. I need to make the Great Commandment and the commandment that follows it my fundamental preoccupation. If someone makes it clear that they do not want to hear about the good news of God’s grace in Jesus, I will not force that aspect of the conversation. Hopefully, I will be gracious in how I engage him or her, and so bear witness to Christ through my actions. Who knows? The person in question may change their mind and ask about the reason for the hope within me at some future point. But regardless, I am called to live in a gracious way, loving my neighbor as myself, no matter where it leads. In addition, I will also keep in mind that, from a Christian perspective, while many conversations may include the explicit sharing of the pathway of Jesus, all conversations should be dialogical in nature. I want to listen and learn from my friends of other paths. If I don’t listen to people, it is very difficult to communicate love, which is foundational to Jesus. Listening and mutual learning and loving go hand in hand. Furthermore, well-rounded dialogue is broader in what it may encompass and is not merely a synonym for evangelism. Dialogue bound up with my concern for love of my neighbor involves our shared concern for the common good and justice for all.
Lastly, it is worth noting that people from diverse backgrounds will sometimes challenge Evangelicals like myself to quit evangelizing others, or to give up concern for it. Now if I were to quit evangelizing, I would cease being an Evangelical Christian. Sharing the good news in word and deed is one of the essential teachings of Jesus, and central to Evangelical Christianity. Perhaps such critics don’t realize it, but they are also evangelizing me, when they try to encourage me to stop evangelizing: they are trying, in a sense, to “convert” me out of being an Evangelical, which as I said above involves concern for evangelistic witness. In one sense, everyone is an “evangelical” in that everyone is an evangelist, for everyone (regardless of their tradition or position) is involved in persuading or seeking to persuade others in one way or another, whether through overt, passive, or passive aggressive dynamics and means of resolving conflict and arguments. The real questions are: what are we trying to persuade people to be or do, how are we attempting to persuade others, and why are we engaged in this process? So, whatever our perspective, we need to be honest and straightforward with ourselves, with our traditions, and with others. No bait and switch. Let’s replace such tactics with the interpersonal dynamics of gentleness and respect and honesty and keep the conversations going, wherever they may lead.
This approach to engagement is also reflected in Connecting Christ: How to Discuss Jesus in a World of Diverse Paths.
This piece is cross-posted at The Institute for the Theology of Culture: New Wine, New Wineskins and at The Christian Post.