This post is part of a feature from Patheos called Head to Head, and is a response to John Shore’s post entitled “10 Reasons It’s Wrong to Evangelize in the Workplace.”
By Bill Peel
As followers of Christ, we are called to be his witnesses. There’s not a lot of wiggle room there. Every Christian should be concerned about the spiritual welfare of his or her colleagues. However, how we go about communicating that concern doesn’t have to follow the rather Pharisaic straw man you’ve erected and critiqued. He (or she) is patronizing, prideful, judgmental, insensitive, out of date, and dishonest. Really, who would want to spend time with such a person? Not me.
I’d like to suggest that we look at evangelism in a different way. The New Testament pictures evangelism, not as an event where you make the spiritual pitch and try to close the deal, but an incremental, organic process built on relationship. The immediate goal of this approach is not getting people “saved” but helping them take one step closer to faith in Christ, whatever that next step might be. Hopefully, one of those early steps is coming to realize that not all evangelical Christians are the jerks pictured in your post.
1. You said that if you are a Christian evangelizing in the workplace….“you are a bad employee,” stealing from your employer.
I agree that evangelism should not distract from work; and if it does, it is stealing as you say. However, the workplace is filled with non-business related conversations about what workers are interested in. Conversations about faith that help someone understand colleagues’ relationships with God should no more be banned than their passion about their favorite baseball team. However, longer conversations about spiritual matters should be conducted over breaks, at lunch, or other free time.
Concerning HR, you may not be aware that a number of major corporations are now embracing the positive effects of faith-based employee resources groups including Christian groups. A friend who is one of the leaders of the diversity movement in a 30,000-plus-employee, international corporation says this,
Some people might have predicted increased strife in a workplace when ‘religion’ has been made a permitted topic. But in fact, as a result of this ‘movement,’ great friendships are being forged among co-workers … The relationships of mutual trust that we forge at work with people who are ‘not like us’ carry great promise. Meaningful trust is made possible in an environment … which does not just tolerate faith, but welcomes it.
Why is open discussion of faith encouraged at his company? He goes on to explain,
For many people, it’s their religious conviction, more than any other factor, which defines their core identity and their reason for living and working. It is counterproductive to insist, in effect, that talented religious people must conceal the single characteristic of their lives which, to them, means the most. For them, faith is profoundly relevant to the workplace.
2 and 3. You said …evangelists are “violating Jesus’ Great Commandment,” to love your neighbor as you love yourself.
The Great Commandment is actually “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” “Love your neighbor” is the second greatest, according to Jesus. Nevertheless, it’s not per se disrespectful, to want someone to have a relationship with Jesus. If we take Jesus at his word, that he is “the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me,” then the most unloving thing you could possibly do is to show no concern for a colleague’s spiritual welfare and refuse to speak up when appropriate.
When you say “itching to evangelize them,” you’re back to your straw man argument. I admit, I hate to be around people that are trying to shove something down my throat. No argument there. But evangelism, in and of itself, does not imply that you are annoying, judging, or coercing someone.
4. You said that… evangelists are “being wildly condescending” and that evangelism is fueled by a feeling a superiority and that no one can become good enough friends in the workplace to know what a person really believes and what their beliefs mean to him or her.
You’re assuming that you can’t take time to become friends and know a colleague’s convictions and beliefs. Actually, we often know the people we work with very well, by the sheer amount of time we spend with them and the natural conversations that take place when we discuss matters important to us. But if we don’t take time to know a colleague, what they believe, and whether they might be on their spiritual journey, then I agree, we really aren’t respecting them. But this doesn’t have to be the case. The workplace offers an incredible opportunity to get to know people well, know how to respond to their spiritual interests—or not—and help them take a step closer to a relationship with Christ at their own pace, without being pushy.
5. You said that …evangelists are “out of order. Evangelizing Christians are fond of saying that they’re ‘witnessing’ to others. What they forget, however, is that the entire point of being a witness is to answer questions when asked. And only when asked.”
Here I agree. There is a distinction between “witnessing,” the verb and “being a witness,” the noun. While we are told be witnesses numerous times, we are not told to go witnessing.
Both the Gospels and epistles describe evangelism in incremental, organic terms. Just as in agriculture, there’s cultivating, planting, and then harvesting. I agree with you that putting harvesting before sowing gets things out of order, becomes uncomfortable for everyone, and bears little fruit. However, when a Christian is sensitive to the struggles and interest of a colleague and communicates through casual conversation what it’s like to be a child of God, the picture can be quite different.
Let’s assume that we get the order right, that we have lived and worked in such a way that has been a witness to the Grace of God to those with whom we work. And, a colleague—feeling a spiritual vacuum in his or her life—indicates an interest in knowing about our relationship with God. Assuming we can find time to talk further off the clock, is it still inappropriate to describe how we believe a person can have a relationship with God and receive the gift of eternal life?
6. You said that… evangelists are wasting their time and that evangelizing in the workplace is like evangelizing anywhere else: it doesn’t work. Even though Churches rank evangelism and outreach as their top priority, America is less Christian than ever.
While faith is losing its foothold in America, people do come to Christ every day as a result of someone’s desire for them to know Christ. But even so, your viewpoint is a very western, ethnocentric perspective, not reflected in reality world-wide. For example, in the next two decades it is estimated that China will grow to over 250,000,000 Christians. In addition, the church has been growing by 32,000 converts a day in Africa, 17,000 in Latin America. While America is growing less Christian, other parts of the world are not.
7. You said that…evangelists are “being exceptionally anachronistic” because the Great Commission has been fulfilled.
When you say that the Great Commission has been fulfilled, you can’t be looking at Jesus’ words. His command is not to let everyone hear about the name of Christ, but to make disciples, or followers of Christ who obey “everything I have commanded you.” Your assessment about the decline of the church in America undercuts your argument here all together. By virtue of the decline in Christ followers in America, the Great Commission can’t have been fulfilled.
8. You said that…evangelists are “ego tripping.”
Pride of belief has no place in the life of a follower of Christ. We have no right to be prideful about what we believe, nor feel superior to others, given that our understanding of the truth is a gift of God’s grace. The gospel itself reminds us that our relationship with God is not based on our merit or performance. We are accepted freely in spite of our flaws.
9. You said that…evangelists are “being emotionally dishonest. When you have an agenda for how that conversation should go, you’re not being real, spontaneous, open, vulnerable. You’re not truly engaging with the other person, because at the very least you’re not listening to them. What you’re doing when “evangelizing” isn’t a real conversation. It’s a sales pitch.”
While this certainly happens in sales and evangelism, good salesmanship and evangelism both require listening, honesty, and spontaneity. While I’m not sure how vulnerability fits into sales, I can tell you that those who open their mouths in the workplace today and self-identify as Christians, much less show a desire to enter into meaningful spiritual conversation with a colleague, are placing themselves in a very vulnerable position.
10. You said that…evangelists are “putting yourself ahead of God.” and that bringing people to God is God’s job, not ours. God told us what our job is: to love others.
You are correct that bringing people to God is his job. Jesus said, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him …” But amazingly, he has invited us to be a small part of his work. Speaking about how the Corinthians came to faith, the Apostle Paul said, “I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God made it grow.”
When someone comes to faith in Christ, it is always because our gracious, loving God condescends to seek us out and provide the costliest ransom price. He could have done this totally alone, but he invites us to enter into the joyful privilege of pointing others to him by the quality of our work, the godliness of our character, the concern we show to others, and wise words spoken to hearts he has opened. To not take this privilege seriously is to be incredibly ungrateful for what he has done for us.