We need to re-think evangelism—what it means and what it should look like. The common Christian understanding of evangelism sees the world in a stark black-and-white of “saved” and “unsaved.” We are “saved” and everyone outside our understanding of what that term means is “lost.” (Notice what I did there?) This view of evangelism is both destructive and un-Biblical.
When we view people as part of a black-and-white world, they become “projects” rather than people, who are, in many ways, just like us: people on a journey. It can make us approach people differently. In our consumer driven world, it can turn us into sales people rather than friends. It can also engender a sense of superiority. We can begin to develop the attitude that the Pharisees, and the Jews in general, had toward Gentiles—the notion of them being “unclean” and less than God’s “chosen” people.
The person we approach with this sensibility (project rather than person) immediately, or sometimes slowly, begins to sense a hidden agenda. It’s not that we really want to get to know them, or just befriend them regardless, or that we are acting out of an innocent and pure display of love and caring. They begin to sense that we want to “sell” them something, and that our “friendship” is just a ruse to tell them about our religious beliefs. Often, if they are not ready or not interested, we soon drop them. We no longer call or show much interest in them. We move on to the next “project.”
This is not to say that we should not share our faith, and it is not to say that some people recognize Jesus as savior and some do not. But there is a complexity here that, rather than trying to understand, we often ignore. There are at least three reasons why we need to re-think the boundary between “saved” and “lost.”
First, a continual theme in the earthly ministry of Jesus was his constant blurring of the boundary between the saved “Jews” and the lost or unclean “Gentiles.” Jesus repeatedly challenged those (the Pharisees) who were so sure they were “saved” or “in,” while they viewed all others as lost, unclean, or outside the sphere of salvation. This theme runs throughout the Gospels.
Second, we have the Magi. These men were Gentiles, pagans, and astrologers. They were the furthest thing from what was thought of as “saved” in the minds of the Jewish religious leaders at the time and even now in evangelical or fundamentalist circles. And yet, these men saw and recognized what the “saved”–the “chosen”–did not see and missed: the birth of Jesus and that he was worthy of worship, that he would be king. They saw the signs of his coming and they traveled to him. When their lives were in danger, we are told they were warned in a dream. Who warned them? God did–God was with them. So, were they “lost” or “saved?”
Finally, in Acts 17:22-31, we have Paul’s Mars Hill sermon, where he tells the “lost” Athenians that even their very being is “in Him.” Even those we think are “lost” have their being “in Him.” Their “lost-ness” is complicated and blurred by the fact they are “in” God and also not far from Him–at the same time.
A crucial part of the ministry of Jesus and what he tried to teach his disciples was the idea that these categories and ways of thinking (clear solid boundaries between “us” and “them”) are actually more porous and traversable than we realize. Many of his parables seem to go directly to that point–the Good Samaritan being a prime example.
I wonder what would happen if we shared our lives with people first–loved them regardless of whether they ever accepted our message or not? What if we protected them, fed them, gave them drink, clothing, and encouragement simply out of love, with no hidden agenda whatsoever? We would be living our faith then and that is the only type of faith that saves. Not only does it save others, it saves us.
Evangelicals and fundamentalists normally have a criteria in mind for whether a person is “saved” or not. Whether we realize it or not, we “hear” what others tell us about their faith (or lack thereof) within a matrix of our own making, wherein we silently, probably unconsciously, check off certain mental boxes. We need to know the year or time-frame they made a public commitment to Christ. Check. We need to know their commitment was voiced (did they pray the sinner’s prayer or use similar language?) or made in line with our theological beliefs. Check. We need to know it was made within a tradition we agree with theologically (were they baptized correctly?). Check.
When all the boxes (or most) can be checked off, we smile and silently within ourselves grant them access into the Kingdom or grant our agreement they really belong and are not imposters. How nice of us. How big of us. We can rest easy now. Of course, this is all very silly. We’ve all known people who could check all the boxes and who have since left the faith or who live now as if they never even heard of it. Conversely, we know people who cannot pass the criteria very well, if at all, who nevertheless exhibit true love for Christ and others.
We need to let go of our checklists, our canned presentations, our arrogance that we are on the inside and the gatekeepers of who may come in. Instead, perhaps we should pray and hope for a wide mercy–one that will allow even us, the chiefs of sinners, to be remembered on the last day.
Love has no agenda, other than love. Love has no hidden intent. Let’s stop befriending people in order to share a message that is verbal only. Quit coming up with strategies to make connections with people simply to (verbally) sell them something. For each person that comes into your life, simply love them. Share your life. Share you. If Christ is living in you, if you are walking in the Spirit, if you are an imitator of Christ, then you are sharing Christ with them. If they want to know more after that, great. If not, that was never the point anyway–love was.
“Acquire the Spirit of Peace and a thousand souls around you will be saved.”
–Seraphim of Sarov
Photo via Pixabay.
About Darrell Lackey
Darrell Lackey has been a lead pastor and currently manages a small law firm. He is active in his current church as a teacher and plays guitar with the worship team. He is a graduate of the University of San Francisco and Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary (Now Gateway).