Thursday, May 10, 2007

Evangelism: Standing next to a burning man

Recently, one of my virtual friends, who happens to not be a Christian, made an astute observation about how the quality of his relationships with people who are professing Christians bears a direct relationship to the degree of evangelistic fervor with which they comport themselves when he is around them. He generally gets along fine with Christians who don’t try to “save” him, as it were, and proportionately less so with Christians who are, in his words, of the “vehement gung-ho evangelical variety.” I like that description and I’ve certainly known people who bear it.

I think my friend is describing a very common type of relationship among Christians and non-Christians and it is worth examining as it reveals some interesting ideas about the competing worldviews that both parties hold.

(Parenthetic aside: For the record, I have an abiding dislike of the term “worldview”. Partly because it is just so…1990’s, and I’m no longer sure it means all that it used to mean. Regardless, it bugs me and I intend to use it sparingly.)

There are a number of good reasons why a non-believer might find it difficult to get along with a Christian, and vice versa, but one of the easiest to appreciate is that nobody likes being around someone who is obsessed with changing them into someone else against their will.

No one, Christian or non-Christian, wants to be a part of a relationship which seems, at its basis, to rest on a premise that one person is “better” than the other in some way because of some special knowledge or a specific set of beliefs (or…worldview). In point of fact, this premise is an utter fallacy.

As a Christ-follower, I am compelled to assert that believers in Christ who are completely non-evangelical by intent and design are people who lack an understanding of some of the most elemental teachings of Christ himself. I say that not judgmentally, but as a point of fact. It is not a question of intellect or intelligence, but of spiritual maturity, as described in the New Testament, particularly in the writings of Paul. Christians who don’t tell other people about Christ either don’t care, or they don’t really know what is at stake. They are either fundamentally ignorant of their Bible, or they simply don’t believe what it says. I think a lot of nominal Christians fail in one or both of those two areas.

Conversely, considering my friend’s comments about the difficulty of maintaining a cordial friendship with someone who is always trying to evangelize them, motivation is again the key and spiritual maturity a factor, as well. People who are earnest and insistent evangelizers seem to fall into one of two extreme camps. There are the legalistic, spiritually opportunistic, televangelist-types who are trying to add you to their list of donors while, in their mind, adding notches to their own spiritual scorecard. At some level, many of these people may well be genuinely concerned about the spiritual welfare and the ultimate fate of the people to whom they make their appeal, but the mass-marketing approach undermines the message in most cases.

Much more commonly, people who are insistent about their witness to friends and family do so out of genuine love and concern. They despair at the thought that people they value might wind up in the literal hell that Jesus speaks of so directly in Luke 16:19-31. These people want and hope the best for people that they know and care about. They want every unbeliever that they know to be able to experience the benefits of a relationship with Christ now, as well as to ensure their eternal future in Heaven. This motivation is admirable and ultimately selfless, although it’s methods often make life difficult and relationships strained for all involved. This type of Christ-witness, though, sees relational dissonance as a short-term sacrifice for a long-term gain that is of incalculable value.

The part that spiritual maturity plays in evangelizing is interesting and worthy of a separate, more detailed post. The Gospel is, in many ways, very, very simple and easy to understand. It is also infinitely deep. New believers are often more effective at presenting the core truths in a persuasive, effective way than someone who has been an active Christian for many decades. One aspect of the genius of God is that the power of His message in no way depends on the qualifications of the human messenger. It requires no arcane knowledge, years of study, oaths of allegiance, multilingual skills, or advanced degrees in theology to communicate God’s love and plan for His creation. Spiritual maturity in a Christian reflects a deep understanding that it is not the effort or eloquence of the messenger that saves anyone, but rather a complete dependence on the Spirit of God within the believer that makes the difference. This understanding, this connection to the Holy Spirit that resides within each believer, is what imparts wisdom to the Christian so that he might know not only what to say and do, but also when, where, how and to whom.

The essence of the disconnect between Christian and non-Christian lies in that the unbeliever, because of either his ignorance or his denial of the benefits of eternal salvation and the exclusivity of the Gospel of Jesus Christ to effect it, finds it difficult to see the worth in or the desirability of maintaining a relationship with the Christian when it is irritating or unpleasant.

But spiritual upheaval and emotional discomfort is absolutely what the Gospel is all about. Through the Bible, God reveals to us our intrinsic predisposition to failure, the inevitability of death, and the abject futility of life without Him. Amazingly, though, He also tells us exactly what it is that He has done for us to save us, to rescue us from ourselves.


Livingsword said...

You make some excellent points on a much neglected topic. Could you give some examples of these various “types” of people from the New Testament? It would add clarification for me to see Biblical “models”.

I didn’t grow up in a Christian home, became a follower of Christ in my late 20’s, now in my early 40’s I struggle with the apathy of people that have been “around the Church” their whole lives. On the other hand when I first became a follower of Christ I was over the top pushy…it kills me to think of it… yet many people became followers of Christ thru me during that time (they are still more committed than ever).

How about blogging, I feel that when on others blogs you are a guest and should act accordingly, but when on my turf although I certainly attempt to be respectful and caring it is “my home” (when you step into a building we call a church people do expect to be preached at).

What do you think?

Barry Pike said...

Livingsword, thanks for stopping by. The NT is full of accounts of unbelievers and Christians and their interaction. Scripture’s emphasis is on the spiritual life and development of the Christ-follower since their creation is the mission of the Gospel.

One of the most compelling “models” is the story I mentioned in the blog entry from Luke 16:19-31 wherein Jesus describes the interaction between the non-believer and Lazarus in the afterlife. Many scholars note some fundamental differences between this story and Jesus’ parables, by the way. Unlike the parables, which are by definition fictional demonstrations of spiritual and ethical principles, this story is unique in that it names one of its primary characters. That, and the structure of the story suggest that Jesus is referring to a real, specific person and an actual, particular event, that it is not merely an instructional construct.

There is also the story of the rich, young ruler, reported in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, which is also an account and not a parable, as a type of unbeliever.

The parables of Jesus should in no way be discounted, though, not by a long shot, as many of them are very revealing of the ways in which the Gospel impacts unbelievers.

I am just completing a study of Romans, which has some very deep teaching about how Christians should interact with un-believers. In particular, chapter 12:9 through chapter15:13 describe various relationships between Christians and unbelievers as well as how Christians of divergent backgrounds and understanding can enjoy unity and peace among themselves.

Finally, I think you will find that literally all of the apostolic letters contain information about how to witness the Gospel to unbelievers.