A friend recently told me about going out to dinner with a relative who left an evangelism tract tucked in with the tip.

Thankfully, it was a good tip. But this story still forced a look on my face like biting into an orange rind. Think “bitter grimace.”

That’s because when I consider talking about what I believe—about the one who’s changed my life so profoundly—I’ve grown convinced of this:

Sharing the faith that’s given me so much life has to flow directly from loving people.

And tracts, though not usually given thoughtlessly, remind me of experiences with evangelism where the agenda slides in before concern—we must get this person saved! Hellfire, brimstone, etc. etc. When my goal surpasses the person, I’m the annoying gong, the clanging cymbal; the car alarm everyone wishes would shut up (see 1 Corinthians 13:1-3). Ephesians 4:29 (varying by translation) tells me my words need to fit the occasion; according to the needs of those in front of me.

When I apply one-size-fits-all evangelism, people may not hear, “God loves me!”

They may hear, “You didn’t even respect me enough to really see me.”

Studies show there has been a vast generational shift in how our culture can be reached with the message of grace and peace. Though there was unquestionably a time for tracts, formulas, massive events, and the evangelistic equivalent of a “cold call”—and many are still reached this way—those techniques can offer a knee-jerk rejection for some, particularly for Gen X and younger. Plug-and-play techniques can even stoke the fires for future flat-out rejections.

A recent survey by Barna on evangelism indicates roughly half of Christian millennials say evangelism is “wrong”…yet 65% believe the best thing that could ever happen to someone is for them to come to know Jesus1. From Barna’s results, it seems the negative reaction to evangelism is more due to off-putting methods than genuine attempts to love someone by sharing Jesus with them.

As I once heard from a pastor (my paraphrase)—the cross is offensive enough in its declaration that we cannot save ourselves (Galatians 5:11, 1 Corinthians 1:23). We don’t need to add to the offense with insensitive social skills. I’m thinking of things like arguing with someone’s words, but not hearing the heart and pain behind them or tending to those wounds. Or causing them to feel condemned—but not admitting our own brokenness. Or prioritizing an agenda: 50% of unbelievers say they’d want to have a conversation about faith with someone who doesn’t force a conclusion, but only 26% said they know an actual Christian like this1.

I can’t say that it’s Jesus that offends people if I’m actually the one being socially inappropriate. (Picture yourself with someone of another religion approaching you by looking down on you, or forcing you to decide on the spot about their god. Would you feel uncomfortable?) Consider that 62% of unbelievers desire faith conversations without judgment, but only 34% personally know a Christian with this trait1.

Full disclosure: I’m a people-pleaser extraordinaire, and our culture, too, is hyper-conscious of never offending anyone when it comes to personal beliefs.

Often, we’d rather leave someone suffering in the necrotic tissue of unhealthy or even destructive behavior than gently tell the truth and risk hurting their feelings (gasp!) or angering them.

So I need to acknowledge my culture encourages me to add fabric softener to my courage, and ensure I’m not justifying my selfish comfort with “not offending anyone.”

I can still talk to the woman next to me on the flight, or the one on the beach, or express something God’s done on Facebook. My boldness, or the frequency with which I diligently work to extend this gift to people shouldn’t be dampened.

However, in this culture where people can sniff out an agenda a mile away, my boldness and sense of urgency must proceed solely from deep regard for the person in front of me.

The Holy Spirit plays a critical role here in exposing ways to care for the soul in front of me. As I unearth pain in a person’s story, it’s not a bunny trail: It’s a chance to dress wounds and show compassion in Jesus’ name.

The Holy Spirit points out ways to graciously season my conversation with salt (see Colossians 4:6). He helps me know when to dive into matters of faith and when, with equal trust in him, to hold back.

As the late theologian George Buttrick wrote wisely, “Genuine love sees faces, not a mass; the good shepherd ‘calleth his own sheep by name.’” So take the time to hear someone’s story, asking intricate questions core to who they are.

Accept in faith that helping explore and lift someone’s shame (as the Gospel does)—or discussing existential questions unanswered for a lifetime—takes longer than a seven-minute conversation. Discovering, then fully understanding, all the nuances of the “why” that keeps them from God won’t be as plug-and-play as a tract.

But listening, and receiving someone’s pain may be a tangible representation of a God who, like he did with the woman at the well, knows their story. He understands ways they feel outcast or unworthy.

And reflecting him, we love them enough to take all the time in the world to dialogue with them about the one who knows their lives’ deepest pain.

True care propels me to let people—even strangers—know the fullness that’s finally satisfied me. But I can rest in faith in God’s control over their souls, which helps me be patient to listen to the person in front of me. I can be content to maximize opportunities as a full-on planter, waterer, or harvester (1 Corinthians 3:6-9) in whatever stage of a spiritual journey I encounter someone: for his honor (not mine).

Care to join me?

 

1Barna Group. Reviving Evangelism: Current Realities That Demand a New Vision for Sharing Faith. Ventura, California: Barna Group, 2019.

This article was originally published on the writer’s blog here. This version has been edited by Reclaim Today.