By Jeff Heidcamp
EVER SINCE I WAS FIVE YEARS OLD, I HAVE KNOWN WHAT EVANGELISM WAS AND WHY IT WAS IMPORTANT. OVER THE YEARS I HAVE TRIED WHAT SEEMS LIKE AN ENDLESS STREAM OF STRATEGIES TOWARD REACHING PEOPLE FOR JESUS. NEARLY ALL OF THEM HAVE FAILED —SEVERAL QUITE MISERABLY.
I have responded to these failures in various ways. Sometimes I would simply quit trying for a while until my sense of duty and obligation kicked in and I knew I should try again. Sometimes I would feel like a total failure, and then I’d alternate between being mad at myself and at God for my failures. And sometimes I would come up with a theological reason why I didn’t need to keep trying.
Here’s what all these responses have in common: they are unhappy. They feel negative; bad; guilt-inducing. It was a cycle of doom. Feel guilty. Try evangelism. Fail. Feel bad. Try quitting. Feel guilty. Try evangelism. And on and on.
I have read numerous books and articles that describe this general feeling and try to offer some kind of solution. To be honest, none of them ever worked for me. I think they all have some truth, and I’m sure all of them helped somebody. They just weren’t helping me or any number of others who particularly felt the way I did.
Let me outline a few theories of “how to deal with evangelism and especially how weird and hard it feels” and tell you why they didn’t help me. Then I’ll outline what did help. My guess is that it might help a few of you, but not all of you. (Trying to help all of you would be way too much pressure.)
The “it’s going to be great” theory
Books and articles in this vein are generally written by people who are extremely charismatic and very good at personal evangelism. They are people who, over the years, have seen dozens or hundreds of people come to faith, and they love it. Nothing turns them on more than seeing people come to faith. And they are sure that if the rest of us would just try harder, we would have the same experience.
Now, there is a clear problem with this theory, which many of its advocates recognize. They clearly have gifts the rest of us don’t, and even if they try not to project themselves onto us, they inevitably do. But I don’t think that’s actually the main reason they don’t help me as much as they could. Sometimes they do manage a few good tips that do lead me to fun encounters of sharing faith. (For my money, the best of this genre is Bill Hybel’s winsome Just Walk Across the Room.)
The main reason this theory doesn’t help me (and please don’t judge…) is that the few times I have seen someone come to faith, as happy as I was about it, it wasn’t quite as good as these authors promised. It was exciting, sure. But I get equally excited leading worship, preaching, leading small groups, and watching baseball. The emotional feeling of excitement isn’t enough to make persevering in evangelism worth it for me.
The “just be yourself ” theory
These books typically describe a take on evangelism similar to what I wrote at the front end of this article. They recognize the awkwardness that talking about religion with either friends or strangers can have, and the difficulty of answering sticky questions like “Do only Christians go to heaven?” So, they tell us, stop being so awkward and manipulative. Just be yourself and share your faith as genuinely as you can.
Now, on one hand, this is great. I love it. I want to be myself. The only problem is, in being myself, I will never share my faith. For that matter, I’ll never meet a new person at all. I’m shy. I realized the other day that one of the main reasons I wasn’t sharing my faith with my neighbors is that I was actively avoiding them. If they were outside when I was going to take out the garbage, I would wait until they went in. Why? I don’t know. I’m just kind of a loner.
When faith does come up, I get kind of nervous and jumpy, because I know I’m supposed to do something or say something. This is the opportunity I’ve been waiting for, and I’m sure I’ll screw it up. So usually the conversation ends kind of awkwardly. (But wait for the reveal below where I figure out how to overcome this.)
The “get some guts” theory
I can’t truthfully say I have much use for this one, but I do know it’s worked for other people. It’s typically a book or article by a gifted evangelist who has tried writing or teaching in the first two schools and who is frustrated that it’s still not working. They get a bit fed up with ungifted evangelists and decide that, at the end of the day, we are really just lazy cowards.
So they make a really strong biblical pitch, then lambast anyone who isn’t ready to go out and just try it till the cows come home. Now this helps some people – mainly lazy cowards. And sometimes those lazy cowards find they are really gifted, and they go out and start pitching the “it’s going to be great” theory. And the cycle churns on.
At this point, I have set myself up for failure, because I seem to be ready to suggest that I have come up with the one approach to evangelism that is going to trump all these failed approaches. I haven’t! But I’m not quite as miserable about evangelism as I used to be, and I’m occasionally a bit excited. And even though I’m not much more fruitful than I used to be, I do think a few people are getting more help moving toward Jesus from me than they used to get.
Some pointers forward
What happened, you ask? Well, the true answer is, “I got closer to Jesus and matured as a person.” Really, I didn’t learn any new technique or theory. In some sense, a combination of the three theories above just started to actually work in ways they hadn’t before. At the same time, I think it might be worth recording some of the areas of growth that actually helped me move in a direction of health.
At age five, the main reason I had to evangelize people was that they would go to hell if I didn’t. That may very well be true – but psychologically, it’s more than I can handle. I do feel bad and guilty if I don’t witness, but I end up feeling bad and guilty if I do and it doesn’t work. And, if I think about it, it seems like I should be going up to everyone all the time and just telling them about hell, because it’s so awful. But I simply can’t do that. (For the record, almost no one else does either.)
Even at that point, I struggle with motivation. I do this because I should? Because it will help people? Because it pleases God? Because the Bible says to?
Well, in some sense, all that is true. But I have an anecdote that plays a different way. I confess that I’ve never talked to my seven year-old daughter about either hell or evangelism. I have no idea how to do it. But I do pray for her a lot. And she loves it. She won’t go to bed at night until I pray for her, and she herself prays for others a lot, though it’s usually “in her head.”
Here’s the thing. My daughter finds herself pretty interested in her friends and how they relate to Jesus. She is aware of the fact that some don’t go to church. She likes to pray for them, and she often seems hopeful that they might (in her words) “find out about God.” So I think, Why is my daughter better at this than me? And, How is this happening, since I never told her to do it?
Her example drew out in me three ways I’ve grown to find evangelism a bit less miserable (and occasionally quite encouraging).
First, I decided to be completely honest. I would only ever tell people things about Jesus I really liked. If there is some idea about Jesus that I feel obliged to defend, but don’t personally get either, I’m just going to blow it off. In this sense, the key variable in the effectiveness of whatever evangelism I attempt is whether I am actually connecting to Jesus in life-giving ways.
In this sense, evangelism pressures me to enjoy God more. That’s good pressure. But I want to note that it’s not a pressure to pretend to enjoy God or to theoretically enjoy God out of a sense of duty and loyalty. Instead, I will only share true realities from my own experience.
Seven-year-olds are good for modeling this. My daughter isn’t sharing anything because she feels obligated. With her, it’s all honesty.
Second, I decided that it is harmful not to care about the spiritual lives of people around me. Anything that is inward-focused is unhealthy. Sick people isolate. So even if at times it feels a bit awkward to be in faith-sharing situations, I think it’s ultimately worth it. I usually take any means I can to move from awkward to natural and comfortable. But it seems like there are some good things from God that I can’t get from staying in my little cocoon all the time.
That is to say, I think I have some healthy self-interest wrapped up in being outward-focused. It’s stifling to be isolated, even if it feels easier in the short term. So I’m going to keep going for it, doing the best I can, as much because I humanly need to as anything else.
My daughter knows this intuitively. She loves her friends and seems to enjoy caring about whether they know about God. This seems important for her.
Third, I decided that failure was no big deal. If something isn’t helping people move toward Jesus at all, I will either quit trying that particular thing or I’ll make an adjustment to it. But I just won’t feel bad about it. In fact, I’ll feel good about it. Heck, all I was trying to do was help people experience good things from God. What could be bad about that?
Along these lines, I realized that my failures in evangelism previously had the strange effect of creating doubt about God in me. I was taught that “the gospel has power to change lives.” But if this was true, I wondered, why was my proclamation of the gospel so ineffective to change other people’s lives?
What I realized is that my main evidence for the gospel’s transformative power is simply my own life. It’s totally changed my life. In awesome ways. And other people get to decide how much change they want. It’s between them and God. If I can be involved in pointing the way, so much the better! But if they aren’t interested, that’s fine for now. We’ll move along.
We just finished up an awesome session of the Seek course at our church. We had international students from countries where Christian witness is restricted, a new follower of Jesus from a Hindu background, and folks from almost no faith background. And a number of folks like me 15 years ago – people who grew up in church, but struggle to understand what faith can mean for them personally. Some people stayed the whole time. Some dropped out. Lots of them are further down the road toward Jesus as a result, and I couldn’t be happier.
For some readers, I would imagine these three changes seem like no-brainers. You wonder what kind of spiritual infant I’ve been not to have made them years ago. But for others who might find themselves interested, I’d like to offer this caveat. What really has to happen to make evangelism work for you is that you have to change. It isn’t a new strategy or tactic. It’s you receiving love and blessings from God and finding that love overflowing to others. That makes the difference. There’s no shortcut or strategy to do that – it’s actual life with God.
That’s good news. There’s no guilt or discouragement. It’s simply finding out more and more how much God loves us.