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From “Evangelism, Guilt, and Failure”

Justin Juntunen

Justin Juntunen

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Jeff Heidkamp

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. (And 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. And 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. – from Cutting Edge, Fall 2010

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