What's your starting point for evangelism?

May 11th, 2015

It bothers me when some of my fellow Christians begin a dialogue about God, faith and religion with nonbelievers by telling them how much of a sinner they are.

"You're going to hell!" from my experience doesn't really invite a genuine conversation about faith, religion or God. Yet for some of us, the go-to card of evangelism is to point out others' moral failings.

Most of us are probably familiar with the story of Mars Hill and how Paul spoke to the Athenians about the "Unknown God." It would've been so simple — tempting even — for Paul to focus on the hedonistic, idolatrous, moral-failing, heathen ways of the Gentile Greeks.

It would be understandable, accepted even (by some), for Paul to shout things like "Turn and burn!" "God hates sinners!" "Repent or go to hell!" and other invitational clichés. But that's not the route that Paul takes.

Paul compliments them by saying, "I see that you are very religious in every way." He basically says, "I love how open you are!"

Then he begins to tell them a narrative — using their poets and philosophers — that God has always been part of their lives; that it was God who gave them "life, breath and everything else" and that "in God we live, more, and exist."

From the conversations I've had with many non-Christians, that's not story I hear. Many of them have been told they're evil; they needed to repent; God is angry with them. Some accept what they're told and begin to lead a spiritual journey filled with doubt, fear and paranoia — "Am I doing enough to appease God?"

More walk away from God believing that God doesn't want anything to do with them. So they don't want anything to do with God either.

It's fairly easy to point out the shortcomings and mistakes of someone, and it's also easy to use fear instead of grace to bring home our point. Perhaps that's because we don't really know how to engage in a conversation with nonbelievers. Most (if not all) of our conversations about faith, belief, and God are with those who already believe in God. Some of us have believed for such a long time that we forget what life before accepting Christ as our savior was like. So maybe we have a hard time trying to find common ground with those we're trying to reach.

We want show them the light. We want to show them the love. And to show how great that light is, perhaps we think the easiest way is to contrast that with how dark their life may be. I like to believe most of the street evangelists with the signs of condemnation do it out of love for God and their neighbor. It's just that the concept of love gets lost in their message and tactics.

In "Encountering Grace" from the Converge Bible study series, I shared my dad's disciplinary ways. "Give the child you hate candy and the child you love the rod" is a philosophy that my parents believed in. But after I turned 13, my dad exchanged the rod for the Bible. Every time I got in trouble, a Bible study ensued to tell me my mistakes and how I could learn from them. I remember silently pleading with my dad to just hit me. I'd rather get hit than sit through 30 minutes (often longer) of lectures.

I can't remember exactly what I did, but one time after reading a bunch of Scripture to me, my dad looked at me and said, "You're a Yoo. We are better than that." I can't tell you what kind of effect that had on me as a teenager. Instead of pointing out my mistakes and my shortcomings, I was made aware of who I am and what I'm capable of.

Maybe, just maybe it's time to relax the "You're a sinner" and "You're going to hell" approach. 

Being a sinner is a given. We're all sinners. But perhaps we can point nonbelievers to something more. We can tell them God is with them. That God has been with them from the beginning. That God was always part of their story, whether they're aware of it or not. That nothing can separate them from "God's love in Jesus Christ: not death or life, not angels or rulers, not present things or future things, not powers or height or depth or any other thing that is created." That they're a child of God and nothing can change that. That they're meant for more than this. That that their life has meaning. That their life has a greater and bigger purpose.

And perhaps that'll invite a deeper conversation about who they are in light of God's truth.

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