When Brandon Bub told me he wanted to write about evangelism this week, I was taken aback. How would a discussion on Christian evangelism go when taken on by a committed atheist and a devout Christian? Bub gets the general idea of evangelism correct – Jesus Christ called his disciples to share the good news and that call distinctly shapes the Christian mission. Bub is also correct in saying that vocalizing and performing one’s commitment to following Jesus Christ is of central importance to the Christian witness.
For many Christians concerned with sharing their faith, the question is not “if” but “how.” How can the Christian be honest and faithful to her commitments while still respecting the vast differences in worldviews that she will inevitably encounter? The trend in some Christian circles is to speak of evangelism as a “conversation,” not as a nasty word full of the linguistic baggage of oppression, insensitivity or fist-pounding anger. In my own experience, conversation makes up much of what sharing the Gospel is. The analogy of evangelism to conversation captures four specific aspects that can create vibrant dialogue amongst people of different faith backgrounds: it is (1) relational, (2) grace-giving, (3) genuine and (4) unique.
(1) Relational – Evangelism must start from the personal level in which people can develop a common understanding of each other’s differences in beliefs, experiences and desires. This affirms the common worth and humanity we all share while taking seriously that while drastic differences may exist in how we understand the world, peaceable disagreement and dialogue is possible. Friendship and love abounds even where conflict lives.
(2) Grace-Giving – Evangelism is about an offer of grace from Jesus Christ to become his disciple. The extension of grace through the Holy Spirit to the individual does not begin in a conversion experience, but from loving another person where they are. This requires one to put off frustration, to shrug off offensive comments, to admit one’s own ignorance about answers to questions. And one must also strive to not frustrate others, not to belittle their beliefs, and to seek mutual trust in the midst of disagreement.
(3) Genuine – Do not misunderstand me; I am not calling for a Christian to affirm another’s worldview in such a way as to negate the truthfulness of the Gospel. No one, regardless of faith background, has to agree with or treat as equally valid the religious and philosophical claims of others. If one believes that to follow Christ is to experience the fullness of life, then one should affirm that in all one does. While one can be honest about one’s spiritual commitments, the Christian cannot begin a relationship with a non-Christian from the intent to convert. For readers who do view evangelism in this way, my question for them is simply, why? What do you gain from viewing individuals as projects instead of as people who are called to be followers of Christ? The impetus for faith comes from the Holy Spirit, not from your own efforts to change someone’s beliefs.
(4) Unique – Lastly, because every moment of evangelism is a moment of conversation, each moment is unique. There is no settled way to talk about faith. “Conversation starters” are for the unadventurous. It takes a certain boldness to proclaim what you believe, but it doesn’t have to start with you, it can start with the person you minister to. What do they believe? How do they understand God? What are their experiences like? Everyone has different answers, and those differences necessitate unique responses. You must bring your own knowledge, faith, and experiences to the table in order to answer questions, to bridge gaps, and to boldly proclaim the “reason for the hope that is in you” (1 Peter 3:15).