Jesus commands his followers to make disciples. At New York City Relief this is foundational for everything we do. I often get the privilege of preparing teams of volunteers for their journey into the streets of NYC. Part of this preparation involves equipping the volunteers with our methodology of “making disciples” or in christianese, “evangelism.”
Many of the people we meet on the streets today have heard about Jesus. They have been preached at and they often associate the Bible with the head of the hammer that it was attached to as it whistled towards their choices, mistakes, and life experiences. So many of our homeless brothers and sisters carry knowledge about Jesus that they received from well-intentioned parents, friends, pastors, and random passers-by, who offered some version of a salvation message complete with tracts and promises of a better life.
At the Relief Bus, we take a different approach. We do not push or bully anyone into any prayer or exhortation that will allow us to check a box or mark a score card. We are going to make disciples by first learning to be disciples. We are going to follow the lead of our Teacher and Lord, who would often feed the hungry and heal the sick first and offer deep and transforming spiritual truth second. It’s hard to hear the words of Jesus over the growl of an empty stomach. It’s even harder to hear over the din of “evangelists” who care more about themselves and the propaganda about Jesus that masquerades as the Gospel of Jesus.
We can all agree that every single person we meet, rich and poor alike, needs the saving truth that Jesus died on the cross for our redemption and that he wants nothing more than a relationship with us. We can also agree that communicating this reality is paramount in allowing others to enter into this life-saving existence.
But here’s the thing, every word that you speak about Jesus needs to come from a live demonstration of the love of Jesus, or your words will bounce off the mile-high walls constructed specifically to fight off the guilt of false-teachers who confuse the love of God with the hatred of sin. See, God doesn’t hate sin because sin is sinful. God hates sin because he loves us; and sin is a poison that kills the life that God created us to enjoy.
Evangelism doesn’t always look like a sinner expressing belief in Jesus’ metaphysical and spiritual accomplishments. Evangelism sometimes looks like one sinner sitting across a table with another, enjoying a cup of soup while listening to the story of his or her life. Sometimes the best weapon in our spiritual arsenal is not the words that penetrate the heart of the person we are communing with, but the silence that allows time and space for the child of God we are reaching to voluntarily disengage the alarm system that was installed to protect against “evangelists” who speak out of emptiness instead of fullness.
Sometimes, just listening and empathizing will cultivate the soil of someone’s heart far more effectively than any clever presentation.
Does that mean we shouldn’t speak or declare the reality of Jesus? Absolutely not. Of course we should share about our experience with Jesus and the reality of his transforming love in our lives. But speaking to someone’s heart is often like navigating a dark and unknown living room. It helps to have some knowledge of the layout so you don’t trip over the furniture and break the family heirloom that was passed down from grandma. In other words, if you can listen first and humbly merit an invitation from your host, you might actually be able to see where you’re going and use words that actually hit home.
The solution to evangelism in a post-Christian society is not to be silent, but to be faithful and patient. To allow the words of Jesus to penetrate our hearts so deeply that our “love of neighbor” will drown out the thunder clap of hatred and judgmentalism, making room for a relationship where two-way communication is possible.
The problem with many “evangelists” is that they “know” what they have to offer is “more” important than what they can receive, inevitably blocking themselves off from any soil that is ripe for planting. If you have tried sharing the “Gospel” with a loved-one only to hit alarm after alarm and wall after wall, try a different approach. Try assuming that God has something to tell you through your unbelieving loved-one and go into your next conversation with ears that are open and a heart that is soft. You may not see the harvest, but you will see growth as you are invited further and further into his or her experience allowing every seed you drop to be welcomed and watered instead of attacked and rejected.
Making disciples is a lot more seed planting than it is fruit harvesting. God is the one who makes any seed grow, we need to remember that any fruit we get to see is a grace and testimony of His faithfulness, not our persuasiveness.
Grace and Peace,