Friday, August 05, 2016

Telling People About Jesus

Have you ever seen a street preacher yelling about how you need to confess your sins to go to Heaven? Or you've probably seen the Westboro Baptist (using that term loosely) folks protesting at funerals or public events. They are usually telling people that they are going to Hell and less often encouraging people to convert. But, it's the same idea.

I grew up in Southern Baptist churches where we were admonished regularly about "witnessing" or "sharing our faith". It's a scriptural idea - Matthew 28:19-20, 1 Peter 3:15. At the time, "evangelism" was usually done on visitation nights when the adults would visit people who had visited the church. When I became a teenager, we would do beach outreach and try to talk to strangers in parks near the beach. Awkward!

There are a couple of different approaches to evangelism. First is the "scare 'em in to Heaven". I have heard more sermons based on this than I'd care to recall. This kind of evangelism is used particularly by the "end of the world" people. Read Left Behind, the first book of the Left Behind series by LaHaye and Jenkins. In this eschatological scenario (which I don't buy into), Christians are bodily removed from the earth, after which a seven year period of "tribulation" ensues before Jesus comes back to earth. In the book, the people "left behind" are frightened by the rapture and by the terror that is about come that they become believers in Jesus.

Even those who don't believe in Premillenial Dispensationalism (rapture theology) may use the "scare 'em into Heaven" approach. These people use the threat of eternal conscious torment for non-believers as a good reason to repent and put their faith in Jesus. Of course, the fact that the theology of eternal conscious torment is disputed (i.e. limited conscious torment, annhilationism, and purgatory) isn't really brought up.

Being a child of modernism, I was taught the apologetics or intellectual technique of evangelism. Specifically, I was taught Evangelism Explosion. This is a guide for leading a person through the logical reasons for placing their faith in Jesus that was developed by Coral Ridge Church. Actually, the logical part of my mind really likes it, and for many people it has been successful. While I was in college, I also was in some other classes that taught some of the other approaches using apologetics. Being rather intellectual, I just ate it up.

There is a real downside to the intellectual argument for faith. I can start with the two questions for Evangelism Explosion - If you were to die tonight, do you know for certain that you would go to Heaven? If you were to stand before God and he were to say, "Why should I let you into my Heaven?" what would you say? - but in today's culture I'm rather likely to hear, "What's Heaven and why would I want to go there?" There are some people for whom this approach works well, but they are already curious about the Christian faith and generally need some help getting past some of the intellectual hurdles.

Another approach is much more difficult, but is the way that Jesus did things. Jesus lived with his disciples. They didn't understand his message immediately. Peter was still fighting the way of love, even up to the night of the crucifixion. Matthew 28:20 also tells us that we are not to convert people, but to make disciples of all nations. It's our job to help people meet Jesus but also to walk with Jesus. And this requires more commitment than just street preaching or going through and Evangelism Explosion. To be fair, many churches using those programs follow them up with robust discipleship programs.

How do we help people find Jesus? We do whatever it takes. I've found that love and prayer and patience works. Fear isn't helpful. Sometimes, intellectual answers are important, so it's good to have them available. 

This is sometimes called "friendship evangelism". But, really, we don't want to make friends just for evangelism purposes. God doesn't want us to use people. Rather, we are to love the friends we have and to share our faith when it's appropriate.

We must not be Westboro Baptist or the street preachers at Free Speech Alley at LSU. Jesus did not come to condemn anyone (see John 3). He came to give himself for us. The Holy Spirit convicts us of sin and leads us to repentance. God is love, not hate. So, too, should our discussions about our faith be filled with love and grace.

The world is in rotten shape and people need to hear about Jesus. How we do it is important. The church must not be afraid to be in the public square and take care of the poor, the widows and the orphans in Jesus' name as instructed in the Bible. I came across a great saying by John Wesley (which is probably misattributed, but it's still a good saying) - Do all the good you can. By all the means you can. In all the ways you can. In all the places you can. At all the times you can. To all the people you can. As long as you ever can." I would add that we should do it all in the name of Jesus.

Be Jesus to someone today. Love them and be prepared to tell them about your walk with Jesus. Good stuff is important. But, Jesus is more important.

Your thoughts?


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