Saturday, June 29, 2013

No more magic prayers

I have been in many classes, Bible studies, and listened to lots of sermons where the topic was "Evangelism."  Most of the time, the focus is on a highly-scripted conversation during which (it seems to me), I need to get my wording just right, that the most important part of the conversation is making sure that I say everything I intend to say. And the goal is to make sure that the person I'm talking to has figured out he/she is a sinner and in need of God by the end of the conversation, maybe even twisting words if necessary.

The Church has been teaching that this is what evangelism looks like for a loooooong time.  My fear is that we are missing the mark with strategies such as these. And I kick myself every time I think about the times I've been in situations like those because I never said a thing. Not a word. I was too scared to go against the flow.

From the point of view of the person on the other end of the conversation, this seems kind of awful. If I have already determined where a conversation is going to go, it's no longer a conversation; it's a sales pitch. And if I've already decided I'm not going to a listen to a word you're going to say, that's not love and not respect. And I don't know anyone who would sign up for a conversation like that. I would hate it if someone did that to me.

My husband used to say this to our youth: If you want to know how to tell someone about Jesus, the first thing you need to do is to listen to them. Hear their stories, get to know them, and you will know what it is about Jesus that they need to hear. It's going to be different for everyone. There is no script. Love has no lines. Caring for someone else has no particular order.

Here's what we miss when we think of evangelism as a structured conversation: being part of someone's life.  That old adage that says, "they don't care how much you know until they know how much you care" is totally true. If I haven't lifted a finger to help someone or to be there for them - if there is no relationship - what I say doesn't hold much weight or value. I know I'm not interested in "life advice" from a stranger, or even from an acquaintance I haven't spent much time with. I'm assuming that's true for most folks.

Honestly, I am not at all interested in leading a one-way conversation that ends in a scripted prayer during which the other person "accepts Jesus."  If that's all I do, I think I've missed the point.  Jesus calls us to "make disciples," not converts.  We are to help people change their lives, not recite a magic prayer.  My job as a Christian is to make your life better, to bring you joy, to tell you about and show you who Jesus is. I am supposed to be a blessing to everyone I encounter (yikes - when I say it that way it makes me nervous!)

And, while all that is a lot messier, a lot more labor-intensive, I have seen incredible things happen. I think about a friend of mine who used to be homeless. She was homeless when I met her.  Had we had an "evangelism" conversation the way I've been taught, I might have convinced her she was a sinner and needed God. Maybe. But I know that conversation wouldn't have earned her trust.  Instead, we became friends. I hung out with her at her tent city. I waited until she was ready for substance abuse treatment and stayed for about forever in the hospital emergency room waiting until she had a facility where she could go. I visited her in treatment. We just had dinner last week and she reminded me to say the blessing before we ate. I am so thankful for StreetWatch for the opportunity and the honor of serving my homeless friends and for my friend Michele (who doesn't know I'm calling her out in my blog) for teaching me about the importance of friendships in outreach ministry.

I think about the Maxwells from Heart for Africa.  Janine just posted that they have 161 local Swazis on payroll at Project Canaan in Swaziland. That's huge in a country with an unemployment rate of 70%. They operate a baby care home on-site, accepting abandoned children, offering women with unwanted pregnancies an option for their babies. And they stay in touch with the mothers, helping them with the children they have at home. They have a mechanic shop, a farm, a jewelry shop, where people can learn a trade and then earn an income working.  (Read Janine's recent post about this here). This is why I am so invested in Heart for Africa, why I am so excited to go back to Swaziland to work with them.

That is how God works. Relationships are much more powerful than one-sided conversations. We are meant to be involved in other people's lives, not stand on the sidelines. It's messy. The story about my homeless friend is a nice one... I have lots that are not so nice, much messier. Janine's stories from Swaziland can be tough to hear. But it doesn't matter. We are called to love, especially called to love the "unlovely" or "unlovable." And love is a series of real conversations, it's eating together, it's hanging out, it's lending a helping hand or a listening ear. It's respecting people. Our example for doing all those things is Jesus.

It's not that I think those one-sided conversations are wrong or really that bad. I think the idea behind them comes from good intentions, from beautiful hearts who want to share Jesus.  It's just that I only have 24 hours in a day. Many of those hours are spent doing laundry raising my small children. I would rather spend the precious little time I have really loving others, not trying to get them to tell me they are sinners. I'd rather open up my life to you and be a part of yours.

Because your side of the conversation matters.