I don’t claim expertise as an evangelist or missionary. I have been a pastor, preacher, and counselor, but I have long thought my strength was prophecy. No, I don’t have visions or interpret dreams. The purpose of prophecy has never been magic, signs, or wonders; they were only the vessel for God to speak His Word to those who might not otherwise listen. We have a need for that kind of speaking today, for we live in an age and culture where, once again, the Christian message is not familiar or welcome.
Lately, I have gained experience in an area that prompts some of my thoughts here. I have been a refugee tutor for over 5 years, and I find myself contemplating this in both the evangelistic and missionary sense. When I begin with most of them, they speak broken English at best, and my job is not directly spiritual, at all. When I started, it was an easy balance since many were already Christians, and I was working through a church agency. Then I had my first Muslim student, and I felt it inappropriate and perhaps counter-productive to mention religion. I don’t believe I have ever started such a conversation, but my students have. Rather than talk about my faith, I have made every effort to live it, and the result has been a surprise, even to me.
In another vein, I was for many years an officer in my neighborhood organization. Here again, I was careful not to raise the issue of my beliefs or pastoral background. As the key designer of our by-laws, I tried to be especially circumspect. I urged caution when neighbors wanted to begin meetings with prayer; they overruled me. When I was unavailable when our community policing officer was diagnosed with a brain tumor, they arranged a prayer meeting with an area pastor. By only upholding my Christian character, their respect for me only increased.
If I were to claim knowledge and proficiency in some area, however, it would be peacemaking, the primary focus of these “Table Talk” postings. Even that requires explanation in our era, and that is why I feel it appropriate to talk about outreach. Essentially, for us Christians to be able to engage people in spiritual conversation effectively, we need an approach that uses the same methods as Biblical peacemaking. Biblical peacemaking is resolving conflicts between people to produce reconciliation; and, if you think about it, that is precisely what
evangelism is…true peacemaking.
Lest you think I am promoting some novelty or quirky notion of my own, this is indeed the Biblical approach; we have simply tended to ignore it. Consider Paul’s instruction in II Corinthians 5:18-21:
“Now all these things are from God, who reconciled us to Himself through Christ, and gave us the ministry of reconciliation, namely, that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and He has committed to us the word of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were entreating through us; we beg you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.”
In fact, this passage seems to talk only about the end result of Christ’s work of redemption, except for this from Ephesians 2:
“(N)ow in Christ Jesus you who formerly were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For He Himself is our peace, who made both groups into one, and broke down the barrier of the dividing wall, by abolishing in His flesh the enmity, which is the Law of commandments contained ordinances, that in Himself He might make the two into one new man, thus establishing peace, and might reconcile them both in one body to God through the cross, by it having put to death the enmity.”
Here Paul clearly says that horizontal reconciliation and vertical reconciliation are one. Reconciliation is the end of a process that brings those separated and alienated by sin and conflict back into relationship; it brings peace where there has been war. The death of Christ makes peace possible—between God and Man and between human beings–and communicating the “good news” that peace is available is truly a peace-making process.
“He who wins souls is wise” is an oft-quoted “soul-winning” Proverb, but what zealous believers have done seems to ignore the whole idea of winning, unless it’s like winning a war. Sadly, attempting to force people into the kingdom generally doesn’t work. Some of the things that eager evangelists have insisted were tools for outreach bordered on absurdity; the shame is that these well-meaning folks were so lacking in empathy that they didn’t see or understand the failure of their methods. That a person does not come to Christ after finding a gospel tract on his windshield says little about the person or the quality of the flyer; truth to tell, most people just
throw them away.
After a decade and a half in radio, I know something about broadcast media. I noticed that many people thought that the key to promoting their special event or program was getting an announcement on the air. Similarly, Christians have donated millions of dollars to Christian groups to put evangelistic programming on radio and television. Both ideas fail to recognize that generally people listen and watch programming that reflects interests
and beliefs they already have. Christian radio audiences are people who go to church, for the most part; so advertising your church on Christian radio is not likely to gain many takers. Unsaved people generally don’t watch evangelistic programs, no matter how good they are.
Evangelism, like any marketing, must connect. A person who needs a car may watch automobile commercials with interest, read consumer magazines, and look for the information that will help them make a decision that already wish to make. Some people may be searching and walk into a church or tune in a Christian broadcast, but most of us realize that many who need Christ don’t know it and aren’t looking. In the increasingly hostile environment, today, methods that may have worked in the past won’t work now. I have heard the phrase “personal evangelism” used to suggest it is a kind of outreach, but real evangelism is, of necessity personal and something that every Christian ought to do.
Outreach to Muslims, in fact, is far more difficult because of the abuses by those who have gone before. Those who already have strong religious convictions are not looking to change and tend to resist attempts to convince them. If, as we believe, we hold the truth, they most like also believe their religion is the true one. In that sense, an effort to show them otherwise often becomes a debate or argument. Few people change their minds in encounters that have become angry and hostile, and the experience often leaves lingering animosity toward anyone of the opposing position, on both sides!
In the case of Islam, such efforts have made words like “Christian” and “church” signals for Muslims to avoid those who use them. Islam’s own injunctions against conversion, even to the threat of death, make many common evangelistic methods easy to rebuff. The West’s growing systemic animosity to Christianity, in part due to the Culture Wars, has a similar effect. Effective outreach needs an approach that leads less with truth than with love. Credible evangelists will use their hearts as well as their minds, but lead with their hearts.
The crux of “winning souls” is less a competition of ideas and more a demonstration of the qualities of Christianity in practice—love, grace, patience, forgiveness, hope, and joy. The regrettable reality is that Christians too easily allow themselves to look and act just like the unbelievers around them, as if the mere act of salvation is all that matters. This is plainly untrue, but the attractions of this world are potent. The result is
not only that their testimony is weakened before their neighbors but also that their own children grow up and often abandon their Christian heritage. A Christian family that loses its children has lost twice, for its compelling Christian character had gone first. I believe that is the message of another often-quoted Proverb (22:6): “Train a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not turn from it.” Such “training” must be modeled, not merely spoken, exemplifying all the fruits of the spirit, not just rigid piety.
Peace in all its venues remains an illusive and frequently missing quality of modern life—peace within one’s own soul, peace with others, and peace with God. The Hebrew word “shalom” is bigger that the corresponding English word, especially as contemporary usage has emptied peace of anything but serenity or a nebulous antipathy to war. Making true peace requires dealing with the greed, division, and animosity that drive war and make inner peace impossible. Real peace is more than “I won’t fight” and “I don’t care.”
Even for believers, peacemaking and peacekeeping aren’t easy; otherwise, we’d see less conflict and turmoil in the lives of Christians and Christian churches. Jesus said that the clear practice of love among believers would prove that they were His disciples, but that proof is far too rare a quality. Christian marriages disintegrate nearly as often as the rest. Christians scorn and bad-mouth other Christians, sometimes worse than they do their non-Christian neighbors. Working in a Christian organization can be more unpleasant than working with
We need to get our household in order so that we can invite others into the family. The dangers that exist today are frightening and have a religious (Islamic) or an anti-religious (progressive secularist) root. The two systems vie for supremacy, while narcissistic materialism encourages disinterest in the contest–power for a few and emptiness for the vast majority. Yet, Christ still is the answer; we must simply face the need and embrace the methods that will work, even in this seemingly disinterested and often hostile age.
Christ is the answer, but our task is to stimulate people to ask the question. One mistake has been providing one question for everyone. The challenge for true peacemakers is to figure out or help each person figure out for
him or herself what their own question is. Christ is the answer for many questions–of guilt, loneliness, fear, despair, and of many other troubles that plague human hearts. Some hide their need; others try to find answers in poor, even destructive choices. Success or failure do not matter; the inner turmoil and emptiness and the damage to relationships of every kind demonstrate the need. True peacemakers need only learn how to expose them, kindly, patiently, and sensitively.
Recently, I wrote about Job’s friends. They represent far too many would-be evangelists. They were so sure
they knew Job’s problem that they refused to listen to Job. If we wish to avoid their mistake, we must listen; I believe listening is the key to effective outreach and to true peacemaking. One of the lessons I had to learn as a counselor that was reinforced in peacemaker training is the danger of presumptive advice. Well-meaning people find it way too easy to think they know what another person needs, long before they have listened enough to understand them. Having the Holy Spirit as a guide is too often a cover for simple arrogance. The same applies to outreach; what we think a person needs, even quoting directly from the Bible, may make it theologically accurate but often disconnected personally. The Bible provides numerous benefits from salvation, but which benefit may appeal to an individual sinner takes listening to find out.
I spent the better part of 25 years trying to develop and establish a peacemaking ministry. One reason we failed, I suspect, is that people want instant solutions. The process I describe here isn’t instant, quick, or easy, whether it applies to resolving conflict or to reaching the lost. In a time of instant communication, convenience foods, and busy lives, people don’t seem to have much tolerance for things that take time. Americans want the Iraq War and the War on Terror to be wrapped up quickly. Energy problems need fast answers. An economic downturn needs immediate resolution. As technology changes our lifestyle evermore quickly, we seem to expect that every kind of process, business, or activity proceed rapidly to the finish.
True peacemaking is not a quick fix; it is a true remedy for the most basic needs we have. It is a process worth the time because the end result is peace, genuine shalom, authentic harmony and tranquility, and a life more abundant. I believe that humanity still hungers and thirsts for righteousness, continues to seek answers for the emptiness they feel, and remains capable of seeing their need and accepting the grace of Jesus Christ to meet it. We must be willing to take the time and make the effort to help them. The blessing will not just be the redemption of the lost but the blessing promised to peacemakers, who will be recognized as authentic disciples of Christ. Is there any task or cause that promises to be more satisfying than that of true peacemaking?