A recent post from the Please Convince Me blog analyzed whether it is normal for Christians to only evangelize their friends.
We typically only share our faith with people we know, so it’s shouldn’t surprise us that these are the people who come to know something about our faith! But does it have to be this way, and more importantly, is this approach consistent with what the New Testament teaches?
In order to answer this question, we needn’t go further than the words of Jesus. During His earthly ministry, Jesus commissioned seventy-two of His followers to travel from town to town, announcing, “The Kingdom of God has come near” (Luke 10:9). Were these disciples told to engage only people they already knew? Hardly. In fact, Jesus warned these budding evangelists that they would be in unknown, often dangerous territory; He told the group they would be “lambs in the midst of wolves” (Luke 10:3). Later, after the Resurrection, Jesus commissioned His apostles with a more sweeping directive: “You shall be My witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth” (Acts 1:8). It’s clear that the expansive geographic parameters described by Jesus would require the apostles to move quickly beyond the limits of their friends and acquaintances.
And that’s exactly what the apostles proceeded to do. Paul repeatedly entered unfamiliar synagogues to announce the Good News to Jews who were strangers to Paul (i.e. Acts 13:13-42 and Acts 18:4-5), and he frequently evangelized “on the streets” from town to town to Jewish and Gentile groups he did not know (i.e. Acts 13:44-52 and Acts 17:16-21). In fact, there are very few examples of friendship evangelism on the pages of Scripture.
I gently reminded the students that they needed to see strict friendship evangelism for what it truly is: a natural, fallen, human response to the fear of discomfort and worldly judgment. Most of us are more concerned with how we will be perceived (and the discomfort we might feel) than our godly responsibility to share the Gospel. Jesus has a message for us: Get over it. Get comfortable with discomfort. The more we talk about Jesus and reflect His nature and mission, the more likely the world will hate us (John 15:18-16:14). The more we stand up for the truth, the more likely the world will put us in a tough spot (Matthew 10:17-23). And the more we are ostracized by the fallen world around us, the more joy we ought to feel to have been given the opportunity to stand up for something more than our own immediate personal comfort (Luke 6:22-23).
See, I think the problem is that Christians, when they evangelize, are not equipped to do anything more than talk about their personal experiences and preferences when it comes to evangelism. The problem is that asserting that your experience/preference is better than someone else’s experience/preference is uncomfortable. Especially if their preference makes them happy and makes them act nicely. That’s why evangelizing people is so intimidating for us – because we’re never telling people about facts that are true or false out there in the real world. It’s not controversial to tell someone that their belief about the world out there is wrong. That’s why I prefer to talk about public, testable data – like whether the universe began, or how to make a protein, or where the Cambrian animals came from. That’s just like discussing anything else.
The publication of the new Darwin’s Doubt book that was on the New York Times non-fiction bestseller list is a good example of something to talk about safely. Although I might intimidated about trying to talk about feelings, sinfulness and religious experiences with people, I don’t mind talking about science with people. It’s much easier to talk about facts and evidence that about my personal experiences. People understand that and they aren’t intimidated by it, because they feel that they can disagree with factual claims and participate in the discussion.
For example, if I am talking to a Hindu, I’ll show him the papers that argue against the oscillating universe model which is part of the Hindu religion. I don’t even have to mention Hinduism, Christianity or religion. And then he has to come back to me on that factual claim. But it’s a lot easier for me to tell him he’s wrong about facts than to tell him he’s wrong about religious preference claims. Think about it – you disagree with strangers and acquaintances all the time about facts, and you’re not scared of that. I tell people they’re wrong about computer science stuff every day. Why is it any different to tell them that they’re wrong about facts that happen to be related to the claims of different religions? It’s the same thing! That’s why it’s so important to speak about facts with strangers. It’s normal. It’s not weird. It’s easy to say “You need to get your facts straight, because not knowing the facts is causing you to commit to the wrong religion”. That’s doable. Even with strangers.