The Christian should never allow evangelism to become more important than the person standing in front of him. Some may find that statement a bit odd, especially if they are regularly engaged in biblical evangelism. But there is truth in the title–truth that, if ignored, could result in evangelism becoming little more than a sport or a hobby, with those receiving or hearing the gospel little more than notches in the Christian’s spiritual belt or a check mark on the list of spiritual things to do.
Sadly, I’ve seen it happen to others. I’ve allowed it to happen in my own life and ministry. Evangelism as an activity becomes more important than the people the Christian is supposed to be trying to reach with the gospel of Jesus Christ. And what does this look like? Some indicators that evangelism has become more important than the objective of evangelism, loving God and loving people, are: 1) counting how many gospel tracts you’ve distributed; 2) counting how many conversations you’ve had with unbelievers; 3) if you’re a man, counting how many times you’ve open-air preached; 4) counting conversions, none for which you are responsible. Do you see a common denominator?
Now, to be fair, someone who is new to biblical evangelism may very well count the number of tracts they’ve handed out or how many people with whom they’ve shared the gospel because they are simply excited, overjoyed to actually, finally be engaged in evangelism. I do not have them in mind. The Christians I have in mind are those who have been on the streets for some time sharing the gospel, yet they still count their achievements. King David had the same problem.
In 2 Samuel 24 and 1 Chronicles 21 we find the story of David taking an unauthorized census of the people of Israel. God made it clear to Israel that only God could order a census of his people.
“When you take the census of the people of Israel, then each shall give a ransom for his life to the Lord when you number them, that there be no plague among them when you number them” (Exodus 30:12).
God was angry with David for taking an unauthorized census because He saw it as David taking credit and/or ownership of what belonged to Him–the people of Israel. In a similar sense the Christian, by counting tracts, heads, open-airs, and anything else evangelism related, is taking credit for things he should not. To take a census of one’s own evangelism activity is to give and bring glory to one’s self. “Look at what I’ve done. Look at what I’ve accomplished. Look at me!” Instead of glorifying and worshiping God through the act of evangelism, Christians sometimes commit idolatry (the worship of self) by turning their attention from Jesus Christ and the lost to themselves an there accomplishments.
Again, I know this is true because I’ve seen Christians do it, and I’ve been guilty myself. In fact, I think there was a hint of this census-taking idolatry in my heart and mind, today, as I headed to the North Hollywood Metro Station. I had determined in my mind that I was going to hand out so-many-hundreds of tracts. I also wondered how I could report how many tracts I distributed without coming across as being concerned about numbers. What utter silliness.
When I arrived at the NoHo Metro Station there were a lot of people milling about. 100 people or more would cross the street from the bus station to the Metro Station with every cycle of the traffic lights. The fish were literally jumping into the boat!
As I stood in front of the oncoming throngs, carrying my “Are You Ready?” cross, and handing out tracts as fast as I could say “have a good day,” a man engaged me in conversation. His name was Steve. Steve–a 58-year-old, African American, hearing-impaired, unemployed maintenance worker–pointed to a young, scantily dressed woman who was holding a sign indicating she was hungry. According to Steve, the young woman told him that she was sick from coming off the drugs she frequently takes. She asked Steve for money, of which he had none. Steve explained that it’s hard to help others when he was struggling to help himself. He told me that he was waiting for a friend to come from Long Beach to get him something to eat.
As subtle as Steve was trying to be, I’ve had enough of these kinds of conversations with people on the streets to discern the real purpose of our conversation. Steve was hoping I would get him something to eat. He would get what he wanted, and probably much more than he bargained for.
Steve and I would talk for almost two hours.
Steve and I are very different men. He is a recovering drug addict (three years sober) and has spent time in prison. I’ve sent drug addicts to prison. He’s black and I’m white. No matter how utopian we would like society to be, there remains social differences between people groups (there’s only one race–human). Steve is not a Christian. I’ve been saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. Steve is almost ten years older than me. Steve hangs out at the NoHo Metro Station for a variety of reasons. The only reason I go there is to either proclaim the gospel or to catch the subway to another part of Los Angeles to proclaim the gospel. Yet it only took a few moments for Steve and I to establish a rapport–not years.
Many Christians believe it takes years to establish a relationship with someone. That’s simply not true and it is all-too-often an excuse for not sharing the gospel. Steve and I got to know each other as a result of the gospel, not as a result of hiding the gospel until a more comfortable and opportune time–a time, for most Christians, that never comes. The gospel was the foundation of our relationship (no matter how fledgling it was), not a hindrance to our relationship. And it didn’t take making myself look and sound like Steve for us to be able to communicate on the most personal level. Tattoos, piercings, skinny jeans or baggy pants were not necessary for me to relate and communicate with Steve. I didn’t have to hide some unbiblical desire to look and talk like the world behind a facade of an artificial, insincere missiology predicated upon the desire to be assimilated by the culture instead of being set apart from the culture, for the glory of Jesus Christ.
I believe what I experienced with Steve this afternoon is an example of biblical “friendship evangelism.” Steve and I met. A rapport was established. We engaged in personal conversation. And for the better part of two hours we talked about the things of God. Steve heard the law and the gospel. I neither blasphemously asked for Steve’s permission to share the gospel nor did I wait for some uncertain, unbiblical time when I would “earn the right” to share the gospel with him.
Here is my conversation with Steve. I hope you are as encouraged listening to it as I was to be part of it. I hope the conversation will show you that there is a biblical way to engage in “friendship evangelism.”