Growing up in conservative Christianity, I attended an annual conference where I learned to share my faith so that strangers might convert and find salvation in Jesus Christ in less than two minutes. I’ve changed the way I share my faith, but I don’t want to ignore the fact that some good things came from this conference.
Most importantly, condensing my faith into a two-minute speech did help me conceptualize the basic framework of Christianity by highlighting the overarching story revealed in the Bible. The weekend retreats also provided an opportunity for me to combine faith and fun as my friends and I goofed off and worshiped simultaneously. And because God is good, I know he used our efforts to bring hope and even salvation to some people’s lives.
The details of the conference were solid. The big picture, however, is where I now disagree. I was taught an evangelism tactic that was based in fear and presented as a formula. Today, I try to share my faith out of love in the midst of relationships.
“Where will you go when you die?” was the go-to opening question when trying to convert strangers. A sense of urgency was hammered into us as we imagined scenarios in which the people we talked to died mere hours after our conversation. Did we want the weight of their eternal soul weighing us down with guilt for the rest of our lives? If not, we had to share the gospel with them.
There is so much fear inherent in this kind of evangelism. The whole point of “where will you go when you die?” is to inspire fear in the heart of the person you’re talking to. The more vivid the images of hell they are picturing, the better. Salvation is an escape from torment and little else. There is also fear on the part of the sharer. After all, the responsibility for everyone’s salvation rests not on themselves, but on me. Every person I fail to share the gospel with is another soul that might be in hell because of me.
The gospel presentation we learned was meant to be shared in two minutes or less. I still remember it, helpfully organized as an acronym spelling out, of course, GOSPEL.
G – God created us to be with him.
O – Our sins separate us from God.
S – Sins cannot be removed by good deeds.
P – Paying the price for our sins, Jesus died and rose again.
E – Everyone who believes in Jesus alone will live eternally.
L – Living eternally means spending forever in heaven with God.
Catchy, huh? And true. I definitely still believe in the veracity of each of those statements (well, almost–I think we will spend eternity with God on the new earth, not in heaven). But the presentation is so formulaic. It is as if I went up to a stranger and fervently said, “The quadratic formula is negative b plus or minus the square root of b squared minus four a c all over two a.” This is a true statement. But so what? Knowing these facts may come in handy every once in a while, but they don’t necessarily affect someone’s life on a consistent basis.
Okay, okay, so I’ve torn apart the formulaic fear-based way of sharing my Christian faith. Having discarded what I learned, have I also discarded sharing my faith altogether? Not at all. It just looks very different now. Instead of fear, I try to share my faith in love. And instead of an equation, I try to show that the gospel is all about relationships.
“Perfect love drives out fear,” the Bible says (1 John 4:18). What would happen if we actually believed that? What does evangelism look like without fear? For the person hearing the gospel, it means believing that salvation is not a get-out-of-hell-free pass, but an invitation to know the God who lovingly created them and desires the best life for them, in this life and the next. For the speaker, an evangelism of love means trusting that God is responsible for saving people (and perhaps the listener, depending on your theology). Sharing our faith ought to be a natural outpouring of our love for God, but I am not responsible for saving people’s souls, and neither are you.
A gospel based in relationships rather than a formula changes the way I share my faith. For one thing, this changes the way I interact with people, seeing them not as numbers to be tallied as “saved” or “unsaved” but seeing them as stories instead. They are men and women with childhood hurts and victories who are currently struggling with something and desiring something else. I cannot simply introduce myself and give them a speech about God’s plan and expect some huge change. I think it is far more effective to get to know a person on an individual basis and find out how knowing God will make a difference in their life specifically.
It also means seeing the gospel as inherently relational. It is helpful to conceptualize the biblical story in six easy steps, but when sharing God’s plan with someone, they have to know where they specifically fit in. The power of the gospel is knowing that there is a God who created them with love and care and fondness, a God who has a purpose for their life and is delighted to watch them use the gifts and talents He gave them. The gospel reveals that although God is grieved to see how they have ignored him and hurt people, he will never stop pursuing them and showering them with blessings even in the midst of their deepest rebellion. The gospel tells the story of a patient God who brings people to repentance by his kindness (Romans 2:4).
Sharing the gospel will naturally flow from a person in a healthy relationship with God. My love for God changes the way I interact with people so that I can show patience when I’m tired, forgiveness when I’m hurt, and discipline when I’m tempted. And when the big questions of life come up in conversations with people, I can talk about God with pride and love and joy. How do I choose a spouse? How do I deal with cancer? How do I cope with a loved one’s death? There are not easy answers to any of these questions, but my faith in God definitely applies to each.
My hope is that my faith is vibrant and deep and meaningful. When my faith is weak, I tend to fall back into patterns of fear and formula. But when my relationship with God is solid, I can talk about him with love and in the context of relationships.
What are your reactions? Were you ever taught a specific way to share your faith? Has anything changed since then? Is it important to share your faith anyway?