An recent event reminded me of an outreach ministry I was involved in a number of years ago. This ministry was an attempt to reach out to the people who go out to one of our city’s main bar districts, Broad Ripple. (I definitely see this as a forerunner to Pub Theology, for those who know what that is.) Unfortunately, this ministry was largely unsuccessful in reaching its intended audience. However, we did unintentionally end up connecting with a completely different group in the process. One of the things we did in attempt to attract people was to offer free pizza and drinks.
There is another group in Broad Ripple known as the bridge kids. These are kids who come from bad family situations, who spend as little time at home as possible—if they even have a home at all. They congregate around a bridge in Broad Ripple and have been doing so years. They heard that we were offering free pizza, so some of them would dart in, grab some pizza and take off. They knew that the pizza wasn’t intended for them so they wanted to get it and disappear before anyone could disapprove. But after a while they realized that we didn’t care and in fact welcomed them to be there. So they began to come for the pizza and then hang around all night.
I don’t know if any of them became Christians, but I’m not sure that’s the point. I don’t think that it’s our job to make converts. We must understand that it is God who draws a person to himself—this is the first rule of evangelism in my opinion. Yes, God may definitely work through us, but it isn’t us—he can and may well reach someone without any evangelical effort as well. Our job, I believe, is to be Jesus in the world. I believe this has been our role all along, one which has been renewed with Christ. I won’t take the time to go into a full study of this, but if you look at the first couple of chapters of Genesis (specifically chapter 2), our role from the beginning has been to represent God to the world. I believe this means that we demonstrate his qualities, his love, compassion, mercy, goodness, holiness, justice, etc.
In the past I’ve heard people debate between witnessing through actions verses doing so with words. But I don’t believe these are at odds. St. Francis of Assisi had it right, “Witness at all times, and when necessary, use words.” We should be acting, more often than not, in the manner which is in line with God’s character and Spirit in us. We do this not because we are supposed to but because it is our nature to do so. (Yes, there is a process of changing our nature which takes time.) We should be acting in this manner at all times, not because we are specifically trying to witness, but because it is our nature. Yet because we are acting in this manner, it will be a witness. On the other hand, every moment is not the time to speak. There certainly are times to verbally be a witness of God to others, but we should use discernment and sound judgement as to when these times are.
So as stated, I believe we will be a witness through our actions. Yet once again, I don’t believe making converts is the point. I believe we are to demonstrate God’s care for people, just as Jesus did. We are to do so in tangible ways. Christianity is so much more than a belief or set of beliefs—it’s a whole world! As we live out the reality of this other world—the kingdom of heaven—we are a witness to it’s often otherwise unseen reality. When people encounter God (be it through us or some other way), they will either gravitate to him or will turn away. Their response is certainly not our responsibility—that’s between them and God. Our responsibility is simply to love as Jesus loved. He loved his enemies as much as his followers.
So I believe our whole assignment is to be God’s priests/ambassadors/representatives in the world. I don’t believe we’re called to make converts. Yes, we are instructed to make disciples, but that is another thing entirely. Unfortunately, in evangelical Christianity, these have become virtually synonymous. People generally think of a disciple as no more than simply a convert. I’d define a convert as one who has merely stated that they believe. A disciple is so much more. A disciple is a student or apprentice. They are committing their lives to learning to live like their teacher. The idea is that we as Christians ought to be transformed enough that we can teach others how to live in the manner of God—not necessarily teach them theology or the bible (from an academic perspective). While people will have a point of conversion where they commit to following Christ, there is a journey on either side of this. And I believe we are called to walk with people through their journey on both sides.
Now we ought want people to turn to God because we believe this will be best for them. Just as we reflect God in other ways, we would expect to reflect God’s desire to be reconciled to people. If we have encountered God and have witnessed his goodness and love ourselves, wouldn’t we believe that this would be good for everyone else as well? Our specific witness to people ought to be based on this. If we’re motivated to evangelize out of a sense that we ought to, or because we want to convince everyone that we’re right, we’re doing it for the wrong reasons.
So while some would suggest the answer to the question “how many people have made a decision to follow Christ because of you?” is the measure of how well you’re following God, I think it’s misguided. I believe that a person could never see anyone response to God yet still be a faithful witness. I think of the prophet Jeremiah (as well as most of the other prophets). He didn’t see people repent because of his message. Yet nevertheless, he was faithful to God and to the message he was given to speak. In other words, to wrap this all up, I believe we are to testify to the reality of God and his world through our behavior at all times and through words at the appropriate time. While we want people to turn to God because we believe this will be best for them, how anyone responds or doesn’t respond isn’t our responsibility but is between them and God.