The Rev. Dr. Robert S. Langworthy, preaching
April 18, 2021
If you believe that Jesus did rise from the dead, is still alive and around, and can enhance a person’s life more than anyone or anything else, how can you not give to those you care about a witness as to what He does for you and would love to do for them?
If you have a friend who relishes Italian food and hasn’t yet discovered a great new Italian joint, wouldn’t you tell them about it? If you know someone who appreciates poetry as much as you but is unfamiliar with a writer you adore, wouldn’t you pass on to them one of that poet’s pieces? If you know two people who you feel sure would really hit it off, wouldn’t you try to arrange for them to meet?
If a resurrected Jesus has made a big difference in your life, how can you not look for opportunities to give those you love a chance to see who He is? Evangelism – when done in the right way and at the right time – is simply letting others in on a blessing so good you feel compelled to share it with those who might appreciate it.
Evangelism is often objected to on the grounds that it is immodest and imperialistic – that it is rooted in a twofold arrogance: first of thinking you have found the ultimate reality and second of attempting to persuade others to embrace that reality and its way of life.
The irony here is that those who make this objection are guilty of the same “sin” for which they fault others. When, for example, they criticize Christians for claiming that following Jesus is the best way to go and for seeking to convince others to embrace such a life, these same critics are themselves claiming that their approach to life is the best way to go and they are seeking to convince others to embrace their approach. Both sides think that their take on ultimate reality and the right way to live is best, and both are trying to convert others to it.
It is not arrogant to make truth claims about what to think and how to live because everybody makes such claims, even those who advocate non-judgmental tolerance. Everybody has a viewpoint, and everybody – even those who don’t try to convert others – believes the world would be better if everyone adopted their viewpoint. Arrogance does not lie in the content of one’s truth claims, but in one’s attitude toward those who hold contrary ones.
Yes, Christians can evangelize out of self-righteous arrogance, but they can also do so out of genuine love. For they believe they’ve found a way (a relationship!) so wonderful that it would bless anyone and that alerting others to the possibility of having it is the best gift they could ever give anyone.
An atheist named Angel Eduardo, writing in last November’s publication of the Center of Inquiry, gets this. He sees that Christians who try to win others over to faith in Jesus are only trying to do what he is trying to do in seeking to win people over to atheism. He actually asserts that our keeping to ourselves what we believe would do great good for humanity, in the name of avoiding disharmony, is actually selfish and immoral. If we think we know the key to bettering people and our world, we have an ethical obligation to put it out there for consideration.
That’s why Jesus, in His last words to His disciples before He returned to heaven, commanded them to go, give witness and share His good news.
Doing evangelism is never in itself a problem, though certainly how we do it may be. For it can be done in an insensitive, disrespectful, bullying and demeaning way – a way that ends up dishonoring Jesus.
But it can be done from love and with love.
Let me mention two crucial elements in doing so.
First, we do evangelism right if we do it as part of a dialogue rather than a monologue. To give a witness is not to give a sales pitch, and it certainly is not to dominate or manipulate a conversation. It involves listening at least as much as talking, and usually listening before talking. To evangelize is to make an effort to understand a conversational partner and to empathize with where they’re coming from (even if they’re coming from a place of great negativity to Christianity).
Second, we do evangelism right if we seek to impress people, not with ourselves, but with Jesus – even if that takes our making ourselves look unimpressive by putting on display our shortcomings, weaknesses and failures, in order to give God all the glory. Owning up to our falling short can shore up our lifting up Jesus in all His extravagant graciousness: Jesus who wants to help anyone and everyone who gives Him half a chance, and not just those who supposedly have got it all together. The goal in evangelism is not to get people to think how wonderful we’ve become, but to get them to see how wonderful Jesus is to love the likes of us – this Jesus who takes people as He finds them, even the most messed up ones (such as ourselves), and then takes them onward and upward in unlimited generosity of heart and unlimited strength of spirit surpassing human capacity.
If we open others’ eyes to how good Jesus is, even to people like us (people who can sometimes be pretty bad), we’ve done much of our job in giving witness to His grace and life-changing power! Let us pray!