When I served as Associate Pastor of Westminster Presbyterian Church in Mobile, AL back in the day, I didn’t like it when I discovered that the policy of the Evangelism Committee was to show up on some unsuspecting newcomer’s doorstep on a Thursday evening and ask to come in to talk about the church. I said so to Mr. Corn, the chair of the committee, and suggested that it would be better to call first. But in his blustery, dismissive way, Corn just shot the idea down, drawing from his secular business experience in some kind of sales, saying that we would lose people if we tried to make appointments. Never mind the resentment we caused against well-meaning Christians who wanted to barge in and disturb somebody’s quiet evening!

The Jehovah’s Witness who showed up unannounced on our cabin porch on Lookout Mountain last weekend in Mentone, AL was of Mr. Corn’s ilk. When I opened the door a crack, she said “I know you’re on vacation, but I thought you might like something to read,” and handed me a tract. (In fact, I had plenty to read already, materials of my own choosing.) She left, heading out on her mission to bother all the other cabins on our road.

How in the world do people get such FUBAR notions about evangelism in their heads and hearts? Who is teaching them this stuff?! They certainly don’t get their methodology from the Bible, and especially not from Jesus. Do they really think invading someone’s space, violating their privacy, will create on opening for their viewpoints? How would anyone expect that another will regard as “good news” a message brought by a messenger who clearly has no respect for feelings or the need to be left alone, free of the assault of a zealous religionist?

Evangelism of the sort practiced by our Lord and his disciples has some key features that need to be followed by everyone, especially those whose method of preaching or “sharing” is to hit a stranger over the head with their big black Bible.

First, build a relationship and earn the right to be heard. I don’t have in mind a particular incident from our Lord’s ministry, but rather the whole character of his presence among us. The Gospel of John says he “dwelt” among us. And the same gospel emphasizes over and over the joy of staying (“abiding”) with Jesus. He’s constantly asking questions; engaging people of all sorts, whether haughty or humble; and on his final night, honors his disciples by calling them his friends.  He had become particularly close to three of them.

Spiritual life is about trust, first and foremost. Trust in God, made known in Christ, yes. But also trust in those who are your guides on the journey, those who will sit with you and talk about the things that matter most. You don’t do that by showing up on a doorstep or cold-calling on the phone or accosting somebody on the street or the campus with a tract. Instead, you tell your story, make yourself vulnerable and open to the gaze of someone else into your soul. Those who witness and run don’t do that.

Second, be honest and open. At his trial, Jesus said: “I have spoken openly to the world; I have always taught in synagogues and in the temple, where all the Jews come together. I have said nothing in secret. Why do you ask me? Ask those who heard what I said to them; they know what I said” (John 18:20-21). Both the gift and demand of his message were clear. There’s even his encounter with the Canaanite woman in Matthew in which Jesus, with his honesty about his mission, risks alienating the one asking him for help.

By contrast, how many “evangelists” are deceptive? The JW at our door certainly was. Her tract did not even include a statement about which religious body produced it, except the very small print on the back about the “Watch Tower Society.” Hidden agendas abound with those who lure folks in with a free meal or a movie or a T-shirt. Or what I did in college with Campus Crusade for Christ (as it was then called): call up a student and ask to come by to take a survey. Trouble was, the “survey” was a ruse; results would actually never be published. The real goal was at the end of the survey to share the “Four Spiritual Laws” and try to get a convert. Instead of resorting to such tactics, just be up front about your intent, and those who are interested will respond. How honoring to Jesus, the Truth, is it to try to fool people?

Third, make sure what you share is really good news and not a way to promote some institutional agenda. Every now and again with cold-calling evangelism or the “Just As I Am,” “I-See-That-Hand” altar call, you might get a name on the roll of a church. But will you get a disciple, someone who is growing into a mature follower of Jesus? If you’re trying to build up the membership roll of an institution so you can boast about your attendance or your budget, you deserve to fail, and I trust God will not give success for such an unworthy goal. But if you are sharing a truly life-altering message of faith, hope, and love, justice and peace, serenity and fruitfulness, leading people into following Jesus on the way, then God will bless. Folks long to hear good news in these days when almost everything we hear on TV or see online is bad, and then it’s worse. Evangelism needs to proclaim the amazing new thing God is doing in Christ, that he will and can do in someone’s life. Then it’s an honorable endeavor.

Mr. Corn believed in evangelism by ambush. The JW at our door probably just thought she was doing good, offering something worth interrupting two people trying to get away from it all. Both would-be witnesses were misguided. Evangelism that’s worth the name and honors the Name has to be informed by how Jesus did it.  After all, the good news is about him. If he’s the one with all the answers, maybe we should listen to and learn from him as we set about to tell his story.

© 2011 Tom Cheatham