When I was a magazine editor back in the early 90’s, I interviewed a well-known major league baseball player who had come to faith fairly recently. He was a rough and tumble-type of guy and took that same approach with his new-found faith.
“Some say you’re too vocal in your faith. How do you respond to that?” I asked, trying to be journalistic. I knew he had come under criticism for being too pushy with his teammates; people were put off by it.
He looked thoughtfully in the distance and said, “If I really believe in heaven and know there must also be a hell, and I don’t tell the people I care about how to live in the good place and avoid the bad . . . what does that make me? I just cannot in all good conscience not tell people about my new faith in Christ.”
In author and blogger extraordinaire John Shore’s book I’m Okay--You’re Not: The Message We’re Sending Unbelievers and Why We Should Stop*** (now out of print, but available from his website, www.johnshore.com), he makes a strong case that fulfilling the Great Commandment (“love your neighbor as yourself”) trumps the Great Commission (“Go ye therefore into all the world and preach the gospel”). Especially here in the U.S. where pretty much everyone has heard or has access to the story of Jesus’ life and death.
His point is that if we really love someone the way Christ did, then we must respect them enough to not barge into discussions about religion without an invitation. To do so wouldn’t be respectful, and therefore could not be loving.
John had come to faith late in life and had previously always been put off by Christians. Why? Because they typically viewed him as a target. They would, often unasked, tell him about their faith, let him know where he was headed if he didn’t turn his life around, then proceed to try to convert him. When their efforts wouldn’t bring the “say the prayer and sign up now” conversion they wanted, they would quickly fade away. When John didn’t buy into their version of the gospel, they chose to move on to greener possibilities.
As silly as that sounds to some of us, this still goes on amongst a variety of strains of Christianity. People view others as targets to be hit, rather than a precious soul to be loved. Some of this may have to do with their outgoing personality or church theology, and I must admit that many of these types have wonderful motives, but people in America have changed and are not as receptive to unsolicited spiritual help as they may have once been.
I wish I could say that I never was like this, but I likely cannot. In the decade of the 80’s I was a “go out and get ‘em” youth guy with Campus Life. I felt called to let teens know about the new and wonderful life they could have with Jesus. I had lived my teenage years without knowing anything about Christ and knew what a mess my life had been before hearing the “good news” -- and knew how happy and at peace I was after believing God loved me enough to die for me, that my life mattered.
So my heart was right…but my methods were off. The ends (getting people into the Kingdom) justified the means (sometimes “trapping” teens at events where they thought they were going to have fun—and did—but had to hear about the gospel as payment). Ugh, I hate admitting this. My motivations really were right, but in hindsight I realize that I was part of a style of Christianity that didn’t see the wrong in being less than forthcoming.
On the far end, being “obnoxious for Jesus” used to be a badge of honor, and sadly it still is today for some Christians. Rejection was a form of persecution, so therefore when people were rude or verbally disagreed, God must approve of it (or so the “logic” goes).
While I can certainly appreciate the heart of someone like my baseball interviewee and millions of other Christians who believe they are just trying to fulfill the Great Commission, I’m fairly convinced that we ought to just shut up and love others as we would wish to be loved. People are tired of our words, tired of the politics that are too often attached to our beliefs, tired of being targeted and then dropped, and tired of all of the disrespect we show them in our zeal to share a message that means so very much to us.
I’ve also learned that it’s pretty much God’s job to reach people; to bring them to a place where they’re asking questions about eternity, God, the Bible, Jesus…and how it all fits together. My job is to love my neighbor as myself, which means never targeting anyone, never disrespecting them by handing them a tract or dropping a gospel bomb on them, and never leaving them as a friend if their own current journey doesn’t include believing in Jesus.
Does this mean I never share the hope in my heart and the faith I rely upon with others? No, it just means that I love them without a motive other than to be, hopefully, a living breathing example of Jesus to them. Which includes a real desire to hear about their own beliefs.
People are not targets to me any more. They are fellow human beings struggling to get through this life, just like me. I am not better than or wiser than others who believe differently. I have found a faith that comforts, assures and guides me. If asked, I’m delighted to share what I’ve discovered about God on my journey thus far. In the meantime, I don’t talk about Jesus as much as I just try to live more like he did.
*** In the course of researching I’m OK—You’re Not, a lot of non-Christians wrote to tell John Shore of their experiences with having Christians try to evangelize them. He published about 50 such statements in his book. To read what some of them had to say on a blog of his, “What Non-Christians Want Christians to Hear." The link to that post is: