May 12, 2005

Sharing the Faith
by Jan Harris
As the season of Easter comes to an end, and the day of Pentecost (May 15) is celebrated, and as the education wing of the church I attend nears completion, I ponder the subject of sharing the faith with others.

What is my responsibility? Am I called, as some may be, to stand on a street corner, proclaiming, "Jesus is Lord." Or, am I called, as some may be, to accost strangers in the street, and ask them the most personal of questions: "Have you asked the Lord Jesus into your heart"?

What resonates with me, when it comes to sharing the faith, is the word of Jesus when he said, "By this will all know that you are my disciples: by your love for one another." Now, that's easy to say, but it's no easy evangelism method. Loving each other is no easy task. There's no way to "fake it." Either we love -- or we don't. And mostly we don't. So, how do we do evangelism if we don't love one another? Not easily, friends. Not easily.

I've been reading Alan Jones' Soul Making, and a line in it struck me as the reason I have so much difficulty with many modern methods of evangelism. He says, 'The way of believing I want to avoid often adopts a bullying attitude with regard to those who don't see things in the same way."1 Until I read that line recently, it had never occurred to me what my real objection was to so much of what is done in the name of the Lord.

I lived in York, England, during the late 70's, and I was a member, and also worked at, a large charismatic Anglican church in the heart of that ancient city. The church had grown from eight people to over a thousand in a few years, because those eight, the rector, and his wife believed in prayer, and he had a gift for evangelism. When he spoke, people turned to God.

Every summer, the 100,000-population York was inundated with two-and-a-half million tourists. Among those tourists was a small contingent of very sincere, but very naive, young evangelists, whose task it was to confront the residents of York on the street and ask them if they had invited Jesus into their hearts. To the average York citizen, these Christian tourists might as well have been asking them in Swahili if they had signed up yet to go to the moon. After the week-long "blitzkreig" of these fervent young people, my church would do "recovery" work with people who had been confronted (and often offended) by this odd method -- for the UK -- of sharing the faith.

But, how to share the faith? How did Jesus do it? Did he bully people into thinking as he did about God? Should we?

My dad, who was a strong advocate of independent thinking and who believed, "If two people always agree, one of them is not thinking," taught us, his children, to express our opinions, to state our disagreements with each other, but to realize, no matter how well we did it, that we could not persuade or argue people into agreeing with us. "Remember," he would say in a sing-song voice:
A person persuaded against his will,
Is of the same opinion still.

That first Pentecost in the Christian era was a very interesting day. A crowd of people gathered obediently to celebrate the Jewish holy day. And something incredible happened. The Holy Spirit came among the crowd, and the people, many of whom were from other lands, and who speak other languages, heard the good news of the kingdom of God in their own native tongue. As a result, the Scripture tells us, many were added to the church that day.

What made the difference for those people? Since they had gathered to celebrate a holy day ordained by the God of Israel for the Jews, one can safely assume they were open to God. What those God-seekers experienced was an incredibly loving act by an incredibly loving God as he revealed the purpose of life to them.

So, I wonder -- is there a clue here for us in the events of Pentecost? Something for us to emulate? Do we "share the faith" with everyone we come in contact with -- or just with those who come seeking God? Do we always use a script, a formula, or do we use various methods? How should our love for one another affect our evangelism?

Jesus said, "I was hungry, and you fed me; I was thirsty, and you gave me water -- as you did this to the least of my brethren, you did it to me." We all know how far we fall short of these words of Jesus -- for most of us, we find it difficult enough to be kind to members of our own family and the people we approve of, without being confronted by strangers in need of kindness.

The church in York used many ways of attracting people throughout the city. Drama groups performed mini-plays in the many public places during the lunch hour: scruffily dressed youth workers sat on street benches, in parks, and in pubs, and struck up conversations with lonely people; various groups freely shopped, gardened, cleaned for, and drank tea with "shut-in's" and other city residents who didn’t even claim to be church members; every Sunday, several groups in the church provided and served a free pot-luck lunch in a nearby hall to which visitors to the church and to the city were invited; a small shop, owned and run by church members, within walking distance of the church, served light, home-cooked meals, and sold cottage crafts six days a week, offering companionship to anyone who dropped in; forty-plus small groups met all over the city on a weekly basis, inviting their neighbors to attend, and regularly helping those same neighbors (church members or not) with such things as child-care, shopping, and gardening chores.

Here is a thought from Alan Jones about sharing the faith:

Even though I am not much of a lover, I know that I am loved. This is a statement of faith the effects of which spill over, from time to time, into my experience. One of the side-effects of knowing that one is loved is the desire to tell others -- and to tell them in such a way that they are included in, not excluded from, the circle of love. 2

As my church completes its education building (sometime in the autumn), we will all be thinking seriously about how to share the faith that is such an important part of our lives. How best do we share the great gift we have been given? Because we know we are loved -- even though we may not yet be very good at loving -- we have a desire to share what we have received. How do we do it without bullying, without hurting, people? How do we share it so that it is a gentle gift? It seems that we must demonstrate it before we speak of it. Somehow we must show our love -- for God, for one another, and for all whom we desire be included in the loving circle that embraces us.

Sharing the faith with others bears thinking about, praying about, and doing something about -- not because we have to do something, but for love's sake. Because we have received so great a gift, because we are loved, and we know it, we are compelled to share what we have received, freely, without conditions. "Love one another, as I have loved you."

1. Alan Jones, Soul Making:The Desert Way of Spirituality (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1983), p. 14.
2. Ibid., p. 1.