A while ago, some friends and I who were raised going to church were discussing an important question: How can you share Jesus with secular people and not make it—for lack of a better word—weird?
As a twenty-something living in a post-church world, I resonate with this question on a deep level. Growing up in a fairly conservative Christian family, I knew it was my duty to be a “witness” for Jesus. But to be brutally honest, the idea of being a witness often felt very weird and brought up a feeling of dread in my stomach, like when my mom made kale for dinner.
For a while, my idea of “witnessing” consisted of feeling an enormous amount of pressure to strike up conversations with random strangers and either give them a tract or talk about the Bible with little thought of the social environment. I heard people tell stories of what they called “divine appointments,” where they were able to talk about what they believed with random strangers who were magically receptive and desirous of biblical knowledge. But my own witnessing experiences were not quite so glamorous. They usually felt more like the times I interacted with boys who were interested in dating me: romantic in theory, but highly pressurized and awkward in practice.
…the idea of being a witness often felt very weird and brought up a feeling of dread in my stomach, like when my mom made kale for dinner.
A guy I met at a Christian youth conference once asked for my number. I gave it to him, but I was nervous. What was I going to say when he called? I hardly knew him. Lucky for me, he asked question after question after question. I gave him answer after answer after answer. Meanwhile though, my brain was trying to multitask, and a desperate inner dialogue was taking place that went something like this:
Me: You can’t let him be the only one asking questions, Anneliese. You need to pull your weight!
Also me: I know. But what do I do? I only have long phone conversations with, like, six people in the world. And, um, yeah, he’s not on the list.
Me: Well, just think of something to ask him. Anything!
Also me:… *blinks*… Anything?
My subconscious decided that any question was better than no question and soon the opportunity to use my blank check arrived. The guy paused and I heard him swallowing over the phone.
“Sorry,” he said, “I’m just drinking some water.”
I don’t do well under pressure or with multitasking (or a lot of other things, for that matter). So, with the forethought of a two-year-old, I immediately fired off the most intriguing question my subconscious could think of:
“Oh, are you a big water drinker?”
I might as well have batted my eyelashes and asked, “So… how often do you breathe?” Not the best way to put my most attractive foot forward.
…friendship was a means to an end.
Many, many, many times, trying to talk to people about Jesus has felt like an “are you a big water drinker?” moment. In other words, social suicide.
If you can’t relate with this feeling, that’s awesome. Go read a different blog post.
But maybe you have felt this way.
I think evangelism often feels weird, not because evangelism is inherently weird, but because we have weird ideas about what it is. I thought evangelism was merely getting people to believe the same information I believe. I thought it meant word-vomiting truth onto people with no thought of the social context. It was event and program based: holding a series of nightly meetings where a preacher went through a list of the church’s doctrines to prove them from the Bible, or going door-to-door to hand out pamphlets or books. Once people believed the information and got baptized, you took a deep breath and felt a weight roll off your shoulders. You didn’t have to pay attention to them anymore cause they believed the right things. They’d joined the club.
…the problem with seeing evangelism through this lens is that we’re working against the way God made people.
I was taught about the importance of building relationships, but it was often still in the context of ways you could get people to believe the same information you did. So friendship was a means to an end.
But the problem with seeing evangelism through this lens is that we’re working against the way God made people. The fabric of reality is made of relationships. We crave selfless connections. But anytime you make a relationship with someone else dependent on whether or not they agree with you or you have some sort of agenda, even if it’s to push something true about God, we’re working against what God made. And things get weird. Fast. People start mumbling about how busy they are and bow out.
What’s up with that? We say, and bemoan the fact that people are missing out on hearing “the truth.”
The good news is we can avoid a lot of that weirdness, because that’s not what evangelism actually is. I like the way my friend Elise defines evangelism:
Evangelism is sharing Jesus, and Jesus is awesome. So evangelism must be awesome.
If evangelism is sharing Jesus, what was Jesus about? The Bible tells us He came to reveal God’s character. Who is God? “God is love” (1 John 4:16). How was Jesus going to accomplish this goal? In his book, Mark describes for us Jesus’ main evangelistic strategy. Now, I’m not a pastor or theologian, but I would think that if anyone has got evangelism figured out, it’s Jesus. So check it out.
“Then He appointed twelve, that they might be with Him and that He might send them out to preach” (Mark 3:14).
Hold the phone. Did you catch that?
That they might be with Him.
*head shake* This is Jesus’ plan? This is the plan that the Trinity—God who created the layers of the atmosphere, sophisticated cell biology, and complex ecosystems—came up with to save mankind? That feels almost like Steve Jobs deciding the best way to talk to his mom is to send a letter through the pony express.
Out of all the methods God could have used, He landed on friendship?
This might be? is cheesy, but when I picture the Trinity meeting together to figure out the best way to reveal Their character to the world, I imagine Their conversation going something like this.
Jesus: “Well, I can get up on some big hills and in boats and stuff and preach to a bunch of people.”
Father: “Yeah, that’s good, but we need something else.”
Jesus: “I can calm storms.”
Holy Spirit: “Mmm, sounds comforting.”
Out of all the methods God could have used, He landed on friendship?
Jesus: “I’ll heal people too.”
Father: “Uh-huh, uh-huh, what else?”
Holy Spirit: “Oh! He could do a podcast.”
Father: “Good thought, but those won’t be invented for a couple thousand years. Any other ideas?”
Jesus: “I’ve got it! I’ll get a dozen or so guys and we’ll hang out for, like, three years. [As my friend Ty says] it’ll be like a hippie commune but without the marijuana.”
Father and Holy Spirit in unison: “Perfect!”
Maybe it’s an oversimplification, but you get the point.
At the end of the day, Jesus came to show us the Father’s character, which is this mind-blowing selfless love that we don’t find anywhere on our planet. The Trinity itself is a relationship. So it made sense that the best, the most impactful, stickiest way to share who God is would be in a friendship or relationship, loving people purely because that’s what love does. So Jesus put the bulk of His energy into discipleship, which is relationship. He loved, taught, and invested in these 12 guys. They talked, ate, traveled, and did everything together, even though He knew they would eventually all ditch Him and one would even betray Him.
And then those 12 guys “turned the world upside down” (Acts 17:6).
This tells me that when the core of evangelism is relational and based on love instead of mere information, you begin speaking the language of every heart. And it’s not weird at all. In fact, it’s beautiful and makes sense on the deepest level possible.
The ultimate and most appealing form of evangelism is to let a selfless relationship be an end in and of itself, not a means to an end. The best way to teach someone about God’s selfless love is to love them selflessly. I’m not loving them selflessly, though, if I have some sort of schedule that the relationship is dependent on. I can talk about God and His love, but I’m not communicating it very well if, as soon as someone ceases to be a willing receptacle for the information I have to give, I stop caring about them.
Bob Goff put it this way: “Loving people means caring without an agenda. As soon as we have an agenda, it’s not love anymore. It’s acting like you care to get someone to do what you want or what you think God wants them to do. Do less of that, and people will see a lot less of you and more of Jesus.”
When the core of evangelism is relational and based on love instead of mere information, you begin speaking the language of every heart. And it’s not weird at all.
Please don’t misunderstand me, though, when I talk about relationships and agendas. I’m not talking about the shallow, selfish friendships of today or aimless socializing. If a modern millennial hang out was all that was needed to save the world, Jesus would have spent three years sipping piña coladas and posting selfies with Bible verse captions on Instagram.
Something is really broken with humanity and Jesus came to fix it. Justice needed to be served and we needed to be saved and learn who God is and Jesus came to do all that, and that’s a whole other blog post. The ultimate point is, though, Jesus changed people by His love. He taught and lived within the framework of relationships and ultimately gave up His life to restore our relationship with God.
And He wants us to do the same. And when you do that, it helps alleviate a lot of awkwardness.
“By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35).
So, to get back to the original question, the best way to share Jesus in a non-weird way is to love people. When evangelism is relational, it becomes appealing because love and relationships meet everyone’s deepest desires. Nobody on the planet wants to be a project or used or marketed. We’re not looking to be fixed. We’re looking for connection.
And yet there’s a sense in which sharing Jesus is straight up weird. Paul tells us that to some people, “the message of the cross is foolishness” (1 Corinthians 1:18). Why? Because, in our world, selfless love is weird.
Witnessing for Jesus becomes unnecessarily weird, though, when I forget that true, other-centered, doesn’t-expect-anything-in-return love is the point of everything in the Bible. I’m pulling the rug out from under me when I try to manipulate people, even if I’m trying to manipulate them into knowing something true about God. If I communicate that I only want them to know something I know, I’m inadvertently sending the message, I’m self-absorbed and just want you to be like me.
And that’s weird.
Sometimes Jesus did do things that were socially awkward. In John 9, there’s a story of a man who was blind from birth and Jesus heals him. He walks up to him and He’s like, “Here, put this mud on your eyes and then go wash it off. Btw, I spit in it.”
I’m pulling the rug out from under me when I try to manipulate people, even if I’m trying to manipulate them into knowing something true about God.
Talk about weird. If I were blind and some random dude did that to me, I would’ve run to the pool to wash too, but not cause I thought I would see again. Nevertheless, it was a Spirit-led interaction. Sometimes the Spirit will lead us to do things that are strange, but that wasn’t ultimately what Jesus was known for.
He was known for love.
And there’s a sense in which we’ll be weird too if we’re loving like Jesus loved.
Because it’s weird to show committed, faithful love to a friend.
It’s weird to always seek someone else’s highest good.
It’s weird to empathize with someone when you’d rather prove why you’re correct.
It’s weird to listen to understand rather than merely waiting to respond and say your opinion.
It’s weird to practice the love that you preach especially in a religious context.
It’s weird to be open and vulnerable when everyone else is sarcastic and cool.
It’s weird to care more about being kind than about winning an argument.
Love is strange and wonderful.
But it’s evangelism.