The words “evangelism” and “witnessing” have become so terribly distorted that they need to be discarded. They engender so much anxiety, fear, and guilt that they are no longer useful. They too often conjure up images of sweaty hands knocking on strangers’ doors asking if they want Bibles studies. They are too often equated with impassioned evangelists preaching through the 28 Fundamental Beliefs. What should be an expansive topic has become terribly imbalanced, narrowed, and constricted.
I am certainly not saying we should no longer engage in outreach. Far from it! I am simply saying that the words “evangelism” and “witnessing” are no longer useful in describing it.
Those two words need to be placed by the curb to be picked up by the Waste Management truck. Like dad’s favorite old lounge chair, they were certainly helpful once, but have outlived their utility, with springs poking out through thread-bare fabric.
You can come up with your own replacement terms for “evangelism” and “witnessing.” I kind of like “Christlike love.” Whatever term you choose, it needs to convey a sense joy, fulfillment, and adventure.
In an attempt to succinctly capture what I understand to be a biblical approach to community involvement, I have created what I call the “Spiritual Interest Line,” seen below. Please refer to the graphic as you read the explanation that follows.
People in your community are at many different levels of spiritual interest. In the graphic above, let’s assume a range from 0 to 100. From 0 to 94, spiritual interest may be growing within their heart, but they do not yet feel any conscious need for God. At 95, they sense an inner longing for something more in life and are looking for spiritual direction and guidance. At 100 they have accepted Christ as their personal Savior.
With those definitions in mind, we can gain a number of important lessons that will help bring our thinking more in line with scripture.
I cannot create spiritual interest any more than I can create life. Both are completely up to the Holy Spirit. The only thing I can do is discover what the Spirit has already been doing in someone’s life. I used to think that if I could just explain the gospel better, or be more inspiring, or be a better gospel “salesman,” that more people would come to Christ. That is not true. I am asked by God to be an adventurer, a discoverer, not a creator.
It is the Holy Spirit who moves people forward along that line. He does that through the love and kindness shown by His followers to those within their sphere of influence. Our deeds of love do not create interest, they are the raw material the Spirit uses, just like a potter uses the clay to create beautiful art.
I don’t have to be the entire process. The Spiritual Interest Line is like a chain with many links. When someone accepts Christ, it may seem to be the work of a moment, but, in fact, it is the result of a long “chain of circumstances” that brought them to that point. The conversion we witness is like the tip of an iceberg, with most of their journey hidden from our sight. I am only one, or at most, a few links in a person’s life.
I may be used by the Spirit to move a person from 43 to 44 on the scale and that is all. It is up to God what part I am called to play in a person’s life. A Christian could go their entire life and never see anyone accept Christ as a result of their influence, but that does not in any way mean they have been an ineffective missionary.
You might visualize a pitcher being filled with water, drop by drop. There will eventually come one drop that causes the water inside to spill out the spout. Suppose we equate the moment it spills over to a person whose spiritual interest hits 95 and they become conscious of a need for God. That is usually the moment we highlight in our Union Papers. But let me ask you, which drop of water was the most important? Of course they were all important and should all be equally valued. Every link in the Spiritual Interest Line is just as important as any other. Even if no one in leadership notices, God does.
I should relate to people according to where they are on the Spiritual Interest Line. It is not helpful to relate to someone who is at 33 as if they are at 97. Likewise, it is just as inappropriate to relate to someone who is at 97 as if they are at 33.
I have often heard people debate whether it is enough to simply live a godly life, or do we have to actually talk to people about God? The answer is not either/or. We simply have to do what is appropriate for where people are at the time. Prior to 95, people will usually have little interest in “Bible talk,” so loving deeds are our most effective response. From 95 onward, a person is eager to learn from scripture and does not need to be manipulated or convinced.
One of the greatest skills a Christian can develop is learning how to approximate where a person might be on the Spiritual Interest Line. If my encounter with someone is relatively short, I simply try to demonstrate Christ-like love and kindness. The longer the relationship, the more I can drop hints that give me clues. For instance, if someone talks to me about a difficult problem they are facing, I might say at some point, “I’ll certainly be praying for that situation” and observe how they respond. Watch the eyes, the body language. Don’t press. Just make note for future reference. If they respond positively and say something like, “Thank you very much. That means a lot to me,” you could drop other hints at appropriate times. If they demonstrate a lack of interest or pull back, you probably need to shelve the spiritual talk for now.
I was not raised as a Seventh-day Adventist and my dad was not a religious person. When I first became an Adventist, I ignorantly felt it was my duty to tell him about the Mark of the Beast and the Sabbath/Sunday controversy. He never showed any interest and my overtures actually had a negative effect. He stated clearly, “I don’t want to hear about that Bible stuff.” That attitude persisted. After I understood the Spiritual Interest Line, I guessed that he was probably somewhere in the 30s and I chose to simply love him as fully as I could. Years later he became terminally ill. One day I leaned over his hospital bed and asked, “Dad, would you like me to pray for you?” To my surprise he answered, “Yes, I would like that very much.” He had come a long way. Only God can read his heart.
Different personalities and Spiritual Gifts can relate more easily to different parts of the Spiritual Interest Line. For instance, some introverts may feel more comfortable helping others by doing things behind the scenes whereas an extrovert might prefer more direct, personal, one-on-one engagement. A person with the Spiritual Gift of “Helps” will be great at doing specific tasks for those at 1 to 94 whereas someone with the gift of “Teaching” or “Evangelism” may want to specialize in working with those at 95 to 100. God wants each of us to reach out through who He has made us to be. No guilt. No fear.
I now understand how the conference evangelist could get the attendees at the meetings to accept Christ and join the church. It was because he sent out 40,000 brochures and attracted people who were at 95 and above. Those below 95 usually stay home.
It becomes clear that “Information Evangelism” reaches only a small fraction of society, those at 95 to 100. Information Evangelism produces just enough results to maintain the myth of its superiority, but it is certainly not the best way to reach society at large. Today people are drowning in information. What stands out to them is outrageous love.
Information Evangelism will always be a useful tool for some of the people at 95 and above, but it should be used strategically according to the community’s readiness. It cannot be the main feature of a congregation’s mission to the neighborhoods around them. Our outreach has to focus far more on relationships and incarnational involvement with people’s felt needs, giving high priority to the vast majority of people who are at 1 to 94 on the Spiritual Interest Line.
Our churches in North America are far better equipped to share information than they are to love unconditionally. To become truly relevant to the masses, the unglamorous, ministries of caring and kindness will have to be elevated. Such a dramatic shift will not happen, however, as long as things like tithes and baptisms continue to be the measure of success on pastoral reports to the conference.
The only kind of love the Holy Spirit can effectively use to increase people’s spiritual interest is a love that has no expectations, no conditions, and no ulterior motives. When that truly becomes central to our church culture we will have become full partners with the Spirit in carrying on the world-altering ministry of Christ.*
*The small group lessons “I’m Allergic to Witnessing” delve more deeply into the theme of this article and can be purchased at www.transformyourchurch.com (operated by the Florida Conference of the Seventh-day Adventist Church).
Kim Johnson retired in 2014 as the Undertreasurer of the Florida Conference. He and his wife Ann live in Maitland, Florida. Kim has written a number of articles for SDA journals plus three books published by Pacific Press: The Gift, The Morning, and The Team. He has also written three sets of small group lessons for churches that can be viewed at www.transformyourchurch.com (this website is run by the Florida Conference of Seventh-day Adventists). He is also the author of eight "Life Guides" on CREATION Health.
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