Are your colleagues at work seeking you out for the words of life? Are your neighbors pestering you to tell them about the Gospel? Are you being bombarded with requests by people who want to attend church with you?
If you are in the same boat with most of us evangelicals, these questions are ludicrous! Most of us are haunted by an overwhelming sense of ineffectiveness in this task called evangelism. We are becoming increasingly aware that our lives are not drawing people to Christ. Our message is just not getting through.
Some Christians, of course, are not conscious of their ineffectiveness. They are so busy in their church work and evangelistic campaigns that they haven’t noticed the obvious—that, for example, probably 99 per cent of those who attend an evangelistic service already profess to be Christians. These Christians who are unaware of their ineffectiveness deserve our pity (though I must admit that once in a while I get the urge to bestow on them a few other things, to wake them up).
In an attempt to become more effective in evangelism, some evangelicals have decided that what they need to do is to give their presentation of the Gospel the light touch, a flair, a bit of Hollywood—Christian showmanship, we could call it. But it is tough to compete with Hollywood and television. Sensationalism has a short sell, anyway; you have to keep peddling gaudier and gaudier forms to keep up interest.
It seems to me that such approaches to evangelism have a superficial and egotistical ring. Neither the Gospel nor the problems of human existence can be dealt with so glibly. Crooning singers, trumpet trios, and good looks don’t do justice either to the problems of man or to the profundity of the Christian answer. The world today, following the lead of Sartre and Camus, is too impressed with its problems and the depravity of man to be sold an easy answer and “rah, rah” songs and sermons. It is indeed a strange day when many popular tunes and ballads are more profound in their view of man than the so-called gospel songs designed to point to the remedy for man’s needs.
Other evangelicals take a different approach; they are concerned with the “right” methods and techniques of witnessing. And so they organize conventions and workshops on “How to Witness.” Or they distribute articles on “How to Make Soul-Winning Easy” (as if soul-winning were ever easy) or “Ten Steps to Winning Souls” (as if all persons’ approaches to Christ were identical). Such techniques are often subtle (or blatantly obnoxious) attempts to manipulate and exploit others.
Some Christians realize that a good salesman of the Gospel must be an attractive one. Now, what could be more attractive than a professional football or baseball player? Or maybe a millionaire or a beauty queen. Madison Avenue has long been alert to the selling qualities of fame, fortune, and sex. But don’t these characteristics seem to be a long way from the attractive qualities of Jesus or the “fruit of the Spirit”? What really is being sold?
Many Christians who have tried all these methods and more, seeing that the world is still unimpressed and not buying, conclude that the problem is not in the message or the medium but in modern man himself. The observation is made that people today just don’t recognize their sinful condition, their need of the Gospel. Or that affluence keeps people from seeing their needs.
But to arrive at such a conclusion is either the height of naïveté or just plain hardness! Seldom have men been so aware of their lostness, so preoccupied with their problems, so sensitive to their needs. And not only are people aware of their problems; they are desperately seeking help. Psychological clinics have waiting lists up to six and eight months. Many people are willing to pay thirty to fifty dollars an hour to pour out their woes, their unmet needs, and their inner conflicts, even to a stranger. The National Institute of Mental Health reports that more hospital beds are taken up for reasons of mental illness than for all other illnesses combined. One out of twelve persons will be institutionalized sometime during his life because of mental ill health. And we in the evangelical church have the audacity to say that people today do not recognize their needs or are unwilling to acknowledge their problems. How blind can we be?
What is our problem? Why can’t we see and acknowledge the obvious? I think the answer is quite simple. We as evangelicals have been in the business of proclamation, and rightly so, but it has been a proclamation without a passion. Our words are just that and little more. Our proclamations have become something of a whistling in the dark, encouraging only ourselves.
All around you at work and in your neighborhood (dare I say even in your church, maybe even in your own home?) are broken hearts and lives, people suffering from deep-felt needs. There are hurting, lonely people with whom we all rub shoulders daily. Oh, they aren’t about to let all this show, if they can help it. Not unless they have evidence, firm evidence, that the other guy honestly cares about them, or has enough compassion to involve himself in their lives at least enough to find out that the problems exist.
I fear that we evangelicals are all too capable of singing “Rescue the perishing, care for the dying, snatch them in pity from sin and the grave” while our lives are like flashing neon signs reading, “I couldn’t care less.” People who are in desperate need dare not reveal it to us because they have no evidence that we care.
What if God had been only a glib purveyor of words? Would the “good news” have reached through to us? No! Mere proclamation would have meant nothing to us without the suffering and compassion of Christ. He showed to us, proved to us, that he cared. He took a servant’s form, the life of a transient, and died a criminal’s death to proclaim in living words his concern for us.
Why is it that we who have assumed the name of the compassionate one are so lacking in compassion? Why is it that we who claim to walk in the steps of the “man of sorrows,” who was “acquainted with grief,” are so afraid of suffering for others? How can it be that we who sing songs like “Oh, to be like him”—him who, moved with compassion, went about meeting the personal needs of others and “doing good”—are so long on song and swift with words and short on concern?
Without compassion, witness in all its varied forms is ineffective, flaccid, and at times obnoxious. The motivation for evangelism must be compassion. “Being moved with compassion” is the only force that will move others.
I’m by no means implying that this is some easy path to effective witness. It is quite the opposite. If you are going to involve yourself in the lives and problems of others, you will get your heart broken. You will have to suffer yourself—and not just a little bit! Involvement will mean real personal sacrifice. It will necessitate an admission that you don’t always have an answer. You won’t be able to knock people over with a bumper sticker that says, “Christ Is the Answer.” You may get hurt. “For it is given unto you not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for his sake.”
In witnessing, many Christians are motivated by all kinds of things beside compassion. Some act out of hostility. Their so-called witnessing is actually a means of saying, “I’m right and you’re wrong.” Or it is an attempt to put the other guy down, let him know what a contemptible creature he is. Such Christians give the impression that their mission is to destroy and degrade others. They seem to be unaware that Christ “came not to condemn the world, but that the world through him might be saved.” A good check for the presence of hostility as a motivation for witnessing is to see how many of your evangelistic attempts end up in debate and argument.
Some Christians reveal their hostility by the anti-this and anti-that thrust of their expressions of faith. This is the kind of Christian faith that majors in minors. The main concern is with sin rather than grace, the sinner rather than Christ. In contrast to this stand the sermons of the Book of Acts, which, though they point out the futility of sinful acts, are more concerned with the beauty of Christ and his redeeming grace.
Other Christians are motivated to express their faith out of obligation. They have been raised in church and home settings that have impressed upon them the Christian’s obligation to witness to his faith. They may even have learned the obligation before they had anything authentic to witness about. When the motive is obligation, that is just the way it will come across to others.
Some who witness appear to be motivated by fear. Their own faith is so precariously based that the slightest challenge sends them into fits of defensiveness. These types, like Peter, are apt to lop off an ear as they flail around. Watching such furies, one is tempted to say, “Relax, man, relax. God doesn’t need your protection. The Christian faith isn’t going to stand or fall with your defense.”
Probably the most sinful motivation for witnessing is self-aggrandizement. For some, winning others to the Christian faith becomes a means of supporting their own religious ego and buttressing their self-righteousness. At prayer meeting such a person can drop the news that he led someone to Christ, so that all will pay due respect to his effectiveness and acknowledge his zooming spiritual status. A nastier form of egoism would be hard to find.
What is your motivation for expressing your faith? Is it hostility? Obligation? Fear? Self-aggrandizement? Or is it a genuine compassion for others? It was compassion that caused God to send Christ into our world. It was compassion that caused Christ to hang from a tree in bitter suffering and agony. And it is compassion that should catapult you and me into the world of personal and social problems that swirl around us.
Had gospel rock or a handsome speaker or an artistic poster been enough to do the job, Christ would not have struggled as he did in Gethsemane. He knew that the way of compassion was the way of suffering, and that it was the effective way. Do we dare?
Some will think they are seeing here a rehearsal of the social-gospel emphasis of our time. And certainly broken, bleeding hearts filled with compassion for the vast and unrelenting social problems of our day are greatly needed. But let us not miss the vast, unrelenting personal problems that surround each of us every day. We need a personal and a social Gospel.
“Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, compassion, kindness, lowliness, meekness, and patience.”
When were you last “moved with compassion”?
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