As my wife browsed the female half of J. Crew, I stood by the stroller on the male half and tried to distract my daughters from the boredom of shopping. (They’re still young enough to know that shopping is the worst.)
When a salesman asked me if I needed anything, I politely told him that we were fine. My then two-year-old daughter used to be a clothing store sticker thief, and while she worked to attach a “Men’s Slim Fit” sticker on the stroller wheel, the salesman bent down and made a comment about her learning to change tires already. I lamely replied that you have to start teaching them young.
We stood there awkwardly for a while as he tried to think of some other small-talkish thing to say. He finally asked if there was another member of our “party,” and I told him we were waiting for my wife. He suggested that I look around in the meantime, and I told him that I had already done a walk-through. He stood there for a few long moments, looking as though he was on the verge of saying something, then simply told me to let him know if I needed anything and walked off.
Because I’m a pastor, this brief exchange made me think about our approach to evangelism. This sincere salesman had a job to do: he had been hired to get me to buy something. And he probably did everything right. He took an interest in my family, made a quick attempt to befriend me, then took the first opportunity to point my attention to the goods he was selling. Textbook sales strategy.
If you’ve ever had a front door, you’ve probably had someone try to “evangelize” you like this. If you’ve been part of a church for a while, you’ve likely done this or been challenged to do this.
Most of us have a vague sense that we must first “earn the right” to share the gospel with someone, but we are still in a vicious hurry to finish the transaction. So we make a quick attempt to befriend people on the spot. We don’t take the time to really get to know the person—to find out what drives them, what their dreams or fears are, what they love and hate, etc.—we are usually happy to settle for the “awkward acquaintance” stage.
With that groundwork laid, we take the first opportunity to show them the goods we are selling. Usually this opportunity doesn’t present itself, so we force it. We rush it. We get the message out there and hope they will respond. Textbook sales strategy.
I am convinced that the church in general has adopted a salesman’s approach to evangelism. The gospel does carry a built-in urgency that compels us to reach out to the people around us, even if they aren’t banging down our doors in search of the truth. But this isn’t what it means to follow Jesus. I’m sure there are times when it makes sense to share what you know to be true with someone who is basically a stranger. But I don’t believe that should be our default.
If we’re in an almighty rush to convert someone, then our conversation is about an agenda that we set, and an outcome toward which we are pushing. And that’s not a relationship. Pretending to care about a person so you can preach to them is not loving.
So what should we do instead? It’s simple. Love people. Don’t pretend to love them. Don’t adopt a slow game where you do relationship-like things to “earn the right” to speak to a person. Stop thinking of people as potential converts and simply love them. Here’s what we need to meditate on: God already loves everyone you’ll ever meet. He loves them even if they never join a church. And we should as well.
Every person is valuable, dignified, and intriguing simply because they are made by God—in his image, no less!—and loved by him. Every time we invest in a relationship with a person, we are doing what we were created to do. And if we truly love the people around us, we will get to know them better. If we’re not jockeying for an opportunity to deliver a sales pitch, then we are free to learn, to bless, and to be blessed. And once we have a real, meaningful relationship, we might just find that the gospel has a powerful role to play in that relationship.
What if that J. Crew salesman could have gotten to know me better? What if I had just shared with him that I was irritated because I have never been able to find clothing that works for the office as well as a dinner out? That I was just dying for an outfit that presented me as an intelligent professional who wasn’t stuffy? Our conversation could have taken a beautiful turn for both of us: “Well, I think I’ve got just the thing you’re looking for…”
Of course, a J. Crew salesman doesn’t have the opportunity to get to know his customers very well. But we do. We work with people at least 40 hours every week. We live next door to people for years and years. We frequent the same restaurants and coffee shops week after week. What if we got to know those people so well that we knew what they loved? What they were afraid of? What really matters to them in life? What if we could discern what they were really looking for in life and were involved enough to see when the fleeting things they have been trying to find fulfillment in let them down? What if they were our actual friends, people we truly and deeply loved and appreciated and enjoyed?
That’s when evangelism moves beyond sales strategies. That’s when we see formulas and pitches for the anemic work-arounds they are. That’s when we get to bring the gospel to bear on a person’s life in a beautiful way. This is what the gospel was meant to do. The healing and redemption that Jesus offers is the true answer for every problem anyone has ever faced. We cheapen it when we turn it into a sales pitch.
Don’t demean the gospel by tossing it out there like a cheap product you’re trying to get some sucker to buy. Allow it to change your life. And while it’s changing your life, deeply invest in the people around you. Ultimately, the gospel is about relationship. It’s about a God who loves us deeply, who longs to be with us, and who invites us to know and enjoy him. It’s about a God who doesn’t wait for us to get our acts together, but who comes and seeks us out. A God who came and died to ensure that nothing could separate us from him. That’s what a deep relationship looks like. And that is what we are invited to enter into, to be shaped by, and to share with anyone who will listen.