People become Christians in the weirdest ways. St Augustine famously heard some children singing “take and read” (in Latin) over the back fence while he was thumbing Paul’s letter to the Romans, and his heart was changed. Author Tim Winton’s family was converted due to the practical kindness of strangers tending his wounded father when Winton was five. 1 And former radical lesbian professor, Rosaria Champagne Butterfield, was converted because she wasn’t invited to church.
Some are converted from “religion” to Christian faith when they see the difference between following rituals and traditions, and trusting in the loving goodness of a merciful God. Others have an encounter – a dream, a vision, a visit from a stranger, a brush with death – which they come to interpret as the touch of the Christian God.
Many people can’t even name the moment or method by which Christ came into their lives (perhaps suggesting that it really wasn’t their doing!). And the biggest surprise of all is that I know people who were actually converted by televangelists.
Which is a long-winded way of saying that there is no simple pathway into Christian faith.
All Christians know that, in reality, we human beings are barely in control of anything. The spirit of God roams where he will, and the heart of God is to draw people to himself, to cleanse them of their unrighteousness, and to ensure they know that they are his beloved children. We are part of God’s scheme, not directors of our own.
But still we make our plans for evangelism. Of course, that is a good thing. Among religions, Christianity is nearly unique for wanting to reach out across class barriers, racial walls, cultural hurdles and all the boundaries of taste and etiquette, just to let someone else know that Jesus is Lord and Saviour. It is an integral part of the faith to want it to be shared with others. Whether you have the gift yourself, or you keep praying for and supporting those who do, genuine Christians long to see evangelism take place, because “how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard?” (Rom 10:14).
But sometimes we think we know how people will come to faith. We confuse evangelism and conversion. We organise events (usually speaking events in a church) and expect that this will do the job of conversion. Or we thrust a book into someone’s hands. Or we put all our eggs in the basket of the famous visiting overseas celebrity (a friend calls this distinctly Aussie insecurity “over-seizure”).
All of these acts of evangelistic intent may be worthwhile. But can we broaden our sense of how evangelism really works? In New Testament language, evangelism is the “announcement” of the news that Jesus Christ is Lord. But the dictionary definitions usually focus on the activity rather than the content. They define evangelism as preaching or personal witness, which feels a bit narrow as a description of how people come to faith. That kind of evangelism is, more often than not, a link in the chain of the conversion experience.
We have to think more broadly, especially in a culture such as Australia, where the activities of preaching and personal witness have a chequered reputation. In our context, other activities will enhance the chance of our “announcement” being heard. These might include songwriting, email, neighbourliness, dinner parties, movie discussions, talkback radio, academic debates, coffee shop conversations, text messages, tiny acts of social kindness, Facebook updates, words of comfort in times of grief, questions asked about someone’s future at a BBQ. It’s all “announcement” territory.
In short, there are a million ways to announce that Jesus is Lord, some quiet, some loud, some high-tech, some very simple. They are all part of how we Christians ought to live in the world, as we seek to hold out the words of life to those who need to hear them.
Which brings me back to Professor Rosaria Champagne Butterfield. It was not being invited to church that set her on a path to salvation. How strange! Put off Christianity by political views she despised, she came to Christ because of the openness of a Christian Pastor with an intellect to match. But it wasn’t just the ideas that drew her to faith; it was the kind of friendship that was offered, starting with a letter:
With the letter, Ken initiated two years of bringing the church to me, a heathen … He did not mock. He engaged. So when his letter invited me to get together for dinner, I accepted … Something else happened. Ken and his wife, Floy, and I became friends. They entered my world. They met my friends. We did book exchanges. We talked openly about sexuality and politics. They did not act as if such conversations were polluting them. They did not treat me like a blank slate … Ken’s God was holy and firm, yet full of mercy. And because Ken and Floy did not invite me to church, I knew it was safe to be friends. 2
Here’s a dangerous idea to ponder: perhaps church (or Church) is the problem for evangelism. Do we Christians just need to get out more, and stay out more, rather than expecting people to come to us where we are feeling safe?
Greg Clarke is CEO of Bible Society Australia and author of the 2014 Australian Christian Book of the Year, The Great Bible Swindle.