I had the opportunity this week to meet with a very good friend over coffee. As often happens with us, our conversation turned towards Christianity and the church, and specifically how Christians represent God in their interactions with others. He shared with me something a friend of his said. I’ve edited the statement to make it more language-appropriate, but the sentiment remains intact:
“If Christians want to do their jobs better, they need to stop being arrogant jerks.”
We went on to talk about how despite the fact that this is an illegitimate excuse for not obeying the gospel, Christians need to deal with the reality that rude and prideful behavior does push people away from the gospel, and take accountability for that. I agree with that fully, and will say so to Christians whom I believe are not behaving appropriately in this regard.
But then another idea occurred to me. Despite the amount of time I have devoted to learning scripture, apologetics, and how to engage differing ideas as a Christian, I still regularly fight a fear that keeps me from speaking and engaging far more often than it ought to. What is that fear? Simple: the fear of being that arrogant jerk.
Through discussions with others, I’ve found that this is the same fear that haunts many of my fellow believers. As much as we want to engage and speak to someone about the gospel and about Christianity, we fear the stereotype of the Bible-thumping maniac, the one who is angry, harsh, and unmerciful, leaving no room for God’s grace. We are so busy with trying to figure out how to disarm that stereotype before we’ve even begun to speak that, too often, we end up never speaking at all. If we do speak at all, we only speak to the “safe” crowds – those who already have an interest in religion, or apathetic believers whom we aim to bring to a more active faith. In short, we neglect to preach the word to all sinners, and only those whom we believe will accept us. Thus, our fear of the stereotype has caused us to cut the gospel off from many who have desperate need of it.
My goal with this post is not to provide a guilt trip or to tell you that you’re going to hell because of this fear. That’s neither my place nor my right. Instead, what I aim to do is share a couple of scriptural concepts and reminders that can serve as a way to help us overcome this fear, and become more effective ambassadors as a result.
We are not responsible for the choices of others
It’s very common for Christians to feel the responsibility of another person’s decision regarding the gospel. Sometimes this manifests itself in prideful ways, with Christians keeping track of conversions or boasting of their successes as their own. But more commonly, it shows in less prideful ways, with Christians feeling responsible for rejection of the gospel, wondering what they said wrong. The first step in overcoming fear of the stereotype is realizing that it is they that must make a decision about the gospel. God only asks us to do what we can, not to compel them into the right decision. And when, by the grace of God, someone does come to the gospel by part through our efforts, even then we must give credit to the true source of the victory.
“I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth.” – 1 Corinthians 3:6-7
We are responsible for speaking
God does not hold us accountable for saying exactly the right thing at exactly the right time. But he does hold us responsible for saying something. Take, for example, Ezekiel’s responsibility in Ezekiel 3. Using the example of a city watchman, God tells the prophet that if he warns the people of their sin, and they do not repent, then Ezekiel is not held responsible. However, if there is danger and he does not tell the people, then their sin will be charged to Ezekiel, because he did not warn them.
Now, we are not prophets of God. That is true. But we do have a similar calling in the New Testament. The great commission in Matthew 28 commands us to teach the gospel, and 2 Timothy 4:2 says “Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction” We also see numerous examples of them doing just that, and not just the apostles. Priscila and Aquila taught Apollos (Acts 18). Phillip and Stephen were not apostles, but preached the word (Acts 6-8). All preached when the church was persecuted and scattered (Acts 8:1-4). Clearly, the disciples understand that call to apply to everyone.
So then, while it is certainly a sin to preach the word with arrogance and pride, it is also disobedient to completely neglect the preaching of the word. Now that might seem like that whole guilt tripping thing I said I wasn’t going to do. But these first two facts together shouldn’t be a reason for guilt, but for encouragement. We don’t have to pick the exact best thing out of the endless possibilities to say. We just have to say something and do what we can where we are. To recognize that this is what God expects of us, and that we’re capable of fulfilling it, should be a grand encouragement.
Evangelism can be personalized
By personalized, I mean that if someone tells you you’re not a true Christian unless you do doorknocking, they’re wrong. If you don’t post on a blog or go up to random strangers to ask for a Bible study, but you do talk to friends and neighbors about Christ, you’re speaking. It’s perfectly fine to look to Christians who are doing well in particular evangelistic methods. But God never told us “you have to reach people in this one way.” Don’t feel obligated to conform to another person’s system or method. Speak the truth, and do it without compromise, but do it in a way that you can do it.
Evangelism is an act of faith, not salvation
Good acts do not earn one’s salvation, and they never have. If you approach teaching the lost with the mentality that it will make up for your sins, you’ve got it all wrong. The true Christian faith is accompanied by good works (James 2:17), but they are a response to salvation, not the cause of it. We preach not to be saved, but because we are saved. So instead of worrying about attaining evangelistic perfection, focus on serving God in thanks for all that He’s done for you. Adopt that lifestyle, and remember these truths, and represent Christ with joy and grace.