The first kind is relatively easy. One day someone called the church and as soon as I answered, “Blessed Sacrament Church, this is Father David”, the caller said, “Oops, sorry. I called a wrong number.” I immediately responded, “Well, maybe not! Maybe this is God’s way of changing your life. Do you have a church family? You could give us a try.” The caller laughed and pleasantly declined the invitation. Once a deflated helium balloon that had been launched several miles away came down in the church yard with a card on it. I wrote to the address on the card, explained where the balloon had touched down, and invited the balloonist to church. (I don’t think the individual came.) At some point I will post on this blog my extremely rewarding encounter with a young lady on a bus.
The second kind of evangelism is much more difficult, and most opportunities are in this category. When there are other facets to a relationship, one must tread carefully so as not to exploit or misuse someone with whom there is an ongoing connection. In such a case, one’s life must bear the first light until a conversation about Jesus has a good chance of being fruitful. Offending someone in such a circumstance with inappropriate evangelism can do lasting harm.
In all cases, while setting a Christian example is critical to effective evangelism, it is not sufficient. Deeds must be accompanied by words; one must be able and willing to talk about faith in Jesus when the opportunity is given, and on occasion even to create an opportunity to do so. In his teaching mission at Blessed Sacrament in April 2000, Father Kevin Higgins talked about being “intentional” in evangelism—that is, making evangelism an active goal and purpose and not being content just hoping that people will notice that you are a Christian.
I have two long-time friends who are atheists. I have known “Mark” since our teenage days when we were neighbors. Our friendship has lasted more than forty years, though now our contact is rare. Mark was never raised in a church and never saw a need for God. He sees religious faith the way I see surfing or motorcycle riding. Plenty of people do it and I’m glad for them, but my interests lie elsewhere.
I have known “Fred” for a little more than ten years. He was badly abused as a child and was raised in fundamentalistic Mormon territory. We share interest in a couple of hobbies and I have visited him a couple of times. Mostly, however, we correspond or occasionally talk on the phone.
Both of these men are extremely principled. More than once I have been tremendously impressed by a courageous, moral, generous, costly, or humble action they have taken. I am trying to evangelize them. I do so by doing my best to be honorable to them and respectful of them and their beliefs. It is a long-term investment. I want to create a situation in which they will ask me what I believe and why. Every now and then, either in humor or genuine sharing, I raise the issue of Christian belief, profession, and practice. I want to pique their curiosity. If I push, I will lose them. If they become curious, I can talk freely. It has already happened more than once.
With such persons, I try to share what my faith means to me in the same natural way as I might share the news that I went on a vacation or any other aspect of my life. Such topics can arise naturally in conversation or correspondence. Sometimes an obvious need will arise; perhaps they face a crisis situation or are in need of sympathy or support.
God is the ultimate evangelist, and we are merely his instruments. It is God’s will that people come to know Christ. He doesn’t expect us to accomplish this while he watches disinterestedly. We must pray for people we know who are most in need of a Christian life, ask God for guidance and opportunity to do our part, and then talk with them as God provides the time and place.
In the end, good evangelism allows people the dignity of making their own decision, and recognizes that God has the responsibility for timing and results. Evangelism should never overstep someone else’s convictions, but neither should it ignore people when they are in need. The gift of eternal life in Jesus Christ and the peace of knowing and serving him now are the greatest gifts that one person can give another. Give it as you would give any other gift: thoughtfully, carefully, lovingly, hopefully, and patiently. I do not know how effective I have been as an evangelist, but I know that it cannot be an optional part of Christian life.