I told a friend recently about a conversation I had with some people who are not Christians. “What a great gospel opportunity!” he replied. This left me with an odd feeling that I took some time to excavate.
I have come to see conversations as ends in themselves, as occasions for enjoying another person and coming to appreciate them more deeply. I don’t like it when I feel I’m talking with someone who has an agenda, so I don’t treat other people that way. I don’t see conversations as opportunities for something else.
Because I am a Christian, I think often of Jesus’ words in Matthew 7:12: “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.”
For a while now, I have thought about how odd it is that Christians are taught to do the opposite of this. I am referring to the training I received in evangelical environments where I was taught how to turn conversations into evangelistic opportunities.
Such training is based on the Great Commission:
Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you (Matt. 28:19-20).
In an individualistic era, it is easy to understand this charge as a mission for me. I am an evangelistic agent who uses conversations as “gospel opportunities,” looking to “present the gospel” to the people I encounter throughout my day.
I think this is a mistake.
I think it’s better to regard Jesus as speaking to the church, directing it to train people within the church to cultivate the fruitful behaviors and attitudes that make up faithful kingdom life. This is a multiple generations-long project of growing in the community habits of serving the poor and needy and welcoming the marginalized. This discipleship runs counter to the sort of culture that trains us in selfishness.
Jesus said in Matthew that the church is to be the kind of community that feeds the hungry, gives drink to the thirsty, welcomes the stranger (i.e., the foreigner), gives clothes to those that need them, looks after the sick and visits prisoners. It is crucial that we train in these kinds of practices because they are the basis of the judgment the Son of Man will render at the final day (Matt. 25:31-46)
The church is not the training ground for individuals to go out and evangelize. It is the arena in which we cultivate these specific community practices.
I think that we have gotten Jesus’ words wrong and it has led to Christian training that makes us manipulative. It makes us treat others in a way that we don’t like to be treated. Jesus tells us not to do this.
We need to reconsider the Great Commission. It is not a charge to me that I fulfill with non-Christians. Jesus speaks to the church, directing it to train me in becoming the kind of person who encounters others in a posture of service and welcome.
We may ask, “well, how else are we going to build the kingdom if we do not evangelize, if we do not turn conversations toward presentations of the gospel?”
Jesus nowhere directs the church to “advance” or “build” the kingdom. Jesus says that he will do this (“I will build my church” [Matt. 16:18]). Our task is to learn the kingdom practices of forgiveness and restoration, service and hospitality.
Encounters with non-Christians, therefore, are gospel opportunities for me. I am involved in a discipleship process of becoming the kind of person who encounters others in a posture of openness, rejoicing in their triumphs, mourning with their griefs, and enjoying all the richness that they have to offer me.
I am happy to speak about the realities into which I have been brought by the Spirit, if people are interested in knowing. But I don’t manipulate conversations to get there.