It’s not uncommon for non-Christians to talk about their bad experiences of failed evangelism targeted at them. But there’s a strange feeling of trust when someone chooses to do so with you personally, as a friend, knowing full well that you’re a Christian too.
My friend has been physically disabled from birth. He told me about a day when a woman called to him: “Jesus still loves you.” It riled him – why did she say Jesus “still” loved him – despite his disability?
For although his disability makes even the simplest of everyday tasks a struggle, it’s something he would not choose to lose. In some ways this meant I felt let off the hook. Despite my secret longing – held since childhood – to have the healing hands of Jesus, it was clear that that was not what he hoped for.
As a Christian brought up on miracle stories, it’s easy wonder whether my friend might have taken his disability too much into his identity – but we need to be careful. For each day he expresses his physicality in things that an able-bodied person might not expect he would ever be able to do. And each time he does so, he is a witness to the world for all those who are like him. Is that not akin to being salt and light?
I therefore ask myself: what does it mean to hope? And what should my hope be for my friend?
Hope is one of those words that is often poorly understood, partly because it frequently goes unnamed when people describe experiences that have nurtured hope. I’ve heard it defined as the “mysterious anticipation of the ultimate”. In other words, hope is knowing Jesus’ salvation in this life, but knowing it in a way that looks forward to knowing it completely in the next.
And I mean ‘know,’ not ‘know about.’
The difference? I’ll borrow an illustration: a child can be helpfully told about a slide through stories, descriptions and images, but they will not know the slide, nor what they can do with it, until they experience the slide. This is something a child must do for themselves.
In a similar way, people need to ‘know’ the salvation of Jesus for themselves. They won’t do this all at once, but in stages, starting by experiencing and recognising how he saves here and now in the everyday. Then, as they come to know the person of Jesus and know his salvation more and more, they will come to grasp a glimpse of what eternal life with him really means – and they’ll desire it.
The task of evangelism then, is not to tell the gospel, but to share it. Not to speak of hope, but to awaken and nurture it.
For that reason, evangelism can’t be about living a person’s faith for them, or about dictating how their faith should manifest. Neither can it be talking about our relationship with Jesus so much that we fail to appreciate someone else’s differences. Instead, it’s more like handholding. It’s about enabling those who are still tentative in their faith – walking with them, offering a perspective of faith and acting as Jesus’ agent where possible.
It’s also a collective act. Each Christian plays a part; sometimes that might be a solo, sometimes it’s in concert with others, and sometimes it’s our place to step back and be silent.
Of course, it helps to have a clear idea of what the Christian hope is. When I read Living Hope by Russell Herbert – whose definition of hope I quoted above – my faith was enlivened as my understanding of resurrection was transformed. Hope for the body, not just the soul, excites me and I share it unashamedly with others – including my friend. I had to listen though, when he said the idea of able-bodied resurrection didn’t appeal.
For him, it means losing a part of who he is. So I replied that for me, resurrection means carrying your complete identity – even your history – through death and out of death into a new life. Jesus’ resurrection was not an erasing of his suffering and death, it was a triumph over them.
My friend didn’t say he agreed with me, but he wasn’t riled.
It wasn’t so long ago that the archbishops of York and Canterbury called churches to pray for every Christian to receive new confidence and joy in sharing our life-transforming faith. If you have been contemplating that call and how to respond to it, I would encourage you to dwell on what it is that you hope for; if it doesn’t excite you, why is that? But if it does excite you, then how can you bring people to understand it, experience it, truly know it, for themselves? And how can you do this in a way that carries the gentleness and respect of 1 Peter 3:15 and the fire of Acts 2?
May Christ’s kingdom come and overflow through you
(I borrowed the children’s slide illustration from another book by Russell Herbert called Growing through the church, also published by Kevin Mayhew. He was citing The Bible: A child’s playground by Roger and Gertrude Gobbel.)