The Evangelical Dilemma
I don’t think Christianity is about converting people.
• Michael Spencer, Wretched Urgency
• • •
I once had a Jewish patient, non-observant, who was one of the most thoughtful, delightful people I’ve met. My ministry to him was the same as it is to all my patients – to provide pastoral friendship, to meet him at his particular location on the homeward journey and to walk together with him in the final season of his life. It was my goal to be someone who would support him, encourage him, let him know that he is loved and regarded as a person of worth and dignity, and to help in whatever way he might ask, as I might be able, to make the end of his life comfortable and peaceful for him and his family.
This patient had a relative who had been converted to Christianity and to a particular brand that was passionately evangelistic. I saw him one day at the patient’s home and he told me, with a look of frustration, that he had tried and tried to get his dying family member to accept Jesus without success.
Later the patient himself, also frustrated, complained about how this relative had been insistent on “sharing” the faith he had found. But it didn’t come across like “sharing” as much as like he was being forced to agree to something. He said he appreciated that his family member had found something meaningful, but he didn’t like that he was foisting it upon him the way he did.
Afterwards, I was able to have another conversation with the evangelist, who asked me if I had had a chance to “share” with the patient – meaning did I try to win him to Jesus. He went on to say something that stuck with me. “In the end it’s about eternity, isn’t it?” he said. “And if a person is open to the idea of eternity, then it’s essential that he must make a decision about what he will do with it.”
Which leads me to ask:
Is it possible to be truly evangelical in this way and ever just simply love one’s neighbor?
If “eternity” is riding on every moment, can any Christian afford to engage in a ministry like mine?
If this is the case wouldn’t the “wretched urgency” Michael Spencer railed against actually be “responsible urgency”?
In other words, if the house is on fire, shouldn’t we be doing everything we can each possible moment to rescue those in danger of burning?
This was the lesson D.L. Moody took from the great Chicago fire. On the night the fire broke out, Moody was preaching to a large congregation. His text that evening was, “What shall I do then with Jesus which is called Christ?” At the conclusion of his sermon he said, “I wish you would take this text home with you and turn it over in your minds during the week, and next Sunday we will come back here and decide what to do with Jesus of Nazareth.”
The songleader had not even finished singing when a roar of fire engines rushing by the church ended the service. By morning, much of the city lay in ashes. To his dying day, Mr. Moody deeply regretted that he had delayed in confronting that congregation with a choice. “I have never since dared,” he said, “to give an audience a week to think of their salvation. If they were lost they might rise up in judgment against me. I have never seen that congregation since. I will never meet those people until I meet them in another world. But I want to tell you of one lesson that I learned that night which I have never forgotten, and that is, when I preach, to press Christ upon the people then and there and try to bring them to a decision on the spot. I would rather have that right hand cut off than to give an audience a week now to decide what to do with Jesus.”
I have spent much of my pastoral career in a theological system that maintains that logic, and people like D.L. Moody were held up as faithful examples to us. I have known many people who have tried to follow the logic and the example and some became fervent evangelists, in season and out of season. However, for me it has always posed a logical dilemma. If this were actually every Christian’s gospel responsibility, it would make it impossible to simply live in this world or to have any other priorities that didn’t involve being a spiritual EMT all the time. However, I have observed that most Christians, even the most fundamentalist of them, don’t let this logic stop them from building their lives, saving money, planning for the future, enjoying entertainment, taking vacations, and talking to their neighbors about their gardens across the fence when they could be proclaiming the gospel. Me too. Many of us with the more or less continual sense of guilt Michael wrote about.
I know one pastor who could never do my job. I remember him testifying about how he got kicked out of a hospital room where a patient lay dying because he refused to stop trying to persuade the man to accept Christ. Say what you will, the pastor grasped the logic, and tried to be faithful to it. The tearful testimony he gave to us in the congregation was meant to convince us that to do anything less in such a situation would be unloving to the person and unfaithful to the God who called us to be his ambassadors. After all, Eternity™ is at stake!
This was the air we breathed. The Christian life was a life of urgent rescue, and not a life of wasting time on whatever “Knowing God” was all about. We were all on constant 911 calls. The rapture could come any time, and every Christian was given this day for no other reason than to win souls. If you were not on witnessing patrol or on your knees preparing or following up a witnessing call, you were a useless and bad Christian.
• Michael Spencer, Wretched Urgency
I’ve come to believe that this is the “Christianity” of revivalists and Chick tracts, not the Christianity of Jesus and the New Testament. Click the links to Michael’s classic “Wretched Urgency” post above and follow as he winds his way through the NT without finding any urgent concern for converting people there.
Furthermore, I do not see an apostolic insistence on “eternity” as the standard of valuation for how we are to live our lives or engage our neighbors. Where are all the NT warnings about the choice between “heaven and hell” that stands before every person? In my opinion, whatever sense of impending judgment warned about is spoken in the context of the Fall of Jerusalem (by Jesus) or with the expectation that God would soon deal with the powers of empire that were persecuting the early Christians (Paul and the other apostles). It’s simply not a matter of “eternity” as the fellow I met said.
Otherwise, why would Paul say things like:
But we urge you, beloved, to do so more and more, to aspire to live quietly, to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we directed you, so that you may behave properly towards outsiders and be dependent on no one. (1 Thess 4:10-12)
Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet’; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law. (Rom 13:8-12)
When Paul is advising Timothy and Titus about who to choose for leadership positions in the church, why is there no mention of prime candidates being good at evangelism? Instead, he advises them to look for people of character and good reputation, who take care of things like their families and finances, modeling exemplary attitudes and words, showing experience and wisdom born of faithfulness in daily life.
The root problem, as we’ve discussed many times before, goes back to how people understand “the gospel.”
If the good news is a plan by which individuals can be rescued from their sins so that they will live with God in eternity, then what I’m doing and what most of us are doing equates to fiddling while the Titanic sinks.
We’re letting the house burn, folks, and Joe the Jewish guy is perishing in the flames.
- If the gospel is the story about how Jesus became King and God began his rule over this world and all creation,
- creating a redeemed, Spirit-indwelt people who can witness to newness of life and the coming of a new creation through living lives of faith, hope, and love,
- laying down their lives to serve their neighbors and practicing tikkun olam (repairing the world)…
…then maybe sitting with a dying man and not talking to him about eternity has some real value.