I was sitting in a crowded college cafeteria, and I picked up my head and followed my friend’s gaze to a guy standing in line waiting to get a sandwich. My friend clapped his hands together. “He’s in some of my classes, and from what he says I don’t think he’s a believer,” he explained. He took a deep breath and then stood. “Time to get my Jesus on.”
I don’t know what he said. I do know that the guy in line, his hands shoved deep into the pocket of his hoodie, looked mildly alarmed to be accosted out of the blue by someone he only vaguely knew from class. He looked uncomfortable, shuffled his feet, and offered a half-smile. He nodded a lot. And my friend returned to our table beaming. “I told him, you know, I knew him from class and if he ever needs some cool people to hang out with, he should come to church with us tonight. I gave him the information and my phone number.”
Needless to say, Unnerved Random Guy In Hoodie never showed.
I’m not surprised. And I wonder sometimes if evangelism has by and large become a joke among nonbelievers precisely because of such encounters. Christians, gifted by their churches with all sorts of shiny ways to share the gospel and convinced of the dire need for it in the world, sometimes simply pick a target and then love-bomb it to pieces with little regard for context or for the person involved. In fact, the the viral meme “Excuse me sir, do you have a moment to discuss our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ?” exists as an irreverent reaction to that – people pasted the phrase onto all manner of posters and pictures as a shorthand way of saying, “Man, all those Christians care about is converting people.”
We run the risk of being more concerned with saving than we are with people, so focused on method and technique that we lose the sense of our partnership with God and His work in the process. To that end, it’s helpful to me to return to Acts 8:26-40.
The long story short: an angel of the Lord tells Philip to go to “the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” He goes. An Ethiopian eunuch is sitting roadside reading Isaiah; God tells Philip to go to the chariot. Philip asks the man, “Do you understand what you are reading?” When the eunuch says no and asks for clarification on a major point, Philip tells him about Jesus, and boom: the eunuch gets baptized down the road and “[goes] on his way rejoicing,” while Philip gets called away by God to other business.
I note two things here. The first is that, for starters, Philip had no idea what he was doing or to whom or where he was headed. “A road” was as good as he got a destination, and he isn’t told he’ll minister to anyone there. Yet when he arrives, he is needed nonetheless. Philip didn’t depend on himself to pick the right moments or the right people. He didn’t have any fancy communication tactics or methodologies and he knew nothing about demographics. He simply made himself available, he recognized where he was needed, and he was open to the opportunities that presented themselves.
The second is that God had already prepared the eunuch’s heart. He was literally sitting in a chariot, reading Isaiah, with the most important question in the world on his lips. Philip barely had to do any work at all! And I think it’s vital to realize that we are God’s partners in ministry. We are not the boss of this process. Sometimes I think we believe we have to do it all ourselves: that we have to pick people we suspect are in need, that we have to make them understand the lack in their life, that we have to sell Jesus to them like a product – to make Him valuable enough that people will want to take Him home. But we can’t do that, and God Himself works in ways that we cannot. He can soften hearts and open minds and provoke people to ask questions. He gives self-awareness, clarity, and understanding. Our job is only to be there when the opportunity arrives. We are intermediaries, sent by God to help people along in the process that He has already started.
You don’t have to know fancy words. You don’t have to go door-to-door and give out tracts. You don’t have to approach random strangers and force them into uncomfortable conversations about Jesus. Just wait. Watch. Be there. Be available. Be open to interruptions and questions. And let God do His work.
The harvest, we are assured, is plentiful. And the Lord of the Harvest will put us where we need to be.