I was eating oatmeal for breakfast today, with my cat asleep on my feet, when a rustling interrupted me.
I looked up and over my shoulder to find a paper sliding through the crack of our front door. It stuck for a minute, then fluttered to the floor. Heavy footsteps descended the stairs in a hurry. Because I live in an apartment complex, I’m used to receiving newsletters and announcements from the management in this manner. I put the oatmeal down, shooed off the cat, and padded to the door.
The paper was not from apartment management. It was instead bright and colorful, with a blue and gold cross emblazoned on the front. “Do You Know Where Your Soul Is Going?” it asked. I opened it. Inside, tiny print explained the Romans road to salvation, threatened lost souls with hellfire and eternal damnation, and promised heaven and Jesus’ love to sinners. On the back of the pamphlet was printed the name and contact information of a local church.
I have been a Christian since I was eight years old. I am an active member of my local church. The anonymous messenger would have figured this out and wasted one less pamphlet if they’d bothered to knock on my door and ask. But if I hadn’t been a believer, I can’t imagine I would have found the message particularly inspiring, moving, or loving. What’s personal or caring about a pamphlet shoved through an apartment door? What consideration exists in a mass-produced piece of print that – if I’m not a believer – is simply another advertisement, only this time for Jesus instead of for Bed, Bath, and Beyond?
Yes, Jesus commissioned believers to “make disciples of all nations” (Matt. 28:19). But you can’t make a disciple with a pamphlet. You can’t condense God’s love into two paragraphs. Most of all, you cannot treat evangelism – the holy duty of sharing God’s word and love with others – as a marketing ploy by indiscriminately blanketing the streets with a generic version of “the Good News.” Non-believers are not a monolith; they vary by race and gender and culture. How can we expect that the same message will reach them all, or convey the nature of what is, in the end, a personal understanding of Jesus Christ? How can we expect them to care when we can’t take the time to do the same?
The Bible often speaks of evangelism in terms of farm labor. In the parable of the sower, Jesus compares sharing the word of God to a farmer scattering seed (Matthew 13). And Paul points out in 2 Timothy 2:6 that “the hardworking farmer should be the first to receive a share of the crops.” Hardworking farmer. Farming is a finicky business. It requires labor and effort and time. To plant crops or sow seeds a farmer does not drive by in his car shooting seed-cannons from the window while praying they’ll land. He has to get out on the land himself. Similarly, as believers we are called to do the work – to get to know our neighbors, to learn the name of the server at our favorite restaurant, to know enough about the community around us to differentiate who needs what from God, and who are believers and who are not.
I’m not saying that text-based ministry devices are inherently useless. I believe that, when used in conjunction with relationship-building, they can be meaningful tools to aid understanding. But simply shoving pamphlets through the cracks of apartment doors – treating God’s word as though it’s a one-size-fits-all advertisement without bothering to greet people, to know them, and to care about them – gives evangelism a bad name and blunts it effectiveness. In contrast, genuinely building relationships with people and taking time to know them is what making disciples is all about.
When my husband and I first moved to our current home, we attended several different churches in hopes of finding a church home. Several churches pulled the same sort of drive-by evangelism that I encountered today: without knowing whether we were saved or not they rolled by, stuffing ads and tracts in our doors. One church, however, called on us personally: three members showed up to say hi, to ask our names, and to ask if there was anything they could do for us or pray about. Through the course of the conversation they discovered we were Christians; my husband and I felt genuinely cared for, and touched that these people had taken half an hour out of a Friday night to visit.
That is the sort of relationship-building that matters. That is the work of evangelism: not an anonymous message, not an attempt to sell Jesus like a product, but an honest attempt to reach out, care, and build a relationship. Evangelism is a labor of love, and a privilege too, and we should be mindful to treat it as such.