I didn’t want to drop the ball.
As the leader of our college campus ministry, I felt personally responsible for every visitor and every member who walked through the doors to join our meetings. I didn’t want to lose anyone, or risk anyone feeling forgotten or unnoticed. So I paid careful attention, made sure to get people’s information, and contacted them to thank them for coming and before all of our meetings to remind them of dates and times. I made calls. I sent emails. A lot of calls. And a lot of emails.
Eventually, I got an email in return from a girl who had attended once near the beginning of the term, and who hadn’t returned since. “I hope this doesn’t sound mean,” she wrote, “but can you remove me from this mailing list or whatever? I feel like I get three emails a day about your group and it’s kind of annoying and I don’t want to get them any more.”
I removed her immediately as requested, but at the time found myself wondering about something I’ve wondered about many times since: where’s the fine line between pushy and passive?
Lots of people have stories about being badgered to death by well-meaning Christians. I’ve read online comments by atheists and non-believers who have avoided their front porches and front doors rather than risk run-ins with insistent neighbors who keep inviting them to church and won’t take no for an answer. Friends of mine have found themselves on mailing lists that they can’t seem to get off of. I still get contacted by a church my husband and I visited once over five years ago – despite knowing that we are happy attending our current church, they can’t seem to let us go.
Unfortunately, lots of people on the opposite end of the spectrum have stories, too. They lived right next door to a church and were never invited. Their Christian coworkers or friends never reached out to them. Or they did attend a church, only to find that their presence summoned nothing more than polite and cheerful indifference from a group of believers conditioned, perhaps, to avoid coming on too strong. Many of these people want to be involved or want to explore the faith, only to find that believers – unwilling to risk alienating others by being too in-their-face or insistent – are waiting for everyone else to make the first move.
The truth is that the ideal is somewhere in-between these two poles: it’s possible to find a happy medium between being an obnoxiously pushy Christian and an ineffective, passive one. So if you want to be welcoming and inviting without scaring people off, here are some guidelines you can follow.
For the pushy: Don’t let the end-goal be your master.
Some believers fall into the trap of having an end-goal they have to achieve at all costs, like “I must get this person to come to church” or “I must make this person confess Christ.” And they will go all-out to achieve that end, even if it destroys their relationship with the person they’re supposed to be ministering to! In truth, God has asked for us to love and serve others as we’d love ourselves, all in the name of and to the glory of Christ: so focus on that, and let God do the internal heart-work of summoning action from people. “Sharing Jesus” can be as simple as loving someone and being kind to them; it doesn’t mean that you have to tick boxes off a list of outcomes. So don’t let those outcomes rule your actions and turn you into an unwelcome pest rather than a humble servant.
For the pushy: Respect boundaries.
Listen to people. They’ll tell you if you’re coming on too strong. If they refuse a hug, don’t force them. If they want to be removed from the mailing list, remove them. Don’t bother them at the door when they get home if they seem harassed or displeased. Learn about the body language that says “I’d rather not do this” or “I feel threatened or unhappy” and take note of it. Acknowledge and respect the boundaries people have set, and continue to be kind to them and pray for them. This can be an act of love, too!
For the pushy: Once (or every now and then) is enough.
A lot of people think that persistence is the key: “If I invite him to church every single day, he’s bound to come!” Not necessarily. In fact, he might start hiding in his garage to avoid your invitations. If you want to invite someone to church, do. And if they refuse the first time and you’d like to invite them again six months later, do. But asking every day or forcing people into unwanted spiritual confessions every day says “I refuse to listen to you and I’m not respecting anything you say.” Again, let God do the work. Just build a relationship, slowly and over time.
For the pushy: Recognize that love and service are lifetime acts.
I think that a lot of times Christians can (unintentionally) treat our relationships with others as transactions. We fall into the mistaken belief that if we pour in enough love/service/good deeds/invitations/declarations of Jesus as Lord, then they will reciprocate in kind by becoming Christians, or regular church members. That can lead us to become pushy; we start jamming coins into the vending machine of people in hopes they’ll produce what we’re after. In reality, we are to love and serve without the expectation of return. And that, in turn, can calm down our desires to be pushy and insistent. God works at His speed, not ours, and even if people never change, our role in their lives remains the same.
For the passive: Be approachable and inviting.
If you’re worried about being passive, half the battle is making people aware that they can approach you and that it’s okay. Say hi. Introduce yourself. Remember things about them. Start a conversation. Engage. There’s a lot of room to maneuver between “Hi, I’m Susan” and “So have you heard about our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ?” You don’t have to force every interaction into a fierce spiritual battle, but you do need to make the effort to interact rather than waiting for others to come to you. Show people that your mental door is open to them.
For the passive: Acknowledge that the burden belongs to you. It’s easy to place the burden of belonging and engaging on everyone who comes to us. If they want something, they’ll ask, we think. If they want friends or community, they’ll join a small group. If they want to minister, they’ll sign up. But that’s not always the case. As Christians, it should be our joy to invite people in, to give them opportunities, to reach out a hand to them – and then to stick with them if they decide to come along. That doesn’t mean you sign them up for events without consent or guilt them into attending something; it just means you reach out first. You give them the chance to say no – or, hopefully, yes. You make sure they know people care.
In the end, so much of building relationships all starts with making people feel welcome, giving them a warm and inviting space of love and service in which they can then start to make all kinds of choices. So the line between pushy and passive isn’t really fine or hard to find at all: it inhabits the space we create for people simply by reaching out and giving them the opportunity to enter in if they feel like it. Opening the door is half the battle; after that, we don’t need to shove anyone through. If we start the work, God is present to take care of the rest.