Friday, July 5, 2019

My Journey with Evangelism

While I would have professed to be a Christian when I started my freshman year at Michigan State University, there is no way in the world I would have considered sharing the gospel with another person.  To be honest, I don't think I really understood the gospel well enough to do that anyway.  Nonetheless, I was fully swimming in the pluralistic culture on campus and would never consider "forcing my beliefs" on another person.  That's what "crazy" Christians do, particularly the ones that would always stand near the busy sidewalks outside Wells Hall and tell everyone where they were heading when their time on Earth had passed.

This post would go far down a rabbit trail if I tried to squeeze in my testimony here, but the short story is that during my junior year the Lord brought me from being a lukewarm Christian to being fully committed to Christ.  I was eager to lead others to find the same peace, joy, and purpose that I had found in Christ and growing in my understanding of the gospel.  

Although I wasn't entirely sure the best way to go about sharing my faith, I was zealous and willing to be creative.  One approach I tried was walking down the main drag just north of campus holding a sign that said something like, "Jesus Loves You More Than You Can Imagine."  Looks like I had become the crazy Christian!  The approach that stuck, however, was late night hot dog stands held just off campus.  My friend Jason and I were the regulars, though we were often joined by other students.  We set up shop in a yard just off campus, grilled dozens of hot dogs, and distributed them to students as they walked to and from late night festivities.  We invited students to engage in conversations about Jesus and had many meaningful interactions.  I also had the opportunity to help lead a spring break trip to Panama City Beach, Florida, where we shared the gospel with students from around the country who had gathered in this spring break hot spot.

As I neared the end of my time in college, I was certain that I didn’t want to pursue a job related to my major, civil engineering, and was considering pursuing full-time campus ministry or becoming a Teach For America corps member.  I ended up accepting a teaching position through Teach For America and was assigned to teach math in Baltimore.  I had high hopes to not only transform lives by helping to close America’s racially and economically aligned achievement gap, but to transform lives in Baltimore through the gospel.

My hopes quickly ran into a brick wall.  Within days of starting teaching, I was simply trying to survive.  I was so anxious that I couldn’t sleep more than a couple hours at a time and broke out with worse acne than I ever experienced as a teenager.  While I eventually found my footing in education and have gone on to have positive experiences teaching in Baltimore City Schools, that extremely difficult first year knocked me off my feet and a bit off the course I had started in college.

Furthermore, I had a difficult transition within the church after graduating college.  As a college student, it was only a matter of months after fully committing to Christ that I was thrust into a leadership role.  This encouraged an adventurous and courageous spirit in trying to reach out with the gospel.  I was able to lead Bible studies, lead outreach events, and talk to a room full of college students at our large group meetings.  After college, I felt that all I could do was help set up chairs and fill a seat during the sermon.  While I never questioned or doubted my faith, I began to feel powerless and directionless about living it out. 

Finally, I began to overemphasize good deeds and under-emphasize the need for the good news.  Don’t get me wrong, Christians should certainly care about and take action to meet people’s needs in this life.  Yet, the ultimate mission of the church is sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ.  My wife, Becky, and I purchased a home to provide rooms at an affordable rent to people in need and partnered with neighbors to start an urban farm to increase access to healthy, affordable food in our area.  These are important issues and ones that Christians should care about, but I slowly forgot about the call to share the gospel and liked the positive feedback that I received for being involved in these efforts.  After all, few are going to be offended by affordable housing and healthy food, but many will be offended by the gospel.

As the years passed, Becky and I eventually decided that we needed a fresh start at a new church.  The first church we visited was a church plant that was only a few years old and still relatively small.  Much like in college, I was able to quickly plug into leadership opportunities.  We helped host a small group at our house and I was able to fulfill a dream of playing guitar in the worship band.  The church also regularly provided opportunities for lay people to share how God was working in their life or to pray for each other during the service.  This helped to spark spiritual purpose and direction that had been dormant.

I also started to get interested in apologetics or the defense of the Christian faith.  As I washed the dinner dishes, I loved listening to YouTube presentations and debates on philosophical, historical, and scientific arguments in support of Christianity.  One apologist, J. Warner Wallace, argued that the reason that many youth left the church was that they were taught Christian beliefs, but not trained to share what they believed.  He had years of experience leading youth on trips to Berkeley, California and Salt Lake City, Utah to share the gospel, much like I had done in college.  His advice for people who wanted to lead youth in similar experiences was to put it on the calendar.  Set a date.  Make it happen.
Around this same time, I stumbled upon the concept of street epistemology.  The goal of a street epistemologist is to make the person they are interacting with doubt a strongly held belief.  While that belief could be about anything, conversations often focus on religious beliefs.  In other words, street epistemologists are like anti-evangelists.  One of their goals is to convert Christians to atheism or agnosticism.  Peter Boghossian's A Manual for Creating Atheists provides street epistemologists with a method for achieving this goal.  Out of curiosity, I watched a few videos of street epistemologists in action, such as the one below, and was struck by the thought, “Wait…This guy doesn’t even have the power of Christ and he is bold enough to be out on the streets engaging people in conversations?  What’s my excuse?”  I realized there was none.  I honestly assessed the past decade, and realized that I had only shared the gospel once during all those years.  I took J. Warner Wallace’s advice and set a date.  (By the way, the student in the pumpkin shirt has since left Christianity and hosts his own YouTube channel devoted to skepticism.)

On September 8, 2018, I went to Baltimore’s “Hampden Fest” with the express purpose of engaging people in conversation.  It was a cold, wet, rainy day and conversations were difficult to start, but I had at least gotten my feet wet…literally.  Two weeks later, I went to Johns Hopkins University and tried to engage students in conversations about their beliefs.  I was a little more successful, but knew that I hadn’t yet found the right approach.  A month later, I was back, and found an approach that I have found to be very successful at starting gospel-centered conversations.  I call it the “Isaiah 53 method.”  You’ll have to come back later to read about it in a future post.

For the past nine months, I have been trying to go to the Johns Hopkins campus once or twice per month to share the gospel.  So far, I have started conversations with over forty students and been able to share the gospel with many of them.  Close to twenty students have accepted copies of More than a Carpenter, a book that gives an overview of the strong historical case that Jesus did in fact rise from the grave and is the Son of God.  The Lord has rekindled my passion for evangelism and given me boldness that I did not have at this time last year.

I don’t write this to boast in my own efforts.  I feel that I still have a lot of room to grow in the area of evangelism and outreach.  While it is fairly easy for me to approach a stranger on a college campus, I am much less bold when it comes to sharing my faith with people I see on a day-to-day basis.

Instead, I write this as an encouragement for those who have a desire to be more active in sharing their faith.  My advice is just try something.  Set a date.  Make it happen.  You don’t have to know everything to get started.  All you really need to know is one thing and to be gripped by it, the gospel of Jesus Christ.

One goal of this blog is to equip Christians to be more active in sharing their faith.  This may include ideas for evangelism, apologetic arguments, stories from the mission field, and theological ideas related to evangelism.  I can assure you that I don’t have all the answers and part of my goal in producing this blog is to grow in evangelism together.  So let’s get started!

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