Street preaching, sign holding, tract dispersing, cross carrying, conversation engaging – these are all common sights in the city of New Orleans, especially around Mardi Gras time. In addition to the people who inundate our city for “The Greatest Free Show on Earth,” we also have a number of outside and diverse groups coming to engage in evangelism – sharing the story of Christ with those they come across.
We’ve talked a little about what Mardi Gras looks like for those of us who live here year-round: parades with marching bands and bejeweled floats, golden coconuts and bedazzled shoes being thrown – I mean “handed” – to people filling the streets, grandstands, and specially-designed ladders. It’s not all one happy-go-lucky two-week celebration, though. Mardi Gras also comes with traffic issues, an overworked and exhausted police force, traffic issues, an uptick in certain crimes, traffic issues, a host of non-family friendly activities, and did I mention those traffic issues.
With nearly a million people pouring into the Crescent City for the celebration, there are also those who come to introduce Jesus to those involved in the party. With these groups come interesting conversations regarding sharing Christ, and one question in particular stands out: what is the best way to do evangelism?
This question can create a myriad of responses and even some pretty sharp disagreements among believers. Should we evangelize strangers or should we only evangelize after a relationship has been established? Should we use a certain evangelistic presentation, and if so, which one is the best? Should we invite people to respond, to pray a prayer, to be baptized, to join the church? What about the sign holders and street preachers? What’s the most appropriate and effective way to go about this?
I’ve heard countless conversations on this very issue and have come away with a few basic principles concerning evangelism that I think could help us reframe the conversation. First, let’s have meaningful discussions from perspectives of respect and intentionality about the proper approach to evangelism. Moreover, we need to be engaging in evangelism before we can lecture others on evangelism. When I was a coach, it frustrated me when the parents told my players how they should be playing, even though the parents had never played the sport and didn’t know what they were talking about. As spectators, they hadn’t earned the right to throw in their two cents. Similarly, many people that lob their complaints and talking points into the conversation about evangelism are not actively engaging in evangelism and, consequently, have little rights to chastise the methods of those who are actively engaging in evangelism. So, my advice is to engage in evangelism before criticizing the methods of those already engaged, however crazy you think they are. As someone has said, “I like my way of doing evangelism much more than your way of not doing evangelism.” This doesn’t excuse us from correcting bad activity or engaging in discussions about methodology. It simply means that we engage in conversations as people actively involved and not spectators, and we also don’t talk at people but to people.
Second, we must get back to the heart of evangelism. In Matthew 9:36, we see a very important word used to describe Jesus and His feelings about people: “When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” This isn’t the only occasion where this word is used of Jesus and his view of the crowd. It seems that as Jesus looked out on the people, He didn’t see what others saw. He saw them as people in need of what He had come to provide. Interesting when we think that these same people would be shouting for his crucifixion, but Jesus continued to see their needs more than anything else. We must follow Jesus in this regard and see people as He sees them, with compassion. When we look past all other things (I’m not saying dismiss their sin) and see people as those who are in desperate need (precisely because of their sin) of what Jesus came to provide, we begin to touch the heart of God. We also begin to approach evangelism from the right perspective.
So, what is the right approach to evangelism? It must be grounded in a heart of compassion for people. Consequently, I have a hard time personally with the sign holding simply because it seems to stem more from a heart of condemnation than compassion, and it also limits the interaction to a statement shorter than a tweet, which is pretty short in its own right. John 3 tells us that those without Jesus are condemned already because of their sin. I think sin certainly should and must be discussed, but I also think the sinners should and must be told about a God who came to rescue them from their sin. I think this comes best through talking to people and not at people. It must always come from a heart of compassion, and we must remember that we were once sinners but have been forgiven and made right through God’s compassion for us on the cross.
This post by Blake Newsom, our camp pastor, is the third part of our Mardi Gras series. You can read parts 1 and 2 here and here respectively. In the coming weeks, we will wrap up this series and look closer at more on best practices for sharing your faith.