"Evangelism is 90 percent about becoming the right person and only 10 percent about knowing what to say. It's not about what you do; it's about the kind of person you are. This became clear to me a few years ago when our Campus Crusade for Christ chapter at Bowling Green State University in Ohio decided to make some changes in the way we reached out to our campus.
As a staff team, we became persuaded that a vibrant ministry must flow from real compassion and strong affection for the people we were reaching. It must flow from sincere love, in the most powerful sense of the word. But we realized that we had been training students in evangelism before they had a heart of compassion. We were trying to get them to do something they simply didn't want to do.
Matthew 9:36 tells us how Jesus viewed the lost: "Seeing the people, He felt compassion for them, because they were distressed and dispirited like sheep without a shepherd." Jesus realized they were unable to help themselves or to remedy their situation. He felt compassion. How often, when thinking about the lost, do we find ourselves with emotions other than compassion, like judgment, disgust, annoyance and even pride? At Bowling Green, we needed to first admit we were not moved for the lost like God is moved. We needed to admit, "I'm racist. I'm judgmental. I'm hard-hearted. I'm aloof."
When first a staff member with Campus Crusade, I worked at the University of Kansas, and my ministry assignment was to focus on Ellsworth Hall. To get to this particular residence hall each day, I had to walk by Hashinger Hall, another dorm on campus. You could smell marijuana coming from the windows, and some of the guys had their fingernails painted black. It was a seriously countercultural kind of place. As I would walk by the sights and sounds of that "other world," I kept my eyes glued to the sidewalk.
Then I started to think, If Jesus were to show up on campus, where would He go? Not Ellsworth, where everyone dressed like me and acted the same. He would probably show up at Hashinger Hall. So I began to interact with the Hashinger students. I created a questionnaire, asking questions like "What is the most annoying thing about Christians?" and "If there were one thing you could change about Christianity, what would it be?" I quickly discovered that most of the students' barriers to becoming Christians were not about God; their problem was with cultural Christianity.
I began to realize that I needed to see people as God sees them. This required a fresh surrendering to God, admitting I was sometimes self-absorbed. I needed to come to grips with my own insecurities, letting God change me from the inside out. Before I could effectively reach out to the lost, God needed first to reach into my heart. Jesus said, "It is not those who are healthy who need a physician, but those who are sick" (Matthew 9:12). Jesus died on the cross not to help Christians get better, but to save the lost.
If your phone rang right now and you learned that someone you love—your best friend, your brother or your child—has come up missing, what would you do? Everything would stop. Priorities and plans would instantly be altered. We would go—because somebody we cared about is lost, and everything must be done to find them. Now. Because we care.
Every day we meet people who are spiritually lost, but we don't respond to them with even half this emotion or urgency. Here's a lesson I've learned the hard way: I always speak about what I most care about. I always do what I most want to do. I always find time to eat, I never miss watching The West Wing, and I spend time with my wife and kids. If my heart is moved for something, I will do it, and I will always do it.
If Christ is our heart's passion, His name will simply fall off our lips. Could it be that we don't reach out to lost people not because of time, training or missed opportunity, but simply because we don't care enough? At Bowling Green, when we realized students didn't have a heart of compassion, we switched things around. We taught students to build friendships and get up close with the lost. We asked every student leader in our movement to become a student leader somewhere else on campus. We began to immerse ourselves into the university culture and build relationships in places like the social-justice groups, the gay community and the student government. As a result, the Christian students gained hearts of compassion and came back begging for more evangelism and ministry training.
We also redesigned our weekly meeting, making it more for the spiritually curious than for Christians. Today, the student-body president and vice president come, along with members of more than 100 different student organizations and cultures from across campus—many being individuals who would consider themselves agnostic and atheist. The university administration considers us one of the most diverse groups on campus.
We began by learning how to relate to people, understanding where they are coming from—their backgrounds, their relationships, their choices. It starts with asking good questions. For example, try talking to every person you encounter. Say hello, then see how far you can go, if it's natural. Practice interacting with people; when they talk with you about anything, draw them out. Take them deeper. As we ask questions, we will find common ground in all the areas where we agree. Then we share our lives. In this postmodern era, there is nothing more powerful and meaningful than investing relational energy and opening up your life.
Evangelism is as much a process as it is an event. In his book Finding Common Ground Tim Downs says, "To cultivate the soil takes time ... I have a conversation here ... I ask a pointed question there. I break a stereotype along the way. With everyone I meet, I am cultivating the soil and improving the climate for spiritual growth." A few months ago, after our weekly meeting, the president of a fraternity came up to me. Several of us with Campus Crusade had been hanging out with this guy for two years, and he'd always been a self-proclaimed agnostic. Then he came up to me and said, "I'm ready." At first, I wasn't even sure what he was talking about.
He wanted to become a Christian, and we prayed with him that night. Being real and being intentional about evangelism is a hard road to travel. But it's either that or stay where we are and quietly pass from this life to the next, without ever really living. Once your heart has been broken for that one lost friend, once you have cried over the helplessness and desperation of someone you get really close to, you can't shake that sense of feeling God's heart. My being evangelistic is not about feeling spiritual, significant or successful. It is always about what the lost need to know and understand. It is about their transformation, not mine. It is about the gospel message, not my fancy illustrations. It is about Christ, not me."
*This article was written with Becky Hill
I love how the team at BG has been willing to examine their own hearts and their motivations for reaching the lost. Many times, the reason we don't share our faith with those unlike us is not for lack of training. It may just be because we just really don't care enough about the souls of those men and women. Our challenge is to reach out into those places that are uneasy and uncomfortable so that the lost can find Jesus.