One Stage Process
Some years ago, a friend looked back on his years of sincerely trying to talk to his friends about the Gospel. He said he felt like he'd been throwing seed over a wall, hoping it would take root on the other side.
IndecisionMy friend was trying to help people get over a "wall of unbelief." And toward that end, he had pursued a lot of very practical training in sharing the Gospel: answers to some difficult questions that often keep people from believing, visual illustrations of the Gospel followed by an invitation to believe, a short personal testimony illustrating how he personally came to believe, insightful questions that help people see where they stand before a holy God, memorizing and being able to quote key verses that give a good summary of the Gospel message.
Perhaps the most glaring weakness in this "one stage" understanding of the growth of the Gospel is that, too often, in our efforts to help them get over their unbelief, people become projects. We see ourselves on one side of the wall, trying to help people who are on the other side. We don't see ourselves walking alongside our friends in the process. Like many, I learned this lesson the hard way.
I first learned to explain the Gospel in my twenties. I am ashamed to say that I used to give people one hour to respond. One hour! I expected to see some visible progress toward belief at the end of an hour's conversation. If I didn't see any progress at the end of the hour, I figured they weren't all that interested and moved on to talk to other people about faith.
Two Stage Process
In my late twenties, after reading and re-reading several excellent books on friendship evangelism, I determined to honor the process and decided to give my friends . . . four weeks. Four weeks! I figured that four weeks was enough time for my friends to work out any misunderstandings they had in the context of a weekly evangelistic bible discussion. I saw evangelism as a two stage process: first get my friends into the word and then trust the testimony of the word, added to my own testimony, to lead them to faith in Christ (Romans 10:17).
I concentrated on training myself in the new skills needed for my four week process: learning to lead evangelistic Bible studies, hearing and cataloging in my mind all the stupid things my friends believed (knowing that they'd have to change their thinking on those things in order to come to faith), picking good parallel passages that would give an overview of the truths of the Gospel while shedding insight on my friends' basic misunderstandings, persevering in prayer for people as they wrestled with biblical truths (Colossians 4:12).
By my early thirties, I was proud of my ability to lead evangelistic bible discussions. Then, in a matter of a few short months, three different not-yet-believing friends sharply rebuked me. They didn't like how I was leading their group bible discussions, and they let me know it! Alan thought my Gospel illustration was stupid and didn't take into account why he wanted to know God. Sebastien thought my "leading" questions were so boring that he was tempted to stop coming. If he wanted to study the bible, he'd go to seminary, he said. He wanted to read it with friends, and talk over what he was discovering. Ouardia accused me of being insensitive, and smug in what I believed, forgetting how hard it is for others to figure out faith. It seems that the better I got at "leading," the harder it was for people to learn.
Three Stage Process
They needed me. They needed me to understand where they were coming from more than they needed to understand where I was coming from. They needed me more than they needed my expertise. I learned that I can never really help anyone "get over" a wall. Walls of indecision, ignorance and indifference protect people from the undue influence of others. And those walls are actually multi-layered, protective veneers of our own making. People build their own walls, and only they can take them down. No one should decide to believe in a system that only someone else can explain. Everyone willfully ignores that which they themselves cannot understand. And no one can begin to seriously abandon the way they have always seen life, and begin to consider a different worldview, unless they trust the one helping them to discover it.
The growth of the Gospel is, in fact, a three stage process. And I am integrally involved in it!
I should not be standing on the far end of some obstacle course yelling instructions to my friends who are trying to navigate their way through. I am called to walk alongside of my friends, and serve them as they learn to trust. They need to trust enough to take bricks down off the walls of their own making, create an opening, and walk through. And I need to walk through it with them. I don't need to teach. In the early stages of the process, it is much more important for me to learn. I need to understand my friends more than my friends need to understand me!
Anyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. —Romans 10:13 (NLB)
But how can they call on him to save them unless they believe in him? And how can they believe in him if they have never heard about him? And how can they hear about him unless someone tells them? —Romans 10:14 (NLB)
I took for granted early on that it was wrong to see people as projects. I then became convinced that making the Gospel known is a process. But what kind of process? I now can say with a clear understanding, it is a process of building trust!
As our relationship evolves, my friends get to decide whether or not I am worthy of their trust. They come to believe, "I can trust this person." Likewise,I learn to trust my friends. I value their heart, even when their words or actions offend (Matthew 5:1-8). I trust God working in their life. This kind of mutual, trusting relationship allows us to hear, consider and walk through new ways of thinking. My friends begin to see how it works in the Bible stories; they hear my story and begin to see how faith is working out in my life. The Gospel makes more and more sense. It seems more and more reasonable. And then one day, my friends can honestly say, "I can trust these words." That decision allows them to ponder, could faith work for them?
When mulling over this last step, my friend Sebastien told me after eighteen holes of golf one Saturday, "I know that I can't trust myself (to make it through life), but I don't know yet if I can trust God." That led him to two more years of searching until he found that there was no other place to go to make life work. Another friend, Mary Anne, tested faith for months while reading and discussing her way through the Bible. She trusted him with her work, then with a strained relationship with her daughter. One day, struggling with the potential of trusting God with her deepest struggle, the thought came to her, "wouldn't life be easier if you could just trust God with your whole life?" That third conviction, the cry of the heart, "I can trust God," takes down the final barrier to faith. It drives people to call on God in prayer and changes them forever.
For it is believing in the heart that makes a man righteous before God, and it is stating that belief by his own mouth that confirms his own salvation. —Romans 10:10 (Phillips)
Give your friends the gift of time. Before I started reading through the Bible with Sebastien, I had generously decided to give him and his friends two years. That day, standing in the golf course parking lot, I determined to give him myself.