I was thirteen years old, I think. Maybe fourteen. My grandfather was in the hospital recovering from a heart attack, and my entire family – my very large Southern family – were crammed into the waiting room on the top floor of the local hospital. Since only a few visitors were allowed into Grandpa’s room at a time, we would rotate in in shifts, then return to the overcrowded waiting room.
Except at the moment, the rotation was on hold, because Brother Pete was visiting. (Did I mention this was in the South? That’s why he was “Brother” Pete instead of “Pastor” Pete or “Reverend” Pete.). All of the kids and grandkids and great-grandkids were consigned to the waiting room while the grandparents visited with their pastor, who had come to chat a little and comfort them with Scripture and pray for my grandfather’s swift recovery.
It was at this point that someone asked me to run get something from the car, so I grabbed the key and walked to the elevator, at roughly the same time that Brother Pete emerged from the hospital room and headed in my direction. And that was fine – I liked Brother Pete a lot. He was a good man, and we got along well.
The elevator door opened, and the pastor and I stepped in. A lab technician in scrubs joined us just before the doors closed, and I knew what was about to happen, because I had seen it before. Brother Pete was going to share the gospel with this lab tech in what little time he had. When he opened his mouth to speak, I smiled a little. Here it comes, I thought.
Except I was wrong. Brother Pete didn’t share the gospel. Instead, he pointed at me.
This is what he said in his thick drawl: “You see this young man here? He’s notorious for telling people about the Lord Jesus Christ.”
And I froze. It’s altogether possible that I wet myself. My mind went blank, I stammered out something that I don’t remember, and I remember praying that we’d reach the first floor quickly. Thankfully, the hospital in question had but four floors, and so my time in the elevator came to an end, though it seemed like an eternity.
And now, some three decades later, after a theological education and years of ministry experience, every time I attempt to share the gospel, my mind goes back to that Florida hospital, and something within me freezes up. I am the kid in the elevator once more.
Most people who talk a lot about evangelism can easily be sorted into two groups. One group focuses on the command Jesus gave his followers before he left: “Go and make disciples of all the nations.” If you’ve been in church for any appreciable length of time, you’ve almost certainly heard sermons (usually shouted) about our obligation to share the Gospel with those around us. Since I grew up in the 80’s, even the music I listened to preached the same message:
Jesus said go
Into all the world
Make disciples of all men
We gotta go
To the highways
Compel them to come in
(In case you don’t recognize the song, that’s Back to the Street by Petra. Petra was not known for subtlety in their lyrics. They called it like it is, and I loved them for it. I still do. Thanks, guys.)
The other group focuses not on the command, but on the need. If the gospel is true (and it is), then those who don’t embrace Christ are doomed to hell. Millions have never heard the good news, and the only way they’re going to hear is if someone goes to tell them.
We’ve all heard these sorts of appeals too. The missionaries do their rounds, with their PowerPoint slides (a bit step up from the slide projectors of yore), showing the smiling faces of the kids from some foreign country who are learning about Jesus “because of your generous financial support.” (I’m not mocking. My wife was a missionary kid. Many of my closest friends are either on the mission field or preparing to go.)
And the music preached this message too. In fact, the very next lines of Petra’s Back to the Street make the plea admirably:
As long as there’s a tearful eye
That cries alone at night
As long as there’s a weary soul
Ready to end the fight
As long as there a aching heart
That still has strength to beat
We’ve gotta take this message
Back to the street
But here’s the thing: We know all this. I know all this. I know the command of Christ. I know the perils of souls around me. So why is sharing my faith so hard?
For me, part of it is my temperament. I’ve preached the gospel countless times, so I’m pretty sure that I’m not ashamed of what I believe. Truth be told, I’m much more comfortable speaking to a crowd than having a one-on-one conversation. Crowds don’t scare me, but individual people? Awkward!
Is it fear of confrontation, of rejection? Perhaps. Fear of man is still too much a part of my thinking, sadly. I simply care too much about what other people think. And caring too much about what people will think of you is a surefire way to smother the evangelical impulse.
I’ve come to realize that for most of us, evangelism is never going to come easy. You can learn the programs and techniques of how to share your faith (and those can be useful), but at the end of the day, you still have to open your mouth and talk to that person across the dining table, or in the seat next to you on the plane, or the lab tech in the elevator. It’s going to suck.
Our mission is to embrace the suck. Because the screaming preachers and the slideshow-wielding missionaries and the guys in Petra were all right. Jesus did command us to go. The lost people around us do need to hear the good news, and there’s a shortage of Brother Pete’s out there.
For the sake of the gospel, for the sake of the world. Embrace the suck.