As I was sitting alone in the cafeteria one afternoon, far from home, overwhelmed and lonely on a campus of twenty thousand coeds, an older student walked up, smiled, and asked if he could join me. He took a seat as I prepared to engage him in what I expected would be a heady discussion of politics, philosophy, or science. Thrilled to have the company, I was mentally preparing for anything he threw at me.
Glancing up from his plate of spaghetti, the first thing he said was, "Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior?"
Stunned, I was completely at a loss for a response. "Um, yeah, actually I have," I finally managed in reply.
"Oh," he said. "OK, that's good." He wore a look of minor defeat. He had chosen the wrong table; he had hoped to share the gospel with a non-Christian. We chatted politely while I finished my burger. He ate quickly and excused himself. I never saw him again after that day.
I'm sure he sincerely wanted to serve God by witnessing in that cafeteria. Sharing the gospel is good, but the way he asked about my salvation sounded more like a sales pitch than a serious inquiry. The least my fellow student could have done was ask my name and show interest in me as a person before asking me what was actually a very valid question.
For many years afterward, I would think of that day whenever I heard the word evangelism. The term derives from the Greek word evangel: good news. How odd, then, that so much evangelism appears to be about selling Jesus and hoping that you can convince the non- Christian to "buy into" salvation.
Good news doesn't have to be sold. Bad news has to be sold, but not good news. Growing up, I was taught that above all I needed to close the deal when it came to evangelism. I was taught to get the non-Christian to say the "sinner's prayer" or "walk the aisle" as soon as possible, by whatever means possible, because tomorrow he may die. That is, I had to make the sale now.
When I began to seriously read the gospels, though, I noticed something strange. People constantly flocked to Jesus despite the fact that he never passed out a single tract. He would walk up to people, say "follow me," and the next thing you know they're giving up their lives to follow Him around the countryside. He wasn't a traveling salesman.
Christians are called to share the gospel with others and rely upon the power of the Holy Spirit for His work in their lives, while at the same time never treating the gospel like a sales pitch. Some Christians—particularly new ones enthused by their budding faith—are eager and willing to share the gospel. Others have a more difficult time, and many don't do it at all. Yet I suspect the average Christian's hesitancy to share their faith has little to do with timidity or lack of courage. Many believers won't hesitate to explain why they support a particular politician or cause, even unpopular ones. Why, then, do they become tongue-tied when the topic turns to why they align themselves with the Creator of the universe?
I suspect much of the fault lies with our misunderstanding of faith. In our age, the term has become almost synonymous with an irrational—or at least non-rational—acceptance of beliefs for which we lack evidence. Rather than claiming that we possess both innate and experiential knowledge (that is, what philosophers call a "justified true belief") about God, we imply that we have a wishy-washy trust that something is out there—though we can't prove it. When we Christians posit such a weak-kneed picture of God, it's no wonder that nonbelievers don't feel the need to take us seriously.
But our faith isn't fideism. It isn't blind. The good news isn't an invitation to make an irrational decision but the story of a person who lived, died, and yet lives still. We are not sharing news about an idea but about a being who is fully God and fully man. While nonbelievers may not have experiential knowledge of this person, they are made in the image of God, and so they have a certain capacity to recognize Him. That is the common religious foundation we share with them.
Our evangelistic mission, therefore, is simply to share with others the good news that they too can know what we know. In my experience at the cafeteria, it wasn't that the student's question was wrong; rather, his means were wrong. He treated the gospel like a sales pitch.
God might use prayer cards or gospel tracts to bring the lost to salvation. He might use young men looking to win the souls of people they don't bother to get to know to bring about redemption. But I suspect Jesus would prefer we introduce Him as a person rather than attempt to sell Him as a novelty. I think He'd rather we recognize His good news needs only to be shared, and that it never needs to be sold.