Love and Intent in Evangelism
Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.
Ami was listening to a podcast recently and I overheard the sentence, ‘No one likes to be a project.’ On the one hand this rings true. No one wants to be a project, but what does this mean? Is it ok for us to work to train our kids? If we were to actually reflect on how we instruct our kids, it would seem a little project-y, and for good reason. It’s not a bad thing to be systematic in your instruction of your children. It only becomes problematic when we neglect to treat them as human beings or if we neglect to love them as our children. And this is similar to any person we have a relationship with.
Perhaps another way to think of this is in thinking about what it is that we love. When we don’t love people the way we ought, we are tempted to treat them like projects. Perhaps we are looking at them as a means to an end (making a comfortable social space for myself, or seeing myself as a helpful person). When we actually care about helping others grow in maturity, this is a loving thing. We see a similar problem when we hear of people only wanting things that happen organically (by which I think we mean, spontaneously). Of course, this sounds all nice until you realize that letting things happen organically tends to result in lazy living. This is because very little happens organically. Gardens and crops don’t grow ‘organically’ in this sense. When we wait for things to happen organically, we don’t do much outside of our comfort zone. And because we are afraid that we might treat others as a project, for discipleship or evangelism for instance, we don’t actually do much of that at all. But there are demands and expectations of us as humans, family members, employees, and Christians that mean we actually have to be a little calculating and intentional and work harder than we feel comfortable. The dictum, ‘Mind over matter,’ is not terribly bad in that we must always push ourselves outside of our boundaries, outside of our comfort levels, and outside of our perception of what we’re able to do, but it isn’t simply to get better conditioning like in exercise, it is so that we might better love others.
How do we walk the line of being both loving and calculating? I think the instruction of Paul: ‘Speak the truth in love,’ is one way to reflect on it. We speak the truth whether that means praying for someone, sharing the gospel, reading the Bible with someone, or mentoring them, but we don’t simply walk out in the middle of the street and tell them the gospel and then leave. This is generally not the most loving. How will they be added to a church? How will they be discipled? To whom will they turn when they have questions? There is a time and place for such on the spot evangelism, but it is rarely evidenced in the New Testament, and I think our work if it is divorced from a local church is near in vain. Paul traveled throughout the Roman Empire, and he spent time in most places long enough to establish a congregation gathered around the gospel of Christ. In other words, he shared his very self as well as his message and was concerned that they keep the faith longer than a day. Those churches were established, and he most often was there long enough to train pastors for each one of them (we know that he had to send Titus to Crete to finish appointing pastors there after Paul had left). He got to know and love other human beings. Just look at his greeting at the end of Romans, to a church he has never visited but to a group of people he had come to love. He didn’t simply treat people as projects. Instead, he knew them as humans and knew the greatest good for them ultimately was the message of Jesus.
This example is well worth revisiting in our day: we would share the gospel because we love others as fellow humans made in the image of God, with their own unique traits, experiences, and giftings. By God’s common grace, he made some to be artisans, some to be laborers, some to be homemakers, and the like. The tropes in the movies aren’t far off. There isn’t much an unlovely person in the world. There are many unsavory characters, but so was Paul, the chief of sinners, who had once persecuted the Church. So are we. Even the most unlovely human holds this: They are valuable because God made them in his image and likeness. When we treat others as projects, we are neglecting their humanity. This is easily seen in bad parenting: when parents don’t actually love their children but treat them as impersonal tools, and never sits down for a conversation or takes them out for breakfast. Bad parenting is based on selfishness and neglecting/abusing their humanity. But when a parent actually loves their child, and also invests, almost calculatingly, in their maturity, we see a wonderful and beautiful thing. The children become mostly functional adults. Of course, no family is perfect and there will always be friction, and in the same way as we seek to make disciples, share the gospel and mentor the younger in faith, we will be uneven, but this doesn’t mean we’re simply treating others as projects. We are in fact fulfilling our love for others in the best way we know how. So, speak the truth in love.