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Canada is not Pakistan
Evangelism in Pakistan was easy. I would occasionally travel in a bus with a pile of tracts in Sindhi with an invitation to visit me printed on the back.1 I would read a tract by holding it up high enough so that the men behind me would be able to see it. Soon I could hear them discussing the unusual sight of a foreigner reading Sindhi. Someone would eventually ask me what I was reading enabling me to inform him that it was a tract about Jesus and to invite him to take a copy. I was then able to hand the tracts out to whoever was interested. When people followed up on the invitation and came to my house, I invited them into a room that had a Bible on the coffee table and asked them if they would like to hear a passage from Jesus’ book. Spiritual discussions took place easily and comfortably because religious conversation is a popular way to pass the time in Pakistan. Moreover, when people left I often asked if they had any concerns for which I could pray and usually they were very open to the idea.
In Pakistan, evangelism was a piece of cake. Canada is not Pakistan.
Coming home to Canada I discovered that those methods which made sense in Pakistan are of little use here.
Methods that don’t fit the need
Coming home to Canada I discovered that those methods which made sense in Pakistan are of little use here. I found it quite stressful to spend time with someone who was not a believer because my evangelical upbringing convinced me that I was supposed to “give the gospel” and “win people to Christ,” but I had no tools to begin the process without alienating the person. I wanted to introduce people to Jesus, but the cultural environment with its low tolerance for any suggestion indicating a need for spiritual reorientation negated that possibility and I was left without the opportunities I enjoyed in Pakistan.
As a result, I realized that I had to stop trying to do “evangelism.” So I did. I stopped approaching relationships with an agenda to present a gospel message. I gave up the sense of guilt that drove me as if I was responsible for people going to hell. I no longer have a “plan of salvation” that can be diagrammed on a napkin. I am free from the burden to “deliver” or “win”.
Not a Lawyer, but a witness
There are many ways to be involved in the Great Commission and I discovered that many evangelical methods, often considered synonymous with evangelism, were not appropriate for me. My desire to engage people for Christ’s sake is driven by my commitment to God’s mission to the world, but my perception of what that entailed for the Canadian context was misguided. I thought it was my duty to be more clever than those with whom I spoke so that the answers I provided and the logic of the case would sway them. My understanding was that God wanted me to be a lawyer and deconstruct the defenses of the opposition in order to convince the jury. Such an aggressive view of evangelism as a battle can be seen reflected in a review of a book on apologetics that promoted the book as part of an “arsenal” for evangelism.
Instead I came to realize that God is calling me to be a witness. Witnesses tell their own story. My responsibility is to communicate the events of my spiritual journey when called upon: to tell people why Jesus is special to me (1 Pet. 3:15). I thought I needed to convince people of their need to change. Instead I discovered that my role is to engage people in significant spiritual conversation, rather than convince them to enter the kingdom.
The Holy Spirit’s Prerogative
My desire is that people follow Christ, but it is not my task to persuade them; that is the prerogative of the Holy Spirit. My role is to discover where the wind is blowing (John 3), i.e., where the Spirit is at work in a person’s life. Moreover, Canadian sensitivities have made me very conscious of the danger of viewing people as projects through which I may fulfill a particular religious obligation. My goal is now to become a conversationalist who does not need to perform, only listen and respond. To talk to people I need to have a true relationship with them and engage them with a desire to deepen that relationship, not for the purpose of finding an opportunity to make a “presentation.”
Thinking like a Missionary
Fourteen years of living in another cultural context helped me to finally clue in that I needed to act and think like a missionary. That is, I needed to spend 95% of my time finding out what is ultimately significant to them, and how they think about and express their spiritual journey. Only then would I be invited to speak into their lives and be competent to do so. This is a key missional principle: the task of the missionary is to do the work of discovering the relevance of the gospel message for a people group, rather than providing a generalized “plan of salvation” that is assumed relevant but leaves the work of applying the message to the hearer. Such an approach often results in listeners concluding that the message does not relate to them.
I discovered that the method that is effective within the Canadian context is not the proclamation of a message but the development of relationships within which significant conversations occur. That is, I now seek to explore with people the ways they make sense of the world. People are seeking spiritual reality and significance for themselves but often lack the opportunity to express their personal journey to sympathetic listeners. Sincere and open conversation that respects contrasting opinions is both appreciated and enjoyable when there is no pressure to “win.” When a conversation partner feels free to be vulnerable about their spiritual perspective, it creates relational freedom and interactive space and often results in an invitation for me to acknowledge my dependence upon Christ and give him glory.
Jesus is the truth that this world needs to find peace with God. We do not need programmed approaches in order to expose the people in our lives to the light of the world. Rather we need to hear, engage and respond so that the light that is within us can shine in a way that does not blind, but illuminates.