I believe in stranger evangelism.
Over the course of 2009, my own denomination in this part of the world is mounting a concerted campaign to make meaningful, relational connections with everyone in our area, thus helping them to come into a relationship with God through his word. For me personally, this has involved (often tough) deliberate decisions to do less internal church-based activities so that I can slow down and hang around to chat with parents at our local school, talk to the neighbours in our street, and consider how we can connect meaningfully with the huge numbers of ‘unreached’ people who live within a few kilometres of our church building. It’s been a joy for us to start to get to know people in our area—to have barbeques with neighbouring families, to share with them the joys and challenges of life and parenthood, and so on. I trust and pray that, when we eventually give them a copy of Luke’s Gospel and offer to talk about it with them, this evangelistic effort will be understood as a natural outflow of the friendships we’ve developed.
Yet I still believe in stranger evangelism.
It’s not just because of the positive experiences I’ve had with what is affectionately known as ‘cold turkey’ evangelism. I recall times when I’ve walked into a city or campus (or our church car park), feeling scared and more than a little overwhelmed, but aiming to approach people I’ve never met before to ask them if they want to talk about Jesus. Some people want to talk for hours; others reject me straight away. Some people have obviously thought me quite weird; others have tried to convert me to their own religion. Others have wanted to know more, and have come along to Christian events. Some have been ready to take a real step of commitment to Jesus Christ. No matter what the reaction, though, I’ve seen the message of Jesus’ death and resurrection make a real impact, time and time again in these ‘strangers’.
But that’s not why I believe in stranger evangelism. There is a more fundamental reason than that.
I believe in stranger evangelism simply because all evangelism is stranger evangelism. If you understand ‘evangelism’ to mean something like ‘speaking the message of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection and its implications to those who do not yet trust and obey him’, then, in God’s view, the recipients of your evangelism are all (at least, to start with) strangers. First of all, they are strangers to God. The Bible calls them enemies (Rom 5:10), children of God’s anger (Eph 2:3), alienated and hostile in their minds (Col 1:21). Therefore, they are also strangers to God’s people, alienated from God’s family (Eph 2:19), “outsiders” (Col 4:5) who don’t know us or understand our motivations or behaviour (1 Pet 3:16, 4:3-5).
Of course, that doesn’t make us superior to them; that is exactly the position we were all in before we were reconciled graciously to God through Jesus. Nevertheless, any evangelism that we now undertake is stranger evangelism, because all people who don’t yet trust and obey the gospel message are strangers—strangers to God and strangers to us who bring the message.
Why does this matter? If you are a believer in Jesus Christ, then no matter how closely you love and care for your unbelieving family, friends and neighbours—no matter how much affinity you feel for them—no matter how many common interests you have—they are, in the final analysis, strangers.
Of course, on the level of basic human relationships, people will be more likely to listen to you if you’ve shown a genuine concern for them as human beings. This is why I also believe in ‘relationship evangelism’ and making meaningful connections with those around us. But unless you keep in mind that they are fundamentally strangers, your evangelism will be deficient. You will not tell them the ‘strange’ truths they don’t want to hear—that without Jesus Christ, they are sinners who have rejected God, who face his wrath, and who need atonement and a radical change of life towards the Lord of heaven and earth. In fact, evangelism that fails to speak the hard truths of our estrangement from God risks simply confirming people in their estrangement. The most loving thing you can do for somebody who is estranged from God is to treat them as a stranger—to remind them of their estrangement and urge them to be reconciled to God.
That’s why I believe in stranger evangelism.