Over twenty years ago, as an undergraduate student at Michigan State University, I went on a spring break trip to Panama City Beach, Florida, to do beach evangelization. On each day of our “vacation,” we would approach strangers on the beach, tell them about Jesus, share the “four spiritual laws,” invite them to make an act of faith, and offer to pray with them.
The world has changed a lot in twenty years, and while there is always the possibility of a stranger responding to a brief conversation about Jesus on the beach with a radical, whole-life change, it is even less likely today than it was then. The cultural chasm between radical disciples of Jesus and the average person on the street has become vast. If you find spaces where you can listen “undetected” (i.e., people have no idea you’re a Christian) as people speak freely about their worldview, you will likely find that your approach to daily life as a Christian is so foreign it’s like you’re living on another planet.
As many of us stand at the precipice of that chasm, looking at the souls on the other side who desperately need Jesus, we are confronted with an important question: what is the best way to bridge that growing divide and bring people into a saving encounter with Jesus? In other words, how do I evangelize today?
First, I think it is necessary to acknowledge that we are starting from a place much further back than we might realize. It is hard to fathom the depth of woundedness that comes from embracing and championing grave sin. It is hard to grasp the depth of woundedness that comes from multiple generations of brokenness, where someone’s entire conception of “normal” is contrary to a Christian life ethic. We need to be honest about the landscape, accepting that we will encounter people who are devastatingly broken, wounded, and distrustful—people who will struggle to conceptualize the goodness of what is offered in Christ. Often, much more groundwork needs to be laid before the heart of the Gospel can be heard and received (much more than a five-minute conversation on the beach).
Here are a handful of things that I believe are essential to consider for the question at hand:
- We underestimate what is possible in us by God’s grace.
- We need radical dependence on God and constancy in prayer.
- We need to look more like Jesus in all our relationships and in every encounter with another person.
- We need deep humility.
- We need the willingness to invest deeply, relationally, and for the long haul in people who don’t know Jesus.
It is critically important that we begin by deepening our understanding of a fundamental truth: through the grace of baptism, the Holy Trinity indwells your soul. The triune God, who created the universe, who created you, who loves you, who conquered death, divinely indwells your soul! Words will always fall short of the enormity of this depth of relationship we have with God, but really and truly, you are as St. Paul says, “the temple of the living God” (1 Cor 6:16).
Do you live (and evangelize) out of a sincere, deeply held belief that almighty God indwells your soul? Do we know and believe that “nothing will be impossible with God” (Lk 1:37; emphasis mine)? Our God brings galaxies into existence with a word, raises people from the dead, and has power over all creation. He is intimately with us and available to guide our evangelistic endeavors, infuse them with grace, and multiply our efforts to make them supernaturally fruitful. He also is exceedingly able to help us navigate the relational difficulties that arise from so much brokenness and moral upheaval. He did the wildest, most incomprehensible thing and became man to be our model of holiness. He commanded us to imitate Him and showed us how. I sometimes hear from Christians that they are afraid being in the world will destroy their faith, that they should cut non-Christians out of their lives or create exclusive enclaves to shut out the world and protect their faith. I hear stories of people leaving their jobs to find “safer” places, far from the immoral lives of coworkers. But Jesus ate “with tax collectors and sinners” and spent time with the woman at the well and the woman caught in adultery, all while masterfully declaring saving truth, calling to repentance, and perfectly loving sinners back into communion. By grace and by his power, it is possible to imitate his perfect love towards those who are broken and trapped in sin, while not compromising our own faith. Jesus wasn’t safe when He died on the cross to save us. He doesn’t call us to be safe. But He does say that if we die with Him, we will also rise with Him.
So, first, we must know that the impossible is possible with Jesus, and He who is powerful enough to create the universe and rise from the dead dwells within us. But we also need to know the impossible remains so, apart from prayer and radical reliance on God. We need to normalize asking God for everything. He knows exactly who we should talk to, when we should talk to them, how we should talk to them, when they are ready to hear and respond, and He knows what words they need to hear. So, we should ask Him who is all-knowing to help us. Pray that God gives you his heart, equips you with his words, and gives you the grace to imitate Him in your words and actions in every encounter with the lost.
One thing I do often is put everything into the hands of Jesus and Mary, saying something like, “Jesus, Mary, I am not able to do this, please take care of everything.” And by everything, I mean my body language, my words, arranging the time and place of encounters—everything! And I invite some dear saint friends to join me in prayer. For instance, I often ask St. Anthony to find a way where there is no way.
Closely connected to this radical dependency on God and constancy in prayer is humility. The saints tell us this is the foundational virtue, necessary for the full development and exercise of other virtues. The virtue of humility is at work when we entrust things to Jesus, when we understand that we can do nothing apart from Him, and when we understand that He alone knows everything, and we do not. Humility is also approachable; in the face of great woundedness, it enables trust.
This brings me to the final item for consideration. Proportionate to the expanse of the chasm is the amount of investment we must be willing to make. That isn’t to say Jesus can’t build a bridge overnight where there wasn’t one, but usually, long-term relational investment is necessary. Relational ministry makes the kind of difference that changes lives with permanence. And real, life-changing relationships take time. I once heard a story of a man (we’ll call him Joe) whose next-door neighbor was not a person of faith. He appeared to loathe everything Joe did: the fact that he had so many loud kids, the time of day he mowed the lawn, whether he trimmed his trees, everything. But Joe was patient and kind. He constantly made gestures of care and neighborliness. He didn’t let the overt negativity of his neighbor affect his kindness. One day, after many years of living next door, Joe’s neighbor called in the middle of the night. He had just learned that his son had committed suicide. Do you know what he said to Joe?
“You are the only person in my life who I knew would be there for me.”
At perhaps his darkest moment, this neighbor knew Joe would care, knew Joe would show up. I believe Joe’s witness is a lesson for all of us.
In the Gospel, Jesus invites us to radically care for our neighbor, who has been stripped and left for dead by robbers (cf. Lk 10:25-37). How radical is our love for our neighbor, who has been stripped of life by sin, the world, the flesh, and the devil? What is needed is a profound commitment to the lost in our midst—a commitment to showing up for our neighbor day in and day out, perhaps for years, in ways that build trust, restore brokenness, heal wounds, and pave the way to receiving the Good News of Jesus Christ.
When we think of radically loving our neighbor in this way, it can be daunting. The investment is a whole-life kind of investment. I’ll share one of the best pieces of advice I ever received: build the kingdom like Jesus did. Jesus primarily poured into twelve men and then even more deeply into three of those twelve. And those twelve men changed the world. This challenged me to always ask, “Who are my twelve? Who are my three?” That is my challenge to you too. You don’t have to take on your whole neighborhood, but ask the Lord, “Who are my twelve? Who are my three?” and then pray, fast, listen to Jesus, and pour out your life so that they too might live.
This article originally appeared in Renewal Ministries’ November 2022 newsletter.