In this time of Advent/Christmas, when unchurched or unbelieving people seem to be the most open to spiritual things and particularly the Christian story, churches and Christians are keen to sharpen their evangelism strategies and skills. I found very helpful the talk on evangelism given by the Rev. Kim Reisman at the inaugural New Room Conference this fall. Reisman is a conference evangelist in Indiana and recently was elected head of the World Methodist Evangelism branch of the World Methodist Council.
Dr. Reisman points out that trust is the key foundation for sharing the gospel. One reason for the Incarnation was for God to establish that we can trust him because he became one of us in human form and shared our life experience. However, every time someone says they are a Christian but fails to act like one, that trust is eroded in the minds of non-Christians. This calls for restorative work on our part to reestablish that trust with people. That is one reason for taking the ministry of the church pro-actively outside the church walls to touch people where they are.
Reisman says that it’s not what we do in evangelism that matters; it is the stance we take while we are doing it. We need to be willing to walk with people a long time, while they decide how to respond to God’s love. No “drive-by” evangelism!
Reisman reminds us that evangelism is not optional for us because God takes seriously our role as covenant partners in his work of redemption. If we fail to evangelize others, there are people who won’t be reached with the message of redemption in Christ! She also reminds us that evangelism is risky because God takes seriously the possibility of human rejection of his love. And if God can be rejected, so can we as God’s messengers.
Most helpful is Reisman’s description of the evangelism process in terms of a hug. A hug is God reaching out to the world through us to share his love. These are the dynamics of a hug:
Open arms – making space for the other person, acknowledging that the family of God is not complete. Our Wesleyan understanding is that there is always room for one more in God’s family, no matter who that person is.
Waiting – for the response of the other person. This puts us in a vulnerable position, but there is power in our vulnerability. It is invitational, rather than forceful in its stance. If the other person doesn’t respond, we continue to open our arms to them and wait.
Closing the arms – we welcome the other person into God’s family. We hold and are held by them. There is a reciprocal relationship that uses the soft touch. Again, the stance is invitational, rather than forceful. Love always invites, but never forces a response from the other.
Open arms again – we release the other person to maintain their own identity. This prevents us from overpowering the other. It also allows them to stand primarily on their relationship with God, rather than their relationship with us. We introduce them to the Savior; we are not the Savior. However, in releasing them, their imprint remains on us and ours on them. A bond has been formed. We continue in relationship. And the open arms leave room for yet another to be reached with God’s love, starting the cycle over again.
In Reisman’s view, this circular rhythm of the evangelistic hug is intrinsic to the life of the Trinity. It replicates the relationship between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, who each have their own identity, yet are joined in the embrace of self-giving love.
For those who find the “Four Spiritual Laws” approach to evangelism off-putting, Reisman’s model presents an alternative approach that might be helpful. As you interact with unchurched friends, co-workers, and neighbors this Christmas, look for ways to open your arms to them with the love of Jesus. As they move closer and begin to trust you, there will be opportunities to tell them the story of God’s love expressed in Christ’s birth, life, death, resurrection, and ascension. As you walk with them in this story, there may be a time when you can welcome them into God’s family with his loving embrace through you!