My neighbor believes I’m headed for hell, and I find this disconcerting.
It’s not that I’m newly concerned about my prospects for eternal doom; those remain about the same as last week. What is disturbing is the newfound knowledge that the couple next door have apparently been shaking their heads and clucking sympathetically while pondering my eventual destiny.
It is, perhaps, the worst form of gossip.
At least it feels that way to me, the ungrateful recipient of a tract and a note instructing my husband and me to study the pamphlet and read the Bible.
“I am very worried about your souls in the hereafter,” wrote my neighbor, who is of a different denomination than I. She signed the note “Love Always” despite the fact that we only exchange casual greetings and have never been in each other’s homes.
The note, I fear, was the first move in an all-out attack.
Step two was a phone call inquiring if my neighbors could visit one night. (We’ve lived here more than a year, but this was the first such call.)
Step three was the friendly delivery of a plate of brownies, dripping with fudge and unspoken significance.
At some point, the fretful note and its accompanying tract will have to come up in conversation, and an altercation may ensue. I’m still figuring out how to say “How dare you?” in a genteel southern fashion that will ensure continued delivery of fudge brownies.
But I suspect there’s no nice way to put it.
That’s evangelism anecdote No. 1. Anecdote No. 2 comes from a friend, who was set upon by a superior in the workplace.
To use the prevailing evangelical lingo, the superior “shared the message of salvation” with the friend - who already was a Christian, thank you - and invited her to “pray the prayer of salvation” right there on the spot.
My friend went along, numbly inviting Jesus into her life and asking forgiveness of her sins, while growing angrier all the while. Later, she told me she felt trapped.
She literally felt her job was on the line if she said what she was thinking, which was, basically, “How dare you?”
It’s a fine line that people of faith must walk if they desire to share that faith. It’s one thing to witness to seekers, to people with no concrete beliefs who admit they’re searching for truth. It’s another to try to demonstrate your faith as superior to another’s.
So what’s a well-meaning Christian (or Muslim or Moonie) to do when God requests some publicity?
I posed the question to a couple of professors and administrators at Columbia International University, which is in the business of preparing students to go forth and tell all the nations about Christ.
What exactly is the etiquette of evangelism?
Bill Jones, a professor of evangelism for Columbia Biblical Seminary, learned the hard way. As a new, zealous Christian, he said, “I went straight home and told my father he was going to hell and needed to know Christ.”
Understandably, the elder Mr. Jones did not immediately fall to his knees.
“Though my motives at that time were pure, my methodology was horrible,” Jones said. ” A lot of young Christians, out of zeal, can make some social, relational and even cultural mistakes that can both in the short run and the long run do more harm than good.”
“Make sure that you’re sharing your own experiences rather than simply trying to impose your views.”
“Be interested in the whole person, not one aspect of their lives.”
Be careful if you’re in a relationship with some authority, such as at work, or a parent and child. “Evangelism is like one beggar helping another beggar to find bread. We’re all beggars. There’s no pecking order here.”
Realize that no matter what you think of their “label,” or denominational tie, “they may possibly have a faith that is genuine and biblical.”
Develop friendships, so that “you’re not invading in somebody’s most intimate aspect of life until you’ve been welcomed inside.” Don’t make people feel like a project.
Encourage people to tell you what they believe. Don’t assume you know it all from studying a cult book. Talk with them, not to them.
Examine your motives. Don’t “go for scalps.”
Finally, Professor Bradford Mullen pointed out, know that “the Lord didn’t call me to convert people. He called me to be a faithful witness, a faithful ambassador. It’s the work of God to go beyond that.”