In the early days of the pandemic lockdown, I got a message from a childhood friend: “I want to learn about the Bible. Would you consider teaching me?” I may be dense, but I try not to ignore an obvious invitation from the God of the Universe. I opened it up to my friends on Facebook, and soon we had over a dozen people studying the Bible together every week.
The crowd was mostly millennial, mostly white, and mostly what I would call “spiritually curious.” They wanted to learn more about Jesus, and for some reason they trusted me to help them do it.
I ended up leading a weekly Bible study for over a year and a half, and in the process learned a lot about what you might call “non-creepy evangelism.” My guiding question was, “How can I share the gospel with people who are unlikely to ever hit their local Sunday service?”
These days my main ministry is walking alongside asylum seeking refugees, some of whom are not Christians. It’s a very different population, but what I learned about sharing Jesus from those heady Bible study days has served me well in this setting too.
It’s never OK to exploit a person’s need to survive with your need to win religious converts, so there are a few important things to keep in mind when sharing Jesus in humanitarian settings. I’ll sprinkle in some insights from that work as well, which would also apply in any setting where there’s some kind of power imbalance or injustice at play.
Be absolutely transparent
As Jesus people, our reputation is less than stellar in the world of secular pop culture. I found that the people in my Bible study group were on high alert for a lack of integrity, and were surprised and delighted when they found that I was scrupulously honest and transparent.
In my experience, people signed on to study the Bible with me because they already trusted me. They saw that I was serious about my faith, but not too serious about myself, and that I cared about the issues they cared about.
When you’re working with people suffering some kind of need, transparency is more than a good strategy to win trust—it’s a vital component of humanitarian ethics. This is even more important if you’re helping someone with basic needs like food, housing, or employment, as I do. My advice is to over-communicate and to give your friends shame-free ways to opt out. Make it as clear as you can that your relationship and any help that you’re offering are not in any way dependent on their response to your offer for prayer or invitation to a church event.
Don’t sell anything
My Bible study friends had their sniffers turned on high for the stink of a sales pitch. They emphatically did NOT want to be sold on Christianity. It’s worthwhile to take some time to examine your own motivations and goals. A secret conversion agenda would confirm most people’s worst suspicions. If your care for them stops when you realize that they’re not likely to sign up for your religion, you’ll be doing great damage to the gospel.
I quickly learned that I have as much to learn from my non-Christian friends and their insightful questions and honest struggles as I had to teach. I consider it a joy and a privilege to share a space of spiritual honesty with others, whether they fall in love with Jesus or not. Remember too that we can’t know what the future holds, or what kind of fruit might be born from the seeds planted and watered now. Your evangelism can be good news to others even if they never sign on for a life with Jesus.
Talk less, listen more (but still talk sometimes)
I endeavored to show up as a peer, not an expert. Authority has a way of making people nervous to share. Those of you who aren’t working for a church will have an advantage in this area, but even pastors can endeavor to mitigate the handicap of their perceived authority by asking good questions and otherwise keeping their mouths shut.
I don’t think you’ll be disappointed at what you hear when you show up to listen. I have two degrees in theology, and I can honestly say that week after week this group had the best conversation about scripture that I’ve ever experienced. The fresh eyes that many members brought to the Bible led to an upwelling of wisdom and insight that I could never have put into a formal lesson plan.
When I did speak, I did my best to speak from my own experience. I found that my own story had an authority that my seminary learning did not. My friends saw that this Jesus we were studying had truly shaped my life for the better, and could imagine that he might have the same power in their lives.
The power of listening is amplified even further in humanitarian settings. When people have had their agency stolen from them by unjust circumstances, to listen well is to help them begin to rebuild their sense of personhood. It is also to represent the God who sees, hears, and cares for them. Whatever your setting, your care will speak louder than your words.
One note though: have you ever heard the saying “preach the gospel always, use words if necessary?” Sometimes words are necessary. When someone gives you an opening to speak clearly to the gospel, don’t miss your chance.
Let scripture speak for itself
If you are privileged to share time around scripture with people who are not yet committed to it, I urge you not to underestimate its power. The Bible really is a good book. Don’t try to solve it like a puzzle or force insights to reveal themselves. Don’t avoid or diminish the challenging parts of scripture, either. All you’ll accomplish is proving people’s suspicion that the Bible is scary and difficult and probably not for them. I learned that most people had more tolerance for uncertainty than I had given them credit for, and their respect for me grew when I said “I don’t know” or “I don’t like this part either.”
Offer spiritual care without pressure
All people have spiritual needs, and folks outside of the church have very few venues to receive spiritual care. When people tell me their struggles, I often offer to pray with them (not just for them!) and I’m surprised at how often my offer is accepted. Maybe it’s just my millennial self, but I find that it’s often well-received to send these prayers written out over text. People seem to appreciate having a prayer that they can return to when they need it, and it cuts out some of the awkwardness that some of us feel in offering prayer in-person.
Think about what people or communities outside of the church you already have established trust with. How can you open a space of spiritual honesty and care? Here are a few ideas to get started:
- Ask open-ended questions with a spiritual twist. I like “how is your spirit lately?”
- Start a regular gathering with the transparent goal of deep spiritual conversation
- Try praying with people, not just for them
- Take the time to think through how you’d articulate the difference Jesus makes in your life. Anticipate that if you live with integrity, someday someone will ask why.
Online class: When Evangelism Meets Aid: Faithful Christian Witness in Humanitarian Space Book: Evangelism after Christendom: the Theology and Practice of Christian Witness by Bryan Stone