I was in Grade 2 and it was my first effort at evangelism, or at least to try and invite someone to church. Our family was living in the Arctic town of Inuvik and we were attending the local Baptist church. My Sunday School teacher was outward looking and tried to teach us church kids to be the same. She encouraged us to invite our friends to come to church so they could hear the gospel.
Nicky lived on the same street as us, a few doors down. Like me, his father was an RCMP officer — he was a street cop, my Dad a pilot. Nicky was also in my class at the Sir Alexander Mackenzie School. Unlike me, he was a Newfie; he had this quirky Newfoundland accent. He and his family were also not church-going folk.
One day I was hanging out over at Nicky’s place. What my Sunday School teacher said was weighing on my mind. So I said to Nicky, “Hey, do you want go to church with me on Sunday?” Nicky replied, “Nah, I don’t go to church and I don’t wanna.” I stopped for a moment and thought. Nicky needed an incentive. So I said, “If you come, you’ll get one of these really neat pencils.” I showed him the pencil I got at Sunday school. It had all these colours associated with Jesus and the gospel and then Bible verses in tiny print to explain what each meant. Nicky wasn’t impressed: “I don’t need a stupid pencil. Nah, I told you, I don’t wanna go to church.”
He was stubborn. I had to up the ante. Clearly he needed a bigger incentive than a pencil. I thought of something Nicky would regard as irresistibly cool. With the most persuasion I could muster, I told him, “If you come, they’ll give you a motorbike!” I don’t how I came up with that whopper, but it certainly didn’t work. Nicky just said, “No way, I don’t believe you. No church would give away a motorbike. Nope, not comin’.” Nicky never did come to church with me.
I was in Grade 2. So perhaps you can forgive me for being an evangelist whose honesty didn’t match his zeal. In my desire to achieve the goal, I tried to appeal to the greed naturally resident in human hearts. But, in aiming so high, my pitch was transparently unbelievable, even to a kid in Grade 2.
Sadly, some of what passes for evangelism doesn’t get much beyond my Grade 2 efforts. The human heart isn’t naturally drawn to the gospel message of rescue for sinners through the cross of Christ. In their natural condition, human hearts don’t find that message attractive or persuasive. Christ crucified is “a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles” (1 Cor. 1:23). Yet some try to share the good news in a way that promises things the Bible doesn’t. Maybe not motorbikes, but certainly health, wealth, and prosperity: “If you come to Christ, you’ll be blessed materially. Your health will be better. Your relationships will improve.” Such incentives are really no different to a Grade 2 kid telling his friend to come to church so he can get a motorbike.
I often think of the memorable words of C.S. Lewis in God in the Dock:
As you perhaps know, I haven’t always been a Christian. I didn’t go to religion to make me happy. I always knew a bottle of Port would do that. If you want a religion to make you feel really comfortable, I certainly don’t recommend Christianity.
Lewis was right. Becoming a Christian is going to mean struggle and difficulty. It means bearing a cross, dying to yourself, killing sin. From a this-world perspective, there isn’t much (if anything) to commend it.
So, how do we make the gospel persuasive? Or: how do we even just make a case for someone to join us for Sunday worship at a church service? Here’s the thing: the power of persuasion ultimately isn’t in us. Our calling is simply to speak the truth in love. We’re called to share the gospel with whomever we can. Now 1 Peter 3:15 says you should be prepared to give an answer if someone asks you, “Why?” Why should someone believe the gospel? Because it’s the way to be rescued from the judgment we deserve and it’s the way back to the way things should be in terms of how we relate to our Creator. Why should someone come to church? Because, we tell them, there they’re going to hear the best news available to humanity. In a world of bad news and worse news, a faithful Christian church is going to herald the good news of who Jesus is and what he’s done.
When we say true things like that, God may be at work in that person’s heart with his Holy Spirit. The words we speak may be God’s instrument to persuade and draw that person in to Christ. Or perhaps not. Ultimately the persuasion isn’t in our power. God persuades when he chooses to do so. We just have to speak the truth.