A Church Army (now called Threshold Ministries) evangelist tells how he learned the hard way that real love is the only way to earn the right to tell the Gospel.
One day at the start of my efforts as a street chaplain, as I walked along an alleyway I saw a young girl sobbing. Mascara was running down her cheeks, marring her heavy punk makeup. I was stirred and my heart went out to her. But another part of me was thrilled-here was a chance to prove my mettle as an evangelist and novice outreach worker!
At first she didn’t want company from a stranger, but after seeing my card and my sympathetic manner, she began to open up. I drew upon my Church Army counseling training and two years’ experience as a jail chaplain, and soon she began to share how, at fifteen years old, she had returned home one day to find her room emptied and that she was no longer welcome there.
Just then two more evangelists from another organization approached, ready to share the gospel. They initiated a conversation with the girl about her eternal destiny. I could not restrain myself, and joined in with the visiting evangelists. The three of us reasoned for over an hour with the girl. She was unconvinced, but we hoped that by the end at least she was better informed!
I saw the girl the next day, and the next day and the next. In fact I saw her regularly for years, but she never again trusted me. It must have been two years before she would even exchange greetings. I had learned a painful and lasting lesson.
The Lord had already impressed on me that I should speak little and listen a lot. I did not understand, however, and I did not trust I was hearing him correctly until I met that girl. For years after that, I struggled to remain quiet and to speak only “in season.” As I did, I was increasingly able to put aside my own need to be “successful” as an evangelist. Instead I have learned to focus on discovering and responding to the needs of the people whom I am trying to love.
Some people’s needs are obvious-food, shelter, safety, friendship. God’s love in us should compel us to respond to these without question. I have found that as I respond to a person’s obvious needs, I begin to make a new friend. Then, in the context of a true relationship, I can express my concern that my friend to be fulfilled in every way. And as a trusted friend I can witness credibly to the gentleness and love of Jesus Christ.
“I can’t see Christians because of the Bible in front of their face,” a young man told me. Yet as I helped to keep him fed and sheltered, he engaged me in long discussions about his troubled life and about Christianity. Eventually he did become a church-going believer.
I don’t see many troubled youth turn around like that. They are on the run from everyone who might take harmful control over them. Loving them draws them nearer to the well that never runs dry.
I do not agree with people who minister to people according to their temporal needs with no regard for their eternal relationship with God. How could I fulfill my call as an evangelist and assuage my concern for youngsters’ souls without explaining the gospel?
Yet without social ministry there could be no understandable communication of the gospel to these youth. I’m convinced that evangelism without social ministry is just empty words. What matters is “faith acting through love“ (Galatians 5:6).
This article first appeared in good idea! in January 2001.