I know that my Jewish readers find the word “evangelism” a loathsome one. It is not in the traditions of Judaism to proselytize. Well, bear with me on this because it’s not in the wheelhouse of most mainstream Christians either and we also find the idea repulsive. So just sit back and read. I assure you I’m not aiming to convert anyone or save anyone. I just want to share an experience that taught me to be surprised by God.
Many folks are surprised to find out that I, as a Presbyterian, attended and graduated from a Baptist seminary. As with all seminaries, there are required courses, and fundamental to the Baptist approach to things, you can’t get out of that seminary without taking a class on the public witnessing of your faith.
Now, I’m what you would call a dyed-in-the-wool Presbyterian, so the whole idea of evangelism was pretty foreign to me. I put off taking that class on testimony until the very last semester of my seminary career. I had visions of standing on street corners, hollerin’ out the name of Jesus [pronounced Jeee-zuz with emphasis on the first syllable] and passing out leaflets (or tracts, as they are called in the business). Mine was a Presbyterian view of testimony and it didn’t feel good to me.
Well, there I found myself on that first day of class and the professor handed out the assignments for the next 18 weeks. And sure enough, there it was. What he wanted us to do was to go out – not in 18 weeks but in 6 – and provide salvation to some poor sinner.
Now, I want to impress upon you my distress about all of this. It wasn’t just something I hesitated to do – it was something I did not want to do. Where in the world was I going to find someone who didn’t know about Jesus? Everybody in my English-speaking world knows something about Jesus whether they’re Christian or not. And I certainly didn’t want to offend anybody.
So I thought of every angle I could. I finally determined that I would go to a meeting of the downtown Rotary Club, have lunch with the folks there, and just be point blank about my assignment. I figured there must be a Rotarian worth saving.
But I put it off and put it off and the deadline for making a first class report was nearing.
Now I also want you to know that while it was something I didn’t want to do, I had come to understand by that time that sometimes I had to do things that might please God even though they didn’t necessarily please me. And so, from the time the assignment was handed out, I began a prayer. It was a prayer that I said at night before I went to bed and said in the morning when I woke up and said during the day every time the assignment would pop back into my head. It was a simple prayer. It went something like this: “God, you know I don’t want to do this. And you also know that I don’t know the first thing about HOW to do this. So if (and that’s a big “IF”) there is someone you would like me to touch on your behalf, I would appreciate it if you would put him or her in my path so that in falling over them I will understand what it is you have in mind.”
I bet I said that prayer 50 times in the course of 3 weeks. I had absolutely no faith in my ability to witness to someone in a way that would provide some kind of meaningful conversion experience nor did I think that God wanted me to do that.
Well, late one afternoon I went out to the local mall to just walk around and get some exercise. While I was there, I stopped in a coffee shop and I had no more stuck my head in the door than I heard my name called from across the room. A friend of mine who was a part-time student at the seminary was at the checkout counter and she was asking me if I had taken my ordination exams yet.
“No,” I said, “those come up next month.”
Then I noticed the woman behind the counter. I knew her as the owner of the store but knew nothing else about her. And she spoke up as she continued to ring my friend’s purchases, “Ordination exams?” she said. “Don’t you take those to become a minister?”
I began to walk closer to the counter because I was a little embarrassed about yelling across the store. “Well, yes, at least some denominations require it.”
“Are you going to be a minister?” she asked.
“I hope so. My friend here and I are both attending the seminary.”
“Are you Baptist?” she asked, knowing that the only seminary in town was a Baptist one.
(Now understand that we’re standing in the middle of a place of business and other customers have begun to line up to pay for their purchases. And here is the owner of the place asking me questions about the seminary.)
“No,” I said, somewhat self-consciously by this time, “I’m Presbyterian but I go to the Baptist seminary.”
“Well, how does that work?”
Gee, I thought, this is weird. She doesn’t know me from Adam and she’s got customers backed up to the door. So I tried, in a nutshell, to explain that I got permission from the Presbyterians to go to this Baptist school.
Then, as she handed my friend her change, she looked me square in the eye and said, “Well, I grew up Roman Catholic. But it doesn’t work for me and hasn’t worked for me for a long time. And I’m searching.”
Now, when a person gets hit by a Mack truck, he or she would usually recognize it. But not me. I just mumbled something about maybe trying out First Presbyterian Church over on West Avenue and I was out the door.
But after I said good-bye to my friend and headed to my car, I did pull up short. I replayed the conversation in my mind. I heard her say over again, “I’m searching.” I remembered the prayer that I had said over and over again, asking God to make me fall over somebody God wanted to touch. As I climbed into the car, turned over the ignition, I said out loud to myself, “Do you suppose that God wants me to talk to her?”
Now, what would you do? Many evangelistically oriented folks would head right back in there, right? Oh no, not me. I had to go home and think about it. The next day I did muster up the courage to call the coffee shop where a young employee told me the owner had left that day for Europe and would not be back for 10 days. Upon request, he told me her name, I left my own name with the phone number, and the conversation was over.
I figured I was headed back to save somebody at Downtown Rotary.
Eleven days later, I still hadn’t made it to the Rotary meeting. So, figuring the worst that could happen would be that I would embarrass myself, I once again said a prayer, “Lord, I’m going to call Andrea and if you want to touch her through me, I just ask that you give me the words to do it.”
And just as I reached for the phone, it rang. It was Andrea from the coffee shop returning my call from 11 days before.
Well, to make a long story somewhat shorter, I reminded her of the conversation we had had almost two weeks before. Before I got all that out, she said to me, “Oh, yes, Gretchen, I remember you. And I am so glad you called. I just felt like you would be someone I could talk about all this with. Would you like to have dinner sometime?”
I, thinking of my assignment deadline, said, “That would be great. How about tomorrow?”
Well, that didn’t work, so I had to get an extension for my class, but by the end of the week, I found myself in a steakhouse with Andrea telling her my own faith story, asking her about hers, and suggesting that she might like to visit a church where I was going.
She did. And for several weeks after that she and I met regularly to talk about life and its challenges and about God, about Jesus, and about the Holy Spirit.
Andrea did not make an overnight decision about coming to the faith. My Baptist professors told me I should push her on that. But I didn’t feel right about it. My gut feeling was that my continued association with her in weeks long after I graduated and moved back home would have more of an impact on her. Frankly, that was a more Presbyterian approach. Leave it in God’s hands. Nevertheless, the professors were amazed at how the story unfolded.
What they don’t know is that three years after I graduated from the seminary, Andrea did “come to the Lord” in a very personal way (and without any help from me) and joined a Presbyterian church in her community – a different one than the one she and I attended together.
Now, let me be very clear about something in this very amazing story. I had nothing to do with teaching that woman about salvation nor is that any of my business. In fact, the words saved or salvation never were part of our conversations. That, my friends, is exactly what the work of the Holy Spirit is all about. I was just a tool and I was and I am humbled that God would use me in a way that might bring the two of them closer together. And I also want to point out that my being a minister-in-training in no way gave me the preparation to do what I did. I have relayed to you, as best as I can remember, the conversations I had with Andrea that led up to a series of dinners we shared together. There was nothing about all of that that required professional theological training. The conversations we shared over dinner did not center on anything that I had learned in seminary. The conversations were simple, straightforward discussions about life and about my personal experience with God and Christ and the Holy Spirit. I did not learn any of that in my training to be a minister. The only difference is that I was forced into opening my ears and my eyes because I had to take a class on evangelism.
As I look back on it, sometimes I think I had that experience just so I can tell others, even others of a different religious persuasion, that you too can witness to people in a very meaningful and personal way – just by sharing your own faith journey.
There’s a story in the New or Second Testament about Peter and his cohorts who had been out fishing all night. They knew those waters and fishing was a profession to them. They had been skunked in their attempt to land a catch in their boats. When Jesus, a carpenter of all things, showed them where to put in their nets, well, I can only imagine that the only reason they went along with him was to be polite or to thank him for a sermon well-delivered.
And then the catch was so great, they had to bring in reinforcements to bring them all in. It was, simply, a miracle for a group of men who figured they knew all there was to know about fishing.
Friends, the fact of the matter is, all these men had to do was do what Jesus asked them to. They didn’t even have to put aside their skepticism. Jesus provided them with the fish. Likewise, when they left everything and followed him, untrained in evangelism, still doubting what he had to offer, it was Jesus, God, and the Holy Spirit who brought them the people to jump inside their boat, the church.
If churches today have concerns about the lack of growth in any church or place of worship, they need only look to themselves and examine what they are doing about that. It is the Holy Spirit who gives us the words even when we have absolutely no faith in our ability to speak.
Standing on street corners handing out tracts and hollerin’ out the name of Jeee-zuz isn’t my thing and never will be. I don’t begrudge those who do it anymore than I take issue with folks who go door-to-door spreading their version of the “Good News.” But I do believe that whether we are Christian or Jewish, God will put us to use just as much as God did with all those folks in the Bible – and in unexpected ways.Share here: