Many Christians think that the primary goal of evangelism is to convert unbelievers and make them members of the Christian community. With this in view, many churches develop their evangelistic activities around persuading non-Christians to accept Christ and ultimately join the church. While there is nothing wrong with membership-focused evangelistic strategies—after all, Christ instructs the church, “to go and make disciples of all nations”—I am suggesting that the primary goal of Christian evangelism is to proclaim the good news of God’s kingdom in such a way that it turns the heart of the hearer to Christ. Whereas our outreach ministry to non-Christians may not always culminate in their joining the church, it should lead to their potential conversion if done right. Thus we can effectively proclaim the good news of God’s kingdom even when we do not demand that they convert or become members of the church. In a world where Christians and Muslims view one another with suspicion and the irreligious delight in shunning faith altogether, the church must find ways to offer Christ’s unconditional love to non-Christians without feeling any sense of guilt or failure when their evangelistic efforts do not yield new membership.
One of the definitions of conversion I find compelling is, “The initial change of attitude that brings a person into right relationship with God.”[i] Thus God’s primary goal is to draw people to himself. Conversion presupposes that all human beings are irredeemably lost unless God pulls them into his saving grace. The beauty of conversion is that it begins and ends with God. God reveals himself to those who would be saved and causes the needed “change in attitude” that propels them into the realm of salvation. The Christian duty in the conversion process, therefore, is simply to facilitate attraction. Through evangelism, we provide a conducive setting for the divine-human encounter and when done appropriately, our words and deeds complement one another as we help others see God more vividly. Christians do so through acts of love that meets people’s physical, spiritual, or emotional needs.
A few months ago, I sat in my van waiting to pick up an immigrant family for a medical appointment, and reflected upon a phase of life when someone did the same for mine. At that time, my wife and I had just arrived from Nigeria with our three young children for graduate studies in the U.S. We were poor and needy as many international students were wont to be. Truth be told, we thought we left Nigeria with sufficient funds to last us at least a year. We clearly underestimated the enormous bills that are part and parcel of living in the U.S. After paying tuition, rent and utilities we were often left with very little for anything else. We struggled to balance our budget. We could not afford a car for almost a year. How could we when we barely had sufficient money for food and necessary school supplies? But we received lots of help from the church we joined upon our arrival. Our Christian brothers and sisters brought clothes, food, furniture and many other things to supplement our meager income. We survived because we found love within the Christian community! More important than the material items we received was the assurance of friendship from fellow brothers and sisters in a foreign land. How wonderful it would be if Christians found ways to show similar kindness to those who have little or no contact with the church.
The good news is that many Christian immigrants, especially those arriving to the U.S. as refugees or asylum seekers, are finding comfort through the activities of mission-minded agencies and churches. It helps a great deal that some churches have refugee ministries or task forces to cater to the social, economic, and emotional needs of new Americans. English language classes, food banks and clothing drives are all very useful ways of showing the love of Christ to immigrant neighbors. It may take years, but they will always remember and cherish the help they received as they struggled to find their place in the American society.
The bad news, however, is that many churches remain ambivalent about how to relate to their non-Christian neighbors. In our current political climate there is so much animosity towards immigrants, especially those from Muslim majority nations. But while politically induced fear undermines the Christian message of God’s love for the world, the church must not be deterred in showing our non-Christian neighbors that we care about their wellbeing. Christianity’s core tenet of love and sacrifice is threatened when we, for whatever reason, renege our duty to show compassion to those who are in need.
Part of what I do at the African Resource Center of West Michigan is to welcome immigrant families. Several weeks ago I visited recent arrivals from a Muslim majority country. The father, mother and six children had only just begun to learn English. All of the children were struggling at school. In addition, the two teenagers in high school had not been turning in their homework because they did not have a computer in the home. Their parents were surprised when we gave a laptop to the family and enrolled the students in our tutoring program. “Why are you doing this?” the father asked me. “You don’t even know us!” One of the many rewards of the work we do is seeing the glow in the faces of families when I explain to them that our laptops were purchased through donations we received from Christian organizations and individuals, and that the tutors are volunteers from the church. I explain to them ever person who is helping them sincerely wants their families to thrive as they adjust to their new life in America.
Christian evangelism is not just about telling the stories of God’s love to non-Christians. It is about loving all people in ways that draw them closer to God. No wonder Christ says to his disciples: “You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven (Matt. 5:14–16).”
[i] Ronald F. Youngblood, F. F. Bruce, and R. K. Harrison, Thomas Nelson Publishers, eds., Nelson’s New Illustrated Bible Dictionary (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, Inc., 1995).