I had every intention of ignoring this topic, as I do not have what is known as the spiritual gift of evangelism. I have to confess that it's a gift I'm not sure I want to possess because so many who claim to have it seem to do it, um, badly.
Southern Baptists are not supposed to say that. We start learning how to tell people about Jesus when we can barely talk. Even as a preschooler, I didn't mind the social part of Sunbeams (as it was called then) and later, GA's, but I never did like the part about witnessing - talking to people about my faith.
As I entered my teens, I began my extended sabbatical from organized religion. I never lost my faith, and I wasn't living on the wild side - I just didn't want to go to church. It wasn't that I had turned against Christ - just his followers.
During those years I spent away from church, I developed disdain for people who felt compelled to walk up to strangers to ask if they had been saved. Especially when I was the one they were asking.
"Yes, thank you," didn't seem to satisfy them. They always pried further, "When was that?"
"When I was 7, thank you."
"And where do you go to church?"
"I'm a member of Blankety Baptist, thanks so much for your interest."
Most of the time, that provided the acceptable credentials to end the conversation. I remember one couple who picked up on the "I'm a member" part and continued the inquisition. "But do you go?" they asked. At that point, I was done with the conversation. I don't remember how I got away from them, but I do remember that they looked at me as though they had hit the jackpot and found a sinner in need of redemption. (Excuse me, but aren't we all still sinners in continual need of redemption, even after we have accepted Christ?)
I'm sure this would be a shock to my well-meaning witnessing couple, but for me, that time away from church actually drew me closer to Christ.
It also taught me that "witness muggings" such as those I had experienced, generally do not work because those doing the mugging just make the "muggee" feel, well, attacked. I know there are people who have conversations with strangers in line at the grocery story and lead them to Christ right then and there, but when it works, it's because God is already working in that person's life and the Holy Spirit is leading the witnessing.
That's different than Christians who think witnessing is something to check off a list, like flossing your teeth. Most of the time, witnessing requires an actual relationship with the person with whom you are sharing Christ, and just as important, a sensitivity to God's leading.
You see, Jill was not a Christian, but as this is the Bible belt, a good number of her clients were. Jill had several clients who understood the relationship part of witnessing, but didn't get the part about being sensitive to God's leading.
For years, Jill and I never discussed religion. She would ask what I was doing for the weekend, and as my activities were usually centered around church, she was well aware of my faith. We talked about a lot of other things - gardening, decorating, family, pets, relationships - the things that help you get to know someone better.
Over time, Jill began to broach the topic of religion. She mentioned that she found Buddhism appealing. I asked her what she found appealing about it. I don't recall her answer exactly, but it was something to the effect that she didn't find Buddhism to be judgmental. I accepted her answer without considering it an opportunity for debate, but I did offer that Christianity is not supposed to be judgmental and what a shame it is that, too often, we who are followers of Christ fail to demonstrate that.
A year or more passed, and one day as she was trimming my hair, Jill said, "Can I ask you a question about religion?" I quickly began to pray.
"Sure," I replied.
"Why are Christians so mean?"
Gulp. I began to pray harder. "What do you mean?"
She began to tell me about various people, from clients to her accountant, who had tried to convert her to Christianity. Without fail, each had made Jill feel defensive as they began to argue their case. And without fail, their attempts to lead her to Christ had ended in broken relationships. The accountant told her she needed to find someone else to do her taxes. The clients broke appointments and never returned calls.
"They shouldn't have done that," I told her. "That's not what we're called to do as followers of Christ. It's true that we're called to tell people about Jesus, but we shouldn't attack." I tried to assure her that they meant the best, and that they did what they believed they were supposed to do but they had done it badly. I told her that I felt sure they were embarrassed by how they had handled it.
She seemed to feel somewhat better, and after that, she was more comfortable asking me about my faith from time to time. I always let Jill lead because I knew she had to be open to the conversations, and she had to know that I wouldn't bring it up when she wasn't ready. I didn't want her to ever dread my appointments.
As time went by, she had another client whose husband was the president of a local seminary. Jill house-sat for them once and discovered books in their library that helped answer many of her questions about Christianity. Not only that, those books filled her with excitement about learning more. I remember the day that I sat in her chair and Jill announced, "Jesus isn't what I always thought he was. Jesus is cool."
When Jill moved away, she still had questions, but she was far more open to Christianity than she had been when she asked me why Christians are so mean. In the intervening years, God had placed a number of us in her life to show her that Christians are called to love others.
Another part of being in a Southern Baptist church can mean feeling guilty about not going on mission trips. I don't feel guilty about that at all, because I realize that God needs some of us to just be open to what he's doing right where we live. That would be the Jerusalem part of Christ's Great Commission.
"But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth." ~ Acts 1:9