By Ashley Chapman
The word “evangelism” used to conjure images of television pastors with boring suits and their wives with even worse hair. Pink walls with lace curtains in the background and a vase of fake flowers on the table to really pull the whole room together. Top it all off with a thick southern accent and that was my perception of spreading God’s word. The other image was rooted in my hometown of Richlands, NC, where I witnessed a few good old-fashioned Southern Baptist revivals.
Neither of those two instances are intrinsically bad. As a matter of fact, I think both practices bring many people to God and have massive positive impact on human lives. They were just not the kind of evangelism that would have appealed to me in my pre-Jesus days. It took a different approach; a new kind of evangelism to set my heart straight.
The story of how I came to God is a veritable “trail of tears.” I want to relate the parts of the story leading to the first experience Ren and I had with actual, everyday evangelism. The effortless kind where all parts of the conversation lead back to God. Where it is utterly obvious that Jesus has permeated the life of the one sharing His Gospel. It is this lived truth that speaks volumes to a person who might not pick up a Bible; the evidence of God in someone else’s life and the outpouring of Christian generosity that follows. Ren and I planned a free-diving course in Long Island, Bahamas. That’s when things got a little weird.
Only two people signed up for this course, which in itself is a little unusual. The two people were Joe Penovich and his daughter, Allie. I remember Joe making a few comments about God to Father Doug, the local priest Ren and I had befriended despite our lackluster faith. Because of this friendship we were hosting the course in an old Bahamian church. I passed Joe’s comments off as him trying to appeal to Father Doug. I thought he was feeding Father Doug what he wanted to hear. My skepticism in the face of Joe’s truthfulness would later become a source of shame. At lunch that day Joe asked if we minded him saying a blessing. Of course we all said no. (Does anyone ever really say “yes” to that?) but his question served another purpose. It opened the door for me to bring up my fledgling faith experiment. So I mentioned to Joe that the next dive day was a Sunday. Would he mind if we delayed the dive until after church? He didn’t mind, neither did Allie. Then I went out on a limb: I asked if they wanted to join me ( trust me, this was a bold proposition for me at the time). They agreed.
We met up for church the next day and ended up in Joe and Allie’s room after service. The entire way over to their room Joe drilled me with questions about my faith, church, prayer, etc. Questions I did not have clear answers to. I confessed that this was new to me and that by praying at lunch he gave me the courage to speak up about church. We held hands and prayed. Joe is a spontaneous prayer. He does it all the time, with or without company, in front of anyone (and everyone) and over everything. He could walk into a room of Bill Mahers and make friends. Maybe even convert a few. You can’t help but be drawn into his light. He is the kind of Christian I knew I wanted to be and am still trying to be. He encompasses what it really means to be Christian, to evangelize without thinking about it because it has become who you are.
Finally he asked the hard question, “What about Ren? What does he think of all this?” I started to cry (again). He told me he had a feeling that was the case. The next thing I knew we were being flown over to Joe’s house on El Salvador for a long weekend. (His treat, of course. His acts of generosity were not lost on us). Joe, Allie, Ren and I fished, dove, ate and shared our stories. There were many more tears, mostly by Joe and thankfully, Ren. It was the glimpse into faith that we both needed.
For many of us, the idea of evangelism has been distorted over time. My faulty world view had me believe evangelism had to do with the method by which the word of God is delivered. Big hair, pink walls, etc. I didn’t know at the time that evangelism is, at its root, the message itself. Anything outside the message of the Good News is unimportant. Evangelism and the generosity that follows aren’t something we should fit on our weekly checklist. The gospel should pour out of us all the time. If not on a street corner, at our supper tables when we invite non-believers to eat. In line at the grocery store when step up to show generosity by buying someone’s basket of food. We should be listening constantly to discern others’ interest, values and world-views in order to imbue the conversation with the Good News when the chance arises. Having been evangelized in this way I can honestly say that generosity and vulnerability in the process turn distasteful practices of “pressure evangelism” into something people can swallow. Something people actually want.
The Bible is very clear that the responsibility to evangelize is not an option but a command. Amazingly, the Bible also tells us, through the life and parables of Jesus, exactly what this should look like.