I leaned over and held up my hand to block her cigarette from the wind. Amanda paused and looked at me with wide eyes, surprise and confusion drawn on her face.
“You are the coolest Christian I have ever met,” she said with surprising solemnity.
I wasn’t going for cool, but I smiled because I knew what she meant. She had always thought that Christians were abrasive and judgmental when they told people about Jesus. But after the two hour conversation we just had, it looked like God had changed her mind.
It was Spring Break, and I was on the beaches of Panama City, Florida – and I wasn’t there to get drunk and party. But nor was I there to pass judgment. I came to listen and ask questions about people’s spiritual journeys, to hear their opinions about God, Jesus and Christians, and take any opportunities that arose amidst that to share with them about the hope I’ve found in Christ and how they could have it, too.
Every March, Cru has an annual spring break retreat called “Big Break”. Each year, students from across the country gather in Panama City, FL during their spring break with hundreds of other college students from all corners of the U.S.. In the mornings they spend time worshipping, listening to a talk and learning a method of initiative evangelism, and each afternoon they go out to engage with people on the beach in spiritual conversation.
I came to Big Break as a college student with my campus, and that is when I first met Amanda*. That week was honestly one of the most transformative times in my spiritual journey because I learned two crucial things about initiative evangelism that will forever shape the way I view and engage with others.
1. Jesus initiated with people. If we think that Jesus viewed the gospel with a “come and get it” mentality, then I don’t think we’ve paid very well attention to the life He lived.
In John 4, Jesus and the disciples were on their way from Judea to Galilee, and as they traveled they passed through Samaria. The group became tired, so they stopped to rest beside a well. It was then that Jesus noticed a woman coming to draw water.
What strikes me about Jesus’ encounter with this woman is that He didn’t walk into a church to find her. She certainly wasn’t looking for Him either. In fact, she wasn’t doing anything remotely spiritual at all – she he was just in the middle of her daily routine, and so was He.
The next thing that happened is crucial for us to note. Verse 7 says “When a Samaritan woman came to draw water, Jesus said to her, ‘Will you give me a drink?’
Did you see that? Jesus started it. Jesus is the one who initiated a conversation with the woman.
But He didn’t do it just to be friendly – He had a purpose. Only three verses later (v.10), He boldly crossed the threshold into spiritual conversation, and shared the gospel: “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.”
What would motivate Him to do that? What if the woman was feeling closed off and didn’t want to talk to anyone? Or on the flip side, what if she was lonely and wanted someone to care? Jesus didn’t waste time trying to guess – He was confident that what He had to offer her was far more valuable than the risk of being a nuisance or staying silent.
With Jesus as our example, we can know with certainty that He is not just a proponent of initiative evangelism, but that it was actually His idea.
2. Initiative evangelism changes our perspective. The Bible says that God has set eternity in the heart of each individual (Eccl. 3:11). This means that every person has a God-implanted curiosity about who He is within them because He has put it there. God desires for every person to seek and find Him (Acts 17:27); He longs to find and be found by us.
Do you really believe this?
Though many of us would theologically agree with that, our lives reflect that we don’t. When we don’t initiate, we claim the belief that we don’t think that people are spiritually interested, even though God has clearly told us that He has designed each person with a spiritual curiosity.
When we believe that people aren’t interested in spiritual matters, it keeps us from initiating.
However, when you step out in faith to intentionally engage with other people in spiritual conversation, you will find that most people have actually spent a lot of time thinking about spiritual things, and most of them have a lot of questions.
Real-life theology begins to replace our inaccurate opinions.
When we initiate with others, we begin to uproot these false beliefs and develop a more healthy, right perspective of others’ spiritual need.
We see this in the response of the woman at the well. After Jesus tells her of the gift of God freely available to her, she says “Where do you get that living water?” She was spiritually curious, and had Jesus not initiated we never would have known that.
The same is true in our lives.
After every conversation I had on the beach in Panama City, each person sincerely thanked me for sharing with them. To me, this proved that not only do they need what I had to offer – Christ – but that they sensed that on some level, too.
This is no accident.
Whether or not they know it, what those people sensed is that they are dying of thirst and had been offered the water of life. Why would I not freely give them what they so desperately need?
There is a time and a place to spiritually engage with others with reserve and caution; this isn’t meant to be a catch all. This is actually a part of my own story of coming to Christ – it took a year of searching for God to soften my heart to a point where I could receive the Gospel.
Sometimes God has other work to do in a person’s heart before they are ready to receive Christ.
Sometimes, like Paul, God intervenes a sudden, drastic moment. Sometimes He calls us to spend time developing a relationship with someone first. Sometimes God knows that their biggest need is to feel loved and so that is our first aim. Sometimes we are called just to listen with a tender heart.
And other times, God calls us to boldly share the gospel with a random person on the beach.
I loved that Amanda felt like I listened to her, like she was safe to voice her opinions, concerns and disagreements with me, and didn’t find me aggressive in the way I shared about Jesus with her. And if that’s what “being cool” means to her, then that is something I want to be.
But sharing Christ is not about seeming cool, or making people think that Christians are ok with immorality. Being a follower of Christ is bigger than wanting to fit in with the culture or simply being moral; it’s about loving people enough to care and listen, and being willing to cross the border into spiritual conversation for the sake of their soul.
Every person’s story is as unique as they are, and there is not a one-size-fits-all method to engaging with people on spiritual matters. As always, we must seek the Lord on how He wants us to engage, and constantly submit ourselves to the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
But initiative evangelism is important, not just because Jesus did it, but also because it helps to align our perspective with the reality of people’s spiritual need. And when we truly understand their need, we find ourselves free to boldly offer them the free gift of life in Christ Jesus.
In a culture of intolerable tolerance, when social media has given the common man a megaphone to voice every thought and idea to which he is offended, it can seem safer to keep quiet and hold the Gospel close to our chest. And it is.
But we are not called to be cautious.
“For God has not given us a spirit of fear and timidity, but of power, love and self-discipline.” 2 Timothy 1:7, NLT
*Name has been changed
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