Evangelism—even the word has negative connotations for the unconvinced. Though it literally means the telling of “good news,” our approach to evangelism rarely comes across as “good” to those who are not yet following Christ. What if we changed our approach to mirror the pattern I often see Jesus demonstrating in Scripture—an experiential approach, inviting people to “taste and see that the Lord is good”?
In the gospel of John, Jesus issues that invitation to skeptics and believers: “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them” (John 7:37-38). Did Jesus really mean anyone? Did He really mean the Good News is so good that anyone willing to come and drink can experience a taste of living water? What difference might it make to our evangelistic approach if we believed this?
Maybe the reason we don’t see more people following Christ is that we’ve put ourselves in the way of them coming to God.
Talking to spiritual skeptics, I find Christians often come across as if we’re saying, “Come to us, conform to us, let us convince you to believe what we believe, then pray with me to accept Christ. And then—and only then—God will have anything to do with you.” Is that true? Maybe the reason we don’t see more people following Christ is that we’ve put ourselves in the way of them coming to God. We’ve made them go through us to get to Him. We should listen to James’s admonition to the churches: “We should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God” (Acts 15:19).
Earlier in John 7, Jesus addresses those skeptical of his divinity. He says, “Anyone who chooses to do the will of God will find out whether my teaching comes from God or whether I speak on my own (John 7:17). Over the last 10 years, I’ve watched our church grow up out of the culture to see thousands find faith.
Every few years, we’ve done a 60-day experiment called Soul Revolution, in which we challenge people to stay in continuous connection to God. We tell them to invite skeptical friends and neighbors to do the experiment with them. Even though it’s technically an experiment in “abiding in Christ” for those who know Him, we’ve seen many people find faith as we encourage them “to give as much of yourself as you understand to as much of God and His will as you understand, and see if God doesn’t show up in those 60 days.”
An atheist with his third drunken driving arrest, Brian was sentenced to mandatory recovery. In recovery, someone convinced Brian to just act as if God exists and try to be thankful daily. As he started thanking this God he didn’t believe in for little things, Brian began to see “little coincidences.”
Brian: “I began to believe there must be a God, but I was in no way ready to accept Jesus or any Christian rules. A woman I knew invited me to Gateway around that time. Gateway held a 60-day ‘experiment’ to connect every hour with God. I never made it every hour, but my nightly connection turned into daily multiple connections. And I began to see God at work in my life throughout the day.”
When we try to get people to change their behavior before showing them how to drink the living water that will quench the root thirst, we just spiritually dehydrate them.
For most of us, this shatters our paradigm of how God works. Brian barely believed God existed, was skeptical about Jesus, was still abusing alcohol and was indulging in pornography, and yet as we invited him to experientially discover whether Jesus’ words were true, God drew near to him and he came to believe and trust in Jesus.
Do you believe you can offer the same invitation Jesus did? “If you are thirsty, come to Him and drink.” “If you’re willing to do God’s will, you’ll see that Jesus’ teachings are true.” Do you believe if we can simply get people to be willing to connect with their Creator daily, willing to respond to His will, that God will draw near to them? We’ve seen it happen many times.
Brian: “Walking in [to church], I didn’t know what the rules were. At that point, I knew God existed, but if I’d been hit with a bunch of doctrine or rules, I probably would not have stayed. Hearing an invitation to give as much of yourself as you understand to as much of God as you understand and see what happens—I could do that. I wanted to see something different, but I didn’t have a path to explore that. The invitation to “just be willing” and experiment with trusting God, rather than telling me everything I needed to change in my life gave me permission to keep exploring.”
Think about the way Jesus dealt with the Samaritan woman at the well. With five divorces in her past and now sexually involved with a sixth man who was not her husband, she needed changes in her life. Yet Jesus’ says to her, “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” (John 4:10).
The disciples chaffed at Jesus’ evangelistic approach because in their minds, this Samaritan woman needed to make some drastic lifestyle changes for God to meet and lead her. But Jesus knew her real problem was not her behavior, but her disconnection from God. He offered her the only thing that could change her life—living water. When we try to get people to change their behavior before showing them how to drink the living water that will quench the root thirst, we just spiritually dehydrate them.
That leads to an important question: How do any of us change? How do we help greedy people become generous, divorcing people reconcile, addicted people find freedom, sexually entangled people honor God? Do we need more Bible study, prayer or other disciplines? More church attendance or community? All good things! But …
Jesus said to Martha, who was busy doing lots of good things, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and bothered about so many things, but only one thing is necessary (Luke 10:41-42). Jesus tells us Mary was doing the one thing—listening to Him. The way we love God is by listening and responding moment by moment in constant connection to Him.
He knew that this very simple thing is precisely humanity’s problem. Our addiction to self pushes God to the periphery. So on the way to Gethsemane Jesus picks up a branch and says, “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me, and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me, you can do nothing” (John 15:5). You can do nothing? That verse tells me: Stay connected—fruit happens!
In our Soul Revolution experiment, we asked everyone to set a watch to beep every 60 minutes to interrupt our habit of ignoring God throughout most of our day. And for 60 days, we used the watch beep as a reminder that God is there and wants to lead us if we are willing. Nearly 4,000 people have done our 60-60 experiment, and the results for those who went all out have been astounding. We’ve heard stories of Jesus bringing stagnant, long-time believers to life, addicts finding freedom, gay and straight people committing to honor God sexually, marriages healed. And we witnessed many people like Brian find faith in Christ and experience fruit.
Brian: “What is this fruit that we hear of in John 15:1-8? As I experimented with staying connected, I experienced peace and joy as a way of life—probably the biggest gift of all. Fruit is also a former porn addict who now sees the beauty of a woman’s soul rather than just a selfish thrill. Fruit is a hunger to read the entire New Testament after that first 60-60 and coming to a conviction on my own about sex outside of marriage. I found Jesus’ view of women changing my view to see them as valuable, spiritual creatures to honor. Fruit is a former alcohol abuser who no longer needs the crutch. Fruit is coming to a church with a few thousand people and having it feel small because I have learned to know and know in community rather than isolate. Fruit is walking up to a homeless gathering and no longer seeing the “scum of the earth” but rather seeing beautiful souls just struggling with life and teaching me about compassion. Fruit is being able to go on for hours about all the ways God has guided me, walked with me. I experienced Jesus’ words as Truth: He remained in me when I chose to remain in Him.”
Several years later, Brian leads his own small group and invites other atheists to “taste and see that the Lord is good”!