In 1942 a man named Karol Wojtyla joined the Nazi resistance movement in Poland. During that time, Nazi racist theory taught that non-Germans did not need higher education, so the Nazis closed all the universities in Poland. Fortunately, a network of underground schools developed throughout the country, and Wojtyla joined this movement. More specifically, he enrolled in an underground Catholic seminary.
Through the years this young man climbed the ranks of the Catholic Church, and he eventually became a bishop. It was during his tenure as bishop in Poland that he also worked to resist Communist rule in his country. Amazingly, in the course of his life this man had a hand in opposing two of the worst governmental regimes of modern history.
Years later, he would become Pope John Paul II.
Fast forward to 1979, in Greensboro, NC. Racial tension in this city was escalating to its boiling point, and it finally exploded in an event that would forever mark Greensboro’s history. The Black community confronted the Klu Klux Klan and Nazi groups of the city about their brazen racism, only to be massacred. In one particular show-down, Klan and Nazi citizens opened fire on a group of African Americans, killing seven and injuring others.
Among the African Americans in the group that day was a man named Nelson Johnson. By God’s grace he was not among the victims who were shot, and today he is an influential Baptist pastor in Greensboro who has done revolutionary work in social justice, and labors to heal the racial divisions of the city in the name of Christ.
Two men. They lived in different countries, different cultures, different times, and are of different races, but both witnessed extreme acts of violence and oppression. Yet in spite of these experiences, in spite of watching their fellow human beings commit unspeakable acts against other humans, neither of them has become jaded or militant in their work to change the world. In fact, their approach to outreach and evangelism is quite the opposite.
Several nights ago I had the pleasure of hearing Johnson speak to a group of students about his ministry, and he explained his understanding of evangelism as follows: As Christians, we should not see people as they are. In fact, we shouldn’t even see people as they see themselves. We should not see people in their actuality, but in their POTENTIALity. They are not drug dealers and prostitutes–they are children of God! And so we must invite them to live as children of God. And we must invite them over and over. They may never choose to answer the call, but we must never stop inviting them.
What struck me about Johnson’s description is how strikingly similar it sounded to something that Pope John Paul once said. In a document he wrote on Evangelism, the Pope responded to criticism of Christian evangelism. Many people don’t like the idea of Christians imposing their faith on others, and to this criticism Pope John Paul replied with the following: We as Christians, do not impose. Rather, we propose, as a lover proposes to his beloved.
What a gorgeous picture of evangelism! Both these men, who would have every reason to be defensive and even aggressive in their approach to the world, given what they know of its utter fallenness, have instead offered us a different kind of evangelistic vision: We should invite people to live as children of God, and we should propose to the lost as a lover to the beloved.
The reason that both these men, who come from completely different worlds, have arrived at such a similar conclusion, is they they have seen what happens when human beings devalue other human beings. When we place people in boxes, label them, determine whether or not they have worth, and make ourselves superior, then we have ceased to see others with the eyes of Christ.
And our evangelism often does just that. It is arrogant, condescending, and narrow-minded. We do not see people as children of God or lovers to be wooed, but as adversaries to be defeated, or numbers to be won.
It is in response to this strain of evangelism that I find Pope John Paul and Nelson Johnson to be most helpful. Evangelism is not simply a matter of convincing people of right understanding–it is a matter of loving them in a way that transforms them. A husband loves his wife so much that he would lay himself down for her–that is the kind of evangelism we are called to.
This is not a call to water down the message–it is a call to change our hearts. The message is not the problem–we are. We must stop using the Gospel to beat people, and instead see it as the means of humbly loving others that it is. Yes, there are hard teachings in the Gospel, and we must speak the truth, but as Ephesians 4:15 instructs, we must do so in love, and that requires fundamentally altering the way we see the recipients of the Gospel. If we do not truly love the people we are reaching, then everyone will know the “love” we display is a sham. Just because we call it love does not make it such.
As a lover to the beloved…do you see the lost in this way? I certainly don’t, but I wonder what my ministry would look like if I had this kind of profoundly rich love, this transformative love, for those around me. I pray that God would grace me with such an unswervingly faithful and passionate love, so that the world may one day stop cringing at the thought of evangelism, but instead come to yearn for it.