Sharing Jesus patiently.

For the sake of this article I’ll call him Uladzimir. He’s a pastor, and he was trying to teach me how he did street evangelism—where you stand in some public place, and share Jesus with passers-by.

Most of the time, street evangelists pick someplace busy, but not hurried—someplace where people might hang out, and therefore have a few minutes to talk. Like a park, a shopping mall, a town square, a main street, a parking lot. For this instruction, Uladzimir took me to a mall.

Pick a place to stand, he instructed, and watch the passers-by as they come your way. Look at their body language.

  • Do they walk quickly, eyes straight ahead, pretending you’re invisible (like they do with beggars and pollsters), pretending they have somewhere to be? Skip them.
  • Do they walk slowly, nodding or saying hello as they approach, seemingly willing to listen if you distracted them with a conversation? Talk to them.

Still, Uladzimir pointed out, don’t forget to listen to the Holy Spirit throughout. If he interrupts us in our assessment, and says, “Go talk to that one”—even if they look outwardly hostile, and look like maybe they wanna hurt you—obey your Lord. Likewise if he says, “No, not this one,” then no, not this one.

Simple idea. So I stood at an empty spot in the mall, my evangelism clipboard in hand (looking for all the world like a pollster, I guess) and watched people walk past.

The first two wouldn’t even make eye contact. I even said “Hello” as they passed. I do that ordinarily; it’s not a trick to make people start a conversation. They didn’t break stride. The next few were likewise too busy to slow down.

Uladzimir grew impatient.

“Is the Spirit telling you no on all these people?” he said.

“They’re all giving off the ‘uninterested’ vibe,” I pointed out.

Ordinarily Uladzimir is a patient man. (I know from personal experience; I’ve tested his patience a bunch of times.) But this day he didn’t feel like waiting. Two power-walkers later, Uladzimir simply stepped in front of the next person and said, “Hello!” and began his spiel.

“I’m sorry,” said the man, “I really have to be somewhere.” And off he went.

I resisted the temptation to ask Uladzimir whether the Holy Spirit had said yes to that guy.

Uladzimir proceeded to break his own procedure three more times. We got nowhere.

To be fair, he really wanted to teach me his evangelism technique. And not with somebody else who was pretending to be pagan; he wanted a real-life example. But today he was just gonna be frustrated. The fish weren’t biting. Hey, sometimes it’s like that.

I think Uladzimir’s guidelines are entirely valid though. If you ever find yourself doing street evangelism, remember: Holy Spirit and body language. If they don’t look interested, don’t force Jesus upon them. And if the Holy Spirit overrides our impressions, follow the Spirit.

But my point of this little story is to make a bigger point: Patience.

Impatience is fruitless evangelism.

Patience is a fruit of the Spirit, and if we’re sharing Jesus, we need to exhibit his character. Need to. I suspect a big reason Uladzimir and I weren’t getting anywhere on that day at the mall, was because he was losing his patience, and the Spirit wanted him in a much better headspace.

Part of the reason I changed Uladzimir’s name is because he ordinarily is a patient man. It’s just that day, he wasn’t. And sometimes we’re all gonna have bad days. That’s life. When that happens, lean on the Spirit harder. Uladzimir didn’t, and tried to force the situation—and any other day he’d be the first to tell you to never force the situation. We gotta work with the conditions we have.

Other evangelists don’t agree at all. Neither are they patient at all. They always try to force the situation—“Now is the day of your salvation!”—and push as hard as they can. They think they have a mandate from the Spirit to do so.

  • They dress outrageously, to get attention.
  • They get a bullhorn, or a working sound system, and get loud.
  • They make signs. Some of them are even legible. (Some are even Christian. The “God Hates Fags” signs aren’t.)
  • They have giveaways. Like free food, cold water, free clothes, coupons, tchotchkes… but you gotta listen to their message before you can have the freebies.
  • They write what they consider clever tracts, which are “guaranteed” to get read. Usually ’cause the tract looks like it’s about something other than Christ, just to get you reading. Sometimes there’s shock value involved: They condemn something, like another religion (whether it be Mormons or Muslims or even fellow Christians) or certain things in the popular culture (like Harry Potter books or reality shows). Or they threaten you with hell and mayhem. Whatever gets you to start reading… and then put it down in about two minutes, and mutter to yourself, “Oh, it’s Christian. Feh.”

You see the general theme though: They’re not willing for things to happen naturally. Hey, the rest of the world doesn’t work that way: We have to seize the day. Make our opportunities. Go out and get that job, or make that sale, or drive that bargain, or whatever it is we have conquer. We can’t passively sit around and wait for things to fall out of the sky. So they presume the same is true of evangelism: Go into all the world and make disciples, Mt 28.19 right? Don’t just expect them to wander into our churches.

Ordinarily I agree: We Christians should be active, not passive. But “active” means actively obeying the Spirit. It doesn’t mean, “Well, I don’t see anything happening, so I’m gonna go make things happen.” Sometimes God’s time has not yet come:

  • Christians aren’t obedient enough yet, and need rebuking.
  • Christians haven’t prepared enough yet, and need training.
  • Christians are too unfruitful to lead others, and need maturing.

Could be any number of reasons.

The answer to all our maturity problems is not to bypass them with a six-week evangelism seminar, a slew of gospel tracts, a citywide campaign, and zealots willing to verbally assault passers-by. It’s not to co-opt the methods of multi-level marketing in order to share Jesus. That works great for selling a consumable product, but we’re trying to get people to totally surrender their lives to Jesus, and that’s a way bigger commitment level than 10 bottles of overpriced essential oils. Jesus is not a product. He’s our Lord.

The impatient route appears to win people to Jesus, but how many of them stick around? How many of them turn out to be just as impatient as their evangelists, and quit Jesus the instant things get difficult? (Or forget him as soon as they leave the evangelist’s presence, and never go to church nor read a bible nor pray?) How many of ’em were just saying “Yes” to everything in order to make the evangelist shut up and go away? And if only we were patient, we’d notice all these things—but we’re not, and don’t.

Stuff to bear in mind while evangelizing.

Back to Uladzimir’s instructions:

WATCH FOR BODY LANGUAGE. If people look interested or open, approach. If not, not.

LISTEN TO THEIR RESPONSES. As you’re sharing, pay attention to how they’re reacting. I know from experience lots of people just wanna talk spirituality, or wanna debate religion for the fun of it, so they’re not actually listening, and you’re getting nowhere.

So. When you talk about spiritual things, are they open and interested, or anxious and wanna get away now that they know what you’re about? Are they willing to hear what you have to say about Jesus, or do they wanna correct you with all their ideas about Jesus? Are they open to repentance, or do they think they’re just fine with God as long as they don’t sin too much?

Force nothing on anyone. But when they’re willing to talk, talk.

FOLLOW THE SPIRIT. Regardless of what we observe, we don’t know the whole picture. But the Holy Spirit does.

If he tells us to ignore what we observe and share Jesus anyway, do it. If he tells us to ignore what we think is an open door—because it’s not really—and shut up, do it. He knows all; we don’t. It’s idiotic to ignore his warnings simply because “God’s word won’t return void,” so go ahead and play leapfrog in that minefield.

BE PATIENT! Lastly, don’t force “opportunities” by creating set-ups and scams and shock. Watch your environment carefully for the opportunities the Spirit actually has set up for us. They’re already there. We just have to ask him to show us where they are.

Our job is simply to share our experiences (assuming we have any; get some!) with others. Tell them who Jesus is, what he’s done for you, and what he’s gonna do for everybody. Not to “seal the deal”; that’s the Spirit’s job. Nor to apply pressure; that’s his job too. Just share. And when it’s not time to share, wait—and get ready.

It’s not about racking up souls; it’s not about numbers, speed, immediate decisions for Christ, or any of that. It’s about letting people know Jesus loves ’em, and inviting them to new life. And how we demonstrate that new life is by sharing Jesus patiently.