In my desire to be “seeker friendly,” am I guilty of concealing Jesus?
I recently had the privilege of hosting a Renovaré webinar with South African pastor and teacher Trevor Hudson. It was called “Finding Good Words to Share the Good News” and involved how we can credibly express the Gospel. One of the things that came up repeatedly is that it is much more important that people encounter Christ for themselves than that we have “just the right words” to persuade them of anything. Our conversation made me remember this story from my own life, which I originally wrote about for Christianity Today.
A friend was involved for years in a weekly service intended to reach out to inner-city kids, the majority of whom had little church experience and no acknowledged relationship with Jesus.
If it had been up to me, I would have made those events “seeker-friendly.” I’d have focused on building relationships, avoiding anything too religious or high pressure. But my friend went a different way. Every week, he led worship, one song after another, always unabashedly about—or to—Jesus.
I’m sure some of the kids walked away and never looked back. But hundreds stayed. Many made decisions to follow Christ.
Some ministry leaders were concerned that teens who didn’t know Jesus were being asked to participate in worship. My friend would reply, “How else are they supposed to get to know him?”
It’s a good question. People come to the Christian faith via many different highways, but the eventual crossroad is always an encounter with Jesus. I wonder if my attempts to keep my witness nonthreatening and accessible sometimes end up shielding the unchurched people around me from their own crossroad. Jesus can certainly meet them without my assistance. But I would rather be a help than a hindrance.
I was definitely a hindrance in Mexico. My husband, Mark, is a public high school counselor. A few years ago, a group of 11th graders asked him to coordinate a humanitarian trip. He contacted one of our favorite Christian organizations, and they agreed to facilitate an excursion to Mexico to build a playground in an impoverished area. Mark was careful to explain that the students participating were unchurched; should there be even a whiff of proselytizing, parents—and the school board—would feel betrayed.
There were 24 students and 4 teachers; my kids and I tagged along. Upon arrival, we discovered that the arranged accommodations at a local Rotary Club house had fallen through. Instead, we would be sleeping on the cement floor of a church basement in downtown Juârez, one of the most dangerous cities in Mexico. Mark could already imagine the parent phone calls he’d receive when word trickled home. Weary from a long day of travel, we set up sleeping bags and tried to ignore the exposed wiring, hole-ridden walls, and scurry of cockroaches.
In the morning, we drove to the site of our project. Jaws dropped and eyes welled as we observed the abject poverty around us. But we also experienced the sweet rush of doing something worthwhile. At the end of the day, we returned to our cement floor feeling good.
All was well until the nausea hit. Sometime around 3 A.M., the first wave of students became ill; by morning, there were clusters of miserable people draped on every available garbage can. Mark held his head and imagined a new wave of parent phone calls. Mostly he threw up.
Around 9 A.M., the two local women who were preparing our food arrived on the scene and surveyed the carnage. Despite the language barrier, their distress and concern were unmistakable. They had followed all the guidelines for cooking for foreigners, and we were still sick. Eventually, one of the women approached the only teacher who could speak Spanish and asked for permission to pray for us. Too ill to object, the teacher nodded yes.
As soon as the woman began to pray, I knew we were in trouble. I thought, Maybe everyone is so ill they won’t mind the praying. But my hopes for a low-impact prayer faded quickly as the woman became increasingly emotional. She prayed for five minutes. Ten. Maybe more.
Gracias Padre, Gracias Jesús, Gracias Espíritu Santo, she wept, over and over. I began a prayer of my own. Please make her stop. I don’t want Mark to get fired. I don’t want these kids to be put off of religion.
When she was finally done, I took a deep breath and forced myself to raise my flushed face, dreading the reactions I knew were inevitable.
Things were not as I expected.
There was not a dry eye in the room. Students were hushed, visibly moved. “That was beautiful,” whispered one teacher. Several people nodded. To them, the prayer had been not unwelcome proselytizing, but a heart cry—passionate, desperate, and utterly authentic.
I was ashamed, of course, and humbled. The Holy Spirit had been moving, and I, one of the few mature believers in the room, had missed it.
I wish I had prayed different prayers in Mexico. These days, in increasing measure, I do. When faced with potential encounters with the living God, even among the uninitiated, I am learning to pray Yes and Thank you rather than Stop. After all, how else are any of us supposed to get to know him?
“Hiding What They Seek” originally appeared in Christianity Today (March 2009) and is now available in Carolyn’s ebook: Theology in Aisle Seven.