By Jerry Riendeau
We had an awesome plan.
My roommates and I were juniors in college and had just moved into a townhouse. We were excited about everything. New house, new school year, and new neighbors. In this excitement we decided that we wanted to make sure we were good witnesses of the gospel to our neighbors with whom we shared a porch. I don’t remember how we formulated this plan, but it more or less came down to this: we would be the best neighbors we could be, all the while making sure we constantly mentioned we were part of “Cru”. The implicit idea was that they would be so impressed by our neighborliness that they would want to know more about Jesus.
Why did we come up with this plan rather than a more straightforward plan of making friends with them and talking to them about our faith? Well… talking to people about Jesus can be pretty uncomfortable. Being nice is a lot easier. In other words. I was hoping to share the gospel without actually sharing the gospel.
We actually did a pretty good job being good neighbors. We hung out a number of times, including going to the lake together once. We tried to serve their practical needs too. For instance, the morning after they had big parties, I would pick up all of the beer cans and other trash off of our shared porch. One time I even picked one of them up from jail (long story).\
We lived next to each other for two years. By the time we parted ways I considered them friends. One of the last weeks we lived together we had them over to our house. That evening one of them noticed I was wearing a “Cru” shirt.
“What’s Cru?” he asked.
I was dumbfounded. We must have mentioned Cru to them a hundred times. “It’s that Christian ministry that we are a part of.”
“Oooohhhh, I thought you were part of C-R-E-W, like the rowing team!”
For two years we had done a fantastic job representing not Christ, but rowers. So much for our great plan.
In the years since this experience I have realized that there was a bigger problem with my plan than just forgetting to tell my neighbors how to spell Cru. My roommates and I were trying to find a way to share the gospel without ever actually sharing the gospel. We wanted to exclusively use our actions to communicate something that requires words.
The gospel is not common sense. It is not intuitive. It cannot be fully understood through observation of creation or Christians. It must be explained with words. Our actions, when winsome, can make people more receptive to those words, but they do not replace them. Romans 10:17 says, “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.” This is why God gave us the Bible in the first place. A book full of words.
If we want to share the gospel with someone, we have to use words. We have to tell them about what sin is and how much God hates it. We have to tell them about who Jesus is and what he did on the cross. Perhaps most importantly we have to explain that a person must respond to Jesus by faith in order to have access to the gift he offers. Anything short of this is trying to share the gospel without sharing the gospel.
Here are two dangers of trying to share the gospel without sharing the gospel…
We Won’t Be Good Enough
I was full of good evangelism ideas in college. One summer I stayed in my college town and worked at the student center. I decided that I was going to be a witness to my co-workers by being the nicest person and best employee there. I prefered this approach to having conversations with them about Jesus because it was far less uncomfortable.
There was one problem. No matter how hard I tried, I simply couldn’t be the nicest person at work. There was this other guy, who wasn’t a Christian, who was just SO nice. He was humble and thoughtful. He was always willing to pick up a Saturday night shift for anyone. He never complained or gossiped. No matter how hard I tried, I just couldn’t keep up with his niceness.
You see, when we assume that, as Christians, we can out-nice, or out-moral the non-Christian’s around us, we demonstrate that we do not understand sin or salvation. Think about Jesus’ ministry, who was attracted to him? Was it the most moral people in the community? No, it was the sinners and the tax collectors. In fact many people discounted Jesus as a teacher because his followers were such a mess.
Why do we expect to be any different? Jesus said that it is not the healthy people who need a doctor, but the sick. He went on, “I do not call the righteous, but sinners (Mark 2:17)”. People who have their act together morally (at least by the world’s standards) are less likely to realize they need a spiritual doctor, a savior. Do you know what this means? The fact that you decided to follow Jesus is evidence that you are likely a more obvious mess than people who have not decided to follow him.
Therefore, we should not find it surprising when non-Christians are able to be nicer or live more morally upright lives than us. We don’t become Christians because we are good people, we become Christians because we realize we are not good people and need a savior.
Don’t misunderstand me, all people are deeply sinful and in desperate need of Jesus. But not all people’s lives equally express that sinfulness to the world. We also should never be at peace with our moral failures. The Christian life is a journey of being transformed by the Holy Spirit to be more like Christ.
We Will Accidently Share a Different Gospel
Let’s say my strategy above worked. What if I was able to be such a good person that my co-workers that summer were amazed. And let’s say they were even able to connect the dots between the fact that I was a Christian and a morally good person. Does that mean I shared the gospel with them?
No. In fact, if that is all I did, I actually shared a different gospel than the true gospel.
If all I have done is live a morally upright life in front of my coworkers, all they know about Christians is that they are morally good people. So, if they decide they want to be Christians, what do they do? They try to be really, really good people. Not only is that not true, it is the opposite of the truth. The real gospel message is that we cannot become Christians by living a good life. We are far too sinful for that. We can only become right with God by acknowledging that we cannot do it on our own and need a savior.
My actions, no matter how good they are, cannot teach that truth. I have to use words.
So Where Do We Go From Here?
Should I abandon my efforts to live a kind and morally upright life? Of course not. I should strive to live like Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit, knowing that I will fail at times. And when I do, I should admit my failures and apologize.
In addition to that, I need to recognize that if I want the people around me to know about Jesus, I eventually need to actually tell them about Jesus. This might be uncomfortable, but it is the only way. You can’t share the gospel without sharing the gospel.
Jerry Riendeau is one of the directors of Cru at James Madison University. He is married to Katherine. Together they have three children, ages five years and under. You can contact Jerry at email@example.com. You can follow him on twitter here.