People have been e-mailing me, or commenting here, about the piece I recently posted, Are The Great Commandment and The Great Commission Incompatible? It's been so great to see how thoughtful and kind everyone's been about this delicate and potentially explosive topic. When my book on this question (I'm OK--You're Not) came out a few months ago, I expected it to generate a fair amount of hostility--and, actually, it did. But that, "How dare you suggest we stop evangelizing, pagan!" sort of knee-jerk vitriol petered out soon enough. (And virtually all of it, as far as I know, came from people who hadn't actually read the book.) And after a few e-mail exchanges, even those people calmed right down.
People care about this subject. No Christian wants to see anyone else go to hell, or live their life without the benefit of a direct relationship with God. We believers do want nonbelievers to convert. How can we not?
On the other hand, no one wants to be rude or offensive. And not just because doing so makes one unpopular, but because if you're rude or offensive to someone--and especially to a stranger, or to someone you don't know all that well--then that person will sever their relationship to you, or start keeping you at a distance. And that means you won't be able to love that person, since loving someone necessarily means being in an Actual Relationship with them.
And if you can't love a person, because you've said or done something that's repelled that person away from you, then that means you've broken The Great Commandment with that person.
Not good. The Great Commandment is Jesus' supreme, overriding directive to us; He told us it's the law in which all the Bible's laws are contained. So we must obey The Great Commandment. We must love our neighbors--which means we must remain in a relationship with them.
But if we try to convert them, they leave. Good-bye relationship. Good-bye loving that person.
But loving them means trying to convert them!
And there, as far as I can tell, is one genuine conundrum. In fact, I think it's the conundrum facing Christians in America today.
People who are really dedicated to evangelism (some of whom, let me say, I count as dear friends) often say that the key to proper, effective evangelism lies in using the right words; they say that if a Christian attempting to evangelize a nonbeliever leaves that nonbeliever feeling offended or insulted, then it means that the Christian chose the wrong words to evangelize with, that they didn't properly represent the gospel.
That sounds good to me. I would love to hear the words we should be using to evangelize, so that I could use them myself. I've yet to actually hear the words about Christianity that don't make nonbelievers throw up their internal spam filters, that don't make them cringe as they realize that yet another Christian is trying to convert them. I would sincerely like to hear the evangelistic words that don't trigger that response, if for no other reason than that I'm someone--a Christian someone--who has dedicated his whole life to discerning exactly the right words to express whatever I'm trying to express.
I know I can't think of the Non-Alienating Evangelism Words. And I'm absolutely positive I've never heard anyone else use them. But I'm certainly more than willing to learn what they are.
Until I do, though, I'm comfortable "just" loving others, without reference to the condition of their souls. And the main reason I'm comfortable with that (besides that it means I'm fulfilling Christ's supreme command to me) is because I know that if any nonbeliever in my life wants to know more about Christianity, they can either ask me about it, or they can take advantage of one of the zillion information streams that are out there about our faith. There's no shortage of places to go in this country if you want to learn about Jesus. And praise our good Lord for that.
It's the fact that our forbearers did such an awesome job fulfilling The Great Commission in this country that now, today, I'm free to relax, and only worry about The Great Commandment. That works for me personally. And I know it works for the nonbelievers in my life.