A month ago I wrote here at ChurchLeaders about transitioning from a pastor at a church in California to “El Pastor” (a nickname given to me by some co-workers) at a restaurant in Colorado. While I didn’t expect to be a 36-year-old husband and father of two waiting tables at a restaurant, I’m really enjoying it. In many ways I really have become the pastor* to a work-family filled with self-described alcoholics, degenerates, and pagans.
* Actually two of our 18-year-old hostesses recently called me their “work dad” … which, I mean, I’m not THAT old.
Over the past month, as I’ve gained trust with my coworkers, I’ve found more and more opportunities to talk frankly about sex, relationships, addiction, abuse, and – yes – Jesus. In all of this I’ve found myself thinking a lot about evangelism, and how differently I’m thinking about it as a “restaurant pastor” then I did as a “church pastor.” Since that “church pastor” part of me is still deeply entrenched though, here are three points about evangelism that all use a slightly-stretched metaphor.
Evangelism is going with, not against, the current
When I was a kid my dad took me on a river rafting trip. This was a river in Missouri, not Colorado (those familiar with Colorado rivers will appreciate this distinction—it wasn’t some raging cauldron of death); however there was a point when I was standing in the river, got swept off my feet, and had to fight with all my might to hold ground while my dad came and rescued me.
Most church attenders think of evangelism as a raging river, with them desperately trying to fight up-current, hoping their Father comes and does something to save them. Sharing their faith feels like a fight, something to be forced, something unnatural or altogether foreign from their inclinations. In my recent experiences, I have come to find this isn’t true.
I would describe evangelism over these past few months as one of those lazy “rivers” they have at water parks, where you sit in a tube and let it float you along the current. What I mean by that is evangelism doesn’t need to be forced. I don’t look for opportunities each day to shoe-horn in an evangelistic opportunity (“Oh you like hockey, huh? Well you know who made the greatest save of all time?!”). Instead I pray before (most) every shift that God would give me opportunities to point toward him in some way, and then try to rest in the current of where He’s at.
Sometimes this might be talking about sex with coworkers and saying “yeah, I’ve actually only had sex with my wife” (they thought that was pretty cool surprisingly!). Other times it might be someone mentioning they grew up religious and me asking follow-up questions. In many cases, this has been me alluding to God while giving relationship advice. And then on a couple very special occasions at work, I’ve been able to explain to someone why I’m such a big fan of Jesus.
There have certainly been a couple times I’ve asked God to give me courage to say something I was afraid might not be received well, but even in those times, it stemmed from an organic, God-breathed moment I was stepping into.
I wonder how much weight we’d take off people if we encouraged them to think of evangelism less as a fight against the current of the “secular world” and more as floating with the current of the Holy Spirit?
Evangelism is matchmaking
I recently watched one of my church attending co-workers (Ryan) badger an atheist co-worker (Mark) about going to church with him. These guys were friends so it was somewhat playful, but I could tell Mark was a little annoyed. As I watched this, I kept thinking Ryan was making two huge mistakes.
The first was that Ryan was pitching a moral/religious lifestyle change, something which Mark could not have been less interested in. Rather than Ryan sharing stories of how God was changing his life and letting that speak for itself, he was bullying Chris into some sort of religious duty.
The second problem is I see little evidence from Ryan that his Christianity runs any deeper than going to a religious building once-a-week. I’ve watched Ryan sexually harass several co-workers. He’s known for positioning himself to get the best tables and make the most money, even at other people’s expense. To be clear I like Ryan, and I genuinely hope he is taking steps toward Jesus. But in both words and actions Ryan is pitching a religious experience devoid of a life-changing relationship.
Evangelism, I’m convinced, is mostly about matchmaking. Our job is to introduce God (who is always already at work in that person’s life) and say “hey, here’s what Jesus is doing with me, I have a relationship with Him that’s changing everything,” and then say “and I can see him, right there, doing things in your life too.”
While I know apologetics have a place in evangelism, I wonder if we’ve gotten imbalanced toward pitching people a set of facts or religious practices, but failed to focus on how we are as Paul said “ambassadors” coming to people with a message of peace that says “God wants you to know Him.”
How different would our evangelistic programs look if we explained to people they don’t need to be fact-peddlers, but matchmakers when they evangelize?
Evangelism is a swap meet
At this point I have shared some version of my spiritual journey, beliefs and life practices with most of my coworkers, but that only happened after two months of me intentionally listening to their stories. I asked questions, took an interest, found out why they were working there, and made sure they knew I cared about them. I treated them (usually) with respect and kindness. In other words, I viewed sharing my spiritual story like a swap meet.
What makes swap meets fun is that the selling process goes both ways. You can bring an item and exchange it for someone else’s item. The process involves a mutual interest in each person’s product.
I passionately believe people will not care about our stories as Christians unless we care—and I mean really, truly care—about their stories first. This isn’t a means to an end, evangelistic sneak attack, it’s allowing someone’s life story to break your heart, for you to care about them and their problems, to understand their point of view, to make them feel seen and respected by you.
Growing up I was trained to treat evangelism like a salesman, rather than someone attending a swap meet. I honed my sales pitch, learned to anticipate objections, and then (literally) went cold-calling door-to-door. If you’ve ever had someone from another religion come to your door (or someone trying to sell you magazines) you know how this approach feels.
What if in our churches we told people to go make friends with non-Christians—like, literally gave them that as homework one Sunday? What if we told them not to do it as a sneak attack but to just genuinely go out of their way to love those far from God? And then what if we told them to just ask questions, take an interest, sit and listen, and do that for a few months?
And what if we told them after that to go with the current of the Holy Spirit and be matchmakers? In my experience as “El Pastor” at my restaurant, this approach is pretty powerful, and for me incredibly freeing.
If I someday become a “church pastor” again I’m excited to bring this approach with me.