I became sick and tired of always having to view people as targets for evangelism. That’s a way of looking at the world that I just don’t care to live by anymore.” This statement deeply saddened me as it came from a former Jews for Jesus missionary. I wondered if she really had viewed people as targets during her tenure—or if this perception developed as she began stepping away from missionary work for other reasons. Indeed, she had stepped away from the faith, and her recollections seemed to reflect that.
Jewish community leaders have long used the concept of “targeting Jews for evangelism” as a scare tactic to keep people from considering the claims of Christ. One video titled “The Target is You” portrayed evangelistic efforts as a sinister plot to destroy the Jewish people. It’s a pretty effective approach. No one wants to be “targeted” unless it’s by the prize patrol for the Publishers Clearinghouse Sweepstakes.
I wish this pejorative attitude toward focused evangelistic efforts were restricted to unbelievers. Many Christian organizations proclaim that they don’t “target” any one group of people, and they distance themselves from those whom they believe do. Yet many of these same churches or ministries “tailor” their outreaches with music and messages to appeal to certain people, often expending time and energy to research and understand the needs and/or preferences of those they hope to draw. Is their desire to “tailor” yet avoid “targeting” a matter of semantics? I don’t think so. In some cases, Christians become overly concerned about how people or groups will perceive them. In being so solicitous of others, they sometimes end up being dishonest with themselves.
Jesus never said to be hunters of men (an image that comes to mind with the word target), but He did say to be fishers of men (Matthew 4:19). We are to be intentional in our desire to bring people into the kingdom.
Some Christians dismiss a very direct approach to evangelism as “not relational enough.” They contend that one must earn the right, through personal friendship, to tell people about Jesus. This point has been made especially clear by some who advise Christians about reaching “postmoderns” (pomos) with the message of the gospel.
Some experts say that we must bridge the gaps that may exist in culture and modes of dress, music, etc., before we can say very much about Jesus. But isn’t that a form of subterfuge? There is still an agenda, only now perhaps it is hidden from view.
I believe the question is not one of targeting, but rather of truthfulness—truthfulness with ourselves and with the friends we are seeking to reach with the good news. There are many effective ways of reaching people. There are issues of taking the other person into account in the way you choose to communicate. But whatever one’s approach, there should always be an openness and an honesty about who we are and what we believe. We’ve heard that “pomos” can smell an agenda a mile away. Perhaps the observation should be more specific: pomos (and others) can smell a hidden agenda a mile away. Having an agenda is no big deal if one does not try to hide it or otherwise try to manipulate others into accepting it against their wishes.
People who propose friendship as the only legitimate approach to evangelism may in fact be protecting their own comfort zone as much as anything else. The gospel message reveals God’s holiness and our need for His forgiveness. This is a confrontation. To avoid the discomfort of that confrontation we may say, “I’ll just be a good friend and wait for the subject to come up.” Sometimes the subject comes up and sometimes it doesn’t. If it doesn’t come up, are we really being such a good friend to the lost? Or what if it takes so long to come up that the unbeliever wonders if the friendship up to that point was just a means of gaining a platform to present a religious view?
If 21st century postmoderns have their senses highly attuned to evangelistic agendas, then friendship as an approach to evangelism may well be perceived as a cloak for a hidden agenda. Friendship should not be a means to an end. However, evangelism as an approach to friendship is a different story. When you care enough to be friends with someone, it is natural that you will pray for and actively seek opportunities for them to know Jesus. An evangelistic approach to friendship regards the friendship itself as a reason for evangelism. If the evangelism is not well received, the reason for the friendship has not melted away. The friendship is not contingent on the unbeliever coming to Christ, but if it is a true friendship the opportunity to do so ought to be presented.
Those who see friendship as a means to evangelism often talk about trust. Trust is important. It is built on honesty and openness about one’s identity and intentions. It helps people know what to expect from one another. Trust also allows for an honest discussion of the most personal kind. So if a believer hesitates to bring up crucial matters of faith because they fear it will end the friendship, where is the trust? If we cannot trust our friends to stick with us when we invite them to consider what we believe, what does that say for our friendships? If we cannot risk being rejected by a friend who needs Jesus, what does that say about our trust in God?
Of course, there is much to be said for God’s timing and the leading of the Holy Spirit. But if you are close friends with someone and you’ve never felt “led” to ask him or her what they think about Jesus, you may need to remove a bit of spiritual ear wax.
As a missionary society, we in Jews for Jesus find a forthright approach to evangelism most liberating. When evangelism is one’s vocation, there is no need for equivocation. It is front and center, right out in the open.
Moishe Rosen observed that when we explain the gospel to someone it is like God using us to propose on His behalf. God desires a lifetime, loving, committed relationship with people—and we communicate His proposal. Think of a marriage proposal. A man does not usually propose marriage to a woman by sneaking it into the conversation sideways. “I’m hungry. Let’s go to dinner. Maybe afterwards we’ll go see a movie. And by the way, would you marry me?” Love ought to be deliberate and forthright, making intentions clear with no ambiguity. Why should it be any different with a proposal concerning matters of eternal consequence?
Whether you are a missionary or a lay person, the gospel message doesn’t have to be the very first thing out of your mouth. If you are a missionary, presumably the mission is to make Christ known, so you will find an opportunity to bring up the gospel. If you are not a missionary but you have a true friendship, then evangelism should play a part in your friendship—because Jesus is important to you and friends know and discuss what is important to one another. It is the most natural thing in the world to want the very best for your friends. Proverbs 17:17 says, “A friend loves at all times…” and nothing could be more loving than to share the love of God in Messiah Jesus. Let’s all strive to be the best kind of friends, forthright friends.