Conversion is a dirty word in many circles today, including among Christians: “Don’t try to convert me...” “Don’t try and convert people...” “Keep your beliefs to yourself...” However, depending on the context, conversion can be a very beautiful and purifying word. I remember when God lifted me out of the dirt and mire of my prior way of life. Christ gave me a new and profound sense of purpose and meaning and personal identity in relation to him. I seek to share that experience with others in word and deed, hoping that they will experience new life in Christ, too.
Of course, the Christian evangelist needs to be discerning. I for one do not want to force my convictions on others. I should not shove people toward Christ, but lead them to Christ. In those situations where people reject the message, I must never reject them. We are not in the New Testament period where in some situations the disciples kicked the dust off their shoes as they left a place when their message was rejected (Luke 9:3-5). For one, the Christian community was in the minority back then. Even if many Christians in the United States today feel as if Christianity is treated as a minority, it is not a minority religious tradition in the U. S. Rather, as the majority religious tradition, it is often viewed with contempt, for it has often been guilty of imposing its will on other traditions. This runs counter to the good news of Jesus, whose will involves dying to himself so that others can live. So, I need to be sure that my desire to see people come to Christ is not coercive or manipulative. Only God’s love should compel them, and from within their own hearts, not from outside pressures. My job is to appeal to God’s grace in Christ. The only compelling going on with me should be God’s love leading me to lay down my life for others.
If someone tells me he or she is not interested in hearing the good news about Jesus or does not respond in the affirmative if I share the good news with him or her, I need to honor their position and maintain civil connection with them. No bait and switch. No coercive tactics, where I try to bring my faith in through the back door to their surprise. I need to be straightforward in my intentions and respectful of their positions and forms of self-determination. Of course, I can pray for them. I often do pray for people who do not accept Christ or who do not want to talk about him. I am only under obligation to share where I can with whom I can in the way that I can. In fact, God is the one who converts people, not you or me. So, when people wish not to talk further about Jesus, I can do nothing more than pray for them, asking God to change their hearts, just as I pray that he continues to change mine. Moreover, even if those with whom I share the good news do not ever accept it, I should still care for them, still pray God’s blessing on them, as those created in God’s image and whom God dearly loves, seeking to be their friend with no ulterior motive as long as life lasts.
While there should be no bait and switch tactics on my part, I must also guard against being baited into ceasing to share the good news of Jesus with people when opportunities arise. The Apostle Paul sensed an obligation to share the good news of Jesus in whatever way possible. He was obligated to Greeks and non-Greeks, to the wise and foolish. From personal experience and biblical conviction, Paul understood that the gospel was the power of God for the salvation for all who believe, first for his Jewish people and then for the Gentiles (Romans 1:14-16).
In sum, sensitivity is required concerning how and when to share the good news of Jesus with others, not cynicism regarding conversion and sharing the good news. What we should be cynical of is coercing people to listen to our views on the one hand and capitulating to those who look down on evangelistic witness and conversion on the other hand. If we fall prey to either extreme, we are in danger of being converted to another gospel.
Dr. Paul Louis Metzger is the Founder and Director of The Institute for the Theology of Culture: New Wine, New Wineskins and Professor at Multnomah Biblical Seminary/Multnomah University. He is the author of numerous works, including Connecting Christ: How to Discuss Jesus in a World of Diverse Paths, and is a charter member of the Evangelical Chapter of the Foundation for Religious Diplomacy.