Earn the Right. Wrong.
I recently heard a speaker declare that to share the Gospel we must first “earn the right” to share by doing things to take care of people’s physical needs. You may have heard something similar. As the concept goes, there is a realm where by doing good things for people we earn their ear to talk about Christ whereas without such things a person might turn a deaf ear to us.
However, as I listened to the speaker it occurred to me that making the sharing of the Gospel dependent first upon taking care of humanitarian needs may be, although well-intentioned, a mistake. In fact, five things jumped at me about what is wrong with the concept if applied as a rule for evangelism.
Before I continue let me qualify my intentions. I’m not discouraging humanitarian effort as a means of sharing the Gospel. On the contrary, such strategy can be effective at opening doors for the Gospel. However, we should consider that requiring such action before sharing the Gospel can be a mistake where the scriptures are concerned, and possibly, where culture may be concerned. Allow me to explain.
The first thing that jumped at me when I heard that we must “earn the right” to share Christ before sharing Christ was that our right to engage someone about Jesus comes not from man, but from God. Jesus’ command in Matthew 28, while in one sense general, is also very clear, “Make disciples of all nations.” In fact, of all the commands in the New Testament to share the Gospel I can think of none that are qualified with a, “…but first do this or that, then share.” Proclamation doesn’t work that way. As the Apostles were given authority to share the message of Christ, so too, under the same scripture, we are given authority to take the message to others. Sometimes when it comes to humanitarian ministry we think that the practical needs of a person are the most important they have when in fact it is the spiritual need that is most significant. This does not regulate earthly needs as unimportant, rather, we must have a proper view of where the greatest need lies—eternal salvation.
Second, when I look to the New Testament as a model for evangelistic ministry I see that the Apostles, specifically Paul and Peter, first shared the Gospel, then met people’s needs after the Gospel was shared—not the other way around. Paul notes in the scriptures that he wanted to meet the needs of the poor. He urged the Corinthians and the Macedonians to give to a significant humanitarian project for Jerusalem—and the churches gave generously. However, his project was specifically to meet the needs of the church community, not the unbelieving community.
Third, sharing Christ is more of a responsibility we have than it is a right. There are times when regardless of what the hearing party may think we are obligated to tell them about Jesus and warn them of what awaits in the future. We can especially see this in the Old Testament. Jeremiah consistently warned Judah of the judgment to come, and how to avoid it, but the hearers were unwilling to believe him. Not only that, they preferred that Jeremiah shut up! Nevertheless he shared.
Ezekiel was charged with sharing the truth with God’s people and God specifically told him that if he did not share then the blood of the people would be on his hands. In a very real sense the obligation to share outweighs any consideration the hearer may have. Truth is truth and we are responsible to let it be known.
Fourth, giving priority to the “earning” concept gives control of the Gospel to the hearer who is unenlightened instead of with the sharer who has the mind of Christ. When the Gospel is shared its message is on God’s terms, not man’s. I once had a friend I shared a home with and periodically we’d talk about Jesus, but the sharing was always on his terms. Those brief engagements were always under his control, which is not necessarily wrong, but it put him in the driver’s seat as opposed to Christ. The excuses flowed freely, as you might expect.
Fifth, and this is a big one, “earning” the right to share by first addressing physical needs can often, depending upon the culture you are in, be viewed as payment or a bribe to join your religion. Does this seem far-fetched? When I first heard this idea I thought it was a little whacky. How in the world can giving a family food be perceived as a bribe to join church? That makes no sense to me. Ah, but to an Asian it makes perfect sense.
I once watched a short documentary about Christianity in Mongolia where former president Namybryn Enkhbayar commented that Christians often paid or bribed people to join their faith. Specifically, he referred to humanitarian gifts to meet people’s needs, and even jobs people were given such as translation jobs and administrative jobs to help foreign missionaries with their work. That threw me for a loop. I thought that since Enkhbayar was a committed Buddhist, not to mention a savvy politician that his opinion on that matter might be easily dismissed. But I thought the better of it. From his cultural perspective these acts were akin to bribes.
In one news report a buddhist monk, Jamynsharaviin Ganzorig, commented, “‘Missionaries give money and food to poor people and draw them to their church,’ Ganzorig charged. ‘Some missionaries are generous, but most just want to get members. It is hard to tell how many are real Christians, because many just go to church so they can study abroad.’”
The point is that gifts and meeting humanitarian needs may be perceived very differently from one culture to the next. In the West we think nothing of it. We think of these things as a genuine expression of love, our motivation being to demonstrate Christ’s love. But in the West our thinking is historically influenced by scriptural concepts. “If a brother is without clothing and in need of daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and be filled,’ yet you do not give them what is necessary for their body, what use is that?” (James 2:15-16) In much of Asia people think of these things differently than we do and therefore the missionary’s expression can often perceived as a bribe instead of an expression of love.
So where does this leave the believer who wants to share Christ and meet the practical needs of people? It leaves us needing to walk very carefully. Should we work to meet the needs of people? Without a doubt. But making the sharing of the Gospel first dependent upon meeting practical needs is something we should at the very least look at with great flexibility. A Christian does not need to “earn the right” to be heard—the right and responsibility to share comes from Christ. But we must also think strategically. There are those circumstances when meeting needs will go a long way toward helping the hearer understand what God’s love is all about. Ultimately we need to be very sensitive to the leading of the Holy Spirit, who will instruct us on what to do, when to do it, and how to express it. The sharing the Gospel is, after all, the primary work of the Spirit.