Don't Shoot People with the Gospel - Lessons from an Evening with Tim Keller

Last week I attended a great lecture by Tim Keller, a pastor and NY Times bestselling author who also bears a striking resemblance to professor Charles Xavier of X-Men fame.  I don’t think Keller is a mutant, but his communication skills are a bit superhuman. 

The talk was great and so was the setting: a mild fall evening on the idyllic campus of Wake Forest University.    Wake (as we locals call it) is a historically Baptist university navigating the challenges that come from having dual identities as both a Christian school and a first rate university.  Along with the other attendees, I was eager to hear Keller present on a question that epitomizes Wake’s challenges: “Does Christianity Even Make Sense Anymore?”

Keller provided a loving and logical presentation of the gospel to audience that included students, faculty, and lifelong learners like myself.  His 45-minute response to the question of the evening was followed by an hour of question-and-answer that includes some profound questions and responses.  However, the final question of the evening left me saddened and a bit disturbed.

As best I can remember, the final question went something like this: “You have done a wonderful job addressing many of the issues that keep people like my friends and family from believing in Jesus.  I’ve tried to convince them of the truth of Christianity, but they just won’t listen.  How can I be more like you and just fire off answers rat-a-tat-tat in order to win them over to Jesus?” 

I think the guy’s heart was mostly in the right place, but that image of machine-gun answers being fired rat-a-tat-tat in order to share the love of Jesus sent shivers down my spine.  My hunch is that this guy’s friends and family are not eagerly anticipating him returning home from the lecture and blasting them with freshly forged bullets of truth. As soon as they see him walk through the door, they’ll probably duck for cover.  And they might just think he’s a jerk.

We all have news we’d like to share and ideas we think would help others.  This is true for the good news of Jesus, as well a really effective exercise routine, secrets of business success, why one political candidate is best, or whatever.  While I think the good news of Jesus is the best news ever, I kind of like that “Evangelist” has become a title used not just in church but by tech companies such as Apple to describe those who spread whatever good news there is to share.  But all evangelists are susceptible to being jerks. 

It’s great to share good news, to be an evangelist for Jesus or for something you really believe will help others.  But what’s the best way to share good news?  How do we share without being a jerk?  Here are five truths to keep in mind.

  1. Shooting doesn’t help. If you think you’re doing someone a favor by proving them wrong, winning an argument, or getting them to agree with you because you wore them down with your snappy rat-a-tat-tat answers and watertight logic, you are a fool.  Nobody wants to be shot and the only people who come to Jesus through knock-down-drag-out arguments are other fools who then take that same approach.  If this is your approach to sharing good news, spare us all and please shut up.
  2. Get your ego out of the way.  Sometimes we are overly eager to share good news not because we care about the recipients as much as we care about ourselves.  It feels good to have people agree with you, and it feeds your ego when others come to see things the way you see them.  Ego-driven gospel sharing likely contains very little gospel. 
  3. “Ready, ask, answer” is the proper order.  1 Peter 3:15 reads, “But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect.”  The way things are meant to unfold is that first you are ready, then someone asks, and finally you offer an answer. Being ready is important, but don’t let your readiness create a kind of hair-trigger eagerness that causes you to shoot your answers at people who aren’t asking questions.
  4. Only askers want answers.  A basic principle in adult learning theory applies here: people have to be ready to learn in order for new learning to stick; everything else just bounces to the ground.  Why?  Because there’s not room for everything to stick.  We live in a world of info overload in which it behooves us to limit the amount of new information coming in, otherwise we’d suffocate beneath the burden of all those great answers coming at us.  Once in a while a person will seek new information and be ready to let it in, consider it, and perhaps believe it.  The signal that they are ready is that they ask a question. 
  5. Listening is powerful.  You don’t have to just sit idly by waiting for someone to walk up and ask you about Jesus.  Instead, you can be active by listening.  If you genuinely listen to people, you’ll begin to hear them make statements that, given the proper environment, incubate into genuine questions.  While people tend to resist being pelted by uninvited answers, they tend to love being listened to.  Give it a try.

My prayer for the man who asked the final question last week is that he’ll seek to imitate Keller’s kind spirit and listening ear more so than his mental magazine full of powerful bullet answers.  I pray the same for myself. 

What about you?  When have you overdone it with answers?  What do you find helpful when it comes to sharing good news?  How do you like to receive it?