My wife and I were sitting on the pier in Pismo Beach when a sweet middle-aged woman slowly approached us. When she got close to us, I could see that her hands were trembling. Her voice was shaky as she gave us a pseudo-greeting: “Do you know Jesus?”
We smiled and said, yes, we do. She explained that her church was putting on some sort of evangelistic deal about Jesus and handed us a flier. We told her that we were only in town for the rest of the day so we wouldn’t be attending.
Then she paused. She seemed to be trying to think of more to say—she sensed her evangelistic task was not done—but nothing came. So we said our awkward goodbyes and she headed down the pier, where she proceeded to talk to a few other ocean-viewers.
I have done the same type of evangelism. I have done it on the same pier, in fact. When I was a college pastor, we used to host street (or pier) evangelism events where we would approach contemplative looking people and try to engage them in a conversation about the gospel.
This approach is not my favorite, but the approach really isn’t my concern. I know some very godly people who approach strangers and are sometimes able to engage them in genuine discussions. I don’t want to disparage their ministries in any way.
What concerns me is my attitude. I wasn’t hitting the pier because I was convinced this was the best way to reach people with the gospel. None of this matched my personality or gifting. I am more effective for the gospel through getting to know people and then letting the gospel come out as a part of that person getting to know who I am and what I’m about. And yet I took the salesman approach, not out of conviction, but out of guilt.
As I look back, most of us weren’t a good fit for this type of approach. But we did it because we felt like we would be cowards if we didn’t. You don’t want to look like a coward do you? You don’t want to appear to be ashamed of Jesus, right? So get out there and convert strangers using the physically present equivalent of cold calling. That’s what went through our minds.
But after several years of talking to Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses at my door, to say nothing of the regular salespeople I interact with, I’m convinced that the command to make disciples doesn’t need to be fulfilled using only this technique. Generally speaking, people don’t feel like opening up when they’ve been approached by a salesman (for more thoughts on the salesman approach, click here or here).
I have had sudden conversations about deep and controversial things, and I don’t try to avoid those opportunities when they arise. If this is how God is using you to make disciples, then fantastic. But if someone is giving you the impression that you’d better start talking to every stranger you can or else (even if that someone is you), don’t buy it.
Francis Schaeffer was so good at engaging people who would otherwise have been strangers and presenting the gospel to them in a compelling way. But he calls us away from doing this on the basis of guilt:
“As Jesus Christ reminds us, we are to love that individual ‘as ourselves.’ Therefore, to be engaged in personal ‘witness’ as a duty or because our Christian circle exerts a social pressure on us is to miss the whole point. The reason we do it is that the person before us is an image-bearer of God, and he is an individual who is unique in the world.”
Notice that Schaeffer isn’t saying that we can’t share the gospel with someone we don’t know very well. He’s saying that the right time to share is when we truly love the person in front of us.
Of course, we could use that as an excuse. But don’t. Don’t let your lack of love keep you from sharing the gospel. When you find you don’t love someone enough to share, then repent and learn to love that person.
Let’s get beyond the guilt that we feel from others, impose on ourselves, or impose on others. And let’s learn to love. And then let’s boldly share and demonstrate the truth of the gospel in whatever way love leads us to in each moment. That might mean talking to a stranger you’re scared to talk to, but it might not.
 Francis A Schaeffer, The God Who Is There, 2nd Ed. (Downer’s Grove: IVP, 1982) 149.