As my wife browsed the female half of J. Crew, I stood by the stroller on the male half and tried to distract my daughters from the boredom of shopping (I still have a few financially stable years before they start believing that shopping is fun).
When a salesman asked me if I needed anything, I politely told him that we were fine. As my two-year-old daughter labored to put a sticker on the stroller wheel, he bent down and made a comment about her learning to change tires already. I lamely replied that you have to start teaching them young. We stood there awkwardly for a while as he tried to think of some other small-talkish thing to say. He finally asked if there was another member of our “party,” and I told him we were waiting for my wife. He suggested that I look around in the meantime, and I told him that I had already done a walk-through. He stood there for a few long moments, looking as though he was on the verge of saying something, then simply told me to let him know if I needed anything and walked off.
This brief exchange made me think about our approach to evangelism. This sincere salesman had a job to do: he had been hired to get me to buy something. And he probably did everything right. He took an interest in my family, made a quick attempt to befriend me, then took the first opportunity to point my attention to the goods he was selling. Textbook sales strategy.
Isn’t this exactly what we do in evangelizing? Most of us have a vague sense that we must first “earn the right” to share the gospel with someone, but we are still in a vicious hurry to finish the transaction. (For the record, I think there’s a lot to be said in support of both halves of that sentence.) So we make a concentrated attempt to befriend people on the spot. We don’t take the time to really get to know the person—to find out what drives them, what their dreams or fears are, what they love and hate, etc.—we are usually happy to settle for the “awkward acquaintance” stage.
With that groundwork laid, we take the first opportunity to show them the goods we are selling. Usually this opportunity doesn’t present itself, so we force it. We rush it. We get the message out there and hope they will respond. Textbook sales strategy.
Some time ago I posted on salesman evangelism. I said that we aren’t living compelling Christian lives, so we are forced to adopt a salesman’s approach to evangelism. I certainly don’t want to say that we shouldn’t be in a hurry to reach people with the gospel. The gospel carries a built-in urgency that compels us to reach out to the people around us, even if they aren’t banging down our doors in search of the truth.
But what if that salesman could have gotten to know me better? What if I had just shared with him that I was irritated because I have never been able to find clothing that works for the office as well as a dinner out? That I was just dying for an outfit that presented me as an intelligent professional who wasn’t stuffy or overly-serious? Our conversation could have taken a beautiful turn for both of us: “Well, I think I’ve got just the thing you’re looking for…”
Of course, a J. Crew salesman doesn’t have the opportunity to get to know his customers very well. But we do. We work with people at least 40 hours every week. We live next door to people for years and years. We frequent the same restaurants and coffee shops week after week. What if we got to know those people so well that we knew what they loved? What they were afraid of? What really matters to them in life? What if we could discern what they were really looking for in life and were involved enough to see when the fleeting things they have been trying to find fulfillment in let them down?
That’s when evangelism moves beyond sales strategies. That’s when we get to move away from formulas and pitches. That’s when we get to bring the gospel to bear on a person’s life in a beautiful way. This is what the gospel was meant to do. The healing and redemption that Jesus offers is the true answer for every problem that anyone has ever faced. Don’t demean the gospel by tossing it out there like a cheap product you’re trying to get some sucker to buy into. Allow it to change your life, then get to know the people around you well enough that you can really demonstrate the ways that it can change their lives as well.