There are many reasons that we give for our reluctance in evangelism, but in the end, they are all excuses for us to bunker down in our comfort zone. The “comfort zone” is the silent killer of evangelism. The average “evangelical” Christian does practically nothing that would be considered “evangelism”. Regardless of whether this is due to introversion, fear of rejection, or pure complacency, the culprit is the something we call the “comfort zone”.
Before we go any further, let me define “evangelism”. I’m not particularly concerned with the dictionary definition, but rather a practical definition of the term in the context of this series. In this context, “evangelism” can be defined as: any activity that is undertaken with the intent of connecting with a person of a different faith or a different variation of the same faith. Connecting is the key and developing a deep connection (not conversion) is the end goal.
Allow me to explain what I mean. We cannot convert anyone, nor should we try (I’m sure some of you will disagree), but we can connect with everyone, if we give it a little effort. Connection is an absolute necessity if you hope to have an impact on the world. If the light of Christ is shining through us, everyone we are connected with will be exposed to it. When we connect with others, we put ourselves in a position to share the love of Christ with them. We sow the seed. God gives the increase.
Unfortunately, the people we connect with naturally are just like us. Christian. Conservative. Liberal. White. Black. Hispanic. Rednecks. Metal-heads. Nerds. Jocks. It’s like high school all over again.
Connecting with people who are like us is easy. The more like us they are, the easier the connection. Connecting with people who are different is hard.
Can I let you in on a secret, though?
It’s worth it.
Connecting with people of different backgrounds and faiths is not only personally rewarding, it is a key function of any Christian who wants to contribute to the Kingdom.
Connecting isn’t a part of evangelism. Connecting is evangelism.
Nothing else related to evangelism can happen unless the person we are talking to has a connection with us. Sometimes this connection happens almost instantaneously. Sometimes it takes time. Whatever the case, a certain level of trust is necessary for the listener to let their guard down and really hear what we have to say.
Now that we’ve defined our goal, it’s time to wave goodbye to our comfort zone. On second thought, let’s just go ahead and demolish it. Be sure to “not leave one stone on another”, to quote the Book of Luke (albeit completely out of context).
It’s time to leave the proverbial nest and explore what I like to call our discomfort zone. This is where we stop putting our comfort first and start putting the mission of the cross first. The mission of the cross is about others. It’s about God. It’s about us. From Genesis to Revelation, the Bible is the story of God working and moving in ways that draw us closer and back to Him.
The cross is the epitome of this central mission of Christianity. When we are connecting with others, we are fulfilling the mission of the cross. We are taking the love of Christ into the world and we are channeling that love into the lives of others.
Who exactly do I find in my discomfort zone, you ask? Well, that depends on where your comfort zone is. For most people in my circles, growing up in a Pentecostal church in a small Midwestern town, the “discomfort zone people” were various shades of brown, they were politically or religiously liberal, they were Muslims and Buddhists and Wiccans and Baptists and sometimes they were other Pentecostals.
During much of my youth, there was an unspoken rule that if someone wasn’t just like you, they were off limits. They were heretics. They were the enemy. There was no fathomable reason why you would ever want to talk to them.
That attitude is counterproductive and undermines the mission of the cross. It's time for a new approach. Let's start with the mission of the cross and work from there.
Your discomfort zone may look different than mine, but you’ll know it when you see it.
For some of the more traditional types it may be people with tattoos or piercings. For the more modern (or post-modern) among us, the opposite may be true. At any rate, it's time to step out of our comfort zone and connect with a world that desperately needs to connect with Christ.
All this talk of exploring our discomfort zone reminds me of a couple of trips we took to California several years ago. Keep in mind that my wife and I were born and raised in southern Indiana. I was pretty open-minded, but I was also very sheltered. I didn’t realize just how sheltered I was until that first trip to Los Angeles.
One of the most impactful experiences of our time in California was helping with the weekly breakfast that the church provided for the homeless in the community. By “helping”, I mean that we broke bread with the homeless. And by “broke bread”, I mean that we ate breakfast burritos.
When we showed up, we were told there was plenty of help in preparing and serving the meal, but there was always room for someone to simply sit and eat with the people who had gathered there.
I had honestly looked forward to this experience. What I had envisioned, however, was standing in a line in the parking lot, dipping oatmeal into styrofoam bowls as the people filed through, the safety of the serving tables creating a comfortable buffer for my personal space.
I would do my part. I would feel good about myself. I would come away more grateful. But my personal bubble would remain intact. I would remain safely inside my carefully curated comfort zone.
That’s not what happened.
Once I realized that my comfort zone behind the imaginary oatmeal station was a no-go, I had to come to terms with this involuntary foray into my discomfort zone. I grabbed my breakfast burrito and sat down across from a homeless man who I would guess to be in his late 50s, although it was hard to tell, due to the ravages of hard living and years spent out in the elements.
As I sat down, I shook his hand and introduced myself. As I did, I glanced down at his hands. They were covered in sores, some of which were oozing. I hoped that if I flinched it hadn’t been noticeable.
None of the discharge had gotten on my hands, but my mind was doing somersaults. I was envisioning myself wasting away from one of the many terrible diseases to which I had undoubtedly just been exposed.
It didn’t seem to bother him in the least. A little ooze on the tortilla didn’t stop him from wolfing it down in the way that only a truly hungry man wolfs down his food. Everytime he took a bite, I caught a whiff of the alcohol on his breath. His body odor was offensive, but not overwhelming. It increased in intensity each time he shifted in his chair.
I was reminded of a story recounted by a missionary (I believe it was Bro. and Sis. Alvear of the Assemblies of the Lord Jesus Christ) that I heard at one church or another as a kid. (I always loved when missionaries would come to make their presentations. They were my childhood heroes.) This couple were somewhere in South America, where the wife visited a leper colony.
Now, you have to understand that leprosy is not just a terrifying disease; the effects of the disease are pretty disturbing. Open sores. Disfigurement. Loss of fingers, toes, and noses. Fortunately, this is very rare in most countries, but in some parts of the world, leprosy is one of the most demoralizing diagnoses one can receive.
While at the leper colony, this lady was invited by the people of the colony to join them in a meal. She was horrified as one of the ladies took a piece of the bread she had baked and handed it to her guest with a disfigured, leprous hand; open sores covering her flesh. This missionary was revolted by the sight, but knew that her chances of reaching these people would quickly diminish to zero with the disrespect of rejecting the bread that was offered. She whispered a prayer for protection and mental fortitude and took the bread with a smile.
If she could eat the bread prepared by those hands, surely I could endure the situation in which I found myself. He hadn’t even touched my burrito. That did nothing to stop the squirming in my brain, however...
I swallowed my pride and forced that first bite. We sat and talked as we ate our chorizo and egg burritos. Each bite was a little easier than the last. I don’t think I have ever seen someone so happy to eat a burrito. I know I’ve never seen someone so happy to have a conversation with another human being. He cherished that moment of connection. You could see it on his face and in his demeanor. The human connection was nearly as important as the food.
Neither one of us may have realized it in the moment, but the human connection was more important than the food.
Both the hunger and the loneliness were needs to be met and the people of the Lighthouse were meeting them both. Although both needs were met, the hunger would undoubtedly be back a short time later. The human connection had a more lasting impact.
The love of Christ that was communicated through the actions of the volunteers who prepared and served the food, engaged in conversation, and simply treated their homeless neighbors like human beings was deep and life changing.
That man didn’t experience any change in his social status on that Saturday morning. He would sleep another night on a concrete bed. He was still a slave to the bottle. He would be hungry again in a few hours. Nothing had perceptibly changed, but something not entirely imperceptible had shifted. There was something different about the way he walked as he pushed his grocery cart down Tyrone Avenue.
He walked a little quicker. More sure of himself. Shoulders back. Head up. Purpose in his step. I never forgot the impact that a little kindness had on that man or the impact that Saturday morning and the love of the group of volunteers (who gave every Saturday morning to the less fortunate) had on me.
If we are to truly make an impact on the world, these are the kinds of connections we are going to have to make. Uncomfortable connections with people who are not quite like us. People from different religious, cultural, and socioeconomic backgrounds. People who we have been led to believe are the enemy. People who have been convinced they have no value.
Jesus loves them just as much as he loves you.
During that breakfast in Van Nuys and the outreach in Hollywood and the worship services on Sunday, I saw a love that transcended race, ethnicity, religion, and status.
Sometimes I dream of California. The nightmarish traffic. The weirdness of Hollywood. The beauty of the coastline. The posh life of Beverly Hills. Cruising down Sunset Boulevard. Horchata, churros, and bootleg DVDs in the fashion district. But mostly of the little perfectly imperfect community of believers in Van Nuys that showed me what it means to meet someone from uncommon circumstances on common ground and connect with them through the love of Christ.
1. What is my comfort zone?
2. When was the last time I willingly explored my discomfort zone?
3. Is the mission of the cross more important to me than my own comfort?
4. What uncomfortable thing is Jesus asking me to do to?
5. What can I do this week to try to explore my discomfort zone?
6. Do I know someone who is in need (spiritually or physically) that I can reach out to this week?