(A few years ago I wrote a guest column for Leadership Journal Online. You can't read the whole thing any more without a subscription, so I'm putting my original here. Pretty sure the demand to read it has pretty well died down so I'm probably not damaging their subscription totals. If you want to see their edits, you can read it here.)
When I met Tushan Patel*, he was a Hindu. Two years later, he’s still a Hindu. Frank Wheatman was a maintenance foreman and lapsed Catholic when I went to work for a major chemical company in 2003. When I left the company in 2005 a lot had changed. He’d been promoted to shift foreman.
Coming out of seminary, I’d have considered my relationship with these guys to be failures. Two years and neither was a believer. But along the way, I’ve learned a few things about the nature of salvation and about our culture—and about how I analyze my success or failure as an evangelist.
Once upon a time (up to about 1960 to be precise), approximately two-thirds of Americans believed the Bible was the Word of God. And that carried with it quite a few underlying beliefs, like there is a God and Jesus is His Son. There also was a societal belief that church people were good people and the church building was the proper place to meet God.
As you may have noticed, a few things have changed in the last forty years. There probably is a God but no one group has a monopoly on him. The Bible is just another religious book. A church is where hypocrites gather to judge other people. If there is a heaven, I’m not really concerned about it. And did I mention Born-Again Christians are nuts?
It would seem to go without saying that evangelism in these two settings is different. In the 1960’s, the majority of Americans were only one step from salvation. They had the knowledge—they just needed to make the faith decision to accept it.
For Tushan, whose parents moved to America from India before he was born, that’s not the case. While he’s at best a nominal Hindu—participating in the holidays and fasts that would correspond to attending service on Christmas and Easter—he needs to change his mind (or have his mind changed) about a number of issues before he’s ready to become a believer.
For him, instead of just one step to salvation, there are many. He needs to step from polytheism to theism. From all roads lead to God to “I am the way.” From an ultimate merging of all souls with the Cosmos to an eternity with a personal God. And he has to believe each of them strongly enough to risk alienating his family.
And even for Frank, the lapsed Catholic, there are a number of steps. He’s absorbed quite a few of the ultra-tolerant and apathetic attitudes from his culture, in addition to the “religion is for women” ideas that permeate many Christian groups.
So, what should my response have been to these two men? Proclaim them “not ready” and move on to more promising opportunities? Or pray that God would use me to help them move closer, to at least make some of the steps.
I chose the latter, and it’s a decision we need to make more and more as our culture becomes less and less Christian. For Tushan, I chose to be his friend. To model my faith in front of him, to ask probing questions that would make him think, then allow him time to think—and the Holy Spirit time to work.
With Frank, who I was not as close to, I tried to be a good co-worker, the source of an occasional good joke, and someone he knew would respond honestly (not judgmentally) when he shared problems.
In other words, I decided to live strategically. To analyze each person, see where they were on their spiritual journey, and help them take the next step, whether that step was becoming a follower of Jesus or deciding that all Jesus’ followers aren’t wacko.
So, two years later, as I leave my opportunity to regularly impact the lives of these two men, have I failed because neither is yet a Christ follower?
Well, Tushan now owns a copy of Mere Christianity, a book he’s interested in reading because he enjoyed The Chronicles of Narnia books as a boy and (hopefully) because my life has intrigued him about what Christianity really is.
As for Frank, when I left the company, they had a going away party. Frank gave the speech.
“Before I met Steve, I thought all preachers were boring, dry, and religious. Steve is none of these things.”
While he presented it humorously, it represented a new truth in his life.
And a step.
I guess I’ll have to trust the Holy Spirit to bring people into Tushan and Frank’s lives to help them take the next ones.
* Names changed.