When I was a student at Michigan State University, there was a guy everyone called the Wells Hall Preacher. He was a middle-aged white guy, probably a resident of East Lansing, not connected to the school. Every weekday, he stood in the courtyard outside Wells Hall, an academic building near the center of campus with a lot of foot traffic.
“You’re going to hell!” he would shout at people as they hurried by. “Repent of your sins! Turn to Jesus!”
I had an advertising class in Wells Hall one fall. One day as I left the building, the Wells Hall Preacher looked straight at me and pointed his finger at me and told me I was going to hell.
I thought, Actually, I believe in Jesus and I’m baptized. So I’m not going to hell, thank you very much.
I thought my theologically trained pastor with his kind smile, who actually knew my name and preached Jesus’s saving work for us, was a slightly more reliable source of theological information than this random street yeller. Besides, the Wells Hall Preacher scared me a little. It was better to just walk away.
The Wells Hall Preacher’s kind of evangelism is the kind nobody likes. People shouting at strangers, maybe occasionally passing out Bibles and pamphlets that will go straight into the nearest recycling bin. It’s impersonal and rude, and I’ve never seen it work.
I wasn’t raised as a Christian, so I remember coming to faith just before college. I remember being evangelized to. The evangelism that led me to Jesus wasn’t dramatic or accusatory. It was quiet and kind and personal.
Lighting the Candle
I came to faith after my mom talked about her faith with me. She came to faith after her friend, the woman I took private viola lessons with, witnessed to her. And this line stretches all the way back to Jesus. It’s like those Christmas Eve candlelight services. The pastor lights a candle, and then he walks down the aisle and uses his candle to light the candles of the people on the ends of the rows. Then they light the candles of the people next to them. Faith in Jesus spreads gently from person to person, just like a small candle flame.
When I was in high school, and my older sister was away at college and my dad was at work, my mom and I would sit at the kitchen table and talk for hours. Usually I’d have my feet in her lap. Because I was at that age of questioning everything, we of course talked about faith.
My parents had raised us Jewish because their families were Jewish. Just like how my mom had left Judaism for Christianity, I was pulling away from Judaism. Whenever I went to services at the synagogue or Hebrew school on Monday nights, I always felt worse than I had before. I wanted to walk away from that. I believed God existed and I wanted to know Him, but I felt like He was just out of my reach.
So my mom talked to me about her Christian faith. She would use “I” statements: I believe in Jesus because . . . I like to go to church because . . . I know God is real because . . .
So different from the accusatory “you” statements I’d hear from the Wells Hall Preacher a couple years later. My mom’s first-person account was nonthreatening. It allowed her to model her Christian experience to me, and it allowed me to think about whether I wanted to have that same type of faith without feeling pulled in that direction.
God used those conversations to bring me to faith in Jesus. And then, like a candle being used to light the one next to it, He used me to bring someone else to faith.
Passing the Flame
At Michigan State, I had a good friend we’ll call Sarah. We were both involved in campus orchestras, and we saw each other a couple times each week for rehearsals. One of the orchestras we played in had rehearsals on Thursday nights, so I would walk over to her dorm, and we would have dinner together before rehearsals. Sometimes after concerts we attended or performed in, we’d walk back to my dorm and get a snack at the cafeteria.
A few times when we hung out at my dorm on Saturday nights, Sarah stayed until after the buses stopped running. She was uncomfortable walking back to her dorm alone after midnight, so she crashed on the couch in my dorm room.
On Sunday mornings, my sister would pick me up and we would go to church together. Whenever Sarah spent Saturday night at my place, I’d say, “Want to come to church with me tomorrow? No pressure. We can drop you off at your place in the morning if you prefer.” A couple times, she came with us.
And then out of the blue, she started talking about going to a Bible study and taking a shuttle to another church every Sunday. She found community in the Bible study, real friends she could trust. She was reading the Bible. She wanted to learn more about God.
That’s how God works. He moves from one person to another, through relationships. God’s love doesn’t enter people’s hearts through hearing hateful things yelled in His name on the sidewalks, the kind of speech that’s like “a noisy gong or a clanging symbol” (1 Corinthians 13:1). God’s love comes to us gently. His love is the kind described in 1 Corinthians 13:4–6: “Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth.”
Likewise, our evangelism must be gentle and kind and loving. We tell friends we can’t go to such-and-such thing Sunday morning because we’re going to church. We invite people to Bible studies but don’t give them a hard time if they say no. We’re not showy about our faith, but we don’t hide it either.
By witnessing our faith in these ways, we crack open the door to conversations about faith and allow people to approach it if they want to. It’s in these types of interactions—honest relationships and quiet conversations—that God starts to light flames of faith in people’s hearts.