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FIRST-PERSON: A Spirit-led encounter with Barbara

NEW YORK CITY (BP)–Barbara stood in gray hair and neutral colors amid the brilliant diversity of Union Square, her angle on life a sharp jab from the left.

Everyone had a message this summer day. A man gave away books about Buddha. An upstart T-shirt company operating out of a push cart lashed out at conservative culture in flamboyant colors and flagrant language. Our team of eight prayed, read Scripture aloud and sought divine appointments to speak of Christ and encourage others in His name. Diversity was the ambience of appearance and attitude: gardens, trees, green grass with artists lounging with their sketch pads against the backdrop of the New York skyline; a farmers market set up next to street artists and photographers, spiced by amateur politicians and self-styled theologians.

Barbara was a mix of the latter two, a 60-ish lady with a simple message painted on a sign she held: “Church and state are in bed together, the two should never mate.” “Oust Bush” pins dotted the sign. Our group determined to walk to within an inoffensive distance of 25 to 30 feet from Barbara, spread out and pray for God to open her spiritual eyes and minimize the effect of her message.

After a short time, Barbara spoke to one of our group, Angel, who had wandered the closest. Barbara was pleasant, and a conversation ensued. I approached, greeted her, and the three of us talked amicably for about 15 minutes. Thankfully, we had heard the Holy Spirit tell us to speak gently and in love, because what we heard was a lesson from a lost person in how not to approach them.

Barbara spoke of a longtime neighbor who kept sending her cards about how she was going to go to hell if she didn’t get saved. She spoke of Christians who approach her rudely. Her most stinging remark: “I’ve read the Bible from cover to cover myself, for my own education, and I don’t believe it. But these Christians that talk to me obviously don’t know their own Bible.”

Clearly, Barbara had been engaged by evangelicals before, and apparently she’d been offended by their demeanor and lack of knowledge more than by their message. Angel and I clearly stated we were Christians, and Barbara clearly stated her respect for everyone’s right to their “religious beliefs.” She did not turn away from us when we said we were Christians and didn’t seem turned off. What she seemed sensitive to was style as much as substance — something Christians need to remember.

I preach a message called “How to Say What Jesus Would Say, the Way Jesus Would Say It” from 2 Thessalonians 1:3-12. Paul, who imitates Christ, speaks the word boldly, without manipulation, with theological correctness, gently, without seeking glory for himself, and with passion. These traits — particularly boldness and gentleness — are not in conflict as much as our culture, including our Christian culture, would seem to think.

Approaching Barbara with an angry, in-her-face attitude would violate the message of truth. Remember, Jesus spoke the truth and was noted to speak as one who “had authority,” but was kind and loving. He saw “people,” not mere “positions.” Angel and I would have loved to lead Barbara to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ that day in Union Square, but that was not the opportunity presented to us. While not always so sensitive to the Holy Spirit (I am a confronter by nature), this time we saw our role — to be a single link in Barbara’s spiritual journey toward Christ. This wasn’t going to be a daring, heroic mission of riding in on the white horse and saving the lost damsel, but one to help soften her impressions — and thus her heart.

It is vital when witnessing to realize that you may be the first, eighth, 33rd or final point in a person’s journey to Christ. You may “reap” — lead to salvation — what many others have sown, or you may water. It’s all God’s doing, and to His glory, anyway.

I also like to share a message about evangelism process, “The Four E’s of evangelism.” A witness must Engage the lost, Endear the lost, Educate the lost and Exhort the lost to make a decision. Too often in our confrontational culture we’ve jumped from 1 to 4, or maybe to 3, without bothering to endear; that is, to patiently and kindly deal with the person in such a way that gains their trust, makes them comfortable and thus opens them to hearing our message.

Barbara had been engaged. Barbara had been somewhat educated. And she had been exhorted. But if her story is straight, she had not been endeared by many Christians.

My goal with Barbara was to get her to explore her own position more carefully, but I had to be careful. The key was to invite the Holy Spirit into the conversation and trust Him for the timing and words. When Barbara said the Christians she had talked to didn’t know their Bible, I had an opening: “That’s a great point, Barbara. I think if I was a Muslim, I should know the Koran very well so I could explain my faith. If I was a Christian — and I am — I should know the Bible very well so I can explain my views. And if I was arguing a political position — like separation of church and state — I should know the documents that point to it. I was wondering, Barbara, if you know where it is written in our Constitution or other official documents that church and state are to be separate.”

Of course, I knew that it isn’t written in our documents, but to challenge her directly with this would be pushing her too far — for now. Barbara answered, “No, I don’t. I should know that. I’ll research that. That is a very good point.”

Good enough — for now. Perhaps she is moved one step closer to being receptive to Christians and to finding her own constitutional position flawed. I pray that if Angel and I were point 39 in her journey, point 40 will be receptive to the Spirit’s guidance.

Most of all, our team is praying that the next Christians who encounter Barbara see a person instead of merely a position.
Victor Lee is minister of single adults and evangelism at First Baptist Concord, Knoxville, Tenn., and a regular contributor to many Christian magazines and websites.

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  • Victor Lee