You Don’t Have to Sell Jesus

In subtle ways, I’ve picked up the wrong image of an effective evangelist. I’ve listened to the witty lines and slick responses of some well-known evangelists and tried to come up with my own versions. My assumption has been that Joe Unbeliever has no desire or interest in spiritual things (much less in Jesus), and it is my job to give him that interest; either by pointing out the unhappiness in his life (“You’ve got to be unhappy about something!”) or suggesting that we Christians have something that he doesn’t (peace that passes all understanding, joy beyond description, love that gushes and overflows).

Of course, I’m not a total doofus—I know that pointing out Joe Unbeliever’s weaknesses, failures and dissatisfaction with life would make me seem arrogant and presumptuous. Besides, I’ve always felt dishonest about claiming to have never-ending peace, joy and love when my everyday experience is, um, different. So what am I supposed to do? I’ve been stifled by this dilemma.

Sell like Cal

When I was a boy, I used to park myself in front of the TV every Saturday morning to watch my favorite cartoons and dozens of Cal Worthington commercials. Cal looked like a Texas tycoon, dressed in a flashy western suit and big cowboy hat. A twangy country jingle played as a voice announced, “Here’s Cal Worthington and his dog, Spot!” Cal would show off his “dog”—which never was a dog, but usually a tiger or an elephant or an ostrich—and then in his smooth, southern drawl, he would rattle off the fantastic deals of the week. He sold thousands of cars this way. I thought his cars were heaps of junk, but the ostrich was pretty cool.

It dawned on me (much to my nausea) that I’ve thought of evangelism as a sales job. First, you create slick and attractive packaging that appeals to your target population. Then you have to create a “felt need” for your product. You’ve got to convince the customer that they need what you’re selling, even if they don’t need it at all.

Once you’ve done that, you have to persuade them that your product can meet this need better than anything else on the market. That’s not easy—the competition is fierce. But if you can convince them that your product will somehow make their life better, more comfortable and safe, then there’s a pretty good chance they will sign on the dotted line. Some sales agents will also try to minimize the cost in order to get the sale, whatever it takes. For the good salesperson, it’s all about closing the deal.

Jesus is not a product

The problems with this paradigm are obvious. Jesus is not a product. So many products in our world are unnecessary—but Jesus is absolutely essential. And if we minimize or negate the cost of following Jesus, we are being terribly dishonest. I’m sure this is why many new believers become confused or disillusioned when they eventually read that “you have been given not only the privilege of trusting in Christ but also the privilege of suffering for him” (Philippians 1:29). The packaging we try to put Jesus in might make him appear more attractive to the target population, but the fact that we try so hard to dress up our Savior and make him soft or “relevant” shows that we think our Product can’t sell itself, as it were. Our lack of confidence that people will see his built-in quality must be insulting to him!

Is it my job to “sell”Jesus? Is an evangelist basically a used-car salesman for the Lord?

Looking for spiritual hunger

Jesus made it clear that people can’t come to him unless the Father draws them to him (John 6:44, 65). He said that his job was to speak the words of life (John 6:63), keep all those whom the Father had given him (John 6:39), and give them eternal life. Did Jesus use language and images that were pertinent, meaningful and relevant? Absolutely. But he wasn’t trying to conjure up a spiritual interest that wasn’t already there. He spoke about the living bread from heaven because he wanted to bring forth those whom God had given him, those with a genuine hunger for life in union with God. He was looking for vital signs—for a spiritual pulse. In the process of keeping those people God had given him, Jesus also caused those who had no spiritual hunger to move on. That’s what the Father sent him to do.

I find this news liberating. Jesus wasn’t a slick salesman—he wasn’t selling himself, or the kingdom, or God. He was locating those who already belonged to him. He was giving substance to the indescribable hunger that true seekers have. He was putting words to their deep thirst. He was explaining why they felt strangely drawn to him.

As an evangelist, I do not have the responsibility to create a hunger for eternal life. That’s not my job. I am only sent to point people to Jesus, let them hear his words of life, see him as he is, and check for signs of spiritual life. The whole endeavor of “converting”someone is a mistake. God converts people; I merely locate them and help them understand and trust what they are already experiencing. There is much explaining to do, much to clarify, some areas to challenge, and a great deal of listening to do. But there is no burden to create a spiritual interest that isn’t there.

Three new approaches

How would I approach evangelism differently with this new paradigm? First, I would stop worrying about how people respond to me. Either they are being drawn to Jesus or they aren’t—and I can’t do anything to change that. I can only help the person determine whether they are spiritually alive or not, and what to do next.

Second, I would focus much less on persuading and more on the signs of spiritual hunger and thirst. I would ask direct and honest questions like, “Do you ever think about God?” “What do you like or not like about God?” “Do you ever wonder what he thinks of you?”

Third, I might actually give up on the whole “closing the deal” thing. Or maybe I’ll only suggest it when it is truly necessary for the person to continue their journey with Jesus. We think if we can get someone to regurgitate our canned “Sinner’s Prayer,” then we have undeniable proof that they have crossed over from death to everlasting life. We are obsessed with getting people to say The Prayer. The way we use it is wrong. We use The Prayer as a rite of passage, an admission ticket.

Most of us evangelicals won’t even consider a person saved unless they can pinpoint the day, hour and very minute they invited Jesus into their heart. This just isn’t scriptural. A person doesn’t belong to God because they said The Prayer—they belong to God because God drew them to Jesus, and they believed in him, so they have his life in them. People don’t have to say The Prayer to clinch the deal, although it may be one of the steps they take as they trust more of themselves to Jesus.

But by no means is The Prayer the pinnacle of their spiritual journey. They need to be taught and even challenged to trust, follow, surrender, obey and remain in Jesus. Isn’t this the same for any believer? Isn’t this what we do for the rest of our lives on earth?

Jesus offers us a life in union with God, not an admission pass. Evangelists don’t sell admission tickets to heaven; they point to Jesus, the source of immediate, abundant and eternal life.

--Shawn Young

(article from Student Leadership Journal)