Evangelism is NOT a chewing gum machine

I walked through the restaurant and at the front door there was a chewing gum dispenser. My 8 year old daughter looked at me like she always does when we go to the gumball machine and asked if she could have one. Usually I don’t have any coins on me, but today I had one in my pocket. I pulled out the quarter, handed it to her, and she started putting the quarter into the machine. She pulled the lever and a piece of gum began to slide down the roundabout out of the hole. She grabbed her chewing gum, put it in her mouth and we walked out. She had completed the process of getting some chewing gum.

As a professional pastor, I have spent years of my life trying to figure out the secret to a successful evangelistic ministry. Early in ministry, I began to think of evangelism as a chewing-gum machine. Bring the quarter in and take the product out. This is how I handled sharing God with others. If I gave them the “right” information and made sure they handled it correctly, it was sure to end with a Christian coming out of the exit hole. Sometimes it worked like a charm, and sometimes it ended with catastrophic results. When the process didn’t complete as I had hoped, I formed my own theories as to why it wasn’t working.

Not the right data

Obviously, I was not giving the correct information to the person who was to become a Christian. I started doing extensive research on various presentation strategies for what I thought was the right material. I practiced saying these incredibly important words out loud. I offered a lot of time to try to refine my presentation. I used various gospel presentations that were “guaranteed” to create a convert. Strategies that boasted great success seemed to yield exactly the same results I had experienced prior to my quest for accuracy. The only “success” I found was when people were already asking questions about faith and I was able to answer them correctly.

not the right person

Was it possible that I was not going to the people most willing to accept such an introduction? Trying to share the right information with a neighbor didn’t work. In fact, it had negative effects on my relationship with them. I tried to reach out to our city’s homeless population, thinking maybe those unlucky might find respite in some good news. I found homeless all over our downtown metro area and started sharing my correct data with them. The results were terrifying. I could directly correlate my positive results of someone coming to faith with providing food to someone who was starving. Providing cigarettes to nicotine addicts has also resulted in a conversion in our community. It was a bit crazy.

Not enough spirituality

Certainly, I did not practice what I preached during this period of my life. My spirituality was lacking and my passion for God had waned. Somehow I was still convinced that I needed gumballs to fall from the exit door in the form of a conversion and I kept trying. With each “failure” in my attempts, there was a lingering sense of spiritual inadequacy. I didn’t pray enough. My Bible study and reading had all but disappeared in my efforts to find the “silver bullet” of evangelism. God may not have been pleased with me as I shared the faith with others.

Or something else?

When my life imploded due to addiction, I was shunned by the local church and found myself attending AA meetings for those struggling with addiction. In rooms full of drug addicts, I began to understand evangelism in a very different way. Addicts were there, acknowledging their own dysfunction, in front of other people. They shared their own experience of addiction and recovery. I found new life in these stories, new passion and new hope, which I hadn’t had in years. Addicts who shared with me did not have their “data” correct. I really wasn’t the right person for them to share with and God knows most of them weren’t “spiritual enough”. But they had something I needed. They had life and hope and I was drawn to that.

Also, the people I found in recovery were honest. They were themselves in a refreshingly authentic way. They invited honesty back, whatever the consequence of that honesty. It was something new to me that I didn’t find in my quest for the perfect evangelism strategy.

My life is not like a chewing gum machine. No one put in a quarter and knocked me off like a perfect circle from the exit door. I’m still spinning in the cylinder trying to figure out my life. But there were other balls of gum along the way that helped soften some edges, and for them I’m grateful. I call them my hero. And they properly evangelized me in the ways of healing.

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