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For something like a quarter century, a furniture store in my hometown of Indianapolis aired TV commercials that always began with the same 15 words.
The announcer breathlessly rattled off these four sentences:
You work hard for your money.
Now spend your money smart.
Each ad began with a video clip of someone working hard – perhaps an auto mechanic straining under the hood of a car, an executive assistant riffling through a file cabinet, or a sharply-dressed supervisor managing a construction site. By the time the announcer said, “Buy now!” the hardworking man or woman was beaming over a new couch or relaxing in a leather recliner.
Commercials typically have 30 to 60 seconds to convey two messages. First, your life is not as happy as it should be. Second, happiness is just one purchase away. “Great commercials” are the ones that convince us they somehow know exactly what we need, and provide a jingle, an image, or 15 catchy words to help us remember where to shop.
The furniture store’s ads always led with an affirmation: Everybody knows that you work hard. That’s right, and I’m glad somebody noticed.
Then they transitioned to fiscal responsibility: You need to make sure your hard work doesn’t go to waste, and we can help with that. Well, that certainly makes sense.
They closed with the pressing need to take action: No hardworking, fiscally responsible person would ever miss this sale. You’re right! Where do I sign up?
For as long as people have been trying to convince other people to buy a new product or a try out a new approach to life, certain techniques have been part of the salesperson’s arsenal. There’s self-interest (“You deserve a break today”). There’s scarcity (“You’d better act now, because there’s only one dress left in your size”). There are appeals to the customer’s specialness (“Because of your great credit score, you’re one of the very few people who were invited to this presentation”). There’s conformity (“Thousands of people are convinced this is the ultimate laundry breakthrough”). And of course there’s urgency (“As you can see by the clock counting down in the corner of your screen, this deal is good for just 20 more minutes”).
No sane person would ever make such appeals when it comes to major life decisions.
We wouldn’t say to a high school student on graduation day, “Career opportunities are disappearing fast. You owe it to yourself to pick your life’s work immediately.” Nor would we say to someone after a first date, “You now have 20 minutes to decide whether or not this is your true love.”
When it comes to lifelong, lifechanging decisions, we take our time. We do our homework. We talk to wise friends. With calculated intention, we make our choices with open hearts and open minds.
Why, then, when it comes to introducing another person to Jesus, do so many Christians think they have to “close the deal” in a matter of minutes – as if we were trying to get someone to buy a bedroom suite before they leave the store?
Nothing in this world matters more than deciding whether or not God is really there, and whether his Son deserves to be the leader of my life.
But all too often, one of the assumptions operating in our faith-sharing subculture is that life’s most important decision has to happen now. Christians idolize the confident “personal evangelist” who always witnesses to the person sitting beside them on a flight. “He was a pagan when we took off in Chicago but was in the kingdom before we reached Los Angeles!”
Such speedy transitions really do take place. But they are rare. As author and seminary professor George Hunter has documented, it takes an average of 35 encounters of one kind or another for an unbelieving person to cross the line of faith. Those might include a conversation that took place 10 years ago. Or a magazine article that caught one’s eye. Or a chance encounter with an old friend in the produce aisle of the grocery. Or a vivid dream. Or words that were once heard at a funeral. Since the Holy Spirit is endlessly creative, the possibilities are likewise endless.
More than likely, that conversation on the plane just so happened to be the 35th (or so) step in a process that had been unfolding in that person’s heart over many years.
That prayer you pray today, or the kind word you speak, or the spiritual encouragement you provide, may not result in the final step of someone’s spiritual awakening. But through God’s grace and power, you will have helped someone move closer to just such a moment.
Does all this mean we should discount the urgency of inviting others to Christ?
Of course not. Every human life has an unknown expiration date. But exerting undue pressure may lead to a premature, emotional, unexamined decision.
Most of us have heard evangelistic pitches that wrap up with something like, “You need to act now, because you may die before this day is over!” The furniture store may threaten you with missing the next big sale, but a faith-sharer can top that. You don’t want to miss heaven, do you?
No, you don’t. But you should also want to make spiritual choices that will actually last. Thoughtful decisions that involve the whole person are much more likely to stand the test of time.
The late Dallas Willard, one of the most gifted spiritual writers of our time, was convinced that the best way to advertise the Jesus-following life is simply to let others watch your life. Let other people see how you handle stress. How you respond to good news and bad news. How you deal with disappointment. How you keep hope alive. The greatest forum for sharing what it means to follow Jesus might be to invite someone to have a plain old dinner at your house or apartment. Simply be who you are and be open to conversation if and when questions arise.
Even the most exquisitely crafted pieces of furniture will eventually wear out.
But every person you have ever met is going to last forever.
May we honor others by helping them, as best we can, to thoughtfully surrender their hearts and minds to the One who will never let them down.
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