“Just listen to the Holy Spirit,” Joe said, as we walked down the beach, flip-flops dangling from our fingers. Simple words, but not so easy to execute. I tried to find the frequency—to sense some sort of movement of God within or around me—but heard only the chatter of beachgoers, the wind blowing across water through tall swaying grass.
It was the summer after my freshman year at university, on what the campus ministry I belonged to called a leadership project. I was one of 50 or so students, and Joe was the staff member assigned to teach me how to win souls. I could feel his sideways glances as we walked.
All the people on vacation—the pigment of their skin darkening into to deeper browns and reds—applying sunscreen, digging in coolers, throwing balls, and splashing into waves. Through sunglasses, I pondered each face we passed, wondering, Lord, which one? But the reply never came. Eventually Joe, through veiled irritation, said, “Go. Just approach that person—any of them.” And feeling coerced, I stopped listening to obey. After a couple from Ohio failed to bite, we tried talking to others. And each time the exchange was awkward and fruitless.
After about a month, the staff members left, leaving us to run the mission project ourselves. I can’t say I was sorry to see Joe leave, and with him the burden of forcing conversations with vacationers. Out of frustration, I eventually let the evangelism aspect of our project go, busying myself instead with contributing to the group dynamic in others ways. And each day passed as if another clause in a long, happy sentence.
I returned to school with sun-bleached hair and a confidence in my stride. After 10 weeks of leadership training, what does a guy do but get into leadership? I hastily signed up to lead a Bible study, which turned out to be poorly attended until it quickly fizzled. I joined the worship team and tried to get more involved with the outreach activities our group was planning on campus. But soon those feelings of discomfort came back—not at the thought of honestly telling others what I believed, but because of the methods being proposed. Usually it involved some kind of gimmick to get past a fellow student’s initial defenses before revealing our true intentions. Some approaches were simple, and some were elaborate, but from my point of view, the net effect was fairly conclusive: we were doing more harm than good.
I’ll never forget one guy I met after we had set up a tent to do surveys. They were simple questionnaires that began with general topics and progressed toward personal spiritual convictions. I worried over the cards in my hand, looking for someone to stop, and then saw him. He kindly obliged and made it halfway through the questions before looking up, as if betrayed, and saying, “Man—I’m Jewish.” I can still see the disgust on his face. How could I have known? I couldn’t have, because I had no relationship—no context, no established trust.
In the context of those friendships formed out of a commonality, an authentic dialog about spirituality naturally emerged.
I stayed around the group awhile longer—enjoying the deep friendships I had built over time (some of which have lasted to this day). But ultimately, after years of countless hours in weekly meetings, Bible studies, worship team practices, and evangelism events, I eventually decided that particular ministry wasn’t where I belonged anymore. For all its talk about outreach, it was often profoundly insular, operating within an us-and-them mindset it could not see, though the people it was trying to reach could.
I started paying more attention to my studies, and then a curious thing happened: I made better friends with the people in my classes, and we regularly started meeting outside of school hours. They were people who shared my interests, who made me laugh, whose experiences and perspectives on life challenged my own. Quite simply, we had fun. And in the context of those friendships formed out of a commonality, an authentic dialog about spirituality naturally emerged. We talked about such things often, agreeing and disagreeing, sharing in moments of epiphany, and I received as much as I gave. It was the first time pursuing conversations about faith seemed truly natural, and efficacious. Incidentally, it was my best year at college.
Since then, I’ve heard stories that go something like: A Christian approached a group of strangers on the beach—and they were grateful to hear about the loving God who became human, trampling down death by death. I’ve heard of seemingly chance encounters in airports, restaurants, and hospitals, where a person took a step toward God simply because someone nearby bothered to engage in conversation. I don’t for a moment argue against that possibility. Still, looking back at my campus ministry days, I can’t help but feel astonished at all the energy that went into engineering conversations with our peers, when the opportunity was all around us, ever present. We should have wanted conversation for friendship’s sake, understanding that our faith would come through without forcing it, if only we would be open to sharing our lives without agenda. We should have sought to be authentically ourselves, testifying to experience—of both doubt and belief—right where we were. Ready to talk, sure, but more importantly, ready to listen.