Evangelism and Empathy

Perhaps you’ve seen the comedy sketch where Bob Newhart plays the part of a painfully direct psychologist. When a woman comes into his office with a debilitating phobia, he cuts right to the chase with two simple words of advice:

If you think about it, the psychologist has a point. There’s a sense in which the woman truly does need to “stop it.” Her fears and destructive behaviors need to be put behind her if she is to have a healthy life.

But at the same time, what makes the sketch so cringe-inducing (and hilarious) is the callous, naïve, unhelpful way in which the psychologist goes about trying to achieve this goal. From his comfortable seat behind the desk, he shows no understanding, no compassion, and certainly no appreciation for the complex nature of the human psyche. (This is why he dismisses any mention of childhood influences with the warning, “We don’t go there!”) Simply put, this psychologist just doesn’t get it.

Although we may laugh (and rightly so) at this silly little sketch, I find it to be quite sobering, as well.

As Christians, we are called to bear witness to Jesus wherever we go. We are ambassadors, sent into the world to share the good news and make disciples. We know the problem (sin), and we know the solution (Jesus). But it can be all too easy to forget that there’s more to evangelism than that. And when we forget this, we often end up just like the psychologist, shouting the gospel equivalent of “stop it” at those we come in contact with.

Recently I got to interact with my friend Aaron about John Stott’s book Christian Mission in the Modern World. And in the course of our conversation, I was reminded of this great excerpt from the book:

It is surely one of the most characteristic failures of us Christians, not least of us who are called evangelical Christians, that we seldom seem to take seriously this principle of the incarnation… It comes more natural to us to shout the gospel at people from a distance than to involve ourselves deeply in their lives, to think ourselves into their culture and their problems, and to feel with them in their pains.

Simply bludgeoning others with cold, hard facts may feel like faithful gospel proclamation. But if we’re doing this without taking the time to get to know them or understand their unique doubts, dreams, and fears, it’s merely a cheap substitute for what Jesus has called us to do.

This is why Michael Frost, in his book Incarnate, exhorts Christians to go meet people where they are:

We need to get out of the house. We need to move into the neighborhood and rub shoulders with those who don’t yet share our faith. We need to develop joint practices or habits with like-minded followers of Jesus that bind us more deeply to God, to each other, and which propel us outward into the lives of others, especially the poor, the lost and the lonely.

The world doesn’t need a bunch of Christians huddled together in church buildings shouting, “Stop it!” at everyone who happens to walk by. What the world needs is evangelism and empathy—a loving band of Christ-followers who will patiently listen, seek to understand, show that we care, and then faithfully bring the gospel to bear in the lives of those who are lost.

The good news is that Jesus has already paved the way for us. In his incarnation, he took on our nature, lived among us, and shared in our suffering. So as we follow him and pursue his likeness, let us also reflect his empathy. We have a Savior who cared for others; let’s be Christians who do the same.

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