Editor's note: Reprinted with permission of WORLD.
The Thanksgiving we’ll celebrate later this month is a day for reunion but also disunion whenever Christians and non-Christians within a family gather around a big table. Especially if they live far apart, parents (or children) of unbelievers may feel they have to seize the time to press home evangelistic points.
I’m not against asking loved ones where they think they’ll be if a car runs a red light and sideswipes them on the way home. It’s a crucial question, but we shouldn’t feel obligated to push and push as if the salvation of another rests on our shoulders. We should love those around the table and pray fervently for the Holy Spirit to work miracles.
As I’ve interviewed over the past decade prominent Christians with grown children, I’ve often asked (privately) whether their children are following Christ. Repeatedly, the answers have been: One is, one is not; or two are, one is not; or two are, three are not—and so on. When I ask if they can cite anything in their family or church environment that would explain the difference, they cannot.
The history of international evangelism is similar, writ large. Why did Christianity spread in Korea and not in Japan? Why a Chinese fizzling in one century and a wildfire in another? Yes, we can note social and geopolitical factors, including the growth of Christian belief in opposition to state-imposed Marxism, but all that is speculation. The most famous 19th-century missionary in Africa, David Livingstone, was directly involved in the conversion of…one man. Go figure.
God’s in charge, and God’s in the business of mysteriously changing lives. That gives us hope around the Thanksgiving table.
On the last evening of a three-week trip this summer through seven Balkan countries, a Romanian friend asked me to speak to a group of Bucharest intellectuals about what I had observed. I tried to beg off, saying any observations I might offer would be superficial, but he said I could be helpful in suggesting reasons for optimism.
That made my assignment particularly difficult, because during the three weeks I repeatedly heard pessimistic appraisals. Atheism has spread as young people see church hierarchs in cahoots with oligarchs. Many bright young people emigrate or hope to emigrate. Looking at political, social, and economic trends, it seems hard to be optimistic. But even if things were going well, Balkans residents would still depend on God’s mysterious grace.
The secular equivalent of that mystery is the basis of many romantic comedies. For example, the good movie “Hitch” has as its main character, Hitch, a clever matchmaker who helps wealthy young men find romance with the women of their dreams. The film’s plot emphasizes a hard case: A Mr. Wide wants to woo a beautiful actress. Hitch gives the fat guy a morsel of general encouragement that helps him summon up enough courage to make an initial impression on the actress. Then, things take off.
Surprisingly, the fat guy and the beautiful actress find they have common tastes and common insecurities. The romance develops without Hitch’s involvement, until the actress learns that the fat guy had hired him. Thinking she has been manipulated, she yells at Hitch: “What did you do?” He thinks for a moment and honestly responds, “Nothing. Absolutely nothing.”
I’m aware that some ministries promote methodologies they almost guarantee will produce results, but I’m skeptical: No one can corral the Holy Spirit. I’ve spent hours with individuals without result, yet one person who credits me with helping him come to Christ started on the path after a brief discussion in which we didn’t even talk about God. What had I done? “Nothing. Absolutely nothing.” God did it all.
This is not an argument for quiescence just because hard work guarantees nothing in salvation. I am suggesting that we think we’re in control but we never are. Should that make us pessimistic? Nope: God’s in charge, and God’s in the business of mysteriously changing lives. That gives us hope around the Thanksgiving table.
By the way, David Livingstone’s brother-in-law, John Smith Moffat, also became a missionary unable to count many conversions. But an orphanage/school/work training program I visited several years ago in Zambia, Village of Hope, has changed the lives of hundreds. It had its start when three elderly Christian sisters, the grandchildren of an evangelist converted through Moffat’s ministry, provided the land on which Village of Hope sits.