The book of Nehemiah is filled with lessons that we can learn about evangelism. Chapter 1 tells a story about one man’s compassion and love towards God’s people, his passion and commitment to prayer, and his understanding of the responsibility that each of us have to stand in the gap for those whom God loves.
This story is set almost 100 years after a remnant of the Jews returned to Jerusalem after being in captivity for 50 years in Babylonia. Nehemiah, a Jew, lived in Shushan where he served as the king’s cupbearer. When a fellow Jew, Hanani, came to Shushan Nehemiah asked about the state of the people in Jerusalem.
Hanani’s response disturbed Nehemiah greatly when he reported that almost 100 years after returning to Jerusalem, the remnant that were living there were in a state of great affliction and reproach. The walls of the city were still broken down and the gates of the city were still burned down. The city was still in the state of disrepair that the Babylonians had caused when it ravaged it 150 years earlier. With no walls or gates the city and its residents remained in an unprotected state and there was no safety or rest. People could not build up their homes and have possessions because there were no walls around the city to protect them from enemies. They were just shy of homelessness.
The Jews were being mocked by the inhabitants of the surrounding land because even though they still lived in the great city of Jerusalem there was no longer any power or greatness there. No one feared or respected the Jews or their God. No one stood in awe of their God’s power and no one desired to walk as they walked. No one said to them, “and your God shall be my God and where you go I shall go also.”
Nehemiah’s response to this news is recorded in verse 4. When he heard about the state of the people and the state of the city he: sat down, wept, mourned, fasted, and prayed. I believe that the text indicates that Nehemiah spent days or possibly weeks weeping, mourning, fasting, and praying constantly before God for the Jews.
The order and actions of Nehemiah’s response teach us something valuable about evangelism.
1st Nehemiah Sat Down – Nehemiah didn’t jump up and start judging the reason the people were in the state they were in. He didn’t start prescribing solutions. He didn’t jump up to do a program. He sat down. This indicates that Nehemiah allowed the information he received about the people to truly impact him. He took a step back and sat down and pondered. He listened, and thought, and sought to understand.
Nehemiah took time to understand what the people were feeling, why they would possibly be in this state. He considered their history, their circumstance, everything that could go to their state of mind. Why haven’t they rebuilt the city and its walls after 100 years? What is the mindset of people who were born and/or raised in captivity over a 50 year period and finally set free to return to a devastated city? Do they understand that God provided freedom for them? Do they understand that they are the apple of God’s eye? Are they so used to living in captivity that it never occurred to them that they could have more than devastation? Did they have the skills needed to rebuild the city and the walls? Did they understand that they needed protection? What is their mindset? Were they so used to captivity because it was all that they knew that they don’t know what to expect from freedom?
So many times, we attempt to evangelize and we forget this critical step. We have a message we want to tell people: Jesus Saves! God is the answer you need! But we don’t take the time to listen to the people we are trying to give this message to in order to know what questions they have that God needs to be the answer for.
Too often I hear zealous Christians who love the Lord with all their hearts shoving the Gospel down the throats of people without first asking if they are hungry. I hear Christians defending their personal viewpoints and beliefs while threatening non believers with hell if they don’t conform but never stop to allow that non Christian to have their beliefs or opinions validated or heard. We say, “I have a right to my opinion and beliefs but you don’t have a right to have yours. You MUST listen to me but I refuse to listen to you.” Yet, through this fight, we claim that we are just showing people the love of God so that they will want to fall in love with Jesus.
The unfortunate reality is that many times our pre-planned canned talk does not hit the mark because we are shooting in the dark and the encounter that we have leaves the non believer just as hungry, confused, and hurting as we found them. When we don’t seek to understand where people are in their hearts and what their true needs are, we cannot help them. We must learn to leave the judgment of their sin behind and allow the kindness and compassion of God that Jesus displayed reach them. If we will listen to people and hear their hurts and the reasons they aren’t followers of Christ, and we can answer their questions without a personal agenda, it is possible that they will come to some understanding that will bring them closer to a relationship with Christ. People need to feel the love of God and enter into spiritual friendships with people who can answer their questions and guide them towards God.
2nd Nehemiah Wept – Once Nehemiah took the time to truly understand the people and as many of the possible things that could be happening in their hearts and minds to keep them from experiencing God’s best for them his heart broke with compassion and love for them. He wept for them. He let his heart become bound to the people.
Again, this is an example for us as a model for evangelism. We must not just take time to listen to people and hear them and we must let our hearts be filled with love and compassion for them. Our love for the people must go beyond words — the words, “I love these people,” are easy to say. Actually treating people with love and compassion goes beyond where words ever can. Loving people means that their needs, hurts, misunderstandings, questions, growth, and success all come before ours. It is the heart of servant leadership like Jesus expressed that says, “I have nothing to win — everything I do is to express the love of God to you so that you can experience all that God has for you.” When our hearts are filled with compassion for people – our agendas won’t matter. Their needs will. How they got into the state they are in won’t frustrate us – it will cause our hearts to bleed. Our compassion for them must be filled with enough love to cover over the multitude of their sins and allow us to put our arms around them regardless of the state they are in.
Traditional evangelism says: Believe in Jesus, Be Changed into his image, then you can Belong to our family.
The relational evangelism that Jesus portrayed says: I invite you to Belong. Because you belong you will come to Believe. Because you believe you will Be Changed day by day into my image.
3rd Nehemiah Mourned – He was devastated for the people and all that they had lost. He mourned for what they had as a nation that they no longer embraced. He mourned for the things that freedom allowed yet they weren’t able to embrace. He mourned for their lack. He mourned for their poverty. He mourned for their lack of safety. He mourned for their former glory. He mourned for all that they could be but didn’t have a vision to see.
As our hearts beat with compassion for the world that surrounds us, we must mourn for the things they mourn for: Their broken marriages, their hurting children, their poverty stricken families, their drug addicted bodies, their impossible job situations, their past molestations and abandonments.
Compassion and mourning aren’t enough. We cannot stop there. If we do, we will create a situation of pity for the people we encounter. We have too often pitied the people in the areas surrounding our churches and as a result have done “drive by” blessing missions that make us feel better but don’t really change anything for them. Pity causes us to want to take a temporary action to temporarily fill a need because it satisfies our emotional desire to rescue people from their reality. Temporary fixes provide short term relief from long term situations but when we go back to our warm houses and our full refrigerators, those we have blessed return to their reality. Hand outs do not create permanent help — though they may be very needed to remedy immediate situations.
Nehemiah gives us an example of how to go beyond pity and impact the world of people in a way that can institute permanent change.
4th Nehemiah Fasted and Prayed – Nehemiah fasted for God to show him a vision of what the future of the Jews looked like in Gods eyes. He asked God to help him see not just what they were to become in God’s plan but what strategic action they would need to take in order to position themselves to walk in that plan. Nehemiah fasted for God to show him how he could be used to help the Jews help themselves.
(Nehemiah Chapter 2, specifically 2:12 and subsequent chapters) Through Nehemiah’s fasting God showed him a plan for how he was to emerge as a leader who would not step in and rescue the people; but instead, would help them to see themselves the way God sees them. He would help them to define success for themselves and teach them how to enact a plan of action to get there. In this plan, God showed him to provide some of the supplies but to allow the people to provide supplies also so that they would be invested in the project. In order to fully own the change, the people would have to make an investment.
God also showed him that he was to bring leaders to help the people, to support them, to protect them, and to teach them how to perform the work for themselves. When they got overwhelmed – He encouraged them. When they encountered challenges, he helped them to make decisions and plans that would allow them to overcome. He worked among the people and he invested himself in the people but he didn’t do the work for them. For Nehemiah – God showed him a plan of servant leadership, and mentoring, that helped the people grow.
Because the people worked side by side with Nehemiah and the leaders he brought to help them, they learned faith in God. They knew the love of God because they learned that God had moved in the hearts of Nehemiah and his leaders to come and invest in the Jews to help them become something they never saw in themselves. Nehemiah believed in them because he believed God. And the people believed God because they felt his love through Nehemiah.
To be Continued …