Apr 15, 2019 | Erin Pebesma
I took the opportunity to go on an exchange for a semester during my time in university and, as cliché as it may sound, it was eye-opening. Not only did I get to experience other places and cultures, but I learned a great deal about myself and my relationship with God.
One of the most important things I witnessed while living in England was the attitude towards evangelism held by the believers I encountered there. Evangelism, as I had understood it, was about sharing one’s faith with those who have never heard about what the Bible teaches. It was the kind of task that I associated with missionaries and people who had specific training, or people who felt called to serve in that way. I didn’t often hear evangelism preached about in sermons, so it was easy to forget about it in my day-to-day life. Maybe we don’t all have this experience, but I know I did.
Experiencing Christianity in a new cultural context showed me an example of a different perspective. The churches there have watched Christianity go from a commonly-accepted belief to a remnant of their extensive history. Religious faith is widely seen as an unfashionable fad from a conservative era gone by. So many church buildings throughout Europe, not just in England, have become empty tourist attractions, rather than lively gathering places. To many of the believers I met, it had become clear that something needed to be done to prevent the word of God from being lost among the dusty old books, stored away in libraries, frozen in time.
Over and over again, I noticed the idea of living missionally being reinforced in the messages I heard in English churches. This wasn’t just the occasional mention of evangelism or Christ-like living that I heard back home; this was a constant reminder that everything we did needed to be about honouring God—no matter how menial or insignificant.
One Sunday, the pastor at the church I was attending told a story about an incident from his own life. As he parked outside his usual coffee shop, he was feeling distracted and bothered by other things, so he parked “like an old man” (his words, not mine). He figured people would excuse it because of his age, and if no one could fit in the space next to him, too bad, he would be back out soon enough. Just then, a young man looked him dead on through the windshield. Suddenly he stopped and thought, How does it look to others watching me park this way if they know that I am a pastor, and therefore an ambassador of Christ?
It might seem like a silly scenario, but the point that he wanted to make was that everything we do should reflect our faith. Rather than being petty, he made the choice to be considerate and correct his parking. His story challenged me to think about how my behaviours might be perceived by others.
Faith in action
I soon realized that every Christian group I encountered in England focussed on being intentional; they wanted others to see their faith in action. For example, the student group handed out hot drinks in the winter, and walked people home from the club in the early hours of the morning. They wanted people to see that there was more to Christianity than the average person might assume.
When I came back home, the idea that I needed to be living an evangelistic life stuck with me. I thought back to my days in the Christian Club at my high school, and how one of my teachers had challenged me to think about how obvious my faith was to others. “If they looked at your phone,” she said, “would it be clear that you’re a Christian? How many things on there reflect your faith?” At the time, I was somewhat shocked by the realization that my faith had perhaps become less evident over time, despite the fact that my beliefs and convictions were growing stronger.
I remembered how, in elementary school, I had several Muslim friends with whom I had discussed my faith. We even asked to explain our different holiday traditions to the class in grade 1. Several years later, I would become best friends with a girl who had never had the chance to read and understand the Bible because her parents were atheists and her only believing relative didn’t know English. I shared as much of my knowledge with her as I could, and even led her to faith out in the school field. Back then, everyone knew I was a Christian and that I went to church every week. Why was that not as much a part of my identity in high school?
Returning home after my university exchange, I was aware of the fact that, once again, many of my classmates likely didn’t know that I was a Christian.
I’m sure that part of the issue was my introversion. The older I got, and the larger my schools became, the less I reached out and interacted with people around me. It was a little overwhelming.
Still, I wondered whether I had been going about this “evangelism” thing the wrong way for most of my life.
From high school onward, my understanding of sharing my faith had increasingly become about intentional and explicit conversations with others. I think that I had come to see that as a weakness of mine and ended up overemphasizing my focus on improving in that area, to the neglect of all others.
When I started university, I got connected with Power to Change. Their goal to not only help students grow in their faith, but also to give them a way to share that faith, was something that really spoke to me. I shared in the vision that one of the staff shared with me: to be so passionate about Jesus and how he was changing me that I wouldn’t be able to resist telling others about him. That’s what I wanted.
Three years later, returning from England, I saw that I’d adopted a very “go-and-tell” approach to evangelism. Despite my discomfort with engaging strangers in conversations, I was making an effort to go out on campus with friends, trying to share the gospel. But in class, I just sat quietly and didn’t engage any more than I really had to. I never did or said anything that would really show my classmates that I was a Christian. I’m guessing that most of them never really put much thought into what I believed at all, because many of them probably didn’t pay much attention to me.
In England, however, things had been a little different. Was I still quiet in class? Yes. Did all of my classmates know that I was Christian? I doubt it. But I did spend a full five months getting to know and hang out with one person who was very aware of my faith.
I find this particular relationship so interesting because it also shows me how God works things out so perfectly in our lives, even when it seems to make no sense to us. See, this student was doing an exchange through her program at Ryerson University, just like me. She was an English major; English was my minor. We had a mutual friend. And we both lived in Mississauga. But we didn’t meet until we decided to study in England. Suddenly, we were the only other Canadians around, so we formed a bond. For five months we travelled together, watched movies, cooked, talked about our favourite books and shows, and made weekly trips to the grocery store. She was my closest friend there, and she was a very strong atheist.
But she knew very early on that I didn’t just go to church or hang out with Christian students for the sake of having community. She knew it was a very real and important part of my life. And, as we spent time together, she was able to see that my life was actually quite different from hers. In our first week, I managed to convince her to join me at a quiz night hosted by the University’s Christian Union, and it opened the door to some great discussions.
Reflecting on my experience of leading my childhood best friend to Christ, I realized that it had much more to do with building a relationship, getting to know each other, and sharing day-to-day experiences than I originally thought. I thought it was all about trying to find ways to intentionally engage her in spiritual conversations. It was that, too. But that wasn’t the whole story. Throughout our friendship, she saw that I believed different things and that those things affected how I lived.
Although my exchange buddy hasn’t made a personal commitment to Christ, I saw her become increasingly curious about the things I believed. And I think that it’s all because she had the chance to see my faith played out in the little things in my life, in addition to the conversations we had.
So, going forward from that trip, my perspective on evangelism has shifted. I no longer feel that I need to be telling random people about my faith all the time. Instead, I would rather put my focus on befriending people, and giving them a chance to see my faith in action, in everything that I do.