“And [God] made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us.” Acts 17:26-27 (ESV)
In the rush for new believers, churches often neglect the wide spectrum of spiritual maturity including evangelism, pre-evangelism, discipleship and all the steps between these. It’s not just big sprinting strides or leaps. It’s also baby steps of long term growth before a person even has the conceptual categories to understand Gospel basics. It’s tempting to focus on conversion and church membership, those are objective reportable numbers that can verify church growth and feel like spiritual success to church leaders. Yet, conversion focused churches are the metaphorical equivalent of birthing babies on the sidewalk. Those children are left neglected and unkept, with maybe a bottle or two of formula (a tract, a bible, and baptism class). Everyone enjoys the baby-making part, but raising babies into adults is real work. The same can be said of the hard-fought long-term work of preparing people for the Gospel. Evangelism is a process, not a moment. We should understand evangelism in terms of the disciple-making process. We are not simply “making converts.”
Many atheists, skeptics, and non-believers have obstacles to spiritual growth with only one of these being their willfully rejecting Christ as savior. They are, oftentimes, far away from Christian faith. If the evangelism process had conversion as the zero point, and each step of discipleship and growth as a +1, heaven might be +1000. But skeptics and atheists are often deep in the negative range. For them, a walk to the church altar is a long hard road, wrought with insecurity, fear, scorn, and a lot of bad experiences with people who called themselves Christians. That journey to repentance is composed of many baby steps. We apologists need to value these baby steps, and work to help people grow and advance, even if it’s in tiny increments, and even if they are still a thousand steps away from faith.
We must value the baby steps, those tiny little tweaks in one’s thinking, feeling, being and doing that help make the big transitions possible. Those transitions may be away from addiction and into sanctity, out of a victim mentality and into victory, or out of sin-slavery into salvation. If your apologetics work is like mine, you may find that your most invested efforts with atheists and skeptics often feel fruitless and empty. But when we value the baby steps we can see real progress as we are learning, communicating what we learn, and gradually earning trust and credibility as ambassadors of Christ. We should value their positive experiences with Christians, introducing a new idea or two, developing a new friendship, or engaging in challenging conversations. Rarely do people, out of the blue, convert to Christianity just by hearing a single gospel invitation. People usually take a long time before giving their lives to Christ and they take even longer suppressing the urge to take it back from Him. Fortunately, baby steps can bridge even eternity when God is reaching from the other side. God “is actually not far from each one of us.”