What causes people to decide to give their hearts to Jesus? Is it evangelistic meetings? Bible studies? social events? acts of kindness? relationships? What is the key interaction that brings someone to Christ? Does it happen during special circumstances, or does it take place in the ordinary events of life?
Though her childhood religious experience was quite eclectic, when Bobbie Moersch left home at the age of 18, she had little interest in God. But after marriage and children she began attending the local Methodist church sporadically, because of frequent moves related to her husband’s work. Thus, Bobbie’s experience with God was somewhat unstable.
Sometime in the mid-1990s, while living in Niles, Michigan, Kathy Herbel and her husband came to Bobbie’s home to buy a dog. Bobbie raised poodles, but had already sold all the puppies from a recent litter. Because the Moerschs had such a good reputation as breeders, Kathy decided to buy a puppy from the next litter. Kathy and her family were so eager to get a puppy that they often
visited Bobbie to see how “mama” was doing during her pregnancy.
The Herbels eventually bought an apricot miniature poodle and named her Cider. From this beginning Kathy and her family developed a friendship with Bobbie that spanned more than a decade and a half.
One day Kathy went to Bobbie’s home and discovered a pile of fencing in the driveway. Bobbie’s husband had Alzheimer’s, and was prone to wander the neighborhood. But Bobbie had no way to erect the fence. So Kathy organized a group from the Niles Adventist Church and another local church to put the fence up.
The Herbels often invited Bobbie and her husband to special programs and activities at the Niles church, and even offered them Bible studies. Sometimes the Moerschs attended special events at church, including several evangelistic meetings. Kathy would pray for Bobbie during the appeals, knowing that she was wrestling with conviction. Kathy was certain that Bobbie would go forward and surrender to Jesus, but she didn’t.
When Bobbie’s husband died in April 2001, she became angry with her husband for leaving her, and took it out on God by turning away from Him. Though the Herbels continued to invite her to church, Bobbie made excuses for staying away. She had a tendency to isolate herself, but Kathy and her mother, LeAnne, gently stayed connected with Bobbie, always praying for her, and helping her whenever they could. A professional nurse, Kathy sometimes served as a private-duty nurse for her friend.
Pushy, aggressive Christians tended to turn Bobbie off. But the Herbels, who lived just around the corner, were gentle and loving in their witness. In fact, Bobbie’s initial conversations with the Herbels were not overtly spiritual, but she somehow sensed that they were Christians.
Later Kathy and LeAnne prayed with Bobbie, and visited her during her illnesses. The relationship became very close, just like a mother and daughter. Bobbie felt comfortable opening her heart to Kathy and LeAnne. She called LeAnne “my angel,” because of her prayers and words of encouragement. The spiritual nudges came naturally and sincerely.
After Bobbie’s husband died, Kathy also experienced significant losses in her family, including the death of her father. Kathy and Bobbie were drawn closer together as they supported and encouraged each other. Kathy became acquainted with Bobbie’s extended family, and even joined Bobbie and her two daughters on a cruise.
Finally, in late 2003, Bobbie started attending the Niles Adventist Church sporadically. In November 2010, at the fall festival in the gymnasium of the Niles Adventist School, Bobbie sat by herself, watching the families enjoying the fun and games at the festival. The love, friendship, sense of family and belonging that she saw in the church members overwhelmed her.
Finally, out loud, and directed at no one in particular, Bobbie said, “I want to be part of this!” The relational warmth she had experienced at the church created a desire in Bobbie’s heart to become a member.
A little later Bobbie was sick in the hospital. When Kathy and LeAnne visited with her, Kathy asked Bobbie if she would like to join the Niles church. Bobbie told her yes, she had already made up her mind to do just that. What joy and happiness this brought to the hearts of Kathy and LeAnne! Since that fall festival, Bobbie has regularly attended the Niles church.
Soon after that, without knowing that Bobbie had already decided to be baptized, associate pastor Bill Dudgeon asked her if she wanted to take Bible studies. These Bible studies were precious times, as Bobbie learned more about Jesus, who has loved and cared for her all these years. The studies continued until September, and then, on the last day of 2011, Bobbie was baptized and became a member of the Niles Westside Seventh-day Adventist Church.
So God used a poodle, patience, prayer, social activity, and His Word to bring someone to salvation.
So what was the one key influence that caused Bobbie to give her heart to the Lord and to join the Niles church? Nothing.
At least four separate influences brought Bobbie to the moment of decision: numerous answers to prayer for healing; the loving witness of the Herbel family over several years; social activities; and the understanding of truth obtained in evangelistic meetings and personal Bible studies. Evangelism is not one single approach or event; evangelism is many influences creating the right atmosphere that gradually move people toward God.
Here are a few lessons about evangelism, confirmed by research, that we can draw from Bobbie’s story:
1. Seize opportunities. God used the search for a poodle to connect believers with a seeker. We all need to look for opportunities to begin a relationship with someone. Pray that God will reveal to you where He is working.
Jesus used His thirst as a way to reach the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4). Jesus used Nicodemus’ curiosity as a path to friendship (John 3). Paul even used idols to build a bridge with the Athenians (Acts 17). Pray that the Lord will give you vision to recognize openings for relationships that will lead
people to Jesus. A well, a cup of water, a pagan idol, or even the purchase of a
poodle can be used by the Holy Spirit
to reach hearts.
2. Intentionality. Be intentional about building relationships with people: socialize with them; love them; meet their needs; invest in their lives.
The Herbel family did not just casually get to know Bobbie; rather, they gently and authentically loved her. When she was in the hospital, they visited her. When she lost her husband, they mourned with her and comforted her. When she was hurting, they cried with her and were available to her. When she was happy, they rejoiced with her. She was always the subject of their prayers.
3. Most relationships do not develop quickly. They require time, effort, and purpose. One evangelism Web site indicates that outreach should not be primarily “cut and run.” Fruit from evangelism does not usually mature overnight. A piece of literature does not communicate effectively on its own. Nonrelational evangelism is a contradiction, says Ed Stetzer.1
Several research studies of lasting adult conversions show:
This suggests that any mode of evangelism that does not aim to draw people into real, trusting relationships with Christians is likely to be unsuccessful. And since such relationships can be costly and time-consuming, Christians must be committed to live lives of faithfulness, authenticity, integrity, and intentionality to share Jesus in both words and deeds.
When it’s appropriate, the Holy Spirit will tell you when to share your story. The Herbels listened to the Spirit. They lived their faith with joy and commitment. They talked openly about faith and church. Jesus had done so much for them, and they were excited about telling their story.
Here are some suggestions to help you become effective in sharing your faith:
Bear in mind that your purpose is not to convert; you are simply sharing your experience with Jesus. The time for formal teaching comes later.
Whenever possible, invite friends to church activities. The best place to start is nonthreatening social gatherings. It was at a social gathering that Bobbie felt at home with the Niles church family and decided to become a part of it.
It is also important to note that the Herbels were not embarrassed to bring their friend to Sabbath school and the worship service. The role of the church is to provide a safe, enjoyable place for people to bring their friends. This will help individuals feel a sense of belonging as they get to know other believers.
Here are some suggested social activities:
It took about 16 years from Bobbie’s first contact with the Herbels before she was baptized. The Herbels did not get discouraged and give up. Some people make decisions very quickly; others take more time. We must never give up. It was more than three years before Nicodemus showed publicly his association with Jesus.
According to the Herbels, prayer played a major role in the conversion of their friend Bobbie. They prayed for her salvation, for her healing, for her husband, and for her general well-being. The Herbels never viewed Bobbie as an object, only as a friend they deeply loved and appreciated.
Jesus prayed for people to be saved and healed. Some were deeply grateful, and doubtless became part of His band of followers. Healing prayer seemed to be a gateway for the message of Christ’s life. Trust grew, and people were prepared to hear the message of the kingdom. Through prayer and relationships Jesus wants to use us to bring hope, peace, and purpose to the people in our sphere of influence.
Both types of evangelism work: public and relational! Even shopping for a poodle can be an opportunity to do evangelism. Imagine what would happen if we shared our faith with people in all our spheres of influence: family, friends, and colleagues.
Imagine sons and daughters in the kingdom of God, enjoying Jesus for eternity, because we were serious about our faith. Imagine moms and dads being in heaven. Won’t it be great to enjoy eternity with our neighbors and colleagues?
Look at people as God’s precious children. Imagine friends in heaven coming to you and saying, “Thank you; I am here because of you!”