I would probably starve to death if it weren’t for the invention of the microwave oven. Pop a couple of frozen burritos or the leftovers from last Sunday’s potluck into the microwave, heat for three minutes on high, and Voila! Insta-dinner!
It’s not that I can’t cook; it’s just that I don’t really want to cook. I don’t want to take the time to make dinner, when my microwave can do the work for me in a fraction of the time. And that is really what is at stake here—time.
I prioritize quick results over good results. I know that things cooked on the stove or in the oven or in the crockpot taste better than things cooked in the microwave. But I want to eat right now, and I’m not willing to wait when my microwave is so, so eager to please. I’ve got places to go, people to see, Netflix to watch, you know the drill…
Patience is no longer virtue. Instead, quick results and minimal efforts are two of the chief virtues of the 21st century. These virtues obviously impact my eating habits, but they influence so many other areas of our lives as well. Think about how we do church. An emphasis on quick results and minimal effort is everywhere.
I read a great analogy this week for how evangelism should work (and does work) in our present post-Christian context, and it reminded me of my cooking habits. The book, The Rise of the Nones by James Emery White, suggested that the majority of Christian evangelism is done using a microwave mentality.
There is an idea ingrained in the church that salvation should be a quick thing, that there should be minimal wresting with doubts and fears and personal hangups, that anyone should be able to hear and comprehend the Gospel message, find it reasonable, and respond to a prayer in as little as three minutes (or one full sermon, if you want your pastor to do it for you).
White traces this idea back to the 1950s and 60s, when big pushes to evangelize non-Christians by going door to door and teaching the Romans Road or Four Spiritual Laws began. In those days, Christian evangelizers were talking to people with elementary understandings of God, sin, and the gospel, and quick conviction and response to the Gospel was at least possible.
Is it any wonder that the era of American history that produced the microwave dinner also produced the microwave evangelism technique? Heat for three minutes on high and voila! Insta-salvation!
Of course, we all recognize that today’s spiritual environment is much different than that of 50 years ago. Many people have no fundamental knowledge of Gospel basics that those of us who have been immersed in the church for a long time take for granted. Microwave evangelism is of no use here, because their understanding of faith is too raw to be cooked in a microwave.
Instead of a microwave, White suggests that we use another image to build our evangelism strategies around: an incubator. When I think of an incubator, I think of the warm boxes I saw on a field trip in grade school where eggs and baby chicks that weren’t with their mama were kept snug and warm until they matured enough to survive on their own.
Incubators and microwaves are very different. Incubators are about a process. Microwaves are about skipping the process. Incubators produce life. Microwaves explode hamsters. You can microwave the baby chick, but the results will not be pleasant.
White writes, “In light of today’s realities, there must be fresh attention paid to the process that leads people to the event of salvation. The goal is not simply knowing how to articulate the means of coming to Christ… It is learning how to facilitate and enable the person to progress to where he or she is able to even consider accepting Christ in a responsible fashion.” (White, 93)
If we begin to view evangelism through the lens of an incubator, then every aspect of ministry—every program, every outreach, every service, every relationship—“furnishes a particular environment that will either serve the evangelistic process or hinder it.”
We have to be willing to let people sit in our pews for a long time before they decide to embrace faith in Jesus. We must include them in our family, let them experience the love of Christ firsthand, let them experience what it feels like to serve as part of the Church. We must be patient with their questions, with their objections. We must be patient when they fail to live according to the same standards that we expect to see from a Christian. They aren’t there yet. And they won’t get there if we try to microwave them.
Patience must be reclaimed as the underlying virtue of evangelism. Of course, we can’t confuse patience with doing nothing. An incubator is pointless if the heat isn’t turned on. A heatless incubator can kill an infant faith too, just not as quickly as the microwave.
I think that we instinctively know this. I think we know that what we’ve been doing doesn’t necessarily work, at least not well. But this doesn’t mean that we have really put in the effort to find what works now. We haven’t committed ourselves to incubator evangelism and incubator discipleship, because it takes so much more time and effort than the microwave. I see lots of churches that have rightfully given up on microwave evangelism, and in doing so have ended up just totally giving up on evangelism.
Let’s not throw out the baby with the bathwater, the chick with the microwave. Let’s change—our approach, not our message—so that others have the opportunity to really change as well.