In the lexicon of my faith-shaping, first-stage Christianity, no designation was more highly acclaimed than that of a “soul winner.” Those most successful at “soul winning” were well touted and raised as examples for the rest of us.

Spreading the good news of God’s grace in Jesus Christ is certainly an important part of faithfulness. But some of the language and methods of “winning souls” seemed a bit aggressive, even conquering, and oriented toward personal achievement.

This methodology starts with convincing others of their wrongness in order to win them over to the rightful side.

The Apostle Paul, who seemed the rather aggressive type, puffed his own efforts to “win more” — and to “win those outside the law” (1 Cor. 9:19-23).

Yet, a website purporting to offer 100 verses about “winning souls for Christ” runs out of “winning” references quickly. Beyond Paul’s humble brags to the Corinthians about his winning ways, the remaining 99 verses touch on a wide variety of topics — including those typically used to encourage evangelism.

Jesus had much to say about the new way he was offering when speaking to large crowds as well as in his encounters with small groups and individuals. He invited people — often those who received few invitations to anything — into relationships that were grace-filled and affirming.

However, Jesus didn’t start by telling others — except for the religiously arrogant, we should note — how bad they were. Rather, he affirmed the divinely infused value of everyone.

Jesus didn’t ask his disciples to target a segment of the population for religious or political conquest — or organize them to corral external powers that restrict human rights and force widespread obedience to their own system of beliefs.

Yet, such actions are the primary and daily obsessions that drive much of white Americanized Christianity today.

In word and deed, Jesus placed acceptance over convincing and calling over coercion. As is the case today, not everyone appreciated Jesus’ wider embrace.

“This man welcomes sinners and eats with them,” was the criticism he received from the religiously elite (Luke 15:2). That designation, of course, was applied to socially and ceremonially marginalized people.

Jesus stayed in trouble by opening his arms more widely than was religiously and socially acceptable. Contrastingly, a large and loud segment of Americanized Christianity today is obsessed with exclusionary and control-seeking harshness.

Instead of reflecting Jesus’ relational model of acceptance, they scour the biblical texts seeking justification for their claims of spiritual superiority from which they dispense their fear-based discriminations and seek greater political favoritism.

Migrants, LGBTQ+ persons, women, the poor and others often find the policies and practices to their detriment — along with outright bigotry toward them — to be largely fueled by those who profess to be Christian while claiming self-serving, societal privileges.

It is instructive for those who claim to follow Jesus to actually focus on his life and teachings — rather than stitching together a contrasting and conquering ideology with the goal of winning at any cost.

This approach leads to the dangerous idea that, if not voluntarily compliant, then those deemed “sinners” today should be coerced to live by the constricting beliefs of rising white Christian nationalism.

Therefore, we must keep asking, “What does it really mean to follow Jesus — and what about Jesus are we asking others to accept?”

In doing so, we might notice how Jesus poured more of his life into accepting others as a way of extending grace than making a persuasive argument for them to “accept” him as their “personal savior” (which isn’t in the Gospels).

The transactional nature of Americanized Christianity — that starts with convincing someone how awful they are rather than how beloved they are by God — doesn’t align with Jesus’ relational approach, especially to those considered socially unapproachable.

The stated intent of evangelism — to bring more to Jesus — might benefit from a greater resemblance of how Jesus related to others and calls his followers to do likewise.

Those sounding alarms over declining Christian identification and church affiliation may find the biggest cause in closer proximity than they wish were true.

Their redefining of Christianity as a well-guarded clubhouse of intolerance and exclusion — hell-bent on winning over or defeating those who don’t align with their forceful and fearful ideologies — just may be pushing away those who are looking for Jesus but can’t find him in this approach.

An emphasis on winning at all costs misses much of what Jesus said about the real cost of following him.

And in Jesus’ presentation of the kingdom of God, the winners and the losers get turned upside down.

So, who knows? Extending a warmer and wider welcome just might be the way to win someone over.

It seemed to be the way Jesus went about doing it.

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