“God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life.” I have said this in many conversations with people on airplanes, in classrooms, and at altars of prayer. I have also sat at café tables or in a coffee shop and drawn a simple diagram with two pieces of land and a cavernous gap in between, illustrating the distance between ourselves and God, the feeble attempts of all of our own methods (education, money, good works, etc.) to bridge that gap, and then have drawn a
cross serving as a bridge between our sinfulness and God. I have left tracts illustrating the “basics” of the gospel, the good news that God loves us, the bad news of our sin, and the best news of all: God is willing and able to forgive us and welcome us as his children.
These and many other approaches to personal evangelism have come from growing up in a church that believes in bearing personal witness, one to another, of the life-changing power of the gospel. We seek to live out what one evangelist I heard years ago called the “20/20 Vision of the New Testament,” referring to Acts 20:20, where Paul says, “I did not shrink from doing anything helpful, proclaiming the message to you and teaching you publicly and from house to house” (emphasis mine). The “house to house” portion serves as one (among many) of the clear admonitions of Scripture to engage in personal evangelism.
All of these tools—gospel tracts, The Four Spiritual Laws, the illustrations for visual learners—are valid and often useful ways of communicating in direct, simple words the life-changing gift of salvation offered in a relationship with God through Jesus Christ. However, although these can be useful prompts and tools, they were never meant to be the primary emphasis of personal evangelism.
A Genuine Witness, Not Just a Sales Pitch
Selling is easy. Telemarketers are often looked down upon, but there is a reason why so many of them have jobs: people purchase. I must confess that I worked briefly as a telemarketer in college to pay the bills. The hours were flexible, and the pay was potentially good for a college student. For awhile, I actually did well. I read the script, answered the questions, listened carefully, and then more often than not, made the sale. However, we also had a “quality control” department: another person to whom we transferred the client, once he or she said “yes” to our sales pitch. Even though the customer had responded to the pitch, the sale was still marked as “pending.” Quality control then stepped in and explained the nuts and bolts of what the client had just agreed to. At this point, many of us on the sales floor lost sales. It turns out that in order to do telemarketing effectively, you had to have some degree of confidence, an ability to connect with people by phone, and an honest sounding delivery of your final pitch (“Can I send that out to you today?”). I learned that just those elements, regardless of what I was selling (thankfully, I was selling legitimate products and services), could more often than not get someone to say “yes.” However, once they were in the hands of those who told them the rest of the story (“If you do not cancel within 30 days, your credit card will be billed” or, “With interest, the total long-term cost of this item will be _____”), my smoothness, personality, and ability to close the deal mattered a lot less.
My telemarketing experience helped me see that personal evangelism, if it is to be meaningful and long-lasting, must be about more than a well-packaged technique. In other words, I faced the reality that even if I closed “the sale,” led someone to affirm the biblical truths I was presenting in my witness, and even if I got them to pray a prayer with me, something more than a good script and a charismatic personality had to be at work. There had to be a genuine move of the Holy Spirit, a life-changing glimpse of unconditional love, and a sincerity regarding my interest in the person I was witnessing to.
As I write this article, the largest Evangelical Christian denomination in the world, the Southern Baptist Convention, is discussing the potential dangers with what is known as the “sinner’s prayer.” This widespread formulaic approach to “getting someone saved” has come under critique even from those who are best known for making use of it. Of course, the basic ideals of confession, repentance, and experiencing the grace of God through faith are not the issue. The issue is what happens after one has prayed such a prayer. It has become more and more obvious that assent to a series of beliefs, even beliefs that are biblically based, is not the same as becoming a true follower of Jesus. In much the same way, my agreement in the heat of the moment with a salesperson does not necessarily mean that I will not back out during a conversation with quality control, or at least visit the customer service desk to return what I once hurriedly agreed to. As Jesus reminds us, Christianity is about following him and doing so is not simply about a sudden affirmation but about “counting the cost” and “taking up a cross” (Luke 14:27-30, TNIV).
Effective personal evangelism, in other words, has to be a lifestyle that demonstrates a genuine interest in the well-being of others accompanied by an authentic portrayal of the Christian faith as an ongoing relationship with Jesus Christ if people are to be drawn into a lifelong relationship with Jesus Christ and not just the affirmation of a sales pitch.
The Technique That Wasn't
This should come as no surprise to those who observe the approach of Jesus. In places like John 4 with the Samaritan woman, Jesus demonstrated genuine interest and concern. He was interested enough to know her current situation (4:18). Knowing that Jesus knew her sins and still wished to offer her “living water” made her all the more open to his love and grace. I notice that Jesus did not seek to apply intricate apologetics' techniques when this woman sought to engage him in deep theological discussions, about such things as which mountain is holier. Again, it is not that knowing good apologetics' techniques and “proofs” are unimportant. Rather, to Jesus, there was something more important: communicating clearly that he loved her regardless of her past or of her decision.
In Luke 19, we see Jesus use the same compassion when confronting Zaccheus (perched up in his tree)—not with “look at all the sins you have committed,” but rather with these words: “Come down. I must spend the day with you!” (Luke 19:5, TNIV). Zaccheus’s response to this act of love was genuine repentance and reconciliation with God and with those whom he had wronged. Personal evangelism, then, is best described as building relationships of genuine Christlike concern. This relational emphasis allows the “tools” that we learn regarding presentation to be simply means to a greater end: loving people with the love of Christ. This is preferable to having the tools become ends in themselves.
In over 20 years in pastoral ministry, including almost 15 years of working with university students in the classroom and as a pastor, I have found that I cannot compete with the kinds of advertising, marketing, and selling that this generation is exposed to. They can smell a sales pitch from a mile away because every single day, on every single piece of media in their lives, they are being sold something. The techniques I learned in personal evangelism courses (yes, they offer those in seminary) can be helpful in streamlining the big picture of what I am trying to communicate. But these days especially, the long and sometimes arduous approach of building genuine relationships that demonstrate genuine desire for the well-being of people is most effective in drawing people to a genuine relationship with Jesus. Like Jesus, I must risk rejection (as with Judas Iscariot and the rich young ruler), and I must allow transparency to triumph over technique. By allowing the relationships that God builds through me to authenticate the witness of the Good News, people can be drawn to him and real disciples can be the result.
CHARLES W. CHRISTIAN is lead pastor of University Church of the Nazarene (Kent, Ohio), and founder/director of Summit Nazarene Campus Ministry on the campus of Kent State University.