Insensitive. Judgmental. Hypocritical. Narrow minded. Preachy.
This was the rapid-fire response I got from a small group discussion I was facilitating when the topic of evangelism came up. It was a mixed crowd, and the majority were definitely not followers of Jesus.
But what shocked me most was how all the Christians in the room were nodding their heads!
“I’m afraid I don’t have enough Bible
knowledge and I’ll ruin relationships.”
“It feels awkward and forced when I try to share my faith
All of them—regardless of their faith or lack thereof—agreed that evangelism was usually a negative experience for all parties involved.
The discussion participants didn’t agree on much else about God and the Bible, but they all agreed that they didn’t like evangelism as they knew it.
How did our way of spreading the good news about Jesus somehow get to be bad news for so many? What are our mistakes? Here are five:
First, we fail to notice what God is doing all around us. Until he went off to college, my son Mike had been raised in the church, attending Sunday school classes and youth group. Then he told his dad and me that he wanted us to give him some space on the topic of faith. Concerned for our son’s eternal destiny, we had a hard time with that one. I was so preoccupied with our son’s lack of interest in Jesus that I almost failed to see that our nephew was looking for opportunities to talk about God and what he believed. When I finally did notice, I learned he was all ready to begin a relationship with Jesus!
Second, we forget to pray for God to draw people to himself and guide us in our conversations with people who believe differently.
I have a Type-A personality: competitive, outgoing, ambitious, impatient, aggressive, and self-reliant. It’s hard for me to remember Jesus’ words in John 6:44
(ESV): “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him.”
Too often I act as though my persuasive words and Bible quotations will bring someone to Jesus. But really it is God’s Spirit doing the work. When we are praying to and relying on God, he will show us where he is working and how he wants us to engage with people. It’s not our abilities but the fruit of his Spirit in our lives that will be compelling to them, and he will guide our conversations in a way that will accomplish what he wants to do in their lives. But we need to pray because God works in us and in them as we ask him to do that.
Third, we aren’t very good at listening to people and understanding their stories. In conversation we tend to think about what we want to say next more than we listen to what they are trying to say to us. But Anglican bishop and former director of Alpha USA Todd Hunter says, “I’m willing to bet the farm that in our postmodern Christian society, the most important evangelistic skill is listening.” True listening is an expression of love and kindness. It demonstrates respect that communicates worth. When we listen, hearing a person’s words without judgment or fear, we love. We can listen because God listens. God hears our cries and forgives. He hears our prayers and responds. He listens to our doubts, questions, and pain. What if we listened to people well enough that we could understand where God is at work in their lives?
Fourth, we fail to be curious about people and to ask questions to draw them out. Listening and asking questions go hand in hand, and curiosity moves you from listening to asking good questions. We must give up on the notion that we have all the answers. Curiosity focuses our attention on the other person, opens up a conversation, and leads to emotions such as awe, admiration, fascination, surprise, and amazement. Just as Jesus put others’ needs above his own, we are called to be interested in others—not for our own sake but for theirs. Asking questions from genuine interest builds connection. Connection builds trust. And trust is the bridge that can bear the weight of truth about Jesus.
Finally, let’s face it: we often aren’t loving to people who believe differently. We all know when someone is judging us or is trying to sell us something. Is it any different in evangelistic encounters? People innately know what’s going on when an interaction is forced or contrived. They don’t like it, and we don’t like ourselves very much at that point either. But everyone also picks up on a person who is authentic and caring. It is refreshing—kind of like a cup of cold water when we are really thirsty.
In Matthew 10:42
(NIV), Jesus says, “If anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones who is my disciple, truly I tell you, that person will certainly not lose their reward.”
In Jesus’ view, an activity as small as giving someone a cup of cold water is so important that a reward is associated with it. In the evangelistic economy with which we are familiar, the little things don’t seem to count for much. But in reality, it’s the modern-day “cups of cold water”—paying attention to people, listening to them, and praying for them—that bring refreshment and give others a taste of Jesus’ love.
Jesus reminds us that the greatest commandment is to love God and love others (Matthew 22:37-39
). So the “acid test” in anything we do evangelistically could be to ask ourselves, “Am I loving this person?” The apostle Paul reminds us that when we follow Jesus, we get a new wardrobe: “So, chosen by God for this new life of love, dress in the wardrobe God picked out for you: compassion, kindness, humility, quiet strength, discipline… And regardless of what else you put on, wear love. It’s your basic, all-purpose garment. Never be without it”
, The Message). Instead of a witness filled with human effort, heartless transactions, and an agenda, our witness is living and powerful, filled with the presence of God’s Spirit.
In the past, I have been bad news to people when trying to share the good news about Jesus. But instead of focusing on past evangelistic mistakes (including the mistake of avoiding evangelism), what if we started with five natural practices—the “arts” of noticing, praying, listening, asking questions, and loving?
Jesus is our guide. In 1 John 2:6
, the apostle John says “Whoever claims to live in him must live as Jesus did”
(NIV). In the Gospel accounts, Jesus shows us how. Let’s pray that God will love people through us. In his power and strength, let’s walk the way of Jesus, spreading the news of his incredible love in a way that is always good news.
Mary Schaller is president of Q Place and coauthor of The 9 Arts of Spiritual Conversations. She founded three technology-related business ventures and was the Minister of small groups at Menlo Presbyterian Church. She holds a master of divinity degree from Fuller Theological Seminary. Mary and her husband, Paul, have three adult children and four grandchildren.
Publication date: May 2, 2016