I once heard a comment that accurately reflected the attitude that many Christians have about sharing their faith. It came from a dedicated young Christian woman who has had some success in evangelism. She said, “For years I was afraid of turning people off by aggressive evangelism. I was afraid of people’s bad opinion of me. But now I find nearly 90 percent of the people I try to speak to about God will readily talk to me. Those who don’t are free to say so, and we talk about something else. Often, listening to them, then becomes important.”
The foundation stone for everyday evangelism seems so simple and apparent that it hardly justifies mentioning. Yet many Christians don’t realize that they can reach others in their daily environments simply by being open and natural about their Christianity. A simple willingness and readiness to share with others about our Christian lives is an essential ingredient in personal evangelism. This readiness differs from an aggressive showiness or pushy spiritual artificiality. Rather I am talking about the kind of openness which allows us to speak of the different aspects of our Christian lives naturally, as opportunities arise.
My dictionary lists sixteen definitions of the noun open and many fittingly describe this disposition, so important to effective personal evangelism. Consider, for instance: “uncovered or unprotected; exposed; not enclosed. Not secret or disguised; revealed; public. Without reserve or practice; frank, accessible.”
I particularly noted the phrase “exposed, not enclosed.” How often it seems that many Christians are decidedly “enclosed, not exposed!” Many people consider their faith a very private and personal matter, characterized by a kind of spiritual confidentiality. Jesus, on the other hand, called his followers “the light of the world,” and told them not to hide their light under a bushel but to put it on a stand, where everyone could see it.
Unfortunately, some forms of aggressive style of evangelism can discourage people from openly sharing about the Lord. Such methods often help Christians overcome timidity, but, unfortunately, they can also produce a bombastic, programmed, or insensitive style of evangelism.
A young Christian once told me about his involvement with this type of evangelism. He had carefully rehearsed a series of fifteen questions and responses designed to bring people to a choice for salvation. After being well drilled in the method, he successfully bulldozed his way over a few random unbelievers until he encountered an older man who was manifestly non-churchgoing. Each Sunday after the local church service, this man would pick up his wife at the church. One morning the young evangelist approached him and straightforwardly posed the critical starter question: “Mr. Adams, are you saved?” With corresponding directness, the man inched up to his face and shouted, “Shut up!” The flustered young evangelist panicked, realizing that this novel response had not been covered in the evangelism training manual. His instincts told him that he should approach this resistant victim some other time, some other way (maybe an anonymous note?).
The problems with many of the aggressive, programmed techniques are only too obvious. These approaches are artificial and often on a one-time-only basis, with random contacts. When we use them on those with whom we have ongoing contact, we know that we will probably alienate them for good. A wise Christian will find many natural opportunities for witnessing to co-workers, neighbors, fellow students, and friends.
Even slight familiarity with aggressive and insensitive techniques can dampen our enthusiasms for evangelism. Unfortunately, some Christians have reacted to this pushy style of evangelism by deciding to let their actions be their only witness for the Lord.
We must recognize that this witness of good deeds, though essential, is not enough for personal evangelism. The story of Robert helps illustrate this.
In the midst of an intense executive lifestyle, Robert experienced a profound change of life (a personal conversion) on a retreat weekend. His co-workers and subordinates noticed the difference immediately. Outbursts of anger, impatience, and cursing no longer punctuated his behavior. Instead, he displayed uncharacteristic contentment and patience in the face of pressing responsibilities.
Robert told no one about his religious experience, though he was now attending prayer meetings and avidly reading the Bible. Nevertheless, his change of behavior was intriguing, particularly to Pete, an accountant in the office.
Pete was so impressed by Robert’s new-found reservoir of willpower that he tried to emulate Robert’s model behavior – only to fail miserably.
About a year-and-a-half later, Pete was invited to the same kind of retreat weekend that had changed Robert’s life. As a matter of fact, Robert was now a team member, leading discussion groups. To his surprise, Pete discovered the source of Robert’s changed life. His immediate challenge to Robert was: “Why didn’t you tell me about all this a long time ago? I would have given my life to God more than a year ago!”
Though his behavior was outstanding, Robert’s failure to actually talk about what had happened to him short-circuited any evangelistic fruit he might have borne. After Pete’s input, he decided to be more open about his Christian life. As a result, more fellow workers were influenced toward the kingdom of God.
The decision to be open about our Christian lives will, indeed, result in opportunities we would otherwise miss. Perhaps the best way to be open is in response to the needs and interests of others. That way we can customize the gospel for each person in order to make it most attractive.
Bill and Carol, for instance, live in a neighborhood on the outskirts of a major metropolitan area. Many of their neighbors are younger couples with small families. More than a few of the families have been torn apart by divorce. Other couples are struggling. As with many people, happy, successful family life seems to be escaping many of Bill and Carol’s neighbors.
In contrast, Bill and Carol are succeeding quite well in raising their three children. As they consider how to evangelize their neighbors, it is clear to them that building a solid family life is a strongly felt need among their neighbors. As a matter of fact, a number of wives in the neighborhood complimented Carol on the behavior of her children. These comments have provided Carol with several opportunities to talk about the Christian approach to strong family life. Since she has identified herself as a Christian, the topic of Christianity and home life comes up naturally in her casual conversations with other neighborhood women. This has a slow, but steady influence in the neighborhood.
Bill and Carol have found an ideal opening for spreading the gospel in their neighborhood. They have been able to speak of their Christian lifestyle without cramming a spiritual message down anyone’s throat. They have responded to the real concerns of their neighbors and established their own reputation as Christians. Their openness makes it easier for them to share and easier for others to relate to them. Though they have not yet won any converts they have managed to create a good deal of interest in their Christian faith. Some of their neighbors have begun to seriously evaluate their own family life. With this foundation, Bill and Carol can now decide on a more purposeful approach. They can focus on two of the most responsive couples, perhaps suggesting a four session group discussion on family life, based on the teachings of Scripture.
This kind of customizing of the gospel according to the needs and interests of those around us is particularly helpful. The more prayerfully we can consider people’s needs, the better able we will be to evangelize them. What do people talk about? How do they spend their time and money? What kinds of friends do they have? What motivates them? Asking these kinds of questions about people we see in an ongoing way is particularly important. By doing so, we minimize the chance of spoiling our witness through hasty or compulsive openness. It is not always wise to declare our spiritual colors at the outset of a relationship.
Even so, identifying ourselves as Christians is a fundamental and natural way of being open about our Christianity. In personal evangelism it is usually wise to give people time to adjust to the knowledge that we are Christians, rather than immediately launching into an explanation of the gospel message. If we begin by identifying ourselves as Christians, we will find that we have many opportunities later on to explain how we came to the point of commitment to Christ.
We can communicate the fact of our personal Christian commitment in any number of ways. Whatever we do, our identity as Christians should be communicated naturally, rather than as a stark or sudden statement of faith.
Sharing Our Experience
One of the best ways to tell others about God’s love is by telling them our own experience of God at work in our lives. I often tell people about a remarkable series of jobs that the Lord has provided for me throughout the years. Natural circumstances have also provided me with the chance to tell others what God has done in my life after I was prayed with for a fuller release of the Holy Spirit. When we share on a personal level, about concrete situations, we straightforwardly attest to God’s love. Moreover, being personal can encourage the hearer to be personal with us.
Conversely, doctrinal discussion nearly always generates debate, which is not usually helpful in personal evangelism. Generally, we should avoid is. This lesson was reinforced when I shared my faith with a man from India. The discussion began quite cordially about some theological differences between Christianity and Hinduism. But in a mere fifteen minutes we were literally nose to nose. He was shouting, his neck veins bulging! “Jesus Christ is only a man!” At that point, I sensitively detected that our conversation had lost its former sweetness. I suspect our doctrinal encounter served only to enflame my friend’s nominal Hinduism to a newfound fervor.
When we talk about our relationship with Jesus, we should share personally and naturally. We should be ourselves as much as possible. Recently I read an article attesting to the effectiveness of the common earthworm as the best fishing bait available, better even than all the scientifically developed artificial lures in existence. Perhaps you can anticipate my point. We need not manipulate people or situations artificially. Evangelism happens best when we simply make use of the natural opportunities the Lord gives us. If we are open and aware, we will recognize the opportunities given us by the Holy Spirit.
Offering a Christian Perspective
Imagine that you are discussing the problem of political corruption with your barber. You might offer an observation like the following: “You know, Bill, it amazes me how widespread graft and bribery are, but I think the problem must go deeper. After all, deception and greed have been around since the human race began. All of us have been tempted, and some of us have even given in to the temptation to take advantage of others. Don’t you think we need a bigger, more basic solution?” This kind of approach is much more helpful than stark, dogmatic, or pious statements like “Well, the Bible says that all ‘have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.’” Our comments should be designed to continue, not end, discussion. Normally, our remarks need not be explicitly religious, but they should reveal an underlying Christian perspective. For instance, to a problem at work you might respond: “The problem in our department involves more than just ignoring procedures. We all tend to gossip rather than to deal directly with the people involved.”
Talking Freely about Christian Activities or Friends
When co-workers tell how they spent their weekend, it is natural to respond in kind. We can mention that we joined three other families for a picnic and canoe ride after church. It is good to be open about the fact that some of our activities are explicitly Christian. This is particularly the case if we are asked a question that can only be honestly answered by revealing that we were engaged in a spiritual activity – “what did you do last night, Mary?” “Actually, after dinner my husband and I went to a very interesting lecture.” “Really, what was it about?” “A local author spoke at our church about how television can undermine family life. Did you know that the average American family spends twice as much time watching TV rather than relating to each other directly?”
We can share straightforwardly about our Christian activities in a way that is not pushy. Discussion can be prolonged describing the content of the activity or its effect on us: “To tell you the truth, I was exhausted and crabby after dinner last night. The last think I wanted to do was to go to a prayer meeting. But by the end of the night, I was glad I had gone. I felt refreshed by the music and the contact with other people. I slept well and feel great today.”
The Christian activities that we tell others about or invite them to should be described sensitively and wisely. We should not go into too much detail describing things that would be unappealing or mysterious to a non-Christian. (“Oh, it was great! We interceded for two straight hours before our testimony and scripture witness.”) Neither should we make it seem that we are so involved in Christian activities that we have no time for anything else. A non-Christian is not usually attracted to the idea of spending much time in such activities.
I have often heard Christians say, “I don’t know anyone to evangelize.” This comment reminds me of a missionary who was bound for an overseas mission. He was traveling on a huge ship which was transporting about two hundred other missionaries and two hundred tourists. As he considered the ration of missionary to tourist, and the abundance of leisure time to socialize, he became excited about the potential of in-transit conversions. To his chagrin, however, he discovered that none of the other missionaries had even considered evangelizing the tourists. When he approached his fellow laborers about this, they were surprised at such a novel idea. They were thinking only of the foreign missionary field.Taking stock of our daily relationships is an invaluable step in personal evangelism. Most of us have regular relationships with neighbors, merchants, relatives, friends, co-workers, and schoolmates. This is not to mention numerous random, short-term contacts that punctuate our daily routines. Praying and considering with whom and how we can effectively share about our faith sharpens our ability to be Christ’s ambassadors right where we are.
This article is adapted from the book, Person to Person: How to be effective in evangelism, © 1984 by Jim Berlucchi, and published by Servants Books, Ann Arbor.
Top image credit: Photo of two students talking, from Bigstock.com, Copyright hjalmeida, stock photo ID: 15474467
Jim Berlucchi is the Executive Director at Spitzer Center for Ethical Leadership. He formerly served as the Executive Director of Legatus, an international association of Catholic CEOs. He served for many years as a community leader in The Word of God and The Sword of the Spirit. He and his wife Judy reside in Dexter, Michigan, USA. They are the grateful parents of eight children and enjoy a steadily increasing number of grandchildren.
See other articles by Jim Berlucchi in previous issues of Living Bulwark