Evangelism for the Rest of Us

Excerpted from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Evangelism
by Bill Tenny-Brittian (Chalice Press, fall 2008)

Over the years, especially with the rise of the Enlightenment and Modernity, an understanding crept into the church that mimicked our scientific culture. In science, if it can’t be measured and examined in some way, then significant question arose. That’s one of the reasons faith and science so often appear to be at war with each other—you can’t quantify faith or faith claims. And that becomes a problem when it comes to evangelism and salvation. If you can’t somehow measure it, it can’t really be real, or so the logic claimed. And so, over the past 1,500 years or so, the church inadvertently developed a way to measure faith. We called it salvation or being saved and we can be sure someone has achieved it when they pray a particular prayer. And that’s how we measure faith. If you’ve prayed “the sinner’s prayer,” or prayed to “accept” Jesus as your Lord and Savior, or any prayer to that effect, then you have it.

What is clear is that this is the way the church has measured faith for several hundred years or so and that seems like a loooooong time. But that doesn’t appear to be the only way the church has measured salvation. Let me illustrate two different ways the New Testament has “measured” salvation.

Paul’s Conversion

The first illustration is of Paul’s conversion experience as found in Acts 9. In his case, there is a definite point of time when he became a Christian. There is little doubt that there was a specific moment in time when he became a believer. Notice, however, what the biblical text doesn’t include. There is no mention of a specific prayer being prayed (which doesn’t mean there wasn’t one) or any formulaic words. On the other hand, we do see an immediate response to his conversion via his baptism and the receiving of the Holy Spirit.

The conversion model is certainly a valid model of salvation in the New Testament and it is this model that the church over the past 1,500 years or so has come to understand as normal. However, it isn’t the only model that we read about in the New Testament. And so, let’s look at a second illustration.

Peter’s Conversion

Peter’s conversion experience seems to be significantly different from Paul’s. The dilemma here is to try and pinpoint when Peter “became” a Christian. Trying to find that “point in time” seems nearly fruitless. We don’t read about Peter’s baptism, so I “guessed” that he was probably baptized either before Jesus issued his Great Invitation to “follow me,” or else he may have been baptized afterwards. The question is, though, did his baptism mark his entry into Christianity? It certainly could have, but then, Jesus hadn’t died and been resurrected yet. Would that baptism count? Besides, as I pointed out earlier, we don’t read about Peter’s baptism anywhere in the New Testament.

On the other hand, many have claimed that Peter became a Christian at the moment of his Great Confession (Mark 8:29). However, if this is true, was Peter not a Christian when Jesus choose him to be one of his apostles? Or when he sent Peter and the other eleven (and the seventy-two) out to preach, heal, and cast out demons? You can probably see the issue here. Could Peter have been a Christian before Jesus’ death and resurrection? And if not, when did he become one? When Jesus bestowed the Holy Spirit upon him? When Jesus told Peter to take care of his sheep? Or was it at Pentecost in Acts 1?

The reality is, it appears that the majority of those Christians who were born prior to 1960 can more readily relate to Peter’s “conversion” story than Paul’s. I’m one of those. I wrestled for years trying to pinpoint my own conversion moment, because “everybody” knows you need to be able to point to your spiritual birthday (that day when you were “born again,” as Jesus put it to Nicodemus in John 3). But I was “raised in the church,” that is, I was in church from my third Sunday outside the womb (mom would have had me there earlier, but the doctor said no). There’s no time in my life that I can recall when I didn’t believe that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of the Living God, and my personal Lord and Savior. No blinding light moment. No specific “prayer” prayed. I was baptized when I was nine. I had a call into ministry at fourteen. I entered formal theological training when I was twenty-five. And so on. Sure, there are high points and some low points in my life. I relate to Peter’s conversion experience, as it’s outlined in the New Testament—his journey seems to be my journey too.

Of course, this principle flies in the face of the Enlightenment’s version of conversion. Indeed, I’ve had individuals seriously question my “salvation” because I couldn’t point to moment in my life when I “became” a Christian. But there’s always a problem with the logic of those who conclude that an experience they’ve had has to be the experience everyone else must have. Was Peter “saved” or not? My heart says yes.

I was leading a recent training event on church transformation and the comment was made that there are a lot of clergy out there who don’t really know “how” to do evangelism in this culture. Indeed, when I lead evangelism workshops across North America, it’s apparent that when we contemplate “sharing our faith” with people, we worry we’ll say the wrong thing or, perhaps even worse, we’ll stumble and stutter through some presentation of the gospel so badly that we’ll look inept at best, and incompetent at worst. So we tend to just keep our mouths shut. Well, let me relieve you of some of your anxiety. Many of our fears exist because we’re still caught up in the Enlightenment mentality of conversion versus simply having a conversation. When conversion is the point of our conversation, we put a lot of pressure on ourselves because we unnaturally approach it as a sales call. I know, that sounds harsh, but let’s think through this. The goal of a conversion conversation is to get to a point where we can effectively press for a decision about Jesus:

  • “Will you accept Jesus as your Lord and Savior?”
  • “Will you pray with me to receive Jesus?”
  • “Do you want to know for sure that if you died tonight that you’d go to heaven?”

and so on. When conversion is the goal, there is a lot riding on the words we choose and the rhetoric we present. Indeed, the exact wording can seem so critical, when I was in undergraduate Bible school, our evangelism class was given a how-to book for leading people to the Lord and we had to memorize it word-for-word. Not only that, but the book included detailed instructions on how to dress, how to knock on a door appropriately, and directions that included taking a step backwards when someone opened the door after we knocked (it makes you appear less intimidating), where and how to be seated in the living room, and even instructions for how to get them to turn off the television if it’s a distraction.

Now, don’t get me wrong. Conversion evangelism has been an effective process for many years and with many people. My personal evangelism bookshelf has dozens of how-to books that outline one plan after another for introducing people to Jesus. But, as I pointed out earlier, most of these programs and plans seldom have the desired effect in our current cultural climate. In fact, more often than not, they have the exact opposite effect and people who feel they’re being “sold” the Gospel resent it and may conclude that “all those church people are pushy.”

One thing that’s lacking in the vast majority of the conversion models of evangelism is conversation. Oh sure, there’s dialogue going on between the evangelist and their companion, but it’s seldom an unscripted conversation. Instead, it goes a lot like this:

Evangelist: “If you were  to die tonight, do you know for sure you’d go to heaven?”

Companion: “Well, uh, I guess not.”

Evangelist: “Would you like to know?”

Companion: “Umm, sure.”

Evangelist: “Well, the Bible says that we’ve all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23). That says we’ve all sinned. I’ve sinned and you’ve sinned. Everyone has. Like when our moms told us we couldn’t have a cookie, but we snuck one anyway. We’ve all sinned. You’ve sinned in the past, haven’t you?”

Companion: “I, uh, I guess so.”

And so it goes. Most conversion plans gently lead the seeker from wherever they are to a place where they realize they’ve sinned, need salvation, and can get it because of Jesus’ death and resurrection. It’s a carefully guided conversation that doesn’t make much allowance for authentic give-and-take conversation.

Conversation, on the other hand, is messy. It can’t be scripted, which means that in some ways, it takes more work to guide it to a particular conclusion. It can be done, though. Socrates was such a master at it that they named the Socratic Method after him. The conversations he had with his students weren’t scripted in advance, but with careful forethought, he was able to ask just the right questions, based on the conversation, that would lead his students to the “correct” conclusion.

I’d like to tell you that I’ve mastered Socrates’ rhetoric and condensed it into five points so you can lead a Socratic conversation that brings people to a place where they realize they need, yea want, the guiding presence of Jesus Christ in their lives. But I’ve never been able to work my way through the method well enough to boil it down to those five points.

On the other hand, I think I gave up struggling through the Socratic Method because I figured there must be something more natural and more effective than micro-managing a conversation. The good news is that there is. That more natural and more effective method is called living life on the Way. The authentic Christian life is lived on the Way. It’s a hitchhiker’s paradise that can take you almost anywhere. The roads you travel and the paths you cross are scenic and they’re filled with other hitchhikers making their way to one destination or another. As you go, you’ll brush up against some fellow journeyers and rub shoulders with others. These “touch-points” are often divine appointments, otherwise known as opportunities—opportunities to open the door to real, life-changing conversations.

It’s one thing to have a conversation about your faith. It’s quite another to have a life-changing conversation. The difference between the two can be summed up in two words: An Invitation. Let’s face it, we have conversations with people all day long and though most of them may be pleasant, very few of them change our lives. Those that do have a couple things in common.

First, life-changing conversations are inspirational. They ring true and they “jazz” us. They stir our souls and excite our imaginations. They give us hope. Second, life-changing conversations are personal, interactive, and, well, conversational, that is, they’re dialog rather than monologue. Listening is a necessary part of conversation, especially life-changing ones. Finally, life-changing conversations come with either an implicit or an explicit invitation to do something. If the conversation doesn’t have an invitation, although it may be inspiring and make you feel all warm and fuzzy inside, it won’t change your life because it’s little more than informational. Our lives change, however, only when we do something different with our lives. What we know “about” makes virtually no real-life difference. It’s only when we put something into practice, when we begin behaving differently, that life-change occurs. And that means, for those of us initiating a life-changing conversation, that we need to offer a life-changing invitation.

What might you offer? There are many possibilities. You could offer to pray with them. You could offer to help hold them accountable for some life changing spiritual habit they want to practice. You could offer to do a Bible study with them. You could offer to be a spiritual mentor or guide for them. And, of course, you could invite them to your life-changing small group or life-changing church event. On the other hand, please do not invite people with whom you’ve shared your faith to a small group or a church event that isn’t transformational—disciple making is too important, and these relationships too tenuous, to invite them into anything as potentially destructive as an unhealthy congregation. Those you’ve inspired need to be invited into a nurturing community that takes disciple-making seriously, so be selective about what the invitation you make. But once you’ve made the invitation, it’s pretty much up to them and their response to the nudging of the Spirit.

Don’t rest all your hopes on a single conversation. If you’re friends with your conversational partner, the conversation you’ve had will continue and you’ll have the opportunity to make other invitations. The key word is continue. Keep the conversation going and, though you shouldn’t be annoying, keep making invitations. Remember, it’s a conversation that invites them to a changed life. That’s the point of evangelism—to share the good news and invite others to join you on the Way.