Some of us don’t talk about Jesus because we’re scared we’re going to screw things up. We don’t think we know what we’re doing, so we timidly hold back and hope someone else will step up to the plate with the person sitting next to us. Some of us realize we are that “someone else”, but screw things up because we’re not scared enough–or rather, we have a zeal, but it’s not a zeal in accordance with knowledge. We mean well, mostly, but for some reason when we try to share Jesus friendships end, restraining orders get filed, and we end up wondering where it all went wrong.
Believe me, I’ve been there. (Well, not the restraining order.) I’m not a naturally quiet kind of guy, so I’ve had my share of evangelism catastrophes. I’m not an expert at this. I still fumble. I walk away from conversations replaying various missteps, thinking, “I should have said this right there and waited a bit for that.” At the same time, over the years, through trial and error, various lectures, sermons, books, and plenty of the Holy Spirit working on me, things have gotten better. I can generally walk away from conversations having said something true, sometimes even uncomfortably true, about Jesus, and not have the person hate me, or scuttle away every time they see me. Sometimes that plays out into something more like being able to hand them a book, or invite them to church.
In the spirit of helping people who want to witness to Jesus more effectively, I offer 3 tips on what NOT to do:
1. Shoot First, Ask Questions Later – Let’s be honest, we have things to say. We have a Gospel message, a Bible-full of truth to share. Great. Awesome. I’m just going to point out, that if they don’t care, it doesn’t matter. You want to say something that means something–to them. According to Jerram Barrs, Francis Schaeffer used to say, “If I’ve got only an hour with someone, I’ll spend the first 55 minutes asking questions, and only then will I try to say anything.” See, unless you know something about the person you’re speaking to, you’re just going to be speaking at them. Instead, try listening first. Hear their story. Ask them about their life, their passions, interests, personal history. Often-times it’s only after knowing something about them that the Holy Spirit will guide you to speak some Gospel truth that actually connects with their lives and renders open to hear more. It’s better to plant a seed that takes root, than to try and ram a full-grown tree down into the soil with no prep. Even if it’s only something small, you have no idea what that seed will sprout into.
Update: My friend Sean Kelly adds, “Also be ready to share yourself with the other person. Asking them questions about their life is a great place to start, but they’re not going to take you seriously unless you’re willing to open up to them as well. Even if it’s just discussing simple, unimportant, everyday happenings. Otherwise, it just feels like an inquisition.”
2. Find Out What’s Wrong First – In a sense, the Good News is only good against the back-drop of some bad news. Forgiveness is beautiful in light of a ruptured relationship, meaning and hope in light of apathy and despair, grace in light of law, so on and so forth. Aware of this reality, many of us immediately go looking for what’s wrong with a person, whether spiritually, emotionally, or intellectually, pounce on it, and then move to introduce the Gospel. Instead, maybe you look for what’s right first. Try looking for those points of truth, goodness, and beauty that the person acknowledges through common grace and the Image of God and start working from those shared values towards the truth of the Gospel. For instance, work from their sense of justice to the beauty of biblical justice, or from their sense of the value of art, to the firm rooting that God gives for creative activity. If you’re a pastor, you should probably try doing the same thing in your preaching.
3. Assume the Other Person Is a Strung Out, Fornicating, Blasphemer Ready To Eat Your Babies – This one may be obvious based on the last two: don’t assume the worst about whoever you’re dealing with. Do not condescend. Do not self-righteously huff and puff about with your moral fervor. Yes, theologically-speaking, they are sinners, depraved, with a darkened heart and mind, in need of the light of the Gospel (just like you). At the same time, theologically-speaking, they are made in the Image of God, objects of his love, mercy, and the common grace of God, and have consciences that are often-times more finely-tuned than most Christians. Realize this: you might be talking to someone who doesn’t know Jesus, but is a much better person than you by most standards of moral evaluation. It is completely possible for you to learn about loving your wife, raising your kids, studying in school, general work ethic, and general life-knowledge from someone who desperately needs to know the Gospel. When you take that into account, it changes the way you to talk to them. Again, first stop, listen, watch, and then speak.
At the most basic level, all of these tips boil down to one: when you’re talking to people about Jesus, do it with respect. We are told in scripture to “always be prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you” and yet we are supposed to “do it with gentleness and respect.” (1 Peter 3:15) Treat people with the dignity that the Gospel requires–the dignity that Jesus himself commands.
Soli Deo Gloria