One in five Americans don't believe in a deity. Less than half of the population attends religious services on a regular basis.
People simply find our evangelism unbelievable. Why?
While a person's response to Christ is ultimately a matter that rests in God's sovereign hands—something over which we have no control—a person's hearing of the gospel is a matter over which we do have control and responsibility.
"Preach the word; be ready in season and out of season" (2 Tim. 4:2, ESV). "Walk in wisdom toward outsiders, making the best use of the time. Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person" (Col. 4:5–6, emphasis added). "So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ" (Rom. 10:17, emphasis added).
The first reason our evangelism isn't believable is because it isn't done in grace for each person. Paul isn't just saying evangelism is our responsibility; he's telling us to do it "in person." Unfortunately, a lot of evangelism is an out of body experience, as if there aren't two people in a conversation. It's excarnate, out of the flesh, not incarnate—in the flesh.
I'm reminded of the more passive Christian who looks to get Jesus off his chest at work and into a conversation. "Check." Or the time in college when I pretended to share the gospel with a friend in Barnes & Noble so others would overhear it. Alternatively, an active evangelist might troll blogs and start conversations to defeat arguments, while losing people in the process. "Aha!" The comment section on a blog is the new street corner.
These approaches are foolish because they treat people like projects to be completed, not as people to be loved. Have you ever been on the other end of an evangelistic project, perhaps from a Jehovah's Witness or Mormon at your door or a pushy pluralist at work? You don't feel loved; you feel used, like a pressure sale.
Paul says to know how you should answer each person. This means that most of your gospel explanations will be different, not canned. It also implies a listening evangelism. How can we know how to respond to each person if we don't know each person?
When Francis Schaeffer was asked how he would spend an hour with a non-Christian, he said: "I would listen for 55 minutes, and then in the last five minutes I would have something to say."
A second reason people find our evangelism unbelievable is because it is foolish. Paul isn't just telling us evangelism is personal; he's telling us to do it with wisdom. Wisdom possesses more than knowledge; it expresses knowledge through understanding. It considers life circumstances and applies knowledge with skill. Another word for this is love.
Love is inefficient. It slows down long enough to understand people and their objections to the gospel. Love recognizes people are complex and meets them in their need, suffering, despair, indifference, cynicism and confusion. We should look to surface these objections in people's lives.
I was recently having lunch with an educated professional who had a lot of questions. After about 30 minutes he said, "Enough about me. You're asking me questions. I should ask you questions." I responded by saying, "I want to hear your questions, but I also want to know you so that I can respond to your questions with wisdom." He told me some very personal things after that, and it shed a lot of light on his objections to Christianity. It made my comments much more informed, and he felt much more loved, declaring at the end, "I wish every lunch was like this. Let's keep doing this. I have a lot more questions."
Rehearsing a memorized fact—"Jesus died on the cross for your sins"—isn't walking in wisdom. Many people don't know what we mean when we say "Jesus," "sin" or "cross." While much of America still has cultural memory of these things, they are often misunderstood and confused with "moral teacher," "be good" and "irrelevant suffering."
We have to slow down long enough to explore what they mean and why they have trouble with these words and concepts. Often they are tied to some kind of pain. We need to explain these important truths (and more), not simply assert them. When we discerningly separate cultural misunderstanding from a true understanding of the gospel, we move forward in wisdom. But getting to that point typically doesn't happen overnight.
We need to see evangelism as a long-term endeavor. Stop checking the list and defeating others. Be incarnate, not excarnate, in your evangelism. Slow down and practice listening in love. Most conversions are not the result of a single, point-in-time conversation, but the culmination of a personal process that includes doubt, reflection, gospel witness, love and the work of the Holy Spirit.
And remember, don't put pressure on yourself; conversion is in God's hands. We just get to share the incomparable news of Jesus.
In summary, how you communicate the gospel matters.
Jonathan K. Dodson (M.Div, Th.M) founded City Life Church in Austin, Texas, with his wife and a small group of people willing to take a risk for the kingdom of God. Jonathan is the author of The Unbelievable Gospel: Say Something Worth Believing, Gospel-Centered Discipleship and Raised? Finding Jesus by Doubting the Resurrection. He enjoys rowing, reading, writing and playing with his kids.
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