"Lifestyle Evangelism" is not sufficient. But neither is pushing to "close the deal."
Eric Simmons is an evangelist. Although he serves as the singles pastor at Covenant Life Church in Gaithersburg, Maryland, Eric's heart beats for the lost. He insists he would like nothing better than to spend all day every day in the lives of unbelievers. How does he measure effective evangelism? "I've led one person to the Lord," Eric says.
The call to "be ready in and out of season" has always been a difficult (and guilt-inducing) challenge for me. The prospect of presenting the four spiritual laws to a stranger is enough to break me into a cold sweat. Forget about striking up a spiritual conversation on an airplane or in line at the grocery store.
The command to preach the gospel is a part of Scripture I love to ignore. The fact that lifestyle evangelism — where you impact the person through your life more than your words — is in vogue suits me just fine. The concept is I can be a nice person and those who encounter me will see Jesus and decide to follow Him.
It's a nice idea — one that a friend challenged me on. "Has anyone ever come up to you and asked, 'What makes you different?'" she asked. My answer was no. Not a single person. And yet all my life I've been told that if I am doing things right, people will inexplicably gravitate to me and demand I explain myself.
The success of this form of evangelism seems to be something of a Christian urban legend. 1 Peter does say, "Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have." But how do you get them to ask?
The New Lifestyle Evangelism
I've never considered myself much of an evangelist. My mom has seemingly divine conversations with hotel maids, plumbers and grocery store clerks. She seems to constantly be in the right place at the right time. The Lord has given her a gift to start conversations that lead people to Christ.
Such opportunities rarely come my way. And when they do, I get nervous and feel like I'm forcing the conversation. So am I doomed to awkwardly share my faith to obey a biblical mandate? According to Eric, not necessarily. The first step to evangelism, he says, is simply asking the Lord to open doors.
"If you're praying for opportunities, your mind and your heart and your eyes are open," Eric says. "When you love people and listen to people, you're going to see entry points."
I remember hearing the testimony of a young woman who had accepted Christ in her 20s and left the gay lifestyle. She said her Christian neighbors played a major role in her coming to Christ. "They loved me even though I was hard and mean," she said. "They brought me chicken noodle soup when I was sick; they helped me fix my car." Those neighbors were constantly looking for opportunities to serve this young woman — and their efforts paid off. When they shared the gospel, she listened.
At the beginning of the year, I invited a friend to church. Each week after service, he would hang out with my group of friends. When he had been attending for a couple of months, I asked him what he thought of church. I expected him to respond with his thoughts on the pastor's sermons or his impressions about the worship. Instead he said, "I like going. People like me there." This spoke worlds to me about the power of active love.
Talk the Talk
As you invest in people's lives, there will come a time where you need to talk about Jesus. Starting the conversation can be difficult. "Be quick to listen and slow to speak," Eric suggests. "Christians always want to respond in statements and sell their worldview. Answer a question with a question."
Asking questions serves two purposes. First, it uncovers weaknesses in the person's belief system. "It's amazing how many times when you question where a person learned or read something, they'll say 'I don't know,'" Eric says.
Second, listening reveals "the real question." It's helpful to consider what's really going on in the person's heart before pounding him with spiritual truth. "I want to get to know the person so I hear the question he really has, instead of settling for the smokescreen," Eric says.
Humility and humor are other key ingredients in effective spiritual-speak. Colossians 4:6 says, "Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone." Winning the argument isn't the point. Eric says, "I want people to experience gracious, loving conversation."
Content to Sow
As I've conversed with my unbelieving friends, I find myself at times desperate to "close the deal." Whether this is a prideful attempt to add a mark to my evangelistic checklist or a selfish expectation that God work in a certain way, it leads to feelings of frustration and failure.
Believers need to be content to simply start (or continue) the conversation. "Very few of us reap," Eric says. "A lot of us sow. If we're satisfied with that, it opens up a lot more peace, patience and power because we're entrusting the person to the Lord."
I recently got impatient with the friend who had been attending church with me for several months. While he seemed attentive at service and had even taken a Bible, he hadn't made a decision to follow Christ and his lifestyle remained the same. When I confronted him and asked if he felt ready to test Christianity, he seemed surprised. "I thought that's what I was doing," he said. "I mean, I've never talked this much about spiritual things with anyone."
His response was humbling. I thought I knew what needed to happen, but the Lord showed me He was at work in my friend's life. I only needed to answer my friend's questions and trust in the Lord's timing.
It's helpful to view witnessing as laying a foundation. "I guarantee the person I'm sharing with will meet another believer," Eric says. "And if he's had a positive experience with me, he'll be more open. Don't ruin it for the next guy."
The Power of One
Several years ago while Eric worked in a campus ministry, he had an opportunity to share the gospel with a young woman who worked at the Starbucks he and his fellow interns frequented.
"She actually started coming to our meetings," he says. "She loved hanging out with us and giving her opinions. We would ask her all these questions related to evangelism stuff we were doing on campus."
After a time the woman quit her job at Starbucks, and Eric didn't see her again. Three years later, she walked into his church. "I was floored," he says. "This is the type of girl who wouldn't set foot in church."
The woman approached him with tears in her eyes. "Someone has told me it takes 85 conversations to get saved," she said. "It took 86 for me. Thank you for sharing the gospel with me."
That experience burned a passion for evangelism in Eric's heart. "I want to sow the gospel in as many lives as I can," he says. "You'll never know until heaven how many of those conversations were No. 27... No. 28 ... No. 29. I want in on that."
Perhaps that is how we should measure effective evangelism — one conversation at a time. The next guy will thank you.
Copyright 2006 Suzanne Hadley. All rights reserved.