How do we best train people in personal evangelism today?
In a recent survey of our church it emerged that the vast majority saw personal evangelism as their individual responsibility (83%). It seems that very few had bought the line that evangelism was only for the specialists or the especially gifted. The average parishioner knew it was at least partly their job. Yet, in the same survey it also emerged that at least half that number had virtually no spiritual conversations with non-Christians in the previous year. Not unexpectedly such a situation leads to an ongoing and constant low-level sense of failure and frustration: “I want to share Christ, I know I ought to share Christ, and yet I rarely do it”. In the same survey most (84%) felt comfortable to clearly explain the gospel, and whether we agree with this assessment matters little in regards to a conclusion that a sense of inability to share the gospel does not represent a primary barrier to speaking.
What then are the barriers that lead to people not doing what they want to do and what they know they ought to do? The answer was clear after further research. Those barriers can be broadly categorised as relating to twin factors of opportunity and fear. When asked, ‘why do you not have more spiritual conversations with non- Christians?’, the most common responses included both ‘I don’t have many opportunities’ and ‘I don’t have many non-Christian friends’. The fear barrier was clear in responses like ‘religious conversations always seem to create arguments’, ‘I don’t think I could answer the questions they might ask me’, and ‘I am embarrassed by the public perception of Christianity’.
Accordingly, any training in personal evangelism in our context needs to face these twin barriers head on. How do we help the person who wants to share Christ, knows they should but does not feel like they have many non-Christian friends of sufficient depth to share Christ with, and who is also afraid of the questions that will come back at them if they do open their mouth? To help with this the course developed for our church focused on six key outcomes:
- A love for the lost expressed in prayerfulness and a desire to build relational bridges.
- Developing strategies around social fear.
- Confidence in flexibly communicating the gospel.
- Growing in listening and conversational questioning skills.
- Capacity to answer key objections in a way that boomerangs back to the gospel.
- Developing a mentality of humble confidence in the work of the gospel.
Wider research also unearthed a potential obstacle to people in our churches receiving the type of training and help they needed. A sample of ministers surveyed expressed a consistent suspicion of the usefulness of training in apologetics (answering objections to Christianity). To the mind of some leading churches and ministries there were “too many courses on apologetics that wind-up undermining the Christian’s confidence in telling the gospel.” This is strikingly out of step with the sense of barriers to speaking expressed by congregation members. Now, of course, the type of training in apologetics that focuses greatly on more theoretical and philosophical approaches could indeed have the effect of confusing and confounding believers. However, there were several aspects to the training that we implemented that sought to get around this danger. By identifying the manageably small number of questions asked by non- Christians, it gave confidence that one can reflect on how to answer at least those questions. We then considered the different ways to answer each of those 6-7 questions and focused on the principle, ‘let’s choose the answer that most helpfully get us back to talking about Jesus’ (that is, the answer that boomerangs back to the gospel).
We need to train our people in apologetics, not in order to argue them cleverly into the kingdom of God, but to give them enough confidence to speak up for Jesus, knowing that if I do get one of those tricky questions then at least I’ve got something helpful and considered to say.
In terms of training to assist in building relational bridges with non-Christians, much of the input revolved around how to ask thoughtful questions that open doors of deeper conversation. We shared Sam Chan’s approach of deepening layers of conversation (see his 2020 book ‘How to Talk about Jesus without Being THAT Guy’):
1. Interests: safe and descriptive topics that will not lead to disagreement
2. Values: statements about preferences, ethics, and beauty, which may lead to disagreement and provides an opportunity to show vulnerability and empathetic listening
3. Worldviews: what we believe about the big questions of life which leads organically and naturally to talk of Jesus
We also reflected on making the most of ‘moments of receptivity’ – times when the regular patterns of life are disrupted by change, difficult, or even traumatic events. If the believer seeks to be a loving unofficial chaplain to their friends and community, then times of need may provide heightened opportunity for gospel conversation.
Simply using the question, “Can I pray for you in that situation?” can open the door to talk of Christ. We were very conscious that training believers for personal evangelism in a secular post-Christian context requires far more than a six-hour course can deliver.
However, a shift in whole church culture, and wider program of regular encouragement and input could make a significant impact, and that is what we are prayerfully seeking to do.
Gavin Perkins is the Rector of St Jude’s Bowral in the Southern Highlands of NSW. He recently completed a Doctoral Project on ‘Training church members in personal evangelism in a secular and post-Christendom context’ through Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Chicago.