Recently we found an article on the Reformation 21 blog and thought one portion of the article might be a thought provoking post here on Outward. The article is by Justin Poythress, an Assistant pastor at a PCA church in Fort Myers, FL. You are welcome to read the whole article, but we found this one point interesting which we are inserting below. We are including a couple thought/discussion questions after the excerpt.
Here is the excerpt from the article:
Spatially Aware Evangelism
The second skill of an effective evangelist is spatial awareness—that is, taking advantage of the opportunities found in different social spaces. When it comes to spiritual conversations with strangers, we can identify roughly three different categories of social space: open, closed, and neutral.
Open spaces would be places like a church service, small group, a church-sponsored/hosted event, a group discussion of philosophy or religion, or the classes, meetings, and discussions that occur within a Christian school or institution, etc. These are places where people arrive expecting to hear Christian ideas, and often for the specific purpose of engaging with them.
Closed spaces would include obvious places such as mosques and a synagogues, but also sporting events, concerts, a classroom lecture on engineering, a movie theater, or a political rally. I define these other places as “closed” in that, although there may be afforded sporadic opportunities for conversation or audience engagement, all those attending have come to that specific place at that specific time for an understood and agreed upon purpose. The parameters of that space are well-defined and uni-directional in the minds of both the organizers and participants. An attempt to engage in Christian conversation will likely be seen as rude, coercive, and irrelevant.
Neutral spaces include everything else, such as your own home, someone else’s home, the street, parks, libraries, and the marketplace (i.e. all spaces of commerce). At first, the marketplace might seem like a closed space, since in theory people are coming to the mall to shop, the restaurant to eat, and the bar to drink. However, the actual activities, motivations, and social allowances are much more fluid, though each place comes with its own implicit social norms and expectations.
As a final addendum, an open space could also occur within a closed or neutral space where a Christian is provided with an external invitation to speak directly about his or her experience, beliefs, thoughts, and opinions.
With these definitions in mind, let’s return to the case study of Paul, a person whom we are hard-pressed to criticize for lack of evangelistic zeal. Where do we find Paul doing his missionary and evangelistic work? It is almost exclusively in open spaces (most often synagogues), or occasionally in neutral spaces which have opened to him, as described in the above addendum.
It’s safe to assume that Paul still lived much of his life in neutral spaces, and perhaps occasionally in closed spaces. Paul surely does not remove his Christian hat or pretend to be a different person in these spaces, but he likely shifts to a mode of what I will call “conversing to care”, rather than proselytizing, precisely because he knows that will be the most effective in winning that person to Christ. That’s a conjecture, but we don’t see Paul doing his work in those closed and neutral spaces. What we do see is that Paul making use of every opportunity in his evangelism. Surely this is not because he believed that God was hindered from working in neutral or closed spaces. He relentlessly focused his activity on open spaces because he was an effective evangelist.
Paul worked with the common-sense knowledge we do well to remember that not every setting finds equally open and receptive hearers of the Gospel. This is why when Christians receive an opportunity to engage in a personal spiritual conversation within a closed or neutral space, the end goal is often an invitation to come to an open space, where the conversation can become fuller and less constrained. Paul is not disregarding God’s sovereignty and supernatural power but rather exercising keen awareness of how God moves in human hearts through varied times and situations.
Through all this analysis, we must be careful we don’t fall into the trap of rationalizing away chances to speak about and honor God due to an underlying fear of man. We often have miniature “open moments” within closed or neutral spaces which require boldness and conviction of faith. But in our strategic posture toward evangelism, we’d do well to be personalized and spatially aware.
Questions for Thought or Discussion:
1) What do you think of the author’s main practical takeaway—which is that when we have an opportunity to evangelize in a “closed” or “neutral” space, one of our primary goals should be to find or encourage a way to continue that conversation in an “open” space—church, bible study, a place where Christian teaching and talk is expected?
2) How does that approach to personal evangelism reflect on the role of the church? In what ways does that suggested approach help your view and practice of personal evangelism? In what ways does it make it more challenging?
3) If you find the author’s thesis helpful, what would be one or two things you could do to take a step in that direction?
Link to whole article by Justin Poythress: Reformation 21 Post