We are going to start a new series that will be interspersed with other topics and posts in the coming months. We are calling it “Evangelism Reader’s Digest.” We will take select chapters from good books on evangelism and share snippets from the chapter with our commentary and application for Reformed churches. Some of these will be a little longer than some of our posts. We hope you will be able to bookmark them, email them to yourself, or print them out for later reading–maybe on a Saturday night or Sunday. We will try to split them up when we can, and keep things to 5-10 minute reads. We will provide questions after the post for thought or discussion.
Over the next few posts, we want to introduce you to some of the lessons from the book on evangelism called “Get Real,” by John Leonard. Leonard is an RTS Jackson grad who taught for a while at Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia before becoming a full-time pastor of a PCA church outside Philly. John Shaw has recommended this book to church planters.
In his introduction, John Leonard poses two different experiences of evangelism to set the tone.
Here’s scenario #1:
“Hi, my name is Bill. Do you mind if I ask you a few questions?” Without waiting for me to reply, he continued—violating my personal space in an aggressive stance that made me feel threatened. Bill jumped right into his presentation of the gospel. It was one that I knew well. Bill and his team had come to help us with an outreach, and I had come down early to the auditorium to help set up. Bill had not asked me my name, and in fact didn’t seem to want to know anything about me. He just cornered me and “shared.” The more he spoke, the more perturbed I became. I felt insulted by the impersonal and dehumanizing way I had been approached. And since Bill had assumed I wasn’t a Christian, I decided I would play along, giving him arguments for every point he was trying to make. The more unraveled and frustrated Bill became, the more I enjoyed our conversation. The sales pitch ended quickly when a mutual friend came up to us and said, “John, I see you’ve met Bill. Bill, this is John; he is part of our local team and is here to help us with the outreach.” Bill’s mouth dropped open, looking confused. He stammered, “But . . . are you . . . ? I don’t understand. Your answers weren’t . . .” The outreach event went off without a hitch . . . so to speak. It was the typical Christian evangelistic meeting. A room full of Christians filled in as props, listening to other Christians tell them about the gospel, while everyone hoped someone in the room would be saved. But no one came forward when the invitation was given, and given, and given. After the meeting, Bill came over, looking at me judgmentally. He said, “I still think there is something not quite right.” Funny, I was feeling exactly the same way about Bill—but for completely opposite reasons!
And then scenario #2:
“Fred rolled into the cafeteria on his three-wheeled scooter. He paused a distance from the table where my wife and I were eating lunch and asked, “May I join you?” “Sure!” we responded. Everything about Fred communicated safety and acceptance. He was the most non-threatening person I believe I have ever met. At the time I was living in the inner city of Detroit with my wife Christy and our two small girls, doing cross-cultural training during the summer, in preparation to go to the mission field that fall. It had been a long, pressure-filled couple of months in the city. We couldn’t understand what living in the inner city of Detroit would teach us about life in the south of France, the mission field where we were headed. I can’t tell you anything about Fred, as he never spoke about himself; his only interest was in us. He began asking questions as we shared our lunch together. His questions weren’t prying, inappropriate, or just making chit-chat, but invited us into a conversation. Fred was genuinely interested in us. You could see it in his eyes, the tone of his voice, and his body language. He wanted to know us—and we wanted to be known by him! I can’t explain what happened, but as we spoke together, a healing came over us. It felt as if warm oil was being poured over our heads. We could feel it going through our bodies, deep down into our bones, lifting the weight and pressure off of our shoulders, bringing calm over us.”
We’ve all probably experienced, or at least watched a “Bill” evangelism encounter. But how many of us have experienced a “Fred?” Hopefully, all of us. In many ways, Outward OPC tries to highlight ways, resources, and stories that would help each of us be more like Fred with our family, neighbors, and friends. The differences between Bill and Fred evangelism are more than a story or a stereotype. They require different sensibilities and different “preparation.” Learning to evangelize like Fred will probably mean reading, thinking, and talking about how to have good conversations, how to listen, and how to use questions. That’s not necessarily standard evangelism curriculum.
“Fred evangelism” probably means more drawing out a person’s views (even when grossly erroneous) than shutting down their clearly misguided ideas. Of course, there is a time to expose error and speak truth, but it may not need to be in the first real moment of conversation with someone. And there is a way to do it too. Let’s call it the “Fred way.” For many people, the contrast between Bill and Fred may seem obvious and get lots of head nods in complete agreement, “Yep, Fred is the better way.” But what that looks like and what that means for our “training” may not always be as obvious and concrete. In different ways, the next Outward OPC series will explore some of these matters.
To draw to a close today here is some more from John Leonard about the Bill vs. Fred method.
“I don’t often think of the first encounter with Bill. In fact, I hope I never see Bill again. But Fred, yes—I would love to meet him again. One reason that we’re so reluctant to evangelize is because we believe that evangelism is doing what Bill did—imposing ourselves on others and leaving people cowering, feeling unimportant, used, and violated. We equate evangelism with selling. We see ourselves like those annoying phone solicitors who always seem to call us when we’re sitting down to dinner! For this reason many of us run from anything that resembles evangelism. To have the gift of evangelism, it seems, you either need to have the personality of a used-car salesman or the capability to lead someone to Christ while in the 10-items-or-less lane at your local supermarket. If this is what you believe evangelism requires, I can’t blame you for not wanting to evangelize.”
“As Christians, we know we should share our faith with others. However, we don’t do it until we feel horribly guilty—then we force ourselves upon some poor, unsuspecting soul. We share the gospel the way they feed geese in France to make foie gras. They shove a funnel down a goose’s throat and pour in the grain. Likewise, by force-feeding the gospel to others, the outcome of our “sharing” is that our guilt is assuaged. Who cares about the results? We didn’t really expect anyone’s life to be changed anyway. The sad reality is that if you’ve ever watched a movie with caricatures of Christians, the truth is worse than fiction. Evangelism shouldn’t be this way. Evangelism doesn’t have to be like my encounter with Bill; it can and should be like the time I spent with Fred. That kind of interaction leaves a deep personal impact. And yet the last word that would come to mind when you consider our interaction with Fred is “evangelism.” We would call what Fred does “counseling.” But it has everything to do with evangelism because we were made by God to have deep relationships with him and with others.”
“Sharing your faith doesn’t impose itself on others, leaving them feeling resentful and used. It invites people to step beyond a superficial friendship where no one really cares about listening, and to head toward deep spiritual relationship. It’s an approach that makes it safe for people to confide in you and trust you with the truth of what’s going on in their lives, so that your interaction with them becomes like warm oil, bringing healing, peace, and grace, lifting the burdens off their shoulders.”
Questions for Thought or Discussion
1) Think about the Bill and Fred examples. Take a moment and think about similar examples you’ve experienced or maybe practiced in your life. Don’t just acknowledge that you’ve seen both. Think about the specifics—who it was, how it felt, how the “evangelized” person felt or reacted. If you are discussing these with someone talk about the specifics together.
2) Are there advantages to doing the “Bill” style? Which style is easier and which is harder—Bill or Fred—and why?
3) Why do you think the “Bill” style seems so popular in the church? Or does it seem popular? Where are the better Fred styles happening and who is doing them? Why do you think that is? Who or what “tribes” would you align more as “Bills”—why do you think that group is doing more “Bill” style?
4) Which do you prefer for your own practice of evangelism—Bill? Fred? A mix? Be honest. Why do you answer the way you do?