Personal evangelism is a natural extension of being a good example. It is going one short step beyond shining as a light; it is simply verbalizing to friends, neighbors, co-workers, and strangers the blessings that come from a relationship with God through Jesus Christ.
Of course, most of us donít find it very easy to take that one short step ó so the more we can know about conversion and about evangelism, the more effective we will be in sharing our faith with others.
Progressive Nature of Conversion
We often think of conversion, the desired end result of evangelism, as an event that occurs at a single point in time. However, conversion is a process that can take many years. To be sure, accepting Jesus Christ as Savior is the climax, but consider how many steps a person must go through before he gets to that point:
1. To begin with, a person may have absolutely no concept of God, of life after death, of sin, or of salvation.
2. A person comes to believe in a Supreme Being.
3. He comes to believe in life after death and learns the basic concept of Godís plan of salvation.
4. He comes to recognize his personal need for salvation.
5 .He is gripped with the conviction that he must do something about the Gospel, often as a result of personal suffering or frustration.
6. He repents and accepts Jesus Christ as his personal Savior.
7. He is baptized and receives the Holy Spirit.
8. He begins the process of overcoming and growth as a Christian.
This process can take place very slowly or it can be compressed into a short period. Consider the conversion of the Apostle Paul. He was struck down on the road to Damascus and came to accept Jesus in a matter of moments. However, he already believed in a Supreme Being; he already had a general concept of Godís plan of salvation; he knew about sin. All he needed was to be brought face to face with Jesus as the Messiah. The process was well underway before Paul went to Damascus.
Contrast Paulís situation with that of someone who doesnít even believe in the Bible or in God. It does little good to urge an atheist to "give his heart to the Lord." Heís back on step 1 of the progression outlined earlier in this article, and weíre trying to rush him to step 6. Many zealous Christians, oblivious to where a person is, in this progression, have unnecessarily made themselves and the Gospel look ridiculous by their hard sell, prepackaged approach. In fact, many non-Christians are extremely sensitive about being witnessed to. I once said to a salesman, "Can I ask you a question?" He replied, "Letís see, usually when people ask that, they want to know if Iíve been saved."
Some Christians have been told to keep their religion to themselves, after opening a Bible in a public place. These people (those doing the telling) have been sensitized by insensitive soul-grabbers with "canned" witnessing presentations.
Because conversion is a process, we need to be very aware of where a person is spiritually before we begin to evangelize. The Apostle Paul set an excellent example for us. He became "all things to all men!"
"To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law . . . . To those not having the law I became like one not having the law . . . To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some," I Corinthians 9:20-23.
Part of the challenge of personal evangelism is to really get to know people and to minister to them where they are.
Because conversion is a process, you generally canít unload the whole message of the Gospel at one time. In most situations you will only be able to plant a seed, which will take time to germinate and grow. Others may plant more seeds and water. Still others may reap the harvest, long after you are out of the picture. You may reap the harvest, but it is really Godís. Remember to proclaim Godís word, not yours. It is God who must grant the increase. You must simply have faith that the seeds you plant will germinate. In due season they will bear fruit, for Him.
Individuals with whom you might want to share the Gospel have various needs, but not all are felt at a given point in time. Their minds will tend to screen out those things that donít pertain to their personal needs.
All people have a need to know Jesus Christ, to be forgiven their sins, to be unburdened from the load of guilt they carry. However, if they donít feel these needs, you will have little success trying to fill them. Your words will go right over their heads!
The challenge in personal evangelism is to love people enough to learn what needs they are feeling, and to show how the Gospel fills those needs.
If they feel lonely, show how Jesus can become a companion.
If they feel hurt, show how God can help them bear the pain.
If they struggle with sickness, show them how Jesus provides comfort and balm for suffering.
If they are feeling weakness, show them how God can provide strength.
Itís easy for people to feel physical needs and to desire only physical, materialistic solutions; many preachers today proclaim a gospel of physical health and wealth. However, complete obedience to Godís laws does bring blessings; the primary message of the Gospel is a spiritual, eternal one. All people of faith in the Bible eventually died, many in an untimely fashion; many suffered terribly during their lives; but all looked forward to eternal life in Godís kingdom. That promise is the heart of the Gospel.
Pray for Love, Wisdom, Courage
Because we canít possibly know all we should about personal evangelism and the needs of the people we talk to, we need the leadership and guidance of the Holy Spirit. Specifically, we need love, wisdom, and courage.
We need love because it must be the overriding motivation for personal evangelism. We must care deeply about others and want to see them translated from the kingdom of darkness to the Kingdom of God. Love must shine through to others so that they sense that theyíre really being loved, and not that theyíre being preached at or recruited.
We need wisdom to know when and how to evangelize. Pray for wisdom to know what needs a person is feeling, where he/she is relative to conversion; pray for the right words to effectively minister to their needs.
We need courage to speak. So often we have opportunities, but weíre afraid of being embarrassed, of making a fool out of ourselves, or simply of striking up a conversation with a stranger. Itís always easier to say nothing. Pray for courage to speak up when you have the opportunity.
After you have shared a part of Godís truth with someone, pray that the Holy Spirit will work with his mind, that the seed youíve planted will germinate and that God will send other people to help it grow.
God Must Call
It is certain that God must call a person before he can ever come to repentance. Jesus said plainly, "No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him, and I will raise him up at the last day," John 6:44. No amount of human wisdom can open the mind of another person. Unfortunately, some Christians have used this fact as an excuse not to evangelize. They reason that God is going to call whom He wants when Heís ready, so thereís no need to exert any effort to share the Gospel.
Needless to say, God does use human instruments. Chances are you were led to know Jesus Christ, at least partially, through the ministry of another human being. God can certainly call people in a variety of ways, but the vast majority have been introduced to the Gospel through other people. Witness the thousands converted on the Day of Pentecost, Acts 2:41; witness the Samaritans converted through the preaching of Philip, Acts 8:6; witness the Ethiopian eunuch, Acts 8:26-40. Witness Paulís question in Romans 10:14:
"And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them?"
There is no doubt that God must open a personís mind before he can be converted. However, God gives us the privilege, He gives us the duty to sow seeds of truth, some of which will germinate and bear fruit. If we neglect to sow those seeds, God will use other persons or other methods, but we lose out on the opportunity to love our neighbor in the greatest possible sense, sharing with them the greatest gift of all, the Gospel.
Radiating Total Security
From time to time I have had conversations with members of groups who think that theirs is the one true Church, that they have the exclusive or primary revelation of Godís truth ó that God is dealing only or primarily through their group or their leader. These people exude such a sense of peace and security; they are so sure, so confident. They know and know that they know, and it shows in their conversations.
Such confidence is contagious. Others see it and are drawn to it. They want to be secure. They want to be part of such a body of true believers so as to escape from doubt, anxiety and uncertainty. They will even accept all kinds of far-out doctrines and practices in order to obtain that sense of security.
I remember back during the early years of my ministry when I was part of such a one-true-church. I must have exuded supreme confidence in my work, because many times people said to me, "I wish I could have your faith." Of course, my faith was in the organization as much as in God. I did not distinguish between the two because I firmly believed that the organization was Godís end-time work on earth. Of course, in time God showed me the difference between the two; and when I was forced to reject the organization, I was able to continue my relationship with God.
My point is this: If people can radiate such an aura of confidence in a group or in a human guru, why canít Christians do the same for Jesus Christ? Of all people on earth, we should be confident. We should be true believers. We should radiate security and serenity, so much so, that those around us find themselves drawn to it. Of course, weíre still human; we do have to fight discouragement. On the whole, our lives should stand as beacons of confidence in an age of uncertainty.
I think itís a mistake for Christians to fall into the trap of dwelling on the economic, political, and military uncertainties in our world. Certainly, we should be aware of world problems; but our primary focus should be on the certainty of how itís all going to turn out. We should radiate absolute confidence in the future of the world and in our personal future. We know what lies ahead. Weíve read the last chapter of the Book. We know that all the kingdoms of men will become the kingdom of Christ!
We need to radiate this confidence and assurance to all. Let us be the ones who draw others to God through the confidence we have in Him and in His plan for us and the world.
The Challenge of Personal Evangelism
In Acts 8:4 is recorded the account of an early persecution against the church in Jerusalem, with many of the brethren being scattered: "Therefore they that were scattered abroad went everywhere preaching the word."
The evangelistic zeal of the early Christians caused the Church to grow very rapidly ó until it had reached practically every corner of the Roman Empire.
In stark contrast to this record, the modern churches, particularly in North America and in Western Europe, particularly among Sabbath-keepers, experience very little growth ó a few per cent per year. A hard look at this growth reveals that even these minimal figures are not always what they seem to be. Much of the growth is not really evangelism at all but "brand switching" ó the new members of one church are the lost members of another. Real evangelism, turning someone from the kingdom of darkness to the kingdom of light, is rare. In our affluent world, we have lost the zeal of the persecuted Christians described in Acts 8:4.
Why So Little Evangelism?
There are many reasons and excuses for the low level of evangelism. Iíve heard many and used some myself: "Itís easy to get people to come to church on Sunday, but the Sabbath doctrine is too hard for people to accept." "God has to call people." "I donít believe in Ďcheap grace.í" "All the other churches lead them to Christ, our job is to teach them true doctrines." "Weíre not called to evangelize but to teach." "We donít want to be like all the other Protestants." "Weíre interested in growth in quality, not in numbers."
The theology that says this is not the only day of salvation, that there will come a future opportunity for the vast majority of humanity to know the Savior, takes away a lot of the pressure to preach the Gospel now. Compare this with the theology that says that this is the only day of salvation ó and if your neighbor isnít saved now, he will suffer never-ending torment in hell. A negative motivation to be sure, but motivation, nevertheless.
Another factor has to do with expectations. People tend to do what [they feel] is expected of them. Jehovahís Witnesses expect their members to go knocking on doors. So what do they do? They knock on doors ó and grow. Mormons expect young men to devote a couple of years to missionary work. So what happens? Young men are out knocking on doors ó and they grow. Some churches expect and teach their people to pay and pray ó and thatís what happens.
Too many of us have come to expect no evangelism. So guess what? There is no evangelism. Even though there are many of us (all of us, to one degree or another) who have a gift of evangelism, our negative expectations put the lid on that gift. Exactly the opposite of what should be happening! Paul exhorted Timothy, " . . . stir up the gift of god, which is in thee . . . " (II Timothy 1:6). The gift of personal evangelism needs to be stirred up, not quashed!
Uncertainty About What the Gospel Is!
If the bugler blows an indistinct call on the bugle, the troops wonít know whether they are supposed to advance, retreat, or chow down! If the Church doesnít know precisely what its mission is, it will stand still and begin going backwards. If it doesnít know precisely what the Gospel is, other gospels will emerge. This is exactly what is happening in our society. To some the Gospel is the truth about the true Jesus of the Bible as opposed to the false Jesus of church traditions. To some it is personal success and happiness through Jesus Christ. To some it is warning the nation of Godís wrath. To some it is restoring the full gospel. To some it is restoring the pure religion God gave to ancient Israel. To some it is a message about health and wealth, blessings that come through obedience to God. Some want to preach a gospel of spiritual experience; some a gospel of obedience to laws; some a gospel that does not offend the rational mind of Western man.
Perhaps the differences among some of these gospels seem subtle; but the differences are real enough to create uncertainty. Many Christians are not sure what to share with their neighbors. Is it the true doctrines, the Sabbath, the impending doom on our nation, or the laws of God? Their uncertainty results in inactivity. They share nothing, or what they do share is diluted by what others share.
The Apostle Paul made it clear that there is one true Gospel. "For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified," (I Corinthians 2:2).
This Gospel is too simple for some; too "Protestant" for others. It is the simplicity of the Gospel that turns a child of the kingdom of darkness to the kingdom of light.
There may be some truth in all the gospels mentioned above; and certainly there is something to be said for the pursuit of truth. Apollos is an example of a man quite able to hold his own in theological discussions and disputes about true doctrines. He was an eloquent man. But all his efforts had one focus: "Proving from the Scriptures that Jesus was the Christ" (Acts 18:24-28). Today, we can devote tremendous amounts of time and energy to discovering Biblical truth ó all the while ignoring our neighbor who is floundering in the world of spiritual darkness!
If the Church of Jesus Christ is to effectively carry on the commission given originally to the Apostles ó to preach the Gospel to all nations, it must focus on the Gospel, the only true Gospel, probably best summarized in John 3:16: "For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him shall not perish, but have everlasting life."
If we really love the world, if we love our neighbors as God does, we must feel some urge to share with them the greatest truth of all ó the truth about the Messiah, and the opportunity to be in His kingdom.
Love Must Motivate
There are many forces that can motivate one to preach the Gospel. We can evangelize because of guilt ó believing that it will be our fault if we donít try to rescue our neighbors from an ever-burning hell fire. We can do it because of desire for reward ó we want a brighter, bigger crown at the resurrection; or because we want the praise of fellow Christians. We can do it because itís expected of us, because itís our job, or to get a paycheck (I Timothy 3:3; Philippians 1:15-17). But these are the wrong reasons.
Our primary motivation should be love! We should care so much about other people, as potential sons of God, that we want to see them there with us, standing before Jesus Christ on that great day!
There are many ways to evangelize. Very popular today are the impersonal media of radio, TV and print. But, time and time again, surveys show that the most effective evangelism is personal. People talking to people!
Personal evangelism, as Iím presenting it, is not about knocking on doors (though thatís great for those who are so motivated); itís not about passing out tracts on street corners (which is also fine). What it is about is you, as an individual, in your daily contact with family, friends, co-workers, in a very natural, and sincere way, sharing the truth about what Jesus Christ can do in individual lives.
Vitally important to personal evangelism is the example of your life. All that you say and do, or donít say and donít do, reflects on Jesus Christ. Without saying a word, you are a witness. Unfortunately, all too many Christians, by their impatience, unkindness, intolerance, and selfishness are poor witnesses! My prayer is that your life will shine as a light on a hill!
But personal evangelism involves going a step beyond the example you set. It involves speaking about the hope that lies within you, about Jesus Christ, about the Gospel; it involves planting seeds of good news in the minds of those around you ó seeds that will germinate in the minds of those whom God is calling. Evangelism is greatly affected by your personal witness. If you are a poor example, your evangelism will be ineffective at best. At worst, it can make the Savior you proclaim a stench in the nostrils of those who see that your actions are different from your words. This doesnít mean you have to be perfect before you can evangelize. It simply means you must be doing your best, while admitting your failures, to live according to Godís ways.
A Practical Program
Here is a practical program to help you begin, very naturally and gradually, to practice personal evangelism. You can use it as an individual. But it will be much more effective if you employ it in conjunction with others ó with your Sabbath School class, Bible study group, or Sabbath fellowship. You can use it in cooperation with people of different churches, because it focuses on sharing Jesus Christ, not on doctrines, church organizations, or traditions.
1. Create a climate for personal evangelism. Create an atmosphere that encourages those with the gift of evangelism to understand and use it. This can be accomplished by preaching on the subject (if youíre a preacher), by reading books and articles about it, praying about it and discussing it with others of like mind. The vast majority of Christians can/should be evangelizing to a much greater degree than they are. With encouragement and training they can do it very effectively.
2. Learn to recognize opportunities for personal evangelism. Far too many of us realize opportunities for evangelizing only after they are past. For example, my wife had a conversation with a Roman Catholic neighbor who was talking about the challenges she faced in teaching Sunday School. It was a perfect opportunity to ask a question like, "What do you teach in Sunday School about repentance from sins and accepting Jesus as Savior?" Once I was talking to a former member of a Church I used to pastor. She had drifted away from God altogether and commented that if her son went to Vacation Bible School and heard about Jesus, he would likely ask, "Jesus who?" It was a perfect opportunity for me to have asked, "Well, what do you believe about Jesus?"
Of course, these openings for sowing seeds of the Gospel were gone before we recognized them as such. But now, with patience and effort, weíre beginning to see opportunities as they present themselves ó and to take advantage of them before they are gone.
Learn to identify opportunities ó whether during or afterwards. Eventually, with prayer, with increased awareness and expectation, and with Godís help, youíll be able to recognize them as they occur.
3. Talk regularly with others about opportunities for evangelism. Talk about opportunities missed; and opportunities taken. Share your experiences so that others may learn from them. Listen to othersí experiences and learn from them. Ask others for suggestions about how to handle given situations. If possible, do some role playing to practice talking about your faith and about the basic message of salvation.
In our local Bible studies, we have begun devoting a small portion of time at every meeting to talking about evangelism. It helps us look outward! It reminds us of one of our primary missions as a body! It raises our consciousness about opportunities and helps prepare us to meet them.
4. Pray daily about personal evangelism. Pray for love, wisdom, courage! Pray for God to give you deep love for those who donít have a personal relationship with Him. Pray for wisdom in knowing how to plant seeds in their minds. Pray for the courage to plant those seeds when the opportunities arise.
5. Find tools that can be used in personal evangelism. Build up a supply of tracts, booklets, leaflets, books and cassette tapes that can be used as appropriate in your personal evangelism.
6. Begin to evangelize.
7. Share your experiences with others to encourage them.
Thereís no magic in this. Itís something virtually all of us can do, but most of us donít. Yet, if we did, the growth of the Church would be so much greater than it is. Some churches spend millions of dollars on mass media evangelism ó for growth rates of a few per cent. A small group of people evangelizing on a personal basis can do so much more with virtually no money. If only one of out of five members of your fellowship evangelizes and is instrumental in bringing one person to Christ in a year; and if only one out of five of those new Christians seeks to fellowship with you, your group will be growing at 4% a year ó which is almost as fast as the fastest growing major denominations in the U.S., which are spending millions of dollars.
To be sure, our concern is not numbers for the sake of numbers, growth for the sake of growth. Rather, our concern is love for individuals who donít know their Lord and Savior. The challenge for us, as individuals, is to zealously share with those around us the blessing of salvation through Jesus Christ. Just like the early Christians scattered by persecution, let us go everywhere sharing the good news with others.
ówritten by Richard A. Wiedenheft, Bible quotations in this article are from NIV.W
This article was previously published by Giving & Sharing as Bible Study No. 114.