Editor’s Note: This interview was originally published in September 2014. 

In his new book, “Get Real: Sharing Your Everyday Faith Every Day” (New Growth Press), pastor John Leonard hopes to recast the way we think about evangelism. Instead of cornering victims to talk to, Leonard wants us to watch for those who could use a listening ear. Instead of friendship evangelism, Leonard thinks we should engage our enemies. And our Gospel-sharing efforts will bear more fruit, he says, when we start evangelizing Christians and discipling non-Christians, instead of the other way around.

Evangelism, Leonard counsels, doesn’t impose itself on others; it invites people into a serious friendship. It doesn’t threaten people; it builds trust. Nor does it make anyone defensive; rather, it assures nonbelievers that they can safely share the truth with a Christian friend. “Real” evangelism, Leonard stresses, is never a canned presentation, but a discussion that weaves the Gospel into the life and circumstances of someone God has put in our path.

ByFaith editor Richard Doster spoke with Leonard about his book.

Early in the book, you talk about how the Pharisees believed they needed to keep themselves pure — that they had to avoid the unclean things of this world, including people. Jesus, on the other hand, expects His followers to get messy. How so? And how does that shape our approach to evangelism?

We like life orderly, clean, and Christian, but that isn’t real. Individuals, couples, families, and communities are going through ugly stuff. We avoid these messes because deep down we don’t believe Christianity makes a difference. We are afraid to admit that we doubt the Gospel — believing it only works for good people who have their life together.

Most of us are pretending — pretending we are good Christians, pretending our lives are together — but we never let the Gospel or others into the dark places of our lives, and we avoid going into the dark places in others’ lives. Both inside and outside the church people are looking for real and honest relationships, not hypocrisy. The Pharisees were content to pretend.

By getting into the stuff of people’s lives, we are demonstrating the truth and power of the Gospel. It deals with real sin in real people and brings transformation. When we offer people who don’t believe God would ever care about them the love and grace of Christ, we are reminding ourselves that there is darkness in us, and the Gospel is good news for us as well. When we live and share the Gospel this way, the biggest changes take place in us because we will truly believe the Gospel as we see it changing lives, and we will see the power of the Gospel in our own life because we will know that our Lord can deliver us from the darkness in us. Getting messy is being honest with unbelievers and yourself about the truth of God and the power of the Gospel.

You’re not a proponent of friendship evangelism. In fact, you say “enemy evangelism” is a better model. What is enemy evangelism, and why should we embrace it?

I am opposed to what is called friendship evangelism because in most cases it is neither friendship nor evangelism. First, because many people are using the idea of friendship evangelism as an excuse not to share their faith with others. Secondly, it just doesn’t work. How many of us have family and close friends who are no closer to Christ than the day we met them? If through our friendship people come to Christ and those closest to us are not, then we conclude that we are either not a good enough friend or a good enough Christian. Third, friendship evangelism puts us at the center of the Gospel message. We become the indispensable element. As Reformed believers, do we really want to make ourselves the center of the process of people coming to Christ? Fourth, does it really take very much grace to love our friends — people who are like us and people whom we like? Fifth, in friendship evangelism, the emphasis is on friendship, and people can go a long time being friends without ever sharing the Gospel. When you finally do share your faith, your “friend” immediately reinterprets your “friendship” and may decide that you haven’t been a friend at all but that you have been using them. Instead of friendship evangelism we should practice evangelism that is friendly!

Christ calls us to a much more radical demonstration of love. He commands us to love our enemies and to bless those who persecute us. Loving those who have mistreated and been cruel to us takes grace and forces us to depend on Christ more than we ever have before. If our family and friends saw that kind of Christianity in us, then perhaps more of them would embrace the Christ who has changed us.

Readers will be intrigued by the title of Chapter 7: “Evangelize Christians and Disciple Non-Christians.” You use the title to contrast a disciple-making approach to evangelism with a convert-making approach. Tell us more about that.

In Matthew 28, Jesus commands us to make disciples of all nations. He doesn’t tell us to make converts or call for people to make decisions for Him. When you separate discipleship from evangelism, one of the results is two messages. In evangelism we offer grace to unbelievers, but for discipleship we shift to works and are no longer Christian.

We disciple people to Christ because they know so little about Christianity. We must lay a new foundation by teaching the Bible. This is a long process of transforming people’s secular worldview and establishing a Christian worldview. It requires many conversions over one’s lifetime.

We should also disciple non-Christians because this was our Lord’s approach. When did the disciples convert? Hard to say. We need to move away from a one-time decision approach to becoming a Christian to an every-moment decision to follow Christ.

We need to evangelize Christians because, like the Christians in Galatia, we are quick to abandon the Gospel (Galatians 1:6). There is a default switch in our hearts, and when we do something really good or something really stupid that switch is pushed, and we revert to our default setting of a works approach to God. When that happens we become just like the Pharisees: judgmental, angry, and graceless people — people who are not very good witnesses.

The only remedy for our condition is to be evangelized, to be reminded that our position before our Heavenly Father is based on what Christ has done for us and not what we do for Him. When we remember that, we will be more motivated than ever to love and serve our Lord with all our hearts.

In traditional evangelism we look for someone to talk to. The better way, you think, is to find someone to listen to. Tell us what you’re thinking.

The reason most people don’t witness to “strangers” is because they feel they are stepping into someone’s life when they haven’t been invited. If we take the approach that “I have something to tell you,” then we most likely are uninvited guests. But if we are willing to listen to others tell their story, that is usually an invitation many people are looking to accept. People value listeners so much that they pay large sums of money to be listened to.

By taking the approach of looking for someone to listen to, you are sidestepping the biggest fear when sharing your faith — not knowing what to say! The great thing about listening is you don’t have to say a thing! If you are not sure what to say, just keep listening and asking for more information until it becomes clear. If you don’t know what to say, tell the truth: “I have no idea how to answer you, but I know that Christ will guide you if you ask Him. Can I pray with you, asking Him to make His will known to you?”

We also must listen so we can discern how God may already be involved in the person’s life and how we must shape the Gospel around their questions and concerns. Because the Gospel speaks to all of life, it addresses everyone particularly. We need to respond to people in light of their particular concerns and show them how the Gospel exactly fits their questions.

You might ask, “But what if they are asking the wrong questions?” The Gospel is great at raising questions people should be asking, and the way we get them to that point is giving them our undivided attention.

You offer a different philosophy about how believers are to share their testimony. What’s the most effective way to use our story?

A testimony goes along with listening more than you speak, because our testimony should be shaped by the person we are listening to. This means that we must change our understanding of what a testimony is. Instead of believing that we have only one testimony about how we came to Christ (in most cases many years ago), our testimony consists of hundreds of recent stories of ways the Lord is at work in our lives. We share the story that best fits the concerns of the person we are speaking with. What makes this kind of testimony difficult for us to share is that it requires us to have a relationship with Christ.

Also, it is a testimony of God’s grace. When we emphasize our successes, we give the impression that we are pretty good people. We could sum up the message of many testimonies as, “Don’t you wish you could be like me?” But the purpose of a testimony is to tell people how Christ has changed you. So we need to convey that there is only one difference between my story and yours, and that is that Christ stands in the middle of my life and has changed me in ways that I was incapable of doing on my own.

When we share our testimony this way, we point people to Christ and not to ourselves.

My favorite story in the book is the one about Sarah, the waitress. Maybe you could give us the condensed version and share your thoughts about the role of prayer in evangelism?

People are looking for spirituality. So why not do something spiritual with people? Ask people “How can I pray for you?” You should do this whenever it comes out in a conversation that you are a Christian. Because I am a pastor, people expect me to pray, and almost without exception everyone has something they want prayer for. Some people ask for God to bless everyone. But many people will surprise you and ask for some deep personal need that will break your heart, because they have never had anyone pray with or for them.

Sarah was one such person. I took a student to lunch, and when the waitress was taking our order I told her that I was a pastor and would be saying a blessing over our meal and wanted to pray for her also. Sarah looked nervous and said, “I can’t think of anything to pray for.” I responded, “Well, see if you can think of something when you are getting our drinks.” In a few minutes Sarah came back, placed our drinks on the table, and looked around the diner. Then she sat down beside me. She shared, “I have been on drugs most of my adult life and have only been clean for the last six months. Can you pray that God would keep me clean?” Sarah placed her left hand palm up on the table, and pulling back her watch I could see a scar across her wrist that told me she had recently tried to take her life. With hurt in her eyes she continued, “And would you pray that God would make me happy?”I answered, “Sure, I can pray for that, but let’s pray with our eyes open.”

When you pray with your eyes open you don’t put people in the awkward position of having to close your eyes in public. You can pray with people all day with your eyes open, and no will ever have any idea that you are praying.

There are people all around us every day who are looking for someone — anyone — who will let them know that they are cared for. One of the ways we can do this is by asking people how we can pray for them. When we do, they will know that Christ cares for them as well.

At the end of the book you tell readers, “Our biggest struggle as Christians is not the indwelling sin that keeps popping up in our lives. … It is our unwillingness to believe the Gospel because it is just too good to be true.” What do you mean? And how does that affect our evangelism?

When we come to Christ we are usually swept away in a vision of the greatness of Christ and what He has done for us. We are convinced that we are forever changed and will never go back to our old ways. But before we know it, the old ways come back, and sometimes they come back with a vengeance.

When this happens, the mistake we make is focusing on the indwelling sin rather than focusing on our Savior. If we are not careful, we end up creating unbiblical ways of dealing with our sin. We can take one of two approaches: Either we ignore our sin and pretend it doesn’t exist by emphasizing our own righteousness, or we create man-centered approaches that have the appearance of wisdom, but they are of no value in stopping our flesh (Colossians 2:23).

A Gospel approach is to go back to where we began our life with Christ, to the cross and the work which Christ did on our behalf. This is exactly what Paul does in Colossians, when he explains to them the person and work of Christ as the only way to holiness.

This approach changes the way we share our faith because we are not just telling other people what they need; we are letting them listen in on what we need. We are saying, “What you and I need most is the Gospel.”

“Get Real” is different from other books on evangelism, because throughout the book you are reminded that you need the Gospel as much as the person that you are sharing the Gospel with. The good news is Christ still changes us and the people with whom we share the Gospel.

John Leonard is the founding pastor of Cresheim Valley Church (PCA) in Chestnut Hill, Pa. He is a former professor at Westminster Theological Seminary and has also served as a missionary with Arab World Ministries in France. John and his wife, Christy, have three children.

Photography by Colin Lenton

About the author, Richard Doster

Richard Doster is the editor of byFaith. He is also the author of two novels, Safe at Home (March 2008) and Crossing the Lines (June 2009), both published by David C. Cook Publishers.