Courage. Boldness. Confidence. These are the words we typically associate with evangelism. But what if evangelism is more about our weakness than our strength, more about humility than boldness? What if it’s more about sharing why you need Jesus, inviting people into your brokenness, than it is about trying to convince them why they need Jesus?
It has been said that friendship begins at the moment when one person looks at another and says, “What, you too? I thought I was the only one.” What if this same principle applies to evangelism? What if inviting people into relationship with you, by sharing about your sinful brokenness, was more convincing than having the right answers to questions people aren’t asking?
We boldly speak about someone else’s need for Jesus but rarely let them hear why we need Jesus.
Evangelism not only has a negative connotation in our culture, it also has a negative connotation in the church — mostly because people feel guilty for not doing it. They, at some level, want to engage in evangelism (hopefully), but they don’t feel adequate. So they give up before they get started, and then they feel guilty about that, too. See the cycle? I have thought for a long time that there is way too much guilt and triumphalism associated with evangelism. We speak all too often about “winning souls” and not enough about Jesus being the beautiful provision for the idols of our own hearts. We boldly speak about someone else’s need for Jesus but rarely let them hear why we need Jesus.
People in churches have been equipped with programs, methods, questions, and statements, yet they still aren’t convinced it will work, so they shy away from evangelistic conversations. Our people are telling us something by their guilt and hesitation. They are telling us, regarding evangelism, that they don’t buy what we in the church are often saying.
Sharing, Not Convincing
For some reason, we have bought into the idea that it is ultimately our job to convince people that they need Jesus, but at the same time we are unwilling to share with them why we need Him. They perceive this as inauthentic, even rude or judgmental. Rightly so, I think.
But what if evangelism really is more about sharing than convincing? More about being vulnerable with our brokenness than being so quick to point it out in others? When you are willing — in humility — to first share with someone about your brokenness, your heart idols, and your own need for Jesus, they are much more likely to be drawn into a conversation than if you just start the conversation by asking them why they should be allowed into heaven one day. We want to give people space to put their guard down for a few minutes, not provoke them to put it up. We want to give them space to hear about Jesus.
In my years of ministry, I have found this form of dialogue to be much more effective in helping people understand the beauty, hope, and truth of the Gospel. Platitudes and churchy phrases don’t work in our culture, especially on the college campus. Students are too savvy for that. They can sniff inauthenticity. They want openness and honest discussion in relationships, in a way that brings invitation, not condemnation. They are willing to engage about their sin and brokenness, but only if they see that you’re fighting the same battle — even if it’s not the exact same struggle. Through shared brokenness, they sense an invitation, and that’s exactly what it’s meant to be.
People in our culture are the same way. If we’re wise, and if we’re considerate of their time and circumstances, people are much more open to dialogue than we expect.
So how can one start an intentional dialogue with someone about Jesus?
Assuming a prior relationship — if the person is a friend or co-worker — you might say, “I was wondering if it would be OK for us to meet for coffee sometime in the next week or two. I would like to tell you my story, about why I need Jesus and why I think the Gospel is surprisingly beautiful.”
Now, hit the pause button. I know this is intimidating (especially if you are an introvert like me). Yes, people are often shocked by your up-front honesty. But this gets the awkwardness out of the way. It’s better to be honest on the front end so people don’t sit with you, wondering the whole time whether this is a bait-and-switch deal, or they’re not listening because they are wondering about your intentions.
What if you don’t know the person? I’d suggest you get to know them first; then enter the dialogue.
I usually share my own story, talking in an appropriate way about the idols of my heart (there are many) and my struggle with sin. I talk about how the Gospel of Jesus applies to those idols, and what the calling to repent and believe the Gospel looks like in my life. Eight times out of 10, people end up, at some point, saying something to the effect of, “You too? I thought I was the only one,” albeit in different words. They begin to share a bit about their own lives and even their own brokenness. They begin to reveal their own sin and need for Jesus, even though they might not understand it fully. They are opening up, because you have given them an invitation. Share with them the overarching story of Scripture through Creation, Fall, Redemption, and Restoration. Then you can dialogue and ask questions about how the Gospel of Jesus might apply to them, too. Ask if you can pray for them and with them. Keep talking. Friendship established. Evangelism begun.
For many people, placing their faith, hope, and trust in Jesus is more like a sunrise than a light switch. It’s a slow process.
You’ve now started a conversation that can move forward. You don’t have to say everything during one discussion. That provokes anxiety for you and is exhausting for your friend. For many people, placing their faith, hope, and trust in Jesus is more like a sunrise than a light switch. It’s a slow process. You are not only inviting them into dialogue, you are inviting them into shared brokenness. Only when you can see the Gospel as beautiful and needed for your own heart, can you begin to tell others about it in a way that is humble and authentic. Only when you can see the need for Jesus yourself are you ready to share it with others.
The Puritans believed that one of the most evangelistic things you could do is invite someone to sit underneath the preached word of God with you. As a part of this dialogue and process, invite friends to church, and then talk about the sermon: what they saw and heard and what they’re thinking about as a result. Begin to talk about the Gospel and why it is needed. Explain what it’s revealed about your heart and your need for Jesus. Again, invitation is the starting point.
The kind of dialogue is scary because it keeps the Gospel close — close enough to continually see our own need for Jesus and, with humility, to share that need with others. Evangelism begins by sharing why you need Jesus. It’s intimidating, but it is also effective.
Wes Simmons is RUF Campus Minister at Auburn University.