Why we don’t evangelize and what to do about it
We sing about having the words of eternal life and wonder how we ever “keep them in”, but keep them in we do. Many of us would claim to be less evangelistic—to have the gospel on our lips less often, to miss more golden opportunities for witness—than we would like. What is stopping us?
There are two common reasons we don’t share the gospel with others. The first is that we are fearful of being rejected by others. The second is that we are often not confident of what to say. In this article, I look at each of these reasons for reticence and suggest a way forward. The answer, it seems, is in the question.
We are fearful of being rejected by friends and family, and that’s natural. We are scared of being tagged a religious fanatic, a weirdo or whatever. Let’s face it, we all like to be liked. We think that if we broach the subject of being a Christian with others, then this will stretch the friendship or make the other person cool towards us from that point on. So most of us generally keep our faith to ourselves.
From early in life, we are conditioned by our parents to fit in. After picking up my son from pre-school one day, I learned that he had bullied another child. My advice to him was that if he continued to fight with other children, he wouldn’t have any friends. It’s not bad advice, but year after year, this sort of advice is conditioning my son that the main aim in life is to fit in. Most of us have learned this lesson by the time we have grown up; we no longer beat up our friends just for the heck of it.
What lies behind our fear of rejection is that we want so desperately to be accepted by others. This is natural and can be a good thing. God is a relational God, and wishes us to be in quality relationships with others. But if we believe Jesus who commanded us to speak of him to the nations, then at times we will be rejected. Even Jesus himself faced rejection by the rich young ruler in Luke 18 who heard the claims of the gospel and walked away very sad.
Not sure of what to say
Many people have told me that they don’t share their faith because they are not sure of what to say. Even if they do give it a go, many fear that they will be asked questions that they won’t know how to answer. We shouldn’t be surprised that it is hard work to learn to share the gospel. We often mistakenly think because we are Christians and God’s Spirit lives inside us, that we should be automatically good at sharing the gospel. Yet in all other areas of life, we have to put in a lot of effort to be good at anything, whether it be sport, career or education. The only way to be more confident about what to say and how to answer a few of the most often-asked questions is to put in the hard work. Having said that, you don’t need all the answers to give it a go at whatever stage you are at now. To be faithful, available and godly is what God is looking for. You don’t have to be an expert from the start.
A simple skill to learn
Beyond these two problems, some simple skills in conversation can make all the difference in our approach to evangelism. One that is worth developing is the skill of asking a question.
To become better at sharing the gospel, we don’t just have to learn the gospel itself, we have to learn to become better at listening and understanding the other person before speaking. The best and most obvious way to do this is to ask them questions.
There is a skill to asking questions. Some questions can kill a conversation; others open it up in valuable ways. For example, the question “Do you mind if I tell you what Christianity is really about?” is likely to receive the answer “No”, in varying degrees of politeness. However, if the question is “Can you tell me your opinion on who Jesus was?”, it is far more likely that the respondent will, in fact, respond.
Some simple facts about questions will help us grow in confidence as gospel-sharers.
1. Whoever asks the question will direct the conversation.
Conversations usually begin in response to a question, be it “What did you do on the weekend?” or “Why do you think God allows suffering?”. Both questions can lead to the gospel if you are prepared. It is unfair to expect unbelievers to ask the questions that lead a conversation towards Jesus; we need to begin and guide conversations in that direction.
2. Asking questions demonstrates respect for another’s opinions (as long as you do, in fact, listen to the answers!)
Most people are quite willing to express a view on something, even if they don’t know much about it! They like being asked; it is rarer than we think for one person to take a genuine interest in another’s ideas.
3. Questions generate dialogues rather than monologues.
In my early days as a Christian, I was often so concerned that the people I was talking to knew the gospel of Jesus that I would blurt out a gospel outline at the first opportunity. It was polished and clear, but it pretty much ignored the other person, and was, at times, plain rude. A person who is contributing to a conversation themselves is more likely to be listening to what you are saying.
4. Questions raise curiosity and a hunger to know more.
Often when I have asked a person’s opinion on something, they have asked me for mine later. Raising a question with someone may mean that they will at least start searching for an answer, even if it isn’t you who gets to provide it.
5. Questions lead to the revelation of what people believe.
With only a few questions, you can discover what a person believes about life itself. You can determine whether they are Buddhists, atheists, agnostics or Christians—whether they think they are headed straight to the grave, or on to heaven or hell. And, on the flip side, unless you ask, these things may stay unrevealed for years.
6. Questions help to clarify beliefs.
This fact is extremely helpful in evangelism since it means you can find out what it is about Jesus that someone needs to hear. For example, I once asked a man who he thought Jesus was. He replied that Jesus was “an inspiration to his life”. He thought Jesus was God, but as the conversation rolled on, I found out he was involved in the New Age movement and believed we were all gods. We discussed what Jesus did and said. I asked him whether he thought his conclusions about Jesus did justice to the Bible’s depiction of him. He replied that he had been challenged and would have to look at the Gospels in a new light.
Three core questions
If we are seeking to bring the gospel of Jesus to someone, we need to remember that there are certain facts and meanings that we need to communicate: the content of the gospel. It is one thing to start an evangelistic conversation, and another to actually communicate the gospel through it. I use three core questions to make sure I get to these issues. I keep reminding myself that, at some point in the conversation, I want to ask these things:
- What do you think it means to be a genuine Christian?
- Who do you think Jesus was?
- Why do you think Jesus died on the cross?
I don’t necessarily ask them as baldly as that (sometimes I do), but I try to tailor them to the particular conversation I’m in.
If we keep these questions in mind, we will be moving along the path towards ‘getting out’ those words of eternal life that we have been ‘keeping in’.
Shaun Potts is the evangelist behind Gospel Communications, an organization which offers evangelistic speaking, training in evangelism and evangelistic resources for churches.