There was a time in the United States when it was safe to assume that people believed in God. Most people did. Most saw the Bible as an authoritative book. Most felt that going to church on Sunday was a good thing to do (whether they themselves did so or not).
Many of the best-known evangelistic models revolve around that mindset. You approach a stranger, invite them to study the Bible, and eventually make them members of your church.
However, there are some realities we need to face. Fewer and fewer people believe in God or the Bible. Of those that do, many no longer consider church to be a necessity. And very few people are ever converted by a stranger.
I’d like to suggest that we need to broaden our definition of what evangelism is. Look at what Paul said to the Corinthians:
“What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants, through whom you came to believe—as the Lord has assigned to each his task. I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God made it grow.” (1 Corinthians 3:5–6)
Or think about what Jesus said to his disciples:
“Thus the saying ‘One sows and another reaps’ is true. I sent you to reap what you have not worked for. Others have done the hard work, and you have reaped the benefits of their labor.” (John 4:37–38)
Conversion is a process, not an event. More times than not, many people play a role in that process. It’s not just “the closer,” the convincing evangelist that convinces the person of their need to be baptized. Using the terms in the passages above, that person harvested, but someone else may have planted and another watered. (And it’s always God that gives the growth!) God uses different believers in different ways to touch the lives of new converts.
So as we deal with the people around us, we need to recognize that they are at different points in their spiritual journey. To continue the agricultural terms, they may be an uncultivated field or they may be freshly plowed ground, ready for the planting. We need to be willing to treat people in different ways.
For those that are furthest from God, prayer is our greatest aid. We pray for a softening of their heart. We pray for opportunities. We pray for guidance in knowing how to interact with them. Prayer is an essential part of the conversion process in each and every step, but it’s especially crucial with those whose hearts are hard.
Other people have experienced a religious awakening and are beginning to seek answers. This is often related to a change in their life situation, like a new job or a new baby. Or it may be due to hardships like illness or financial stress. Whatever the reason, these people are beginning to look for something more. They especially need to see a Christian presence. They need to see our faith in action; not just going to church on Sunday, but serving the community and ministering to others.
As people move closer to God, they are ready for a more direct presentation of biblical truths. Maybe they’re ready to come to church. Or prepared to study the Bible. They are open to hearing the Christian message, be it through literature, small group meetings, or personal conversations. This is the point where we present the Christian message in general terms.
Then comes that time when the person understands the personal nature of the gospel, and they want to know how to respond. Now we can lay out the basics of how to become a Christian. As I said before, many of our evangelistic models begin at this point. Now the goal is to help them experience the new birth.
But that’s just an immediate goal. When Jesus sent his followers out in Matthew 28, their task was to make disciples. To do that, they were to baptize and to teach. When we baptize someone, we’ve only done the first part of making them a disciple. They need to be taught. They need to be trained. Our job isn’t finished; there’s still much to do. This is where we partner with them, coming alongside to model for them how to live a life that imitates Christ.
To help me remember, I use a bit of alliteration:
Prayer – Presence – Presentation – Proclamation – Partnership
Those are the basic tasks of evangelists, depending on where people are in their journey toward God.
The process isn’t a scientific one. People tend to move forward, then step back. Some skip steps along the way; I have a friend who was an atheist on Friday and was baptized on Sunday. But thinking about evangelism as a process helps us see the need to deal with different people in different ways.
It also reminds us that every time we help someone take a step closer to God, we’ve been active in evangelism. If we will make it a goal in each of our relationships to help that person move closer to God, we’ll discover the joy of sharing our faith. Eventually we’ll be comfortable helping people along no matter which stage of the journey they are at.
The last article will talk about what to share and who to share it with.
Tim has recently published Church Inside Out, a book and workbook that offer a practical primer for the congregation that wants to increase its impact on the community around it. Both book and workbook are available from 21st Century Christian.