This semester I would like to compare and contrast the different styles of evangelism. In so doing, I hope you can learn to understand and respect those who think and act differently than you and, more importantly, be challenged to broaden your style of evangelism. I hope to move you from “either/or” thinking to “both/and” thinking.
Those who believe in “conversational evangelism” find their support in verses like these where Jesus and Paul explained the gospel in different ways to different people. Knowing their audience, they used different illustrations to speak to each person or group of people. If you were to read on in these texts, you would find that they are lengthy conversations.
Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again. John 3:3
Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.” John 4:10
Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: “People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: to an unknown god. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you. Acts 17:22,23
Clearly this is one way to do evangelism. We see it modeled in the lives of the two greatest evangelists of all time, Jesus and Paul. They knew their audience and thus crafted the way they shared the gospel based on the people they were with. Jesus could sit at a well and on the spot, use water as an analogy of the gospel. They did not share the gospel one certain way. Rather, they shared the gospel conversationally in diverse ways.
Truth and Pitfalls
Those who prefer conversational evangelism do so for several reasons. They believe it is more strategic because it is individualized. They like to know the person they are sharing the gospel with and share the gospel clearly in a way that is specific to the person with whom they are speaking. They recognize that each person has their own unique set of questions and doubts based on their background and experiences, so the gospel needs to be explained differently to different people. It is a great way to do evangelism, but it has some dangers too.
Sometimes the gospel is not truly presented. Spiritual conversations are good, but sometimes they can be about the nonessential topics. Often those who are trying to do conversational evangelism never get to Jesus, the cross, the resurrection, grace, faith, and salvation. Sometimes the gospel is not presented clearly. As much as one might admire Jesus and Paul’s ability to share the gospel in various ways, it’s just not that easy.
Paul often ended his letters to churches by saying, “Pray that I can present the gospel clearly.” Sometimes the gospel is not very clear when presented conversationally because the tangents and rabbit trails take the conversation off course.
Those who believe in “scripted evangelism” find their support in verses like these where Jesus said the same thing over and over to people and where he taught his disciples to do the same. Paul also preached a simple gospel message and made sure that he stayed on point with what is most important in the gospel.
Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. “The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” Mark 1:14,15
When you enter a house, first say, “Peace to this house.” … and tell them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.” Luke 10:5,8
When I came to you, I did not come with eloquence or human wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. I Corinthians 2:1,2
For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures. I Corinthians 15:3,4
Clearly this is one way to do evangelism. We see it modeled in the lives of the two greatest evangelists of all time, Jesus and Paul. They wanted to be sure that the gospel was simple and they did not veer off course when presenting it, so sometimes they said the same thing over and over the exact same way. Even if the audiences were different, they stuck to the script and presented the gospel clearly.
Truth and Pitfalls
Those who prefer scripted evangelism do so for several reasons. They believe it is easier for training. It is easier to train students to share the gospel in a scripted way, looking at the same verses and using the same illustrations. It also builds confidence in students because they know what to say. It keeps the conversation on track and makes the gospel more clear. It is a great way to do evangelism, but it has some dangers too.
Sometimes it can come across inauthentic. I’ve heard students say that when someone pulls out a gospel tract they are immediately turned off because it feels insincere. It can come across like the person does not truly know what they believe. If a lot of people are all using the same tracts of same presentation it can also feel a little cult-like. People can sometimes be suspicious of canned presentations.
Sometimes it is too simple. Of course the gospel is simple and should be presented simply, but sometimes the listener needs other questions answered. Each person spoken to has their own unique worldview, spiritual background, and experiences. Sometimes the gospel needs to be spoken more conversationally with each individual for it to even make sense. Sometimes tangents and rabbit trails are much-needed conversations for the gospel to become clear.
Justin Christopher is the National Campus Director for Campus Renewal Ministries and the author of Campus Renewal: A Practical Plan for Uniting Campus Ministries in Prayer and Mission. He gives leadership to the Campus House of Prayer and the missional community movement at the University of Texas.