Rev. Kortering is a minister emeritus in the Protestant Reformed Churches. Previous article in this series: April, 15, 2006, p. 333.
There are many passages of the Bible that shed light on the subject before us: how do I go about sharing the gospel with my neighbor? We will consider a few of them.
We first take a look at Luke 10:30-37. This is the well-known passage in which Jesus answers the question of the lawyer, “What shall I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus posed another question, “What is written in the law?” The lawyer summarized it correctly: love God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind and love your neighbor as yourself. This young man wanted to justify himself, so he continued, “Who is my neighbor?” In answer to this question, Jesus told the parable of the Good Samaritan. Obviously, the answer is that my neighbor is anyone whom God places upon my pathway who is in need. We act neighborly when we meet that need.
In the parable, it was the Samaritan who helped the wounded Jew, in distinction from the priest who passed by on the other side. The Samaritans were despised by the Jews, including this lawyer, but he was the one who acted neighborly in caring for the Jew by anointing his wounds and paying his expenses. By this, Jesus explained to the lawyer what the keeping of the law is all about. It is the act of loving the neighbor, any neighbor, by showing mercy to him in his hour of need. This may be a physical or a spiritual need.
The application for personal witnessing is obvious. What greater need does our neighbor have than salvation? The proof of our keeping the law of love is our personal witnessing to those who cross our pathway who are not Christians. We meet his needs by bringing the good news of salvation to him. We don’t judge who he is. We don’t put forth the effort because we think we will be successful. We simply meet his needs as we have opportunity when we encounter him on the pathway of life.
Paul’s methodology of bringing the gospel, as recorded in I Thessalonians 1:7-12, is helpful. Since there is a close relationship between preaching the gospel and personal witnessing, we can learn from this passage. According to Acts 17, Paul persisted in bringing the gospel to the Thessalonians, even after he suffered persecution from many in the community. This opposition did not cause Paul to go “soft on the gospel.” He tells us that he continued to bring the gospel, “not as pleasing men” (v. 4); “neither at any time used we flattering words, as ye know, nor a cloak of covetousness” (v. 5); “nor of men sought we glory” (v. 6). Paul did not change the message to make it less offensive when he dealt with this opposition. Notice what he says about the method or approach he used. “We were gentle among you, even as a nurse cherisheth her children” (v. 7). He was urgent and sincere: “Being affectionately desirous of you, we were willing to have imparted unto you, not the gospel of God only, but also our own souls, because ye were dear to us” (v. 8). More than anything, Paul confirmed the gospel with his own godly living, “Ye are witnesses, and God also, how holily and justly and unblamable we behaved ourselves among you that believe” (vv. 10-12).
Obviously, the first application of this passage is to the preaching of the gospel, whether on the mission field or in the established church. Yet, we can learn something from this passage for personal witnessing as well. We must be strongly convicted of the message of the gospel and never compromise it just to make it more acceptable to people. We must care for the souls of those with whom we share the gospel, even to the point of personal sacrifice. A harsh, confrontational, and judgmental approach only closes doors; we must also be gentle and sensitive to people’s present beliefs or values. This applies particularly to our approach. If they reject the gospel eventually, then we have to respond accordingly. Our walk and our talk must harmonize if we are to be effective.
One more passage is I Corinthians 9:19-23. In this letter to the Corinthians, Paul reminds them that he made himself servant to all. To the Jews, he became a Jew, to those without law as without law (being not without law to God, but under the law to Christ) that he might gain them that are without law. To the weak, he became as weak, to gain them. He said he was made all things to all men, that he might by all means save some. And this he did for the gospel’s sake, that he might be partaker thereof with them. This is the classic passage that speaks especially of cross-cultural mission work. Paul, the great missionary, understood what it meant to be all things to all people without compromising the gospel. Sensitivity is evident in his writing this letter; he learned that from all his experiences.
The same things are important when we do personal evangelism with a non-Christian, who more than likely comes from a culture quite different from our own covenant life. We must take time to study his culture and religion, learn where we have similarities that might form bridges for conversation (as Paul did in Athens,Acts 17). Harshly judging him as wrong is not the right approach. Rather, we have to be as much like him as we can be without compromise. This is the challenge for all of us when we do personal evangelism. The goal is to “gain him” for Christ.
As we look more specifically at proper methodology, we can discard quickly a few wrong methods. We reject Confrontational Evangelism, or, as it is sometimes called,Decisionism Evangelism. This is the popular approach of those who hold to Arminian theology. It has come to expression in the “Four Spiritual Laws,” which, we are told, if used properly can convert a person in a few minutes. The goal is to persuade people to accept Christ as their own Savior. A person is assured of everlasting life by saying “yes” at the right moment. It is sealed by a brief prayer. Sadly, this builds egos for the people sharing the gospel and leaves the so-called convert deceived.
Another approach for personal evangelism is called Accommodation Evangelism. The goal here is to remove from the gospel message everything that might offend and include everything that makes it attractive. You are familiar with this approach in the mega-churches. Just come the way you are, get a cup of coffee, listen to some rock group, and perhaps listen to a well-trained entertainer who knows how to popularize Christian issues. On a more personal level, this is done by reducing the gospel to some comic book, by assuring people that there is truth in all religions, we just have to find the common ground among them. This approach is used by sports heroes who autograph baseballs on Sunday afternoon.
Then there is the Salesmanship Evangelism. The gospel is a product that is for sale, and you can use every form of advertising and salesmanship to persuade a person to become a Christian, just as you would to sell a used car. Slick ads, clever techniques, a Bible set forth in modern jargon, make up the components of the next sale, persuading people to buy into Christianity.
The Bible makes clear that God’s method of saving souls is the sowing of seeds. Jesus sets this forth in Matthew 13:3-9 and 18-23 in the well-known parable of the sower. The Word of God, like seed, is sown and falls on different kinds of hearers. Paul uses the same language of sowing in I Corinthians 3:6-9: “I have planted, Apollos watered; but God gave the increase.” The first application of this is to the preaching of the gospel. Under the preaching, the same method applies to personal witnessing. When we talk to others about the truth of God’s Word and use God’s Word in our evangelism, the Word of God is set forth, and as a seed it is sown in the hearts of the hearer according to God’s will and purpose. This idea allows us to go slowly in our personal evangelism. Seeds sown take time to germinate and grow. We can begin sowing in the hearts of children. In God’s own time it will bear fruit. We can use the help of others, books, literature, Bible study groups, and ultimately the Word preached itself.
From the perspective of sowing seeds, our personal evangelism can be done in two ways, by means of Contact Evangelism or byFriendship Evangelism. The difference between these two methods is the occasion for sharing. By contact evangelism we refer to the sudden, one-time opportunity that we have to be in the presence of another person whom God has caused to cross paths with us. How do we witness to such a person? By friendship evangelism we have the advantage of repeated opportunities of contact, and we can build upon them actually to establish a certain form of friendship that gives its own opportunities for sharing the gospel. Both of these methods are useful and under God’s blessing will bear fruit in the heart and life of the person who receives the Word of God.
When we use Contact Evangelism, the points of contact vary a great deal. It may be as casual as standing in line for check-out at the shopping center. It might be at a business convention when you chat with someone over a cup of coffee. Opportunity can jump out at you when you distribute religious material in the neighborhood of your church. It might be when you are hospitalized and another person is in the same room as you are. You get the idea. These are momentary opportunities, when we can sow the seed of the Word of God in someone’s life. You may never see the person again. Your pathways cross for this moment. Jesus calls you to be the Good Samaritan in the life of this person. Somehow you are alert and aware that there must be some opportunity to let this person know you are a Christian and that your faith makes a difference in your life and that you desire the same for him or her.
You can appreciate the concept of sowing seeds, for that is what you do. You sow a thought, an act of kindness, a word of encouragement, share some hope in what seems defeat. All these efforts speak loudly to people. You may never know what effect they had on them because you may never see them again. Yet, many people testify that they were influenced by just such a word from a Christian in such a casual moment.
What can we do in such a situation? Obviously, I have to be brief here, but let me give you something to ponder and, hopefully, to put into practice in your own way. Try to turn a conversation towards spiritual truth. This is most easy if you work at it and practice it. You can adore God for the beautiful weather in the presence of others. You can put a Christian perspective on the day’s events, especially if it attracts attention. You can ask a person if he is a Christian, and take off from there. You can ask questions and gain knowledge, so that you can address a specific Christian truth that is very precious to you. It is very helpful to carry a tract that you can give to someone. The subject must deal with Christianity and the simple gospel message. You should be able to express in a few words why you are a Christian and that you have a burden for this person, if he demonstrates that he is not saved. You might inquire whether this person has any interest in learning the Christian faith, which is of course the Reformed faith. It is helpful to be able to recommend to him or her a book to read for further study, or you can always refer them to the Internet and your church’s web page, which has loads of good material. You might exchange addresses for further contact. I still carry with me business cards, a habit I formed in Singapore, where everyone has them and exchanges them.
Then we also have Friendship Evangelism. Here we must exercise Christian caution, as friendship can quickly be used wrongfully. The idea here is to befriend someone whom you see often, with a view to getting closer to him and to influence his life in a Christian manner. This can be someone as close as a fellow member of the church who is struggling with some doctrine or practice of the church. Hopefully such a one is not an unbeliever, but rather a hurting Christian. It is always best to practice speaking about our faith to those who are closest to us on a daily basis. We speak about the gospel and its meaning and application within our Christian homes. We reach out to others in the church, and school setting. As we do this we feel comfortable talking about our faith and it becomes natural to do this with non-Christians who cross our pathway frequently. Think of your neighbor who lives next door to you. Think of your fellow worker on the job or fellow students in the university. Maybe you meet someone repeatedly in some sports situation, business meetings, clubhouse, social event, or whatever.
How can we reach out to such people and sow the seeds of the Word of God? It may be that you start out as we mentioned above. In this situation you have the advantage of follow up because you may be able to see each other again and build on past contact. The most important thing to keep in mind is that action speaks louder than words. This is critical because the more you see of each other the more you may see faults and bad habits and even sins. If we are going to sow the seeds of Scripture, we must put forth every effort that our life testifies we are Christians and that we walk the talk, as they say. This is the point of I Peter 3:15, 16, where we are exhorted to sanctify the Lord God in our hearts and be ready to explain to others the reason for our hope. Because the goal is repeated contact, we must engage in pleasant conversation. No one wants to talk repeatedly with a grouch or a pious critic who makes them feel uncomfortable. You have to prepare the soil by making yourself attractive as a Christian and projecting yourself in such a way that this person is envious of your life as a Christian. Our faith and practice is restrictive but liberating in a good sense of the word. We must try to take an interest in the neighbor’s life. We can do things together that allow us to interact, without compromising our faith. You figure it out; there are opportunities galore. The idea is that casual conversation may lead to more serious interest and hopefully to a more systematic discussion of some aspect of Christian faith and life. You must not rush this process, it may take years, but you are available and interested in the personal life of this neighbor.
Many converted Christians have mentioned that a one-on-one Bible Study was most helpful. When you have built up some trust in each other and some sort of friendship, you can suggest that the person come along to a Bible Study in the church or some public meeting that is a bit casual and not as formal as a worship service. Taking them along to church is the golden gate for which we all strive. Notice I didn’t say invite them to church, but take them along. Make arrangements to sit with them and to help them through the service, as it is very difficult for someone to worship for the first time in his life. If this goes well, the person is ready for a pre-membership class taught by the pastor or elders.
Two things are important to emphasize in this connection. Teaching is the key to sowing seeds and making disciples. The Word of God is the textbook, and the Holy Spirit the author of life. We are the agents, and must humbly serve God in this capacity, praying with all diligence. Secondly, this is a process of learning and, like sowing seeds, there are no shortcuts. The seed needs moisture and warmth to germinate. It needs sunshine and rain to grow. And it takes a whole season to ripen and harvest. The seed of the Word is the same, and we must be like the Christian farmer who waits long and patiently for the harvest, which comes through the early and latter rain (James 5:7).