Presenting the Gospel to Strangers (1)

It is certainly true that the Christian life is not an easy life. It is a hard life, with many problems and difficulties. For we are sinners and our sinful flesh is constantly seeking to hinder us from performing the good works we will to do. It is no wonder, therefore, that we Christians find it so hard to tell others of the faith that God has given to us. For presenting the gospel to others, especially to strangers, is indeed a most difficult and arduous task. It is hard work that demands courageous zeal from a heart filled with a love for the truth. 

This is true first of all because of the very fact that when we present the gospel to strangers we are dealing with strangers. When we do not know someone, it is always hard to talk to them, especially if you are shy by nature. They do not know you and you do not know them. You don’t know how they will respond to you, whether they will accept what you say or reject it and even become angry with you and on the other hand they do not know who you are, nor what you want from them. There are so many people peddling all kinds of strange philosophies these days, that people are very cautious, and understandably so. All of this causes anxiety and fear on the part of both. In fact, some strangers are so fearful that they will not even talk with you. They simply refuse to hear you. 

What makes this even more difficult is the fact that we are not only confronting the stranger, but we are confronting the stranger with the gospel. We do not go to him to speak about the weather, nor to talk about current events. We go to bring the gospel of Jesus Christ, the truth. And the very nature of the gospel is that it either unites and binds together or it divides and separates. Often times it is the latter that we experience. There are not very many people who readily respond positively to the gospel. Many people reject what we bring. They do not want it. Especially when we go as Protestant Reformed people, with the pure doctrines of the Word of God. For that reason we are often times very offensive. We are offensive not only to the unbeliever, but many times offensive to the “Christian” and even to the “Christian” who calls himself “Reformed.” For the truth is always offensive to the flesh. We must be very thankful to God for the truth He has given to us; but we must understand, too, that it is that very God-given truth that makes the presentation of the gospel to the stranger even more difficult. 

What, then, can we do about this difficulty? Can we in some way make the presentation of the gospel easier? Or do we simply have to face the difficulty head on? One thing is certain—we may not change the gospel. No, never. Nor do we want to change the gospel—not if we love the truth. It is a terrible thing when someone changes the message of the gospel in order that it might be more acceptable to the one to whom he goes. It is a great and terrible sin. We must not ever change the gospel to make it easier for us to share our faith. Then we deny the faith. 

There is, however, something that we can do in many cases. We can try to ease the problem somewhat by making the stranger less of a stranger. Some evangelistic organizations make a big thing out of knocking on doors and talking to complete strangers. But, in my opinion, this is not a very effective way to present the gospel. Not that we never confront the complete stranger with the gospel. Sometimes that is necessary. What is better, however, is to get to know the stranger a little bit before you meet him face to face with the truth. If you know him and he knows you, at least a little, then there is not so much anxiety. 

This familiarizing process can take place in the following manner. First of all, we advertise our literature in the local newspapers. These ads should be large enough so that they attract the attention of the public. Those who have an interest in spiritual things will then write to us and ask for this literature. When we send them this material, they will learn something of us. They will learn who we are and what church we represent, because our name and address will be on each pamphlet. The very fact that we send them literature will tell them that we are interested in them and their spiritual welfare. They will also learn something of what we believe as they read the pamphlet. In this way we become less of a stranger to them. After giving them time to digest the material, we then call them on the telephone to make our first personal contact. We use the telephone, because it is always easier for a person to talk on the phone than it is to talk face to face. We can tell them that we are the ones who sent the literature which they requested. With this point of reference as our introduction, most people will very readily talk with us. We can repeat the telephone calls several times at appropriate intervals to become more and more familiar with each other. But ultimately our goal is to make a personal, face to face contact with them. If this procedure is followed with wisdom and discretion, when finally we do meet the stranger in his home, he will no longer be a complete stranger. We will know each other and that makes things much easier. 

This is not the end of it however. We must be very careful to continue the contact. We must not be like so many who think that they can “evangelize” a person in thirty minutes or an hour. They go with their pamphlets, like The Four Spiritual Laws, and think that if they merely go over these pamphlets with the stranger, they have completed their task. For when they are done, all that is left is that the stranger make his decision. If he accepts Christ, then they have won a convert, and if he rejects Christ and the gospel, there is nothing more to be done. That is the end of- it. That is not the approach of a Calvinist. That is Arminian. A Calvinist recognizes the fact that God does not always work in such a way that we see dramatic and immediate results. We must continue to make contacts and not expect everything to happen at once. In many cases it takes a long time for a person to come to the knowledge of the truth. Sometimes it takes several years. 

We must, therefore, continue to send appropriate literature, continue to talk with these people on the telephone, and continue to visit them in their homes. The result will be that we create a personal relationship with them. They learn to trust us and look upon us as those who bring them something that benefits them. Not that it always works out that way. Certainly some reject us before we make much progress; but many, in time, become receptive to the gospel. One of the most important principles to remember, then, is that it takes time. We must be very patient. Especially when we are dealing with someone as far away from us as an unbeliever. But the same is true of those who call themselves “Christians.” Even they do not find it easy to see the truth as we do. It is of utmost importance, therefore, that we take all the time that is needed to cultivate a personal relationship which then becomes the medium of sharing our faith. 

The next step is to encourage the most promising and most advanced of our contacts to join together in a Bible study. We do not ask them to leave their own churches, if they are members of churches. They are not ready for that yet. But, in order that they might have the benefit of systematic study with others who are interested in the truth, we establish a community Bible study. The emphasis is placed, not on leading them to the Protestant Reformed Churches as such, but on leading them to the truth, the Reformed Faith. Only after a person has advanced to the place where he is ready, do we introduce him to our formal worship services and all that belongs to our faith and practice as Protestant Reformed Churches. If this is done too quickly, we will, often times, scare them away before we have the opportunity to share with them the riches of God’s sovereign grace. We are not interested, merely, in gaining members for our churches. We are interested in leading people to the truth that we love and cherish so dearly. 

All of this leads us to the question, “How, then, do we approach the stranger?” That is, “What is the general manner in which we speak to him in order that we might build a relationship with him?” In answer to these questions we recommend three principles. First of all, it is important that we be very honest when we approach the stranger. We must take great care that we are honestly concerned about presenting the gospel to him. In all of our presentation, it must be evident to him that we are true. There are so many today who are not true and honest. So many put on a front and use all kinds of gimmicks. They try to trick their way into houses to gain opportunities to speak about the gospel. Some approach the stranger as a salesman selling books. Others claim that they are taking a religious survey. But all of these people use these gimmicks as a means to present the gospel. That is their real purpose. Thus they are not honest with the stranger. Some come with a memorized speech which they prepared ahead of time. It sounds so “canned” that everyone knows it and resents it. Who likes to hear some cold, uncaring, memorized speech? It is neither sincere nor honest. There is nothing that annoys me more than to be approached by a salesman in a store with a memorized speech about the merchandise. It doesn’t leave you with the impression that he cares about your needs and problems. You know that all he cares about is his own pocketbook. 

We must be honest and open with the stranger if we are going to get anywhere with him. We must show him that we come to him without any gimmicks and because we are truly interested in his spiritual welfare. It is wrong to hide from him either our identity or our purpose, as so many “evangelists” do. At the very beginning, we must tell him that we are Protestant Reformed, without apology. We must tell him that we are here to tell him of our faith in Christ and share the truth with him. We don’t want to sell anything, nor do we want to take .a religious survey. We come with the truth and that is all. This is always the best policy. For even if we try to hide something from them, they always find out sooner or later. We can not hide anything from them. But then we have shown ourselves to be dishonest. And who wants to listen to someone who is dishonest? Surely not a stranger. We go to the stranger with the Word of Truth. Surely then, it behooves us to bring that Truth in an open and honest way—a way that is honoring to our Lord Jesus Christ Who is Himself the Truth. 

(to be continued) 

*Text of an address given by Pastor Houck at Mission Emphasis Day in Kalamazoo Protestant Reformed Church in May, 1982.