Like many Christians of my generation, I grew up equating the Great Commission with accosting strangers passing in the street, initiating an awkward banter, and thrusting a copy of the Four Spiritual Laws into their unsuspecting palms as soon as possible. As I look back I can see the blushing inadequacy with this affrontive method of evangelism. But it does raise an interesting question concerning proper method. One reader recently pitched the question to me like this:
I am used to the typical Four Spiritual Laws method of sharing the gospel, although quite frankly I’ve never really done it. I imagine my experience with street preaching would go just as yours did. I am curious as to how someone with your approach would share the “good news?” Obviously, I assume you would not start by warning them of hell and God’s wrath. Have you written on this subject? Thanks!
The problem with the question is that it presupposes there is one (decontextualized) way that I would go about doing this. But that brings us to the deeper problem. It is not simply that the type of method is problematic. More basically, the problem resides with the very idea of method in evangelism. Let’s take a look at each of these problems.
The first problem is that life is always more complex than the method will allow. Imagine, by analogy, that you pose a scenario to a doctor in which a person is admitted to the hospital with a severe headache. Then you ask the doctor: “How would you treat the headache?” The doctor would be right to decline to answer, and instead to insist on requiring more information. She simply cannot suggest a treatment based on the minimal information provided.
By the same token, to ask “How would you share the good news?” has as yet provided us none of the crucial information about the individual which is necessary to provide an answer. Has this individual grown up in the church or did they never hear of Jesus before? Are they wearing a scowl and a T-shirt that says “God hates us all” or did they just ask you about your faith? Do they have to be somewhere in five minutes or are they cloud-watching to while away the hours? Questions like these — and countless more — all provide us with important information to think how we would go about sharing the gospel.
This brings us to the second problem. Put yourself in the place of the “target” individual. Imagine that somebody approaches you and strikes up a conversation in order to share something important that they want you to hear about (whether it be their religion, or political views or recent stock investments or anything else doesn’t really matter). That in itself isn’t necessarily a bad thing. After all, one important reason that people get into conversations is to share things important to them with other people.
But now imagine that you realize as the conversation progresses that they are intentionally using a particular “method” in order to engage you. They are availing themselves of well worn “techniques” to provide the most effective means to win you over to their point of view. If you’re like most people, then it is probably at that point more than any other that you will find yourself alienated from the conversation. You will resent being seen as a target, an object of manipulation. And you will begin to see the entire exchange as a disingenuous ploy to get you to adopt a particular set of beliefs and/or engage in particular actions.
So to sum up those are the two main problems with the question. There is nothing wrong with sharing things you think are important with other people. But you cannot approach that type of conversation decontextualized from the real concrete occasions in which it occurs. And what is more, if you begin to look at methodologies and techniques to guide conversation, then you will find you cut yourself off from genuine exchanges with others and in doing so you may unwittingly alienate the other from the very thing you want to share.