I overheard a conversation on the airplane coming back from my vacation in Wisconsin. A Christian gentleman was vigorously sharing his faith with a gentleman in the seat directly behind me. There are some things we can learn, both good and bad, from what I overheard. We can take his effort—which was a good one—and channel it in a more constructive direction.
So I am going to give you eight points of application.
1. Look for opportunities. This man was an ambassador for Christ. He was clearly there looking for opportunities to share his faith. He had a captive audience for 3 ½ hours. I wondered if he chose the middle seat on purpose just so he would have two people to talk to instead of just one. I wouldn’t be surprised with this person because obviously he took evangelism very seriously. He was looking, and a good ambassador does this, for opportunities. Good ambassadors always are alert for what might turn out to be a divine appointment.
2. When you get an opportunity, don’t over complicate things. Keep it simple. Don’t give people too much information. Don’t give them Theology 101. Don’t give them Eschatology 101 or Creationism 101. Now, it might turn out that that’s the thing that’s at issue that brings you into the conversation. Somebody is talking about evolution, and even if you’re a young earther, I would say don’t make that the issue but rather attack evolution and offer some broader sense of intelligent design, because that’s what’s really important for getting the Gospel to this person at the time. That’s a judgement call. If it doesn’t come up, then don’t bring it up. The Gospel is hard enough for some people to accept as it is. Don’t over complicate things by bringing in way too many things for them to consider. Just try to put a stone in their shoe.
3. Try to stay away from religious language, terminology, and religious affect. This person was very religious in his whole approach. I think this is hard for us as Christians because we are brought up in a Christian environment and it’s natural for us to talk this way, but it sounds weird to people outside of that environment. I think there are a lot of people who may be, in principle, interested in a bona fide, genuine relationship with God through Jesus Christ but who are not interested in the Christian religion as they perceive it. This is where I think a lot of the emergent guys have a legitimate bone to pick with Evangelicalism. Let’s try not to sound like Bible-thumping fundamentalists if we can avoid it, even if that’s what we are, because there’s no need to sound that way if it puts people off. Find another way to communicate the message. Just talk in a straightforward manner. Be conscious of using religious language the other person may not understand or may think is strange. Avoid all of that so they can hear the message you’re trying to communicate.
4. Focus on the truth, not personal benefits of Christianity. I appreciated the gentleman’s approach in that he kept talking about truth. One person he was talking to said he liked reincarnation. The Christian man said that even if he liked reincarnation, that wouldn’t make it true if it’s not true. Liking something is not going to change reality. That’s a great point. He was focusing on the truth claims of Jesus. He wasn’t giving a bunch of promises. He wasn’t saying, “Jesus is my ice cream. He’s a great flavor. Try Him to see if you like Him, too.” Or, “Try Jesus because He’ll make your life so wonderful.” Focus on truth and not personal benefits.
5. Give evidence. This gentleman was giving all kinds of evidence for his seatmates to consider. Good for him! You should too. You know why? Because people in the Bible did, too. Jesus, Paul, Peter, all the Apostles. If you look at the details of how they communicated their faith, they gave evidence for the truth of what they were saying about Jesus. In fact, if you want to get the content of the Gospel, one of the most famous passages for the articulation of the Gospel is the beginning of 1 Corinthians 15. Paul gives all kinds of evidence. It’s all right there as he is explaining the Gospel. We see that all through the New Testament. So give evidences. It’s appropriate. People do respond to that, even in a postmodern age.
6. Stay Calm. Don’t get mad. Don’t get crazy. Don’t get frustrated. Just stay calm and keep your cool. The more calm you are, the more confident you look, and the more persuasive you sound.
7. Let them walk away if they want. I guess you can call this “don’t bruise the fruit.” When it seems like they’re finished with the conversation, their eyes are wandering, they’re calling for the flight attendant, or looking for an exit, let them go. They are not listening anymore so don’t press the issue. You don’t need to close the sale in every conversation. In fact, most conversations will probably end with you having given them more to think about, but no decision. Don’t press them if they aren’t ready. We can’t pressure the work of the Holy Spirit in their lives. Ultimately, it’s God’s job to persuade them, you’re the messenger God is using. Be conscious of evaluating where this person might be in the process God is working in them.
8. Leave them with something or give them something (e.g. Gospel of John). The gentleman on the airplane was giving out New Testaments or the Gospel of John. I think the Gospel of John is a good choice. Maybe the Gospel of Mark is good but you usually can’t get this one by itself. (It is an easier read—shorter and clearer, not as high Christology, not as much to stumble over.) Just tell them, “Here, just read what Jesus said. Let Jesus speak for Himself.” Sometimes if I don’t have that with me, I’ll leave a business card so that they can go to our STR website. Maybe your card could include information about your email address or phone number so you can continue the conversation. Get that information for them to follow-up. Give them some way to take the next step. Not only put a stone in their shoe, also give them some tangible way of following up on what you’ve given them to think about.