I have a confession to make. I haven’t led anyone to Christ in over 30 years. I know that sounds unbelievable, bizarre—even borderline lame—but from one perspective, it makes perfect sense.
I want to tell you why I’ve been, by one measure, such a spiritual loser. I also want to show you how what I have to say may radically improve your effectiveness as a voice for the gospel.
First, though, the backstory.
Simple Times, Simple Gospel
I became a Christian during the Jesus Movement in Southern California in the early 70s. Evangelism back then was fairly simple: Share the simple gospel, answer a few simple questions, invite a person to simply receive Christ, pray. And lots did. Not too complicated. Would that were still the case.
That was almost half a century ago. Times have changed. The gospel is not “simple” anymore, nor are the questions people ask. Of course, the gospel is still the gospel. That hasn’t changed, or rather, it shouldn’t change—though more “progressive” types continue to fiddle with it, hoping to tickle postmodern ears.
No, the truth is still the truth. The way people hear it has changed dramatically, though, because the cultural conversation has changed dramatically.
Fifty years ago, Christian words and Christian doctrines made sense to people, more or less, even if folks didn’t always believe them or, if believing, didn’t live them out. Clearly, the doorkeepers of culture back then were increasingly post-Christian, but they had not become anti-Christian, as they are now.
Worse, the hostility nowadays is not just against the gospel—which has always been a “stumbling block”—but against virtually every detail of the biblical view of reality, including what it means to be human, what it means to be gendered, what it means to be moral, even what it means for something to be “true.”
Bestseller lists frequently feature rhetorically powerful offerings challenging virtually every aspect of the Christian worldview. Consequently, in the thinking of the rank and file, the smart folks have weighed in and found Christianity wanting, so they have no reason to give our message a second thought.
Worse, for many, the words of hope we offer are taken as words of veiled hatred of outsiders—bigotry towards those who don’t believe our spiritual views or obey our moral convictions.
In short, the culture has moved on. Unfortunately, our methods have not. They’ve remained largely static. We continue to be dedicated to outdated devices, using Christian language largely unintelligible to non-Christians. People don’t understand our ideas, so they don’t understand our message—which to them seems obsolete, antiquated, and irrelevant.
And that confusion can be spiritually lethal, as Jesus points out.
In Matthew 13, Jesus relates the famous parable of the sower. The first seeds sown, He says, fall beside the road, and birds swoop down and eat them. No mystery here. Hard ground, no growth. Some people just won’t listen. Not too complicated. But that was not Jesus’ point.
In His clarification to His disciples, He explains what He meant. “When anyone hears the word of the kingdom,” He says, “and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what has been sown in his heart. This is the one on whom seed was sown beside the road” (Matt. 13:19).
The seed is sown, true enough. It’s “in his heart,” Jesus says. Yet it’s not understood, so it’s easily snatched away by the devil.
By contrast, Jesus tells them, “The one on whom seed was sown on the good soil, this is the man who hears the word and understands it; who indeed bears fruit and brings forth, some a hundredfold, some sixty, and some thirty” (Matt. 13:23).
So here is the question. According to Jesus, what is the chief difference between the first and the last, between the faithless and the faithful, between the one who bears nothing and the one who bears an abundance? The difference is this: The second understands the message; the first does not. As a result, they’re road kill.
This insight is central, I think, to Paul’s exhortation in Colossians 4:5–6:
Conduct yourselves with wisdom toward outsiders, making the most of the opportunity. Let your speech always be with grace, as though seasoned with salt, so that you will know how you should respond to each person.
Vital to my point is Paul’s last phrase. Circumstances are unique, and people are individuals. They sit at different places along the continuum between total rejection and complete surrender. If our personal evangelistic game plan emphasizes only the end of that journey—the harvest—then we are not following Paul’s directions because we are not crafting our communication uniquely to each person.
The cookie-cutter approach that worked so well 50 years ago now leaves listeners mystified, dumbfounded, confused—in a word, without understanding—so that the seeds scattered are easily snatched away. The evil one steals the word we have sown because the message itself is largely incoherent. It is not intelligible to many given the unique cultural circumstances we find ourselves in.
I’d like to offer an antidote based on an insight that suggests a more fruitful approach.
I want you to think about an aphorism that’s not especially profound in itself but has profound implications for our approach to sharing the gospel. It’s a truism that has completely transformed my approach to evangelism. Here it is:
Before there can be any harvest, there always has to be a season of gardening.
Fruitful harvest, in other words, is always dependent on diligent spadework: sowing, watering, weeding, nurturing. Here is how I put the point in the new, expanded edition of Tactics:
Before someone ever comes to Christ, there is always a period of time—a season, if you will—when they are thinking about the gospel, mulling it over, wondering whether it might be true. They may be putting out little probes by asking questions. They might even be fighting back a bit. But still, they’re wondering—maybe praying secretly, God, are you real? 1
That’s what I was doing as a college student at UCLA in 1973. I was testing the waters, asking questions, pushing back, and—eventually—listening. “When this happens in someone’s life,” I concluded in Tactics, “it’s an opportunity for you and me to do some spadework, what Francis Schaeffer called ‘pre-evangelism.’”2
The night I finally trusted the Lord—a Friday night, September 28, 1973—my younger brother Mark came to my apartment for a visit, intent on continuing his efforts to bring me to Christ. I cut him off.
“Mark,” I said, “you don’t have to tell me about Jesus anymore. I’ve already decided I want to become a Christian.” It took me a few minutes to peel him off the ceiling, then I bowed my head, confessed my need, pled for mercy, turned my life over to Jesus, and began walking with Him.
There is something in this exchange I do not want you to miss. When I was ready, I responded—no fuss, no pushback, no hesitancy. That’s the way it is with ripe fruit. It’s easy to pick. All it takes is a little bump, and it falls into the basket. The gardening came first; that was the hard part. In evangelism, when the spadework is done well, the harvest pretty much takes care of itself. The first makes the second possible.
This is precisely Jesus’ point in a familiar Gospel text.
Two Seasons, Two Workers
Consider Jesus’ comments in John 4—the well-known woman at the well passage. I want you to notice something Jesus says after that famous conversation that teaches an important lesson that is not so well known.
The disciples arrive on the scene just as the Samaritan woman leaves for Sychar to tell others about the amazing man she’d met at the well. Here is what Jesus then says to the twelve:
Already he who reaps is receiving wages and is gathering fruit for life eternal; so that he who sows and he who reaps may rejoice together. For in this case the saying is true, “One sows and another reaps.” I sent you to reap that for which you have not labored; others have labored and you have entered into their labor. (Jn. 4:36–38).
I had read this passage for years without noticing a critical calculus of evangelism embedded in that conversation. In this exchange, Jesus identifies one field but distinguishes between two different seasons—sowing and reaping, gardening and harvesting. He identifies one team but distinguishes between two types of workers—those who sow and those who reap, those who garden and those who harvest.
For Sychar, the reaping season was at hand. Someone else had done the heavy lifting, but the disciples now had the light labor. They were going to gather the low hanging fruit, the easy pickin’s. Again, the harvest is easy when the crop is ready.
Go for the Gold?
Some Christians are convinced we should try to get to the gospel in every encounter. Go for the gold. Press for the decision. Close the deal. I think the impulse is right-hearted, of course, but it’s wrongheaded; there are problems with this approach.
One, I’ve already alluded to. I suspect we are not spending enough time listening to people long enough to learn their cultural language, so to speak. If we do not first listen to understand their views, how will we be able to communicate in such a way that they will understand ours? If we speak words of truth, but they fall on uncomprehending ears, there will be no understanding. Those precious gospel seeds will get whisked away and, in that conversation at least, the devil will have the day.
There’s another problem. What happens when a massive number of Christians gifted as gardeners rather than as harvesters are presented with a harvesting model of evangelism that’s inconsistent with their spiritual temperament? I’ll tell you. They sit on the bench, inactive, out of play. The idea of pressing someone for a decision—especially in today’s hostile environment—is simply too unsettling, too disconcerting, and, frankly, too frightening.
I sympathize completely. The fact is, most of us are not good closers. Consequently, we never get into the game. And when gardeners don’t garden, for whatever reason, then the harvest suffers. Remember the sluggard from Proverbs. He did not plow after autumn, so he had nothing when harvest time came ’round (Prov. 20:4).
Please do not misunderstand me. Harvesting is critical. There would be no kingdom expansion without it. But there would be no harvesting without good gardening, so without the spadework, there’s no kingdom growth, either. Remember, one sows; the other reaps.
This is why I do not feel compelled to sprint for the finish line if the circumstances don’t warrant it. Instead, I have a different goal.
Lowering the Bar, Raising the Impact
When I’m in a conversation I hope will lead to spiritual matters, I never have it as an immediate goal to lead that person to Christ. I make no effort to get them to sign on the dotted line. I don’t try to “close the deal.” In fact, I don’t have it as a goal to even get to the gospel, though I may end up there.
Do I want that person to come to Christ? Of course I do. Is the gospel necessary for that? Again, of course. It’s the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes (Rom. 1:16).
Getting to the gospel is not the issue, though. Returning for a moment to the parable of the sower, the problem is the ground the seed falls on. There’s no understanding. The hard ground needs tilling first before the seed has any chance of taking root.
I have adopted, therefore, a more modest goal when I engage others in conversation. It’s one I communicate clearly at the outset of virtually every talk I give to a secular audience. Here’s what I tell them:
I’m here tonight because my life has been deeply changed by an ancient teacher. His name is Jesus of Nazareth. Decades ago while I was a student at UCLA, I began to think more carefully about the claims Jesus made about Himself, the claims He made about the nature of reality, and the claim He made on my own life. After thinking hard on the issues, asking a lot of questions, and doing a lot of arguing, I finally came to the conclusion that Jesus got it right, that He saw the world the way it really was. I realized the smart money was on Jesus, so I began to follow Him.
Then I say something they do not expect to hear. I tell them I’m not there to convert them. “I have a more modest goal,” I say. “I just want to put a stone in your shoe. I just want to annoy you a little bit, but in a good way. I want you leaving this auditorium with something I said poking at you, something that gets you thinking, because I think Jesus of Nazareth is worth thinking about.”
Then I move forward with my talk, whatever it happens to be. I make it clear to them that I’m not in harvest mode. Instead, I’m gardening.
At this point you may be wondering, Does this guy ever get to the gospel? The answer is simple: Of course I do. Then the next question: When do you get to the gospel? Here’s my answer: I get to the gospel whenever I want.
I know that may sound cheeky, but here’s what I’m getting at. I do not feel forced to squeeze the gospel into the conversation in an artificial way simply because someone told me I have to. Jesus didn’t even do that.
Jesus took His time. He carefully weighed His words to be sensitive to His audience and to the unique circumstances He faced. Lots of times He went only halfway. He gave the bad news then let it weigh upon His listeners. Only later—after they were exhausted from shouldering the crushing weight of their own sin—did He say, “Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest” (Matt. 11:28). Rest from what? Rest from the burden of the bad news, from the hopeless load of living according to the law. Yes, He got to the good news, but first He gardened.
In the many years I have taught this concept publicly in front of audiences, I’ve watched carefully when I tell them about the importance of gardening before harvesting. I can see in their eyes something slowly beginning to dawn on them.
Here is what the expression on their faces tells me they’re thinking: I can do this. And they are right, of course. They can. Yes, I’ve lowered the bar a bit for them. But a lower bar gets them off the bench and into the garden, and that means a bigger harvest in the long run.
Who’s in Your Garden?
Which brings me back to my original confession, the one that made me sound like a lame Christian, an evangelism loser.
Years ago, I realized I was not a harvester but a gardener. My efforts for decades—on radio and at public events, speaking in churches and at universities, writing books and articles—have all been, largely, to serve a single end: gardening.
The reason I haven’t personally prayed with someone to receive Christ in over three decades is I haven’t really tried. I’m not in harvesting mode because I’m not a harvester; I’m a gardener. And so, I suspect, are most Christians. They just haven’t thought of themselves that way since the option was never really open to them.
There’s something else you need to know, though. You need to know who’s been in my garden.
Does the name J. Warner Wallace sound familiar to you? He’s the legendary cold-case detective who, as an atheist, applied his considerable investigative skills to the eyewitness reports in the Gospels. In the process, he became a believer, then an apologist, and then a bestselling author. You might have read his books: Cold-Case Christianity, or God’s Crime Scene, or Forensic Faith.
Or maybe you’ve heard of Abdu Murray, former Muslim now Christian apologist and current senior vice president with Ravi Zacharias International Ministries. You might have read his books, too: Saving Truth, or Grand Central Question, or Seeing Jesus from the East.
You may know of them, but here’s something you probably don’t know about them: They were both in my garden. When J. Warner Wallace was still an atheist, he was listening to our broadcast. When Abdu Murray was still a Muslim, he was listening to me on the radio. And I’ve met many other Christians just like them.
Do you realize what happened? I was patiently—and unknowingly—doing spadework on Jim, and Abdu, and the others, then somebody went into my garden and harvested my crop. Do you think I care? Of course not; we’re all on the same team. Schaeffer’s “pre-evangelism” was the gardening essential for that bountiful harvest.
Bringing in the Sheaves
In the Body of Christ, different people have different gifts.3 When it comes to working the field, some sow and some reap—as Jesus taught.
If what I have written so far really bothers you—if you think I’m letting people off too easily and I’m not pushing them to get to the meat of the matter quickly enough—you’re probably a harvester. And I’m glad you are. We need you.
If, on the other hand, what I’ve said encourages you, if you’re thinking, “I can do that,” then you are probably a gardener. That would be most Christians, I suspect, and we need you, too.4
If that’s the case, if it’s beginning to dawn on you that you might be a gardener like me, then make it your modest goal to try to put a stone in an unbeliever’s shoe. Focus your efforts on giving him just one thing to think about. That’s plenty good for starters.
Don’t worry about the endgame. Instead, get busy doing some spadework. Think about getting into conversations using the game plan outlined in the new, expanded edition of Tactics to help you start gardening effectively.
Remember, you don’t have to swing for the fences. You don’t even have to get on base, in my view. All you have to do is get into the batter’s box, then let the Lord take things from there. That’s the secret—and the beauty—of gardening.
If you do that—if you get off the bench and get into play in simple ways that are friendly yet moderately challenging, I think you’re going to see a dramatic difference in your impact for the gospel.
Don’t ever forget, the more gardeners we have, the bigger the harvest is going to be. Then both “he who sows and he who reaps may rejoice together” in the bountiful result.