If you ever attended a course on how to evangelise or reach out to the lost, chances are good you have been advised as follows:
1) Start a conversation…
2) Ask questions…
3) Listen to what the other person has to say…
4) Tell the story of the good news!
Nothing wrong with that.
However, chances are you were also advised to build relationships with people and, over time, look for opportunities where you can share the gospel as your relationships with those people grow. This might work and is not necessarily wrong, but whenever I hear this advice I can’t help but wonder how many real chances to share the gospel are actually missed.
Let me use the following illustration to explain why:
The Bakery And The New Customer
Imagine for a moment you are the owner of, let’s say, a bakery. Let’s also assume that, as a born-again believer, you have a conviction about the reality of heaven and hell which is accompanied with a sincere desire to share the gospel of Jesus Christ with as many people as possible.
One particular morning, a new customer walks into your shop. You greet the customer courteously and take his order. The next day you are visited by the same new customer, and you ask if he is new in town. He says he is. Realising he might come back regularly, you make a point of remembering his order.
Sure enough, the next day this same customer walks into your shop and you are ready with his order, hoping to make an impression. Eager to build relationship so you can eventually share the gospel with this customer, you ask him his name and what he does for a living. However, you notice he is not very friendly and doesn’t share much about himself. Feeling discouraged, you decide to give it some time.
Another week goes by, and the next time you see him you try to share something personal about yourself. The customer only replies with, ‘Okay then…’ without offering anything else about himself in return. By now you feel really discouraged as you were hoping to be able to build some form of relationship where you could casually talk with this customer about everyday things, and then hopefully spiritual things too. Nevertheless, you ignore the strange prompting you have to witness to him anyway as you tell yourself you will get a chance someday, hopefully.
In the coming days, however, you notice your new customer doesn’t show up any more. Then one evening you pick up a newspaper, and as you do so your attention is drawn to an article about a man who was killed in an accident. From the photo you recognise the person who was killed to be the new customer to whom you never had a chance to witness, all because you were unable to build some form of relationship with him. You have no idea if he died knowing the Lord. You have no idea if he is now in heaven. You have no idea if he is burning in hell for all eternity. For days you tell yourself not to feel guilty. After all, it was not your fault the customer didn’t want to open himself up to you enough in order for you to share the gospel with him. Yet, somehow you can’t find solace in the thought at all as another new customer walks into your shop. Feeling disheartened, you hope this customer will open up to you sooner so you can share the gospel with him timeously.
While the above example explains the modern-day dilemma which most Christians face quite well. let’s take it one step further to the extreme:
20 Minutes To Live
One particular morning a new customer walks into your shop. As he approaches the counter you notice something supernatural about the whole scenario. Above this customer’s head you see a stopwatch counting down the minutes to zero, with only 20 minutes to go. You don’t know how you know, but somehow you just know this person has only 20 minutes left to live, and counting. You also know there is nothing you can do to prevent this from happening, and your only choice is to share the gospel with him.
However, you have a huge problem as you have no idea how to witness to this stranger in only a matter of minutes. You don’t have any time to build some form of relationship, and you fear any conversation about God, heaven, and hell, will only cause him to turn around and walk away without wanting to listen to anything you have to say.
Resisting a panic attack, you smile and greet this customer courteously instead. You take his order and immediately begin to engage with him on a personal level. You ask him what his name is. He answers. You ask him if he is new in town. He says he is. You ask him where he works, and you notice a shift in his attitude. He really isn’t comfortable sharing his personal information with a complete stranger. Yet, you realise you don’t have months, weeks, days or even hours to build some form of relationship before you can share the gospel with this man. This person has only about 19 minutes left to live, and you are not making any progress. What do you do? Do you care enough to not just leave him to walk out the door? At the same time you cannot tell him he has now only 18 minutes left to live, as you will sound like a nutcase and surely chase him away.
To be honest, is there much of a difference between the first scenario and the second scenario? The only difference is that in the second scenario you know how long the person has to live. Maybe you can somehow find the courage to speak to the person in the second scenario who by now only has 16 minutes left to live – and counting – but almost guaranteed it would be an awkward conversation.
Cultural And Language Barriers
What if this scenario is even more complex? How would you handle the situation if the customer who walks in with only 20 minutes to live is Chinese, only speaks very broken English and understands very little of what you say? Not only is he about to die in 20 minutes, but you also don’t know how to cross the language and cultural barriers in an effective way in such a short amount of time. This means that while you have the answer to eternal life, this person could be damned to hell in only a few minutes (see Why Jesus Said He Is The Only Way To Heaven) because you don’t have enough time to learn his language or build some form of relationship with him. Nor do you have the time to breach the cultural differences between the two of you in a respectful way.
In the first scenario you failed to witness to the customer because you didn’t ‘feel’ the timing was quite right, and you were afraid you might have offended him if you spoke to him about salvation too soon. In the second scenario, would you have cared if you offended the person? Would it really have mattered if you didn’t have any form of relationship with the person yet? The issue is not ‘if the timing is right’, but rather, if we witness effectively and biblically correct regardless of the situation.
In 2 Timothy 4:2 (KJV) Paul said, “Preach the word; be instant in season, out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort with all long suffering and doctrine.” The Amplified Bible puts it this way, “Herald and preach the Word! Keep your sense of urgency [stand by, be at hand and ready], whether the opportunity seems to be favorable or unfavorable. [Whether it is convenient or inconvenient, whether it is welcome or unwelcome, you as preacher of the Word are to show people in what way their lives are wrong.] And convince them, rebuking and correcting, warning and urging and encouraging them, being unflagging and inexhaustible in patience and teaching.”
As Christians, we should have an urgency to share the gospel with those who are perishing, whether it seems favourable to do so or not.
Becoming An Effective Witness
I am dedicating a series of posts on the importance of sharing the gospel with as many people as possible, and on how to do so in an effective and biblical matter. Through these posts (or by reading the book “How To Evangelise Effectively“, available from Amazon.com) we will discover that sharing the gospel is a mandate from our Lord Jesus Christ, and every time we delay to share the gospel with friends or strangers (unless we are specifically following the promptings of the Holy Spirit not to), we gamble with the other person’s eternal well-being.
As George Whitefield said, who is known for preaching a series of revivals that came to be known as the Great Awakening of 1740,
God forbid that I should travel with anybody a quarter of an hour without speaking of Christ to them.
We cannot lie to ourselves and put the blame on the other person for not opening up, if we did not at least try to talk to them about salvation in spite of how difficult it might seem. It is of vital importance we learn how to engage with people and share the gospel with them effectively, regardless of language, cultural or personality barriers.
The Danger Of False Conversion
In our example there is also another scenario to consider. Imagine you are able to have a decent conversation with the person who entered your shop. You speak to him about sin, the consequences of sin and how God died for him on the cross so he can go to heaven when he dies. You even quote Scripture and tell him that “all have sinned and the wages of sin is death, but through Christ you can have eternal life.”
You tell the person that all he has to do is to ask Jesus into his heart, and you even lead him in prayer: ‘Lord Jesus, I realise I am a sinner. Please forgive me. Thank you for sending Jesus to die in my place. I am now born-again. I love you and thank you.’ A few minutes later the person dies and you feel you have been a faithful witness.
What would your reaction be one day, when you enter through the gates of heaven but can’t find the person who you had led in prayer to Christ? After all, Jesus said in John 3:3 that unless you are born-again, you cannot enter the Kingdom of Heaven, and in Matthew 7:21 that not all who call Him Lord will be saved. How do you know you witnessed to the person in such a way that he became born-again?
Does our responsibility go beyond praying a sinner’s prayer with someone, and should we even care about whether their conversion is real enough? Not all people who claim to be Christian are born-again, and Jesus made a clear distinction between those who claim to be His and those who truly are. Part of the purpose of these posts (and the book) is to explore what it is that causes a person to become soundly saved. When we understand what it means to be born-again and that a person needs to be born-again to be soundly saved, we naturally change the way we share our faith with those who are not born-again yet.
Furthermore, as we reach out to someone who responds in a positive way, wouldn’t it be great if that person could be impacted in such a way that he or she won’t just one day go to heaven, but learn how to effectively reach out to unsaved people too? As we learn how to evangelise effectively, we will also come to understand the importance of raising up disciples who will go out and make more disciples, taking the Great Commission seriously so Jesus Christ may receive a harvest that is honouring for what He did on the cross for us.
By the way, during the time it took the average person to read this introduction about 1,000 people died.
Another 150,000 will be dead between now and tomorrow this time, and approximately 54,000,000 this time next year.
There is no time to waste, and the time to preach the gospel, effectively, is now.