Why is evangelism so difficult? Most Christians feel guilty for not evangelizing more, but few do anything about it. Why is that? Maybe you’re paralyzed by fear. Maybe you don’t know enough non-Christians, so there’s no one to share with. Perhaps you feel inadequate because you’re not up to date on the latest evangelistic techniques: asking provocative questions, leaving tracts in the right places, going straight for the theological jugular within minutes of meeting an unbeliever, etc.
I’m sure that each of these (fear, the “Christian bubble,” and poor “technique”) contributes to lack of evangelism in the church, but in many ways, these approaches are based on a misunderstanding of what evangelism is all about.
1 Peter 3:15 is probably the most famous “evangelism verse” in the Bible. Peter says, “In your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you.” This is such a powerful verse! But pay attention to what Peter is saying.
Peter is not telling us to go up to random people and convince them that they need to hear about the hope we have (Please hear me: I’m not saying that we shouldn’t ever do this, I’m just saying that Peter didn’t tell us to do this in 1 Peter 3:15). He’s not telling us to mount an evangelistic campaign or come up with clever ways of presenting the gospel. So what is Peter saying?
Peter’s message is simple: be ready to explain your hope to those who ask. He presupposes that people are going to be asking us about the hope we have. In the context of 1 Peter, Christians are experiencing suffering, and Peter calls them to joyfully represent Jesus’ love, patience, and joy in the midst of that suffering. This, he says, points people to the truth of the gospel. Peter assumes that we as Christians have hope in our lives, and that this hope transforms everything about us—even (or especially) in the midst of suffering—to such an extent that the people around us will ask us what that hope is about and where it comes from.
So why do we find evangelism difficult? I’m convinced the biggest reason is that people aren’t asking us about the differences they see in us. And that’s not really their fault. Think about the way you spend your time, the way you spend your money, the things you love, long for, and pursue. Can you blame your neighbors or coworkers for not beating down your door to find out why your pursuits are so much different than theirs? When was the last time you provided love, hope, and comfort to a neighbor in need? Is that because they don’t have needs? Or is it because you don’t know them well enough to know what needs they have?
Here’s the point: We’ve stopped giving people a reason to ask about our hope, so we’ve been forced to develop a salesman’s approach to evangelism.
What do you do if people don’t ask about the gospel? You think like a salesman and find ways to convince them they need it. You go door to door with a clever sales pitch. You develop an evangelism program through your church that will mobilize the sales team with the right questions, techniques, and strategies to win the lost for Christ.
Again, I’m not saying that we shouldn’t seek out people with the gospel. I’m certainly not saying that we shouldn’t convince people that they need the gospel. But how many of us really respond well to a salesman knocking on our door or approaching us when we’re shopping or enjoying a day at the beach?
The gospel is compelling because it tells us of God’s incredible love and how that love transforms every aspect of our lives through faith in Jesus Christ. Our lives must reflect our message. What’s the alternative to the salesman’s approach? Living lives that are genuinely transformed by the power of the gospel. We’ll still need to raise the question with our neighbors and offer them hope in the midst of their trials. We should still seek people out with the love of Christ. But if our lives don’t reflect the power of the gospel, then Christianity will look like one more sales item amongst the thousands that people are told to buy every single day.
[Acknowledgement: I first picked up the concept of the salesman’s approach to evangelism from an audio recording of a compelling lecture delivered by Michael Goheen about his book Living at the Crossroads.]