Several years ago, my husband and I were selling our little yellow house (without an agent) in a season covered in toddlers and preschoolers. For every house showing, we’d shove the kid’s leftovers into the washer, dryer, and dishwasher, lay down some vacuum tracks, and scurry off to the playground just in time.
I remember standing in my garden when she rang: a realtor eager to sell my house for me, rattling off her exuberant pitch. At first, I was honored she called (“Your house is so cute!”) and interested in her spiel. But soon my shoulders fell.
The vibe was clear: She cared more for her agenda than she cared about the needs of my family. I politely declined, sighed, slid my phone back in my pocket, pulled back on my gloves.
Weeks later, she called to confidently schedule a showing for one of her clients. “This person’s perfect for your place. I’m going to sell your house today!” Her certainty buoyed my sagging spirit. We rearranged our schedule entirely, cleaning in a frenzy.
It was, of course, in vain. And her words meant to inspire assurance left my frazzled self smoldering.
It was a lesson in a lot of things (my own stupid reactions included). But that encounter influences how I talk about what I believe, about the One who’s changed my life so profoundly. Sharing with people the faith that’s given me so much life has to flow directly from loving them.
When my agenda slides before concern—We must get this person saved! Hellfire, brimstone, etc. etc.—I’m the annoying gong, the clanging cymbal, the car alarm everyone wishes would can it.
People don’t hear, Wow, God loves me! They hear, You didn’t even respect me enough to really see me.
And this lays groundwork for anger and outright rejection of the hope they need most.
How to hamstring your own evangelism
As a missionary, I’ve had some exposure to evangelism methods. But I do believe there’s been a vast generational shift in how our culture is reached with the mind-blowing message of grace, hope, and true peace. Though there was unquestionably a time for tracts, formulas, massive events, and the evangelistic equivalent of a “cold call”—and many are still reached this way!—those techniques can offer a knee-jerk rejection, particularly for Gen X and younger.
As I once heard from a pastor (my paraphrase)—the Cross is offensive enough. We don’t need to add to the offense with insensitive social skills. I can’t say they rejected Jesus when I’m being socially inappropriate.
Picture yourself with someone of another religion approaching you in the same way—like trying to do kind things for you so you’d give them time for their “sales” talk. Would you feel uncomfortable?
How not to be weird
Yes, start a conversation with the person next to you on the flight, or the one on the beach, or on social media. Express something God’s done.
Compassionate evangelism doesn’t dampen our boldness or the frequency with which we diligently work to extend this gift to people. It just means that in a culture where people can sniff out an agenda a mile away, my boldness and sense of urgency must proceed from deep regard for the person in front of me.
And rather than merely bringing someone to the point of conversion, Jesus commands us toward “teaching them to obey”—toward disciple-making over the long haul. As Alan Hirsch, founding director of the Forge Mission Training Network reminds, “Evangelism takes place in the context of a relationship called discipleship that can go a whole lifetime.”
That said, here’s how not to share Jesus with a friend.
1. As a hidden agenda.
When someone’s telling their story, a listener railroading the conversation to talk about their own topic is typically thought of as … well, rude. And spirituality isn’t different, unless it flows into the conversation because it naturally energizes us.
Paul mentions, “Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person” (Colossians 4:6). So not only is our conversation—like any recipe—appropriately seasoned, it’s also conversationally gracious and thoughtful, rather than socially tone deaf.
Paul also mentions “how you ought to answer each person,” which implies—when we’re not answering a direct question—that we’re responding to a person’s own implicit questions about life, their own story, and desire to know. We’re looking for openings to share how our encounter with Jesus meets their longing, but not in ways that feel forced and don’t see the person in front of us.
Which we won’t know unless we’re “quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger” (James 1:19).
2. As a spiritualized chess match or quick win.
In arguments, and particularly in anger, it’s easy to dehumanize our opponent, distilling them to an issue, set of values, or spiritualized target, rather than a person with desire and loss and hurt. In the New Testament, these core needs compelled people toward Jesus for their own healing.
From the Barna Group’s research, President David Kinnaman reports that non-Christians’ hopes in discussing religion are, first, someone who listens without judgment—followed by not forcing a conclusion. However, only one-third see this in Christians they know personally. So it’s possible to have all the right answers but none of the heart to hear and love the person in front of us.
Toss the spiritual chess match, and settle in to listen. As you begin to hear what’s really hurting or angering or mystifying someone, you might hear about holes in their soul.
And eventually, by listening and loving, you’ll be ready to “give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have … with gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:15, NIV).
3. As a way for them to share their stuff without showing yours.
Some of our greatest apologetics in a bristling, disconnected cultural climate are empathy, active listening, and vulnerability. And it’s difficult to accomplish the first two when they’re the only ones sharing the hard.
Just like judgment tends to beget judgment, authenticity tends to beget authenticity.
No, we don’t drag out our dirty laundry (especially that which implicates others) as a means to an end. But the Bible very rarely pulls punches about the rawness of humanity, because that depravity shows the fullness of God’s kindness. And there’s a theme in the Bible of true repentance leading to abject humility.
We allow God to use our story however He sees fit, honoring Him in our weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9-12). If you’re reluctant to get vulnerable but hope others will, this might be a good thing to dig into with God.
That said, be conscious of shifting the spotlight from someone’s story to your own. But when appropriate, use your own vulnerability to create genuine connectedness and to emphasize God as the hero.
4. Using insider language.
In general, if you wouldn’t hear a secular person use it in a coffee shop in exactly the same way, steer clear unless you can gently, easily define the word and make it work for you. This includes words like “grace” (work with me here—this means something different to Catholics or to a dancer), “a joy,” “blessed,” “do life,” “the Word,” etc. (here’s a list of 50).
“Christianese” fuels listeners’ issues with the culture of Christianity (see also: painfully realistic representations of Christians in secular media). In general, these aspects can be alienating and grating, and looked upon by others as something a new believer would need to get past if they wanted to come to Christ.
It’s why we might use discernment before bringing a person to a church service as evangelism before two-way conversations with them personally (I didn’t say never…). Many of our services are filled with songs, rituals, and words a non-Christian doesn’t know, sharpening their impression that Christianity is more about outward behavior rather than surrendering to Jesus.
5. Without awareness of someone’s current posture toward Jesus.
Paul mentions, “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth” (1 Corinthians 3:6). Any seed has a process to germination, from the packet, to cracking open beneath the ground, to visible seedlings. (Check out Engel’s scale of evangelism, a spectrum of where individuals lie in their discipleship or lack thereof.)
And though many are primed for harvest (Matthew 9:37), some aren’t yet ready. In fact, harvesting now would kill the plant—with no chance for harvesting later. Take it from a farm girl: If you get the stage of growth wrong, you get your reaction wrong.
Or, as Timothy Keller articulates in Every Good Endeavor, if we get someone’s story wrong, we get our response wrong. Stories help us make sense of those around us. On the converse, lack of an accurate story can lead to profound misunderstanding, conflict, and pain.
People’s stories keep them from becoming dehumanized in our eyes, an entity in a McMissions assembly line. You might say knowing someone’s story is a form of loving.
As Ruth Haley Barton puts it in Life Together in Christ, evangelism is “an invitation to spiritual transformation offered by someone who can bear witness to that transformation in their own life … so much more than selling an insurance policy regarding life in the hereafter.”
Sharing our faith is about a courageous compulsion, emerging from God’s love for us and our mutual love for others, to tell of God’s change inside us—a contagious inner satisfaction.
Let’s let that posture lead.
Copyright © 2023 Janel Breitenstein. All rights reserved.
Janel Breitenstein is an author, freelance writer, speaker, and frequent contributor for FamilyLife, including Passport2Identity®, Art of Parenting®, and regular articles. After five and a half years in East Africa, her family of six has returned to Colorado, where they continue to work on behalf of the poor with Engineering Ministries International. Her book, Permanent Markers: Spiritual Life Skills to Write On Your Kids’ Hearts (Harvest House), released October 2021. You can find her—“The Awkward Mom”—having uncomfortable, important conversations at JanelBreitenstein.com, and on Instagram @janelbreit.