How not to evangelize (usually)

Evangelism is one of the most awkward topics. Christians, non-Christians, and semi-Christians all have widely varying views. My own history with the word is complicated, but in my view the word and the practice are essential elements of Christian life. I don’t know how it could be possible to be a Christian and not be willing to share some good news with others. I can understand all kinds of variation regarding what to say, under what circumstance, and to whom, but I cannot see being simply uninterested in or opposed to sharing the gospel.

A few days ago a friend posted the image that appears with this post, which shows the famous (or notorious) “Romans Road”—five verses plucked out of Paul’s earth-shaking letter to mid-first-century Jesus-followers in the imperial capital. (The verses: 3:23, 6:23, 5:8, 10:9–10, 10:13.) This letter has for many centuries been considered by some—OK, by many—to be perhaps the most theologically profound document of the twenty-seven in the New Testament, or at least the most significant of all the epistles. Every Christian who wants to think about the meaning of the death and resurrection of Jesus and about the relationship of Jesus-following to classical Judaism and the Jewish scriptures (which become the Christian Old Testament) has to reckon seriously with this letter, as does anyone who wants to try to peer into the mind of Paul, the most consequential leader of the early Christian movement and the author of perhaps a quarter of the New Testament.

A canned list of five verses does not give you all you need for sharing the gospel with other people.

And these five decontexualized verses from the letter are memorable and vitally important. But pulling them out into a list and putting them down on one piece of paper does not give you all you need for sharing the gospel with other people. More likely it gives you a canned method that will produce inauthentic encounters and turn off the person you are trying to evangelize.

That was true decades ago. I know. I remember being taught this sequence of isolated verses as a tool for evangelism. I remember trying it. It never worked out well. I don’t think I ever even managed to believe that it should.

And it only keeps getting truer. In the thought world of the people to whom Paul was writing this letter, sin, God, glory, divine grace, and salvation were common coinage. You could use them to connect with people, especially with people who had background in Hebrew faith. Today, not so much.


If you read the encounters of Jesus with people in the gospels, or the encounters of the apostles with diverse individuals and groups in Acts, or better yet, all the many episodes in the whole picture of God’s salvific dealings with humankind throughout the whole Bible, you will find common themes from which, with a lot of careful and prayerful work, you can attempt to produce one coherent statement, but you won’t find a simplistic one-size-fits-all summary like the “Romans Road” used or recommended anywhere.

The Lord said to Isaiah that his word would not return to him void but will accomplish the purpose for which he sends it out (55:11). I believe—as an article of faith, not as an inductive conclusion—this is true of the Lord’s word spoken by any person doing the Lord’s work under the Spirit’s leading anytime and anywhere. This word is always (or at least can be!) just the right word, crafted for its recipient, in the recipient’s specific circumstances, in the current moment. How can this be? The person who wants to do the work of an evangelist needs to know the “whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27), or has to receive a special word from the Spirit for the particular encounter of the present moment, or both.

Often, I think, that word is in the form of a question.

Method cannot stand in for truth, and truth happens in authentic personal encounter.

Maybe the message needed in a particular moment will be the five-step sequence presented in this post. Rarely, I suspect. Formulaic approaches like this usually strike those on whom they are used as canned, inapplicable, and inept. Not because they do not contain deep truth. But because they are not, in the moment, “words fitly spoken.” They are verses used on someone with the intent of producing a certain effect. This is technique or method. Method cannot stand in for truth, and truth happens in authentic personal encounter.

The woman at the well, amazed, told her friends that Jesus knew everything about her (John 4:39). People on whom formulaic/canned gospel presentations are unloaded can get the impression that the one talking to them knows nothing about them and cares less. And that impression can be accurate. Or it can be wrong. But either way, what we’ve got here is failure to communicate (Cool Hand Luke).

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