Evangelism: Personalized and Spatially Aware

The truths of the Gospel are stable across time; people, places, and situations, on the other hand, are fluid. This means that Christians need to be very, very cautious whenever we engage with an evangelistic “program”. All of us have an innate craving for programs according to which we can live life. Some people extend this desire farther than others, but we all need standardized habits, rituals, or programs that allow our brains to shift onto auto-pilot. As we run along these programmed pathways, we remain distantly conscious that, no matter how rote the task, programs can fail, situations can change, and we will need to adjust accordingly.

Take for example one of our simplest and most stable habits: tying your shoe. Most of us are not deeply absorbed in contemplation of our shoelaces as we do the tying. However, that doesn’t mean we can completely tune out, even in so simple a task. We may need to adjust or loosen laces, make one side longer, remove a pebble from the shoe, or we may be interrupted by a more pressing need. Task complexity demands flexibility and adaptation: the more complex, the more flexibility needed.

What then does this imply about evangelism, a task which combines two of the most complex and mysteriously powerful things in the world? Evangelism seeks to apply the mysterious power of the Gospel to transform lives to the mysterious power of a human being’s spiritual thoughts and actions—a bit more complex shoe-tying. This is why evangelistic programs, though helpful, must be subject to course correction (slight or significant) as the situation demands.

Good evangelists must know and be able to articulate the basic tenets of the Gospel. Beyond that foundation, however, effective evangelists possess two important skills: they take a personal approach, and they are spatially aware.

Personalized Evangelism

As many scholars have pointed out, Paul preached two vastly different sermons: when he addressed a primarily Jewish audience in Antioch (Acts 13), and when he spoke to the Greek pagan philosophers in Athens (Acts 17). These differ still from his personal evangelistic conversations with the Philippian jailer, and his sermon to the Roman civil authorities, Agrippa and Felix, and their retinue. These contexts are widely disparate. The audiences have different interests and background assumptions of truth, which lead Paul to start at different places and emphasize different aspects of the Gospel. Furthermore, we can be sure that his public addresses differed in tone and flow from his personal evangelistic conversations.

We could generally sum up this personalizing of evangelism as “contextualization.” But the point of contextualizing carries even more weight for those of us who do not have regular, large-audience speaking opportunities. In other words, if your “context” is a single person, you should seek to really know that one person. In many ways, you should be moreready to adapt a spiritual conversation when you narrow your audience down to one specific person. That person maygenuinely be helped by thinking about the question: “If you die tonight, where would you go?” or “Why should God let you into heaven?” But they may have a much more genuine and pressing spiritual need: to discuss the conflict in their mind between science and faith, or the problem of evil. These other questions are often not red herrings, or simply obstacles to be brushed aside so we can get back to the tractor beam of sin, justification, and faith. These other questions are the conversation, or at least where it should start, in order to move toward considering Jesus.

In order to evangelize effectively in an increasingly global world, we need to personalize. We need to be increasingly aware that we do not know where someone is coming from spiritually, and be willing to invest in the slow, relational work of listening.

Spatially Aware Evangelism

The second skill of an effective evangelist is spatial awareness—that is, taking advantage of the opportunities found in different social spaces. When it comes to spiritual conversations with strangers, we can identify roughly three different categories of social space: open, closed, and neutral.

Open spaces would be places like a church service, small group, a church-sponsored/hosted event, a group discussion of philosophy or religion, or the classes, meetings, and discussions that occur within a Christian school or institution, etc. These are places where people arrive expecting to hear Christian ideas, and often for the specific purpose of engaging with them. 

Closed spaces would include obvious places such as mosques and a synagogues, but also sporting events, concerts, a classroom lecture on engineering, a movie theater, or a political rally. I define these other places as “closed” in that, although there may be afforded sporadic opportunities for conversation or audience engagement, all those attending have come to that specific place at that specific time for an understood and agreed upon purpose. The parameters of that space are well-defined and uni-directional in the minds of both the organizers and participants. An attempt to engage in Christian conversation will likely be seen as rude, coercive, and irrelevant.

Neutral spaces include everything else, such as your own home, someone else’s home, the street, parks, libraries, and the marketplace (i.e. all spaces of commerce). At first, the marketplace might seem like a closed space, since in theory people are coming to the mall to shop, the restaurant to eat, and the bar to drink. However, the actual activities, motivations, and social allowances are much more fluid, though each place comes with its own implicit social norms and expectations.

As a final addendum, an open space could also occur within a closed or neutral space where a Christian is provided with an external invitation to speak directly about his or her experience, beliefs, thoughts, and opinions.

With these definitions in mind, let’s return to the case study of Paul, a person whom we are hard-pressed to criticize for lack of evangelistic zeal. Where do we find Paul doing his missionary and evangelistic work? It is almost exclusively in open spaces (most often synagogues), or occasionally in neutral spaces which have opened to him, as described in the above addendum.

It’s safe to assume that Paul still lived much of his life in neutral spaces, and perhaps occasionally in closed spaces. Paul surely does not remove his Christian hat or pretend to be a different person in these spaces, but he likely shifts to a mode of what I will call “conversing to care”, rather than proselytizing, precisely because he knows that will be the most effective in winning that person to Christ. That’s a conjecture, but we don’t see Paul doing his work in those closed and neutral spaces. What we do see is that Paul making use of every opportunity in his evangelism. Surely this is not because he believed that God was hindered from working in neutral or closed spaces. He relentlessly focused his activity on open spaces because he was an effective evangelist.

Paul worked with the common-sense knowledge we do well to remember that not every setting finds equally open and receptive hearers of the Gospel. This is why when Christians receive an opportunity to engage in a personal spiritual conversation within a closed or neutral space, the end goal is often an invitation to come to an open space, where the conversation can become fuller and less constrained. Paul is not disregarding God’s sovereignty and supernatural power but rather exercising keen awareness of how God moves in human hearts through varied times and situations.

Through all this analysis, we must be careful we don’t fall into the trap of rationalizing away chances to speak about and honor God due to an underlying fear of man. We often have miniature “open moments” within closed or neutral spaces which require boldness and conviction of faith. But in our strategic posture toward evangelism, we’d do well to be personalized and spatially aware.

Justin Poythress (MDiv, WTS) is Assistant Pastor at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Fort Myers, FL. 

Related Links

"A Resolution for the Church" by Zachary Groff

"Affliction Evangelism" by Aaron Denlinger

"Defending Door-to-Door and Open Air Evangelism" by Al Baker

"Who Does Gospel Ministry?" by Cameron Shaffer

A Workman Not Ashamed: Essays in Honor of Albert N. Martin, ed. by David Charles and Rob Ventura

Evangelism, ed. by Jeffrey Stivason