Effective personal evangelism: understanding

To date, we have looked briefly at love, tenacity, boldness and consistency as particular features of the effective personal evangelist.

The fifth mark of the effective personal evangelist is understanding. We have said that we do not need special training - a degree course, or formal, academic, theological instruction, for example - but the effective personal evangelist does need to be man or woman of understanding. We must be men and women of God's book, praying constantly for the wisdom that only God, through his Spirit, can provide to us (Jas 1.5). We need to know the truth about ourselves, about God, and about our hearers. We must understand our own limitations, gifts, and opportunities. So we might say, and rightly, that we are not particularly well-equipped to explain the gospel to someone, but we might be particularly effective in persuading or compelling others to come and hear someone who is so able. We need to understand God himself: how and what he speaks, and how and in what ways he acts. We need to understand our hearers, which will prevent us from becoming discouraged on the one hand while also, on the other, providing us with our proper 'targets' in making Christ known. We must be properly adaptable. When Paul said, "I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some" (1Cor 9.22), he was not giving us a model for the church's corporate activity, suggesting that the church needs to become more like the world in order to be effective. He means that as individual believers we need to show a righteous accommodation. For example, if I am invited to go and discuss something with a Muslim in a mosque, becoming all things to all men will involve me removing any hat and shoes I am wearing. I am able to eat any food that is offered to me, without asking questions. If I am going to win someone to Christ, adapting to their expectations and circumstances where there is no principle of obedient righteousness involved and not demanding what I am not entitled to expect may give me gospel opportunities I would otherwise have lacked. Furthermore, we must unfold the truth appropriately. There is, for example, a difference - in measure - between the way that you would explain the same saving truth to a Muslim, to someone brought up in nominal Christianity, and to someone who has never heard of Jesus Christ before. You do not change the essential substance, but you might have a different point of entry, a different set of illustrations, or a different emphasis. We need discernment in these things. We need to be wise as to what we say on the first occasion when we meet someone, and how far we carry our conversation on that occasion. Some will show immediate appetite to plunge on, others will be much more wary. We need to make sure that we say what is needful, but we do not always need to say everything, and might have opportunity to return on another occasion. So, in the part of Britain where I usually work, I might be told that someone is busy and cannot talk just now. I might then suggest that another time might be more convenient. "Oh, yes, of course," is the response, often a polite British way of communicating the hope that I will never darken the door again. Consistency and tenacity will, however, return on the basis of the promise made, hoping that the same politeness will eventually provide a more convenient time. We also need to understand when the time might have come to hold our tongues and move on. We do not often, literally, put our foot in the door. We might need to wait for our opportunity. So I think of one angry atheist of distinctive appearance who - after we had first spoken to her - visited all her immediate neighbours to warn them about us. Not long after, I happened to be present when a medical crisis arose in the same spot, and obtained an opportunity to explain to those very neighbours who I was, what we were doing, and how we were operating, in a context in which they could see we had no dodgy motives. One thing that would be profitable is to make it a practice to memorise our Bibles: the grasp of the truth and the ability to handle it reactively and proactively provided by such storing up of the Scriptures cannot be underestimated. We need a working grasp of the whole Bible, a grand overview of special revelation, and we need hearts and minds well stocked with the truth. This does not mean that someone cannot be effective until they know large chunks of the Bible, but we do need accurately to know God and his truth in order to communicate the truth effectively. We would do well to read books that help us to explain the gospel, equipping us with information that we can clearly communicate, teaching us how to counter typical unbelieving responses to divine truth. We need to understand in some measure the Lord himself, his truth, our own hearts and gifts, the character and situation of the people we are dealing with, and the circumstances into which we go.