Our pastor quipped on Sunday (3/22) that, during the present crisis, we should spread the gospel, not the virus. This is a really strange time for ministry generally and evangelism specifically. Over the next several days (while we’re all staying put in our homes!), I want to develop a few ways that we can follow this directive during this unprecedented time. Follow along below to see this series develop.
Step 1: Fervently Pray for the Lost
Step 2: Tell the Lost You’re Praying for Them
Step3a: Tell the Lost about Christ: Recognizing Opportunities
Step 3b: Tell the Lost about Christ: Taking Opportunities
Step 3c: Tell the Lost about Christ: The Art of Evangelism
Step 4: Keep the Conversation Going
Step 5: Take the Conversation to the Next Level
Step 1: Fervently Pray for the Lost
Let’s start with the low-hanging fruit. The first and obvious way that you can advance the gospel during the pandemic is prayer. Here’s pandemic evangelism step 1: fervently pray for the lost! Generally speaking, we underestimate the power of prayer in all areas of life including evangelism. When we pray, we don’t feel like we’re doing anything, but really we’re doing the most effective thing. Prayer directly impacts reality. God uses prayer to accomplish his purposes in time and space. Moses held his arms up in intercessory prayer as Israel defeated the Amalekites (Ex 17:8–13); God withheld rain from the land of Israel for 3 ½ years per Elijah’s request (Js 5:16–18); Paul admonished the Corinthians to help him through persecution by means of prayer (2 Cor 1:11), and the list could go on. Simply stated, prayer works.
Here are some requests that you could pray for.
- Pray for opportunities to tell the lost about Christ. (Col 4:3) [more on pandemic-appropriate opportunities later]
- Pray for clear communication. (Col 4:4)
- Pray for the seed of the gospel to find good soil in people’s hearts. (Mark 4:14–20)
- Pray for the lost to be saved! (Rom 10:1)
During threatening times, it’s easy to fixate on our own needs and concerns; however, we must also remember the eternal need of the lost. Jesus said, “And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” (Matt 10:28) There is something far worse than physical death, the coronavirus, or any temporal circumstance. The lost are in danger of a Christless eternity. We need to put the pandemic into perspective. No matter what we suffer in this life, we have Christ. The lost are separated from Christ. Let’s plead for their salvation.
Perhaps these cues will help you pray for the lost.
- Incorporate prayer for the advance of the gospel into your regular prayer times (meals, devotions, etc.)
- Keep a list of lost people that you’re praying for as a family, and pray for them when you do family devotions.
- As you walk or drive through your neighborhood, pray through the names of your neighbors who need Christ.
- When you feel fear and anxiety concerning the coronavirus, pray for someone who is lost.
I think there are a few reasons why we fail to pray for the lost as we should. Reason number one is because we’ve forgotten the power of prayer. Salvation requests are often long-term requests. You’ve probably prayed for the same, lost loved-ones for years, even decades. As time passes, we lose sight of the power of prayer. But Jesus taught us to pray persistently (Luke 18:1–8). Reason number two scares me. Perhaps we don’t fervently pray for the lost because we simply don’t care for the lost. We don’t love them enough to diligently seek God, take hold of Him in prayer (Is 64:7), and urgently plead for their souls. At times, we care more for our personal comfort and well-being than the eternal salvation of sinners. This is the ultimate failure to love one’s neighbor as oneself.
As this crisis erodes the confidence and self-reliance of the world, let’s fervently pray for people to turn to Christ! People are vulnerable right now. God can use this time to awaken the lost to their desperate need for him. Let’s pray to that end.
Step 2: Tell the Lost You’re Praying for Them
I’m typically not a fan of Christian clichés. You know, sayings like “When God closes a door, he opens a window” or “Life is not about waiting for the storm to pass, but learning to dance in the rain.” Not only are they misleading, but they also drip with sentimentality. That being said, here’s one I actually like and have drawn comfort from recently: “I don’t know what tomorrow holds, but I know the One who holds tomorrow.”
This is an expression of biblical truth. The Bible says that we don’t know the circumstances of tomorrow. “You do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes” (James 4:14). We are limited and frail.
At the same time, we have a relationship with the true and living God through Christ! God planned each day that we will live (Ps 139:16). He even prepared good works that we will accomplish (Eph 2:10). He promises us eternal good (Ps 23:6; Rom 8:28). He guarantees that nothing will separate us from his love (Rom 8:35–39). He even assures us that he will use the worst circumstances of our lives for a good and glorious purpose (Gen 50:20)! Christian, you may not know what tomorrow holds, but you know the One who holds tomorrow.
Now consider the plight of the lost. They don’t know what tomorrow holds, and they don’t know the One who holds tomorrow. Honestly, I can’t think of a more hopeless and helpless situation. Imagine the uncertainty and anxiety they currently experience. The rug is being pulled out from under them; the things that they live for are crumbling before their eyes (health, bank account, career success, etc.). They have no certainty, assurance, or hope in this life or the next.
Here’s pandemic evangelism Step 2: tell the lost you’re praying for them. Let them know that you’re bringing their needs before the true and living God who alone can hear and help. I think this step accomplishes two things. First, it is a good work which causes your gospel light to shine (Matt 5:16). Second, it naturally leads to opportunities to talk about your relationship with God. I even suggest not only telling them you’re praying for them but also asking if you can pray for them on the spot. Say over the phone or from 6 feet across the sidewalk, “Can I take a moment to pray for you?” Based on my experience, many people will welcome the opportunity. Generally speaking, people are anxious, uncertain, and scared. Assuming that you’ve been letting your light shine in your interactions with unbelievers, they sense that you know God. They discern that there is something genuinely different about your life. They won’t be surprised when you ask to pray for them. What’s more; I think they’ll be grateful.
When you pray, speak about Christ. Rehearse the truths of the gospel. Confess to the Father that it is only on the basis of Christ, his righteous life, sacrificial death, and victorious resurrection, that you can approach him in prayer. Thank God for the hope of eternal life in Christ. Pray directly for the spiritual needs of those who don’t know Christ. Remember from the first step: we prioritize eternal needs over temporal needs. Pray that through this time of uncertainty people would come to know God through Christ, that people would receive the assurance of the forgiveness of sins. Also, genuinely pray for the temporal needs of the lost. Pray for protection from the virus. Pray that God would provide for their financial needs. Pray that God would give them wisdom to make difficult choices during this complex time.
By telling the lost you’re praying for them and even praying in their hearing, you will sow seeds of gospel truth, and you will open up future opportunities for spiritual conversations. You will also demonstrate that you genuinely care for them, which normally wins a hearing for the gospel. So look through your phone contacts and see if there’s a redemptive relationship you can build by calling that person. Keep an eye out for the neighbors on your street and strike up a conversation with them from an appropriate distance. Tell them you’re praying for them and even ask if you can take a moment to pray for them then and there.
Step 3a: Tell the Lost about Christ: Recognizing Opportunities
The irreducible minimum of evangelism is talking about Christ. You cannot do evangelism without talking about Christ. In your efforts to shine the light, at some point you must get around to Christ. There are several activities that can adorn the gospel, but don’t necessarily involve speaking the gospel. Examples include performing good works, inviting someone to church, and sharing your personal testimony. If we only do these things, but we don’t talk about Christ, then we haven’t evangelized.
So the questions is, “How do we have conversations about Christ?” I think the first part (technically it’s pandemic evangelism Step 3a) is recognizing opportunities. We must perceive open doors for the gospel. I’m convinced that I gloss over many daily opportunities for the gospel. Often my antenna is not in tune with the frequency of the Lord of the harvest. I need a keener sensitivity to detect open doors.
I mentioned in Step 1 that we must pray for opportunities to tell the lost about Christ (Col 4:3). God opens doors for the gospel, and we depend on him completely (That’s why it’s a prayer request!). This is a foundational truth. We cannot coerce people to listen. Unbelievers must voluntarily listen to the message about Christ. This is how Paul spread the gospel. Paul’s pattern when he showed up in a new town was to first preach the gospel in the synagogue (e.g., Acts 13:14). He announced the good news to those who had gathered to hear from God’s Word. Paul also shared the gospel in the market with those who were present (Acts 17:17). He spoke with those who would willingly listen. In defense of his methods, Paul explained that he openly proclaimed the gospel. He refused to manipulate people or distort God’s Word (2 Cor 4:1–2). We can’t force people to listen; we depend on God to secure us a hearing for the gospel.
The Lord of the harvest is working behind the scenes to prepare people to hear about Christ. Here are some things that you can do to sharpen your awareness.
- Take notice of the people you see on a regular basis (next-door neighbors, mail carriers, store clerks, classmates, etc.). The Bible says that God chooses when and where people live so that they will seek and find him (Acts 17:26–27). It’s no coincidence that you cross paths with the same unbelievers daily. Odds are God wants them to hear the gospel from your lips (Rico Tice first brought this implication to my attention [Honest Evangelism, pp. 48-50]). So look around. Who do you bump into regularly? I’ll bet there’s an opportunity there.
- Talk to these people. You’ll never get around to the gospel if you don’t start the conversation. Purposefully put yourself in their path. If you see your neighbor outside, then stop what you’re doing and go talk to him/her. When the mail carrier walks up the front steps, pop your head out the door and say hi. Leave yourself a little extra time in the store, at the gym, or the coffee shop (whenever gyms and coffee shops are open again!). Often we schedule our lives so tightly that God may fling the door wide open for the gospel, but we have no time to walk through.
- Learn names. The baseline for friendship is addressing a person by name. When you ask for someone’s name, you show interest in developing a more significant relationship. This is important because you’re seeking an opportunity to talk with them about the most significant and serious thing, their relationship with God. Most people prefer to know someone, at least minimally, before opening up. Not only does learning names strengthen the relationship, but also it enables you to pray for people by name, making your prayers more focused and increasing your burden for the lost.
- Listen. Train your ear to listen well and especially take note when someone talks about the meaning and purpose of life. When the conversation moves beyond small talk to more meaningful topics, this is where we encounter opportunities for the gospel. Listen to them talk about their hopes and aspirations, future plans, relationships, problems, and fears. These kinds of topics lead to opportunities to talk about the true meaning and purpose of life, knowing God through Christ. The pandemic is exciting because we can get to the gospel faster. People are primed to talk about the frailty and uncertainty of life. The coronavirus has confronted us with our finitude. It’s made us aware of the brevity of life and our desperate need for hope beyond death. Listen carefully as people talk about their lives.
Even though we are more limited during the stay-at-home order, these instructions still apply. Our mail carrier still comes to our house every day. We see our next-door neighbors from across the fence every day, more than usual actually. We still go to the same local market when we need to stock up. These routines represent dozens of people whom the Lord of the harvest has intentionally put into our lives.
These are a few simple means by which we can heighten our awareness for gospel opportunities. In the next post, we’ll discuss taking opportunities.
Step 3b: Tell the Lost About Christ: Taking Opportunities
The last post established that it’s not actually evangelism until we’ve talked about Christ. We must speak the gospel. Simple instructions were also developed for recognizing opportunities with the lost people in our lives. This post will focus on what to do when the conversation moves beyond small talk.
First, I think more needs to be said about why we don’t take opportunities to talk about Christ. I mentioned in the last post that I’m convinced I regularly gloss over opportunities for the gospel. Perhaps you’d say the same is true for you. Why is that?
One reason is that we’re just too busy. Frankly, we don’t have time to stop and talk to someone in the neighborhood, grocery store, or the gym about Christ. We have to get on to the next thing. Our schedule is full, so we don’t have time for a spontaneous conversation about the meaning of life! We squeeze every minute out of every day and often for our own advantage. I am definitely guilty of this! But think of the example set by Christ. He was consistently selfless with his time. He used his time to proclaim the kingdom of God and to serve others. He did so to the extent that he found personal time to pray before the sun came up (Mark 1:35). On one of his journeys to Galilee after a fruitful time of ministry in Judea, he sat down by a well tired and hungry. You know how the story goes. A woman in desperate need of living water came to draw from the well. Jesus could have explained away that opportunity from so many angles:
- “I’m tired. I was busy serving people in Judea, and I’ll be busy serving people in Galilee.”
- “This is a woman, and I’m a man. She’s a Samaritan, and I’m a Jew.”
- “Besides, I’m on the way to Galilee; I’m not planning to stay in Samaria. I’m just passing through.”
You know, however, the way in which Jesus skillfully and compassionately walked through that open door for the gospel. He made the most of a routine, daily opportunity to talk about Christ. The woman of Samaria is forever rejoicing in heaven because Jesus took time out of his busy schedule to tell her about living water. Let’s slow down and speak the gospel as Jesus did.
Another reason we don’t take the opportunities we should is that we don’t want the blowback that comes from talking about Christ. We don’t want people to think that we’re small-minded, weak, or intolerant. We don’t want our friends or loved ones to distance themselves from us. We don’t want to fall out of favor with the people we admire who are talented, wealthy, or influential. Often we don’t want the cost that comes along with bringing Christ into the conversation. But we know the answer for this hesitancy. We know that Christ clearly and repeatedly warned us about the cost of discipleship (Matt 10:24–25). It would be so naive for us to think that we can dodge these consequences since Christ himself suffered them. Furthermore, Christ gladly laid everything on the line for us. It is hypocritical, to say the least, to respond with self-preservation! Finally, it is ultimately unloving not to talk about Christ with those who desperately need him. As Penn Jillette said, “How much do you have to hate somebody to not proselytize?” Eternity hangs in the balance, so we must talk about Christ no matter the cost.
“Well, I’m motivated now, but what do I actually say?” Let me begin by admitting that gospel conversation is an art and a science. It’s an art in the sense that it is a skill to be developed. There is no one-size-fits-all gospel presentation. Good evangelism is not mechanically regurgitating the same outline on every occasion. Jesus evangelized both Nicodemus and the woman at the well, but he went about it in different ways. I find this encouraging! It would be boring if it were a standard fit for every occasion.
It’s a science in the sense that there are core truths which must be explained to preserve the integrity of the message. God revealed the gospel to us in Scripture. It is his message. It’s not something that we create or edit. It is written. It seems to me the most succinct summary of the gospel is in 1 Corinthians 15:3–4 (“Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures…”). I find it most helpful to keep in mind four foundational truths which a person must understand in order to comprehend the gospel.
- God created us. (God)
- We rebelled against God. (Man)
- Jesus dies and rose. (Christ)
- Turn and trust Christ. (Response)
As we open our mouths to testify about Christ, we must remember that there is a certain content to get across. I think the content is summed up in those four foundational truths. As I said before, there is no one-size-fits-all gospel presentation. When God opens a door for the Word, don’t just spit out those four sentences. However, you can use them as waypoints to guide the conversation. Does the person you’re talking to understand the truth about God, sin, and Christ enough to respond properly to the gospel? You will not have the opportunity to explain all four truths in every evangelistic conversation, so we must seek repeated opportunities with the same people.
Ask God to help you take opportunities to share the gospel by saying something about one of these four foundational truths. The next post will further explore the art of evangelism.
Step 3c: Tell the Lost About Christ: The Art of Evangelism
The last post acknowledged that evangelism is both an art and a science. It’s an art in the sense that it’s a skill to be developed, and it’s a science in the sense that certain truths must be conveyed. The last post focused more on the truths of the gospel, and this post will focus on the skill of gospel conversation.
What do you say when your conversation with a lost friend moves beyond small talk? The science of evangelism means that you should say something about one of the four foundational truths of the gospel (God created us; we rebelled against God; Jesus died and rose; turn and trust Christ). However, the question still stands. How do you progress from having a meaningful conversation to having a conversation about the gospel? Similarly, in what manner should you communicate one of those truths? How do you go about it?
When the conversation moves beyond small talk, the first thing we must do is speak lovingly. Good evangelism doesn’t have ulterior motives. We actually care about the lost people in our lives. That’s why we’re trying to muster the courage to tell them about Christ! We truly believe that a Christless eternity is the worst possible fate, and we want those we love to be rescued. We care about the wellbeing of others. So we need to show and express that kind of care in our conversations with the lost. When a neighbor mentions that a family member passed away, we must offer our condolences. When a coworker opens up about relational stress at home, we should sympathize with him/her. When a friend loses his/her job, we should express concern. I am reminded of Jesus’ encounter with the rich young man in Mark’s Gospel. Though the man ultimately refused to follow Jesus, Mark 10:21 says, “Jesus, looking at him, loved him.” Jesus genuinely cared for the lost, which was evident in his interactions with them.
When the conversation moves beyond small talk, the second thing we must do is speak truthfully. Truthful speech is our modus operandi (Eph 4:25, “Let each one of you speak the truth”). We must speak truth into the situation. Avoid the temptation to respond with clichés. Clichés don’t actually help anyone even if they sound and/or feel good. In most cases they’re actually untrue, and they won’t help in the long run.
When the conversation moves beyond small talk, not only should our response be loving and truthful, but it should also be tactful. We ought to say the right thing at the right time (Prov 15:23, “To make an apt answer is a joy to a man, and a word in season, how good it is!”). There are many things we could say in response to a situation which may be true, but not fitting. We must hone our discernment so that we give an appropriate answer per the situation.
Here’s the formula for the art of evangelism:
Loving + Truthful + Tactful= Skillful Gospel Conversation
Here are some negative and positive examples:
Situation– a neighbor mentions that a family member passed away
Negative: “They’re in a better place.” This cliché sounds good, but it’s not necessarily true; therefore, it’s neither loving nor fitting.
Negative: “Did you know that everyone who dies without Christ is condemned for all eternity?” This is true, but it’s not the appropriate thing to say at the time; therefore, it’s not loving.
Positive: “I am so sorry for your loss. Is there anything that we can do for your family? We would love to support and help you during this time. The Bible says that death is one of God’s enemies [1 Cor 15:26]; it’s a terrible reality.”
Even if the conversation stops there, I consider it a redemptive-relationship success. You expressed genuine concern, which is loving and tactful, and you brought God’s Word to bear on the situation, which is truthful. Those sincere words pave the way for future gospel conversations. If the conversation continues, then you could say something like, “Did you know that God has done something to defeat death and that one day even death will pass away?” That question gets you directly to the gospel.
Situation– a coworker opens up about relational stress at home
Negative: “This too shall pass.” I’m not even sure if this cliché sounds good, but it’s something people say. As with the previous cliché, it’s not necessarily true, and therefore, it’s neither loving nor fitting.
Negative: “Your relationships are broken because you’re a depraved sinner.” Generally speaking this is true, but it’s not expressed in a tactful way; therefore, it’s neither fitting nor loving.
Positive: “I’m so sorry for the trial you’re going through. The Bible says, ‘Better is a dinner of herbs where love is than a fattened ox and hatred with it.’ That verse means that a home of love is a priceless treasure. I can imagine that this situation has caused you a lot of emotional pain.”
I say again, even if the conversation stops there, I consider it a redemptive-relationship success. You expressed genuine concern, which is loving and appropriate, and you brought God’s Word to bear on the situation, which is truthful. Those sincere words open opportunities for future gospel conversations. If the conversation continues, then you could say something like, “Did you know that there was a time in history when relationships were perfect? But sadly that all changed when sin entered the world. Has anyone shared with you what the Bible says about sin?” This response introduces one of the four foundational truths of the gospel: we rebelled against God.
Situation– a friend loses his/her job
Negative: “I’m sure it’ll all work out in the end.” Once again, this cliché might sound good, but it’s not necessarily true; therefore it’s neither loving nor fitting.
Negative: “Your spiritual needs are more important than your physical needs.” I say once more, this is true, but it’s not expressed in a tactful way; therefore, it’s neither fitting nor loving.
Positive: “I’m so sorry to hear that. Is your family going to be ok? Is there anything that we can do to help? The Bible says that God cares for us. He’s the one who sends the rain and meets our daily needs. He cares about you; you’re made in his image.”
I repeat a final time that even if the conversation ends there, I consider it a redemptive-relationship success. You expressed genuine concern, which is loving and fitting, and you brought God’s Word to bear on the situation, which is truthful. Often, those sincere words pave the way for future gospel conversations. You also began to explain one the four foundational truths of the gospel: God created us. If the conversation continues, then you could say something like, “Did you know that God proved his love for us by providing for our greatest need. He sent his only Son to die for us.” That response draws a straight line to the heart of the gospel.
We cannot explore every situation you may encounter, but hopefully you get the idea. The art of evangelism is a skill we must develop and hone. When the conversation moves beyond small talk, speak lovingly, truthfully, and tactfully.
PS: This step assumes that you have significant relationships with lost people in which you have meaningful conversations. Pandemic Evangelism Step 3a gives advice for starting and nurturing redemptive relationships.
Step 4: Keep the Conversation Going
The last post described the art of evangelism. When the conversation moves beyond small talk, we should speak lovingly, truthfully, and tactfully. This post will partly answer the question, “What next?” What should we do after taking an opportunity to speak gospel truth to a lost friend?
I was first confronted by this question after speaking with Chris, an old friend of mine. Chris and I worked together in the rental shop of a ski resort. I was 20 years old at the time, and I was experiencing a fresh work of awakening in my relationship with God. Because of God’s renewed work in my heart, I wanted to share the good news with those around me. I had worked with Chris for a few years, and we developed a friendship. So I was anxious to tell him about the Lord. I vividly remember one conversation in the ski lodge. After explaining the work of Christ on the cross, Chris told me that as a Catholic he already believed everything that I had shared with him. It was a bit of a letdown really. It felt like having one of your birthday balloons pop. Anyway, there are many things that could be said about Chris’s response. For one thing, he often talked about his party lifestyle, so it was evident that he had not been transformed by the new birth. However, the biggest question I wrestled with after that conversation was, “What should I do next?” How should I proceed with Chris? Is it enough to simply explain the gospel once? Where do we go from here? In the eleven years since that interaction, I’ve learned a few things about redemptive relationships that I want to share.
The foundational principle is that we should aim for regular exposure to the gospel. That is, we should seek repeated opportunities to speak with our lost friends about Christ. I think there are a few compelling reasons to do so. First, most people require several explanations of the gospel before they understand and believe. I’m sure there are people who convert immediately, but it’s extremely rare. Second, the Word of God is ultimately powerful. God’s Word accomplishes his work; it never fails (Isaiah 55:10–11). When you speak the Word of God to someone who is spiritually dead, you bring him into contact with the life-giving power of God (James 1:18). The more exposure, the better. Third, the goal of evangelism is to make disciples, not simply procure professions or change a person’s eternal destiny. We must teach the people who trust in Christ to follow him. This requires regular contact; it’s a life-on-life process. So let’s pursue regular opportunities with the lost people in our lives. Here is pandemic evangelism step #4: keep the conversation going.
Next, it’s helpful for me to remember that each redemptive relationship is in process, and each relationship is not necessarily in the same stage of the process. I’ve had extended opportunities to talk about the gospel with a few of my neighbors and minimal opportunities to share with others. Only one of my neighbors has attended our church and heard the preaching of the gospel. One of my other neighbors sat down with me on one occasion to actually read the Bible together. Each of these relationships is in a different stage of the process. I need to consider that as I plan my next step with each of them. In my friend Chris’s case, we were in the beginning stages of talking about Christ.
A prerequisite for taking the next step with each person is spending time together. (This is more challenging during the pandemic, but there are still several ways that we can talk with people). If we don’t spend time with the lost people in our lives, then we won’t have opportunities to talk to them about Christ. Intentionally plan to spend time with them. We intentionally plan the things that we value, and evangelism works the same way. For Chris and me, we spent time together snowboarding and having burgers at Farmer’s Restaurant in the lodge.
As you spend time together (or simply talk during the pandemic), build a genuine relationship in which you have meaningful conversations. Remember, we encounter opportunities for the gospel when the conversation moves beyond small talk (see PE step 3a). Since Chris and I were both college students at the time, several of our more meaningful conversations were about our future plans. At the time, I wanted to be a missionary. I’m sure that topic could have led to great opportunities for the gospel.
As you build the relationship, try to take the conversation to the next level. In each relationship, I want to reach the stage of the process where I can open the Bible with my friend and explain the gospel directly from Scripture. Short of conversion (which is outside my control), that’s my ultimate goal. In my next and final post, I will detail steps for taking the conversation to the next level.
Step 5: Take the Conversation to the Next Level
The last post laid this foundational principle for our relationships with the lost: we should aim for regular exposure to the gospel. This post will develop ways in which we can accomplish this goal with each relationship. This is the second part of the answer to the question, “What next?” What should we do after taking an opportunity to speak gospel truth to a lost friend?
I mentioned in the last post that each redemptive relationship is in process, and each relationship is not necessarily in the same stage of the process. Below I will develop the stages of the process in the following ways: one-timer, acquaintance, friend, listener, dormant, and disciple. These categories are not inspired, and they are not as neat and tidy as I’d like. Additionally, it’s not as easy as 1, 2, 3 to move a person from one stage to the next. Many of my relationships are stuck in the acquaintance phase, and the process has stalled. These simple descriptive stages help me visualize and plan the next step with each individual. At the beginning, let me underscore the absolute necessity of prayer. Prayer advances the gospel; prayer opens opportunities. Each stage of the redemptive relationship process must be punctuated by prayer.
I call the first stage in the process the one-timer. The distinctive of this phase is self-explanatory. You won’t likely see this person again. You sit next to her on the plane; he drives for Uber or Lyft. When God brings someone like this across your path, pray for opportunities for the gospel and make the most of them. As discussed previously (PE step 3b), you might not be able to say everything about the gospel, but perhaps you can say something. If possible, make plans to see that person again. One girl in our church family recently (in the last three months) shared Christ with a lady on the plane. They made plans to get together back in Detroit after their trips, and a few weeks later they met at Chipotle for lunch. While at Chipotle, this lady bumped into one of her acquaintances and introduced him to the girl from our church. That guy attended our church the following Sunday, and he is currently doing a weekly Bible study with one of our members! The Lord of the harvest works in incredible ways! We must make the most of these opportunities. I know that I need to be more faithful taking one-time opportunities.
That being said, allow me to put a qualifier on the one-timer stage. If this approach is the sum total of your evangelistic efforts, then I think your evangelism is misguided and imbalanced. I have heard many sermons throughout my lifetime in which the evangelism application or illustration simply involved giving a tract or speaking to someone with no intention of following up. The last post (PE step 4) established that the goal of evangelism is to make disciples. Since this is the goal, we must follow up whenever possible. We aim to fully explain the gospel and persuade people to turn from sin and trust in Christ. This takes time and regular contact. We must try to follow up.
I call the second stage in the process the acquaintance phase. The distinctives of this phase are as follows. You see these people fairly regularly. Perhaps you know them by name, and perhaps you don’t. But they come across your path frequently. Most of your conversation is small talk. She works at Starbucks. He walks his dog past your house daily. She delivers your mail. He works in the plumbing department at Home Depot. She runs the self-checkout at Target. Here’s how you cross the threshold to the next stage. If you don’t know the person’s name, then learn it. Address him by name and begin to pray for him by name. Purposefully put yourself in her path so that you can build the relationship. I look for Bob in plumbing and Claude in the millworks department at Home Depot. Doug gets a grande Pike on Tuesday mornings at 6:30 (This was pre-pandemic; it’s strange to think of life back then!). Try to have meaningful conversations and take opportunities as God provides them. Get his cell number or friend her on social media. Invite him to church-wide outreach events (whenever we can do them again). The purpose of events like Summer Fest and Fall Fest is gospel outreach. Use these opportunities to turn an acquaintance into a friend and bring your relationship with God into the conversation.
I call the third stage in the process the friend phase. The distinctives of this phase are as follows. You are connected to this person, and you could get ahold of him on the phone or through social media. You talk with her fairly regularly. You occasionally make plans to meet up for coffee, a meal, or a round of golf. If you don’t hear from him for a while, then you reach out to see how he is doing. You probably have contacts like this in your phone right now. Many of my neighbors are in this category. Here’s how you cross the threshold to the next stage. As mentioned previously (PE step 4), plan to spend time with these people (when it’s legal again). Have meaningful conversations as friends and take opportunities as God provides them. Speak lovingly, truthfully, and tactfully (PE step 3c). Again, invite them to church-wide outreach events. Those conversations communicate your desire to talk about your faith. Furthermore, invite them to our evangelism Bible studies. Three times a year we run small-group Bible studies at the church which focus on the gospel message. Even ask them to read the Bible with you personally so that you can explain the gospel directly from Scripture, which takes us into the fourth stage.
I call the fourth stage in the process the listener phase. The distinctives of this phase are as follows. This friend will gladly listen to you talk about Christ. Perhaps you talk casually as you do an activity together. Maybe he has attended an outreach event or a church service. Perhaps she even came with you to one of our Bible studies or did a one-to-one Bible study with you. Here’s how you cross the threshold into the next stage. Aim for regular exposure to the gospel. As long as your friend is willing to listen, share the Word of God with him. Invite her back to church-wide outreach events and Bible studies. If you haven’t yet asked this person to read the Bible with you one-to-one, then consider doing so. It will surprise you how many people will accept this offer. Think about it. The Bible is irrefutably the most influential and important book in human history. Everyone should take a look at it for himself. At the same time, it’s an intimidating book. It’s long; it’s diverse; it’s ancient. Many people would love to have a personal guide to help them understand the message of the Bible.
My first one-to-one Bible study with a lost friend was anything but smooth. I asked a coworker from Starbucks if he wanted to read the Bible with me in order to see what it says for himself. He accepted, and we made plans to meet up. We showed up one afternoon at a local coffee shop and started reading in the Gospel of John. My plan was poor and so was the coffee. I didn’t know where to stop, and I just stumbled along saying, “This means this, and I think this means this.”
Since then I’ve come across several good resources for one-to-one Bible studies with lost friends. One-to-One Bible Reading by David Helm gives helpful instructions, methods, and sample reading plans. Christianity Explored and You, Me, and the Bible make for excellent inductive, discussion-based studies. Here are a few general tips for Bible reading with a lost friend:
- Pick a definite section (e.g., the rich ruler in Luke 18:18–30).
- Focus on the main truth of the passage (e.g., Luke 18:18–30 teaches it’s impossible for man to achieve eternal life, but it’s possible for God to give eternal life.)
- Make direct application (e.g., There is nothing that you and I can do to earn eternal life. We must depend on God completely.)
- Let the Word of God do the heavy lifting. All you have to do is expose its meaning.
After meeting twice, my friend asked if Christ was the only way. Once he learned about the exclusivity of Christianity, he lost interest in reading the Bible together. This takes us into the fifth stage.
I call the fifth stage in the process the dormant phase. The distinctives of this phase are as follows. You have shared the gospel with this friend; however, he made it plain that he was uninterested in hearing about Christ. Perhaps he attended church once, or maybe she actually sat down with you on one occasion to take a look at the Bible. But when you tried to follow up, you received a response of indifference or no response at all. Most people go about this in a polite way. The unanswered texts and redirected conversations make it clear that this person prefers not to talk about Christ. I studied the Bible weekly for a few years with a couple I first met at City Coffee House until one day they stopped answering phone calls and texts. I dropped by their apartment to make sure everything was ok. They were fine; they just lost interest in considering the truth claims of the Bible. Here’s how you cross the threshold into the next stage. Pray! Pray for God to use his word to quicken their hearts. By this point, they know the gospel. Ask God to open up future interactions. Most of us have loved ones who are in this category. They know the gospel, but they’ve made it plain that they don’t want to talk about it. As much as you can, maintain the relationship and continue to have meaningful conversations. Speak lovingly, truthfully, and tactfully (PE step 3c). God may revive a relationship that once lay dormant. This takes us into the sixth stage.
The sixth stage of the process is the ultimate goal; it’s the disciple phase. You cross the threshold into this phase when God miraculously regenerates a spiritually dead sinner. It happened to you, and it happened to me. God gave us eternal life in Christ. The distinctives of this phase are as follows. Your friend hungers for the Word. He wants to hear it more and more. She can see that Jesus is the greatest treasure worth more than anything that the world offers. He turns from his sin and puts all confidence in Jesus for eternal life and acceptance with God. She desires baptism and membership in God’s family. If you persevere in evangelism, then some people will respond this way. God will work. I think of one dear brother. He attended a Bible study last fall at our church, six years after he was initially invited. Several weeks later he came to an understanding of the gospel and decided to turn from his sin and trust in Christ. To this day God continues to powerfully transform his life.
As I said at the beginning, these categories are not inspired, and each relationship doesn’t neatly fit into a single stage. These distinctives I find helpful for planning the next step with each individual. We are now at the end of our Pandemic Evangelism series. May God richly bless you as you pursue the lost for Christ!