Some approaches to evangelism assume that people are ready and waiting to accept Christ as soon as they hear the message. Gary Gibbs has been preaching the Gospel for four decades. He says the reality is very different


Tatiana Terekhina / Alamy Stock Photo

Recently one of my friends became a confirmed Jesus follower.

As far as I can tell, he is now saved, born again, has a relationship with God, regenerated and adopted into God’s family. He wouldn’t use any of this terminology because he doesn’t know it. What he does know is that Jesus is a living reality.

When we first met 13 years ago, my friend was a committed atheist. The fact that he held a doctorate in theoretical physics and has a brain as big as a planet made for quite a big missional challenge. It’s been an adventure!

Fast food evangelism

I’ve worked in evangelistic ministry for over 40 years. It’s been such a joy for me to regularly witness people coming to faith in Christ. But I’m always mindful of how someone else has usually done the heavy lifting. As I preach an evangelistic message and see people respond, I am reaping where others have sown (John 4:38).

It’s easy to forget this in our ‘instant society’. We’re used to getting what we want almost immediately - from fast food to instant credit ratings. Why not quick commitments to Christ too? There’s a tendency for us Christians to presume people are ready to surrender to Jesus the very first time the Gospel is explained to them. In reality, this is rarely the case. 

it’s rare that someone experiences an ‘instant hit’ of salvation the very first time they hear the gospel

Shallow decisions

In recent years I’ve seen reports of hundreds of people being ‘saved’ on the streets of the UK, often during a week of outreach in a particular town or city. Typically, a bunch of enthusiastic, evangelistically-inclined young believers receive some teaching in the morning and then take the gospel out to a nearby shopping area during the afternoon. One such event recorded something like 338 salvations over the course of five days.

I was intrigued, and so I investigated the results nearly two months later. It turned out that hardly any of those who responded on the streets were in a meaningful connection with church or with a Christian. In fact often the details given on the decision card for follow up were false and even when accurate details had been given, the person was no longer interested when contact was made.

Does this mean we should we stop taking the Good News onto the streets? Not at all!

Instead, my plea would be to remember there is always a particular context and culture in which we share the gospel. In the UK today, it is rare to find someone who is ready to accept Christ on their very first encounter with an evangelist! Often, people are on a long journey towards Christ and we need to acknowledge this, and let it inform our evangelistic strategies. 

Authentic witness

As Mark Greenwood says, if we can help someone to move from a ‘Definite No’ to a ‘Healthy Maybe’ or a ‘Little Yes’, then we are authentically involved in God’s mission. And praise God, there will be those times when we are with someone and they are ready to say a ‘Big Yes’.

Cultural context will vary. In many parts of Africa for instance, there is an openness to God, some understanding of the gospel and an acknowledgment of the spiritual realm. This may make evangelism easier. But the West is different. In our culture, it’s rare that someone experiences an ‘instant hit’ of salvation the very first time they hear the gospel. In most cases, we need to become ‘a friend of sinners’, loving lost people and letting God work over time. We must be patient. It may take thirteen years!