Everyone we meet is somewhere on the journey towards or away from faith, says neighbourhood chaplain, Colin Johnson. Here’s how you can share yours
He was angry.
I could see the look on his face as he approached my market stall. He said: “Religion causes all the problems and pain in the world!”
I listened as he poured out his frustration and explained why he didn’t believe. Then I found myself sharing about some of the personal tragedy I’d experienced in my life, and how I still believed.
His attitude shifted. He became open and started talking about the loss of his sister through cancer and the hurt he felt. Later, as he left, he said: “You won’t believe this, but I have a small Bible in my bedside drawer that I haven’t looked at in years. I’m going to get it out tonight”.
Conversations like this have changed the way I see people, and my understanding of how to reach them through evangelism. I have moved from a simple presentation of the gospel to as many people as possible, to going out into my local community to build relationships through listening, caring and sharing my faith.
Let me introduce myself. I am married with three adult children and three granddaughters. My commitment to Christ began 40 years ago and, for most of that time, I have been involved in evangelism. I have experience as a Baptist minister, a Christian counsellor, founding the first Neighbourhood Chaplains’ team (now a national scheme), and many years of one-to-one evangelism in different settings, including market stall outreach and community door-to-door visiting.
Peter was transformed not just by what he had heard but through the experience of receiving love
Over the years, I have come to see that an evangelist can - and perhaps should - be pastoral; a good listener, who displays empathy and compassion.
Perhaps we should be more like Jesus, who saw people as “harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Matthew 9:36). This means engaging with questions like: What’s wrong with me? What’s wrong with my relationships? How can I stop worrying? How do I handle a difficult boss?
A holistic witness
As a young Christian I started working in student evangelism and became friendly with a Lord of the Rings fan. One day when I called round to see him, I found him very depressed, but felt unsure of how to help. My usual practice of reading a gospel tract or some relevant Bible verses was not going to help. What could I do?
This began my search for a more holistic way of witnessing – one that I believe is also more biblical. Nowadays, I show care through listening, befriending and offering prayer. I also look to find common ground and share how God has helped me through difficult times. In this particular instance, I would now talk about the spiritual themes in The Lord of the Rings and how they relate to Christianity.
Everyone we meet is somewhere on the journey towards or away from faith in Christ. A helpful framework to understand this is Don Everts and Doug Schaupp’s Five Thresholds (I Once Was Lost: What postmodern skeptics taught us about their path to Jesus, IVP). Understanding what threshold is relevant in each situation helps us communicate the gospel in a meaningful way. Otherwise, we may just be speaking without someone hearing.
Overcoming distrust is the first threshold, and where many people get stuck. My conversation with Mr Angry at the market stall above showed me how I could build trust and get beyond first impressions. I could have tried to defend religion but, instead, I listened and, when the opportunity arose, I shared my experience of pain and loss. What is really going on in emotional heartland of a person is usually very different from what they say out loud.
The pastoral preacher
One of the key evangelism verses is 1 Peter 3:15: “But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect”. I used to think this was an instruction to use the apologetics I had learned on various training courses with the ‘gentleness and respect’ part as something of an afterthought.
Everyone we meet is somewhere on the journey towards or away from faith
It’s easy to forget that Peter was transformed not just by what he had heard but through the experience of receiving love. He had been the one who let Jesus down, betraying him three times before the cock crowed, but was restored because of God’s incredible unconditional love and mercy. Jesus didn’t call him as a preacher but told him to: “Feed my sheep” (John 21:17). And Peter went on to do just that, encouraging the elders to be caring shepherds who serve others (1Peter 5:2). Author Glen Scrivener writes that Peter was “recommissioned as a pastoral preacher”. Perhaps we need to do likewise.
But how? As well as listening to people, asking the right questions in the right way is important. As we read the Gospels, we see how many times Jesus asked questions - often in response to the questions others asked him. Doing this can change the whole dynamic of a situation.
Years ago, I called on some houses for the first time, having first posted a letter through each door explaining that I was from the local church and wanted to get to know folk in the community, offer support etc. At one door, a big man in his 30s answered and said accusingly: “What are you doing?” I told him who I was, and asked him why he was concerned. It took a couple more questions and a calm voice before I found out that some fraudsters had been operating in the area. He was concerned and looking out for his elderly and vulnerable neighbours. I commended him for this, and we parted on good terms
Being challenged like this is very rare – it has only happened to me a couple of times in 15 years of community visiting. But when it did, I wondered if I should continue calling, or stop for the day. I felt an inner voice say: “keep going”, and I am so glad I did. The next call was brilliant. I was asked in for a cup of tea and the person said he had been waiting for my call. He was disabled, lonely and isolated. We became friends and I called regularly to see him for prayer and Bible study.
Pastoral evangelism is about having a heart for other people, caring for their needs and not having an agenda. Be prepared to listen well, reflect on what is said and have a willingness to learn. Look for where God is already working in that person’s life and encourage that part of them. It is so much more satisfying to journey with people and see them mover closer to Christ.