The Changing Face of Evangelism Part Three: From Presentations to Conversations

When I learned how to share my faith I learned from some of the finest personal soul-winners of my day. They taught me some simple techniques to move from a casual encounter to a gospel presentation: ask leading questions to build rapport, and then jump right into the gospel message. The goal was to get the message out, which is a very good goal. I’m so grateful for this. I have seen many come to Christ this way. It was pretty natural for me, since I’m a people person and a preacher by calling. But, as I mentioned Monday, most believers who are not preachers by calling (and a lot of preachers, if we can be honest) get nervous with a learned presentation that feels more like public speaking than a genuine conversation. Yet, everybody has conversations about all kinds of things every day.

What if instead of teaching a rote presentation, we helped people know the gospel in all its glory, how the gospel affects every part of life (not just our church life/spiritual life), and learned how to converse about the gospel naturally? In a gospel conversation the witness seeks to do more than get an unbeliever’s attention enough to get the gospel presented to them. It’s less an information dump and more a walk together. It seeks to do more than share the gospel as briefly as possible with people we hardly know; it starts in the worldview of the unbeliever, shows them truth they already affirm, and then moves from that truth to show the gospel.

Take a moment and think about the last conversation you had with a coworker, neighbor, or friend. More than likely, in the course of the conversation they brought up some concern or they talked about a hope or dream. Over the next few days listen to the things people you meet talk about. We converse regularly––either in serous conversations or in casual chit-chat––about our pain or our passion. In such conversations we can easily talk about Christ. I want to help you to move from a rigid gospel presentation to having gospel conversations.

We need to help believers learn to speak about Jesus confidently in the every day walk of life, integrating their witness into the warp and woof of life. These conversations are no less intentional and are just as focused on winning people to Christ, but they take the focus off our delivery the message only to focusing both on delivering the message and genuinely caring about the person with whom we speak. This means rather than learning a set “plan of salvation,” we develop a certain amount of “gospel intelligence” (my friend Jonathan Dodson’s term) so we can introduce the good news in everyday discussions. Let’s face it: it’s a lot easier to teach a roomful of people a presentation, but is easier more important than effective?

Note: I personally utilize both presentations and gospel conversations. They can both be effective. I’m not hating on learned presentations, but I’m arguing that increasingly in our world presentations are less effective and conversations connect better, especially with the younger generation and those outside the church.

Here’s the difference:

Presentations: Start in our worldview

Conversations : Start in their worldview

Presentations: Assume they know the gospel somewhat

Conversations: Assume they don’t know the gospel

Presentations: Focus on the lost person as a sinner

Conversations: Focus on the imago Dei in the sinner

Presentations: Effective with people with a church

Conversations: Effective regardless of church background background

Presentstions: Focus on immediate decision

Conversations: Hope for a decision but appreciates the process involved in reaching people today

I live in the Raleigh-Durham area, one of the fastest growing cities in America, and a very progressive one as well. I spend a lot of time talking with young adults who are either unchurched or dechurched (formerly churched who chose to leave the church when becoming an adult). The shift from mostly evangelistic presentations to conversations has been crucial for my witness, and I’m learning this is true for many I meet who minister in the increasingly post-Christian America of today.

Evangelistic presentations were very effective in the programmatic era of mass media and advertising; today social media has turned even advertising into a conversation. In evangelistic presentations we seek to give the gospel message to unbelievers by presenting to them the truth and trying to help them see and embrace it. In conversational evangelism we still proclaim the unchanging gospel but we do so by seeing ways an unbeliever to whom we talk a) reflects the image of God in creative, helpful, or useful ways, and b) sees for himself truth that is God’s truth, as Paul did in Acts 17.

Helping you learn to have conversations with your unsaved friends takes the pressure off you learning a presentation you must recite with precision. We have conversations all the time, every day. Statistically speaking, most of us who know Jesus don’t witness to others about Him, so we put evangelism in a different category than just talking to people. Doesn’t the term “conversation” seem just a little less intimidating than “presentation?” So, here is a fundamental shift in our witness training: from focusing 90% on the HOW, or the imperative, we need to focus MUCH more on the WHAT, the gospel, or the indicative. This helps people develop gospel intelligence to be able to converse more about Christ. This is a reason I’m so committed to helping people understand the gospel from the entire grand narrative (like the Story, and the Life on Mission: 3 Circles is a variation of this).

I can tell you this: I’ve had students as well as both laity and a staff member of our church tell me how the mindset shift from giving a presentation to a conversation has genuinely taken pressure off them and made evangelism feel a little more like good news—even to them!

As a boy, my brother and I had an aquarium with tropical fish. If we got a new aquarium, took it home, filled it up, and then simply released our new exotic fish in the water from their bags of water from the store, what would happen? We would soon have a ceremony around the toilet as we said goodbye to our now-dead fish. No, we first had to prepare the water in the tank, removing the chlorine, adjusting the temperature, and let them sit in the aquarium in their bag of water for a time until we released them. Our goal was not to dump in the fish as quickly as possible, but to have an aquarium full of fish for a long time! In the same way, our goal must not be to dunk people into the living water of the gospel as fast as we can, but to show them the wonder of the living water that can alone quench their deepest thirst. We want to help folks see that living in their current bag of water does not compare to the ocean of life Christ gives.

Tomorrow I will unpack in greater detail some specific ways we can have conversations with people about Jesus using everyday subjects—like movies, music, sports and so on. By the way, that includes people in the church, because one reason we don’t talk about Jesus to people outside the church is that we don’t talk enough about Him with each other!

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