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A spiritually natural approach to witnessing

By Randy Hurst

The airline had lost part of our luggage on the flight to London. I thought, God causes all things to work together for good, but I had no idea how in this circumstance. I would learn.

Checking in two weeks later for our flight back to the United States, I noticed the airline station manager was exceptionally kind. "We are so sorry about misplacing your luggage," she said. "We would like to make it up to you." She upgraded us and our friends, the Dean Andersons and the Gayland Hendricksons, to first class.

The flight attendant who served us fresh orange juice had a warm smile, and her demeanor gave an impression of happiness and confidence. It was a while before the food was served, so she stopped by our seats and we began to converse. Gayland Hendrickson was seated beside me. The flight attendant learned we were ministers, and the conversation turned to spiritual things.

As we talked, I sensed a clear impression from the Holy Spirit. Finally I said, "I have to tell you something. I’ve never flown first class from London to Dallas. I’m a preacher and can’t afford it. But the airline misplaced our luggage, so they bumped us up to first class. I believe God arranged this, but not so we could have a nice ride home. He put us up here for you. You just went through a divorce, didn’t you?"

As she nodded her head, I continued. "Before you were born God had a plan for your life, but it isn’t happening. And it can’t happen until you receive His forgiveness and surrender your life to Christ." Gayland and I continued to talk with her. Finally I said, "Could Gayland and I pray with you right here to receive Jesus Christ as your Savior?"

"Yes!" she replied, "because I have something to tell you. I’ve never flown first class from London to Dallas either. Another flight attendant called in sick, and my supervisor called and asked if I would fill in for her. On my way out the door of my apartment, I did something I hadn’t done for many years — I prayed. I said, ‘God, You know my life is a mess, and You’ve got to show me on this trip what to do.’"

Gayland and I each took one of her hands, and I led her in a prayer to receive Jesus. Her face beamed with the joy of the Lord. She gave me her address, and I wrote her the next week and sent a New Testament and some materials to help her begin her new life in Christ.

A couple of years later I received a phone call at my home. The woman said, "You don’t know me. My pastor gave me your number. I’m a flight attendant. This week I met another flight attendant, and we discovered we were both Christians. When we shared our testimonies with each other, she told me that she accepted Jesus on a flight from London to Dallas and mentioned your name. I told her that you had preached in my home church. She asked me to try to contact you and tell you she’s still serving Jesus and attends church faithfully."

God is working in people’s lives even before we share the message of Jesus Christ.

Working with God
Whether we came to Christ because of a sermon or one-on-one witnessing, most of us can remember that even before we heard the message, God brought about circumstances in our lives to prepare our hearts to receive the truth.

Just as He prepared us, He is preparing people all around us to receive our message.

Ephesians 2:8,9 says, "For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith — and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God — not by works, so that no one can boast." But the next verse explains that God saved us by grace for a purpose: "For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do."1

God is preparing us for good works. He is also preparing the good works for us. Before we were born, He had a specific purpose for each of us. Part of that plan is that God has divine appointments for us, both with strangers and in the lives of friends, family members, neighbors and co-workers with whom we relate regularly. And those encounters will happen — whether we’re ready or not.

The Bible clearly shows that personal witness is not for a few especially gifted for evangelism. It is the responsibility of every follower of Christ. The evangelist is a gift to the Church.2 But evangelism is not listed in the New Testament as a spiritual gift just for certain people. We are each responsible to share our faith with those outside the body of Christ. We are all to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world.

For many years I was ineffective and even intimidated in personal witnessing. I didn’t have the confidence that I could persuade anyone to receive Christ. Then I learned from God’s Word that, as believers, our responsibility is not to persuade people to become Christians but to share the message of Jesus.

We must understand our part in the evangelism process and also realize what only God can do. Understanding His work is essential to having the faith to do our work. We will fail in our part if we’re trying to do His. He is God. We’re not. He assigned our part to us. And He doesn’t command anything that we can’t do with His help.

Although God has chosen to involve us in the evangelism process, our part is only possible because the Holy Spirit is working in people even before we share the message.

The apostle Paul’s approach
Evangelism isn’t an option — how we do it is. The same Bible that commands us to reach people with the message of Jesus Christ also tells us how.

To the Colossian church Paul gave a profound yet practical teaching concerning effective Christian witness. His final instructions in the letter concerned how Christians should relate to unbelievers, whom he appropriately calls "outsiders":

"Devote yourselves to prayer, keeping alert in it with an attitude of thanksgiving; praying at the same time for us as well, that God will open up to us a door for the word, so that we may speak forth the mystery of Christ, for which I have also been imprisoned; that I may make it clear in the way I ought to speak. Conduct yourselves with wisdom toward outsiders, making the most of the opportunity. Let your speech always be with grace, as though seasoned with salt, so that you will know how you should respond to each person."3

I like to call Paul’s approach "response evangelism," taken from the wording of verse 6.

In Paul’s instruction, we find that effective witness involves both dependence (vv.2-4) and discipline (vv.5,6). We must discipline ourselves to do our part in personal evangelism while at the same time remaining dependent on God to do what only He can.

Paul expresses this divine/human interaction in the early part of his letter, "I labor, striving according to His power, which mightily works within me."4 Notice that Paul advocates human effort ("I labor, striving") that depends on God ("according to His power").

Pray for open doors
"… praying … that God will open up to us a door for the word…"

Paul begins his instruction to the Colossians exhorting them to pray. Prayer is essential in evangelism; because, unless God works in people’s hearts and lives, our work will not produce lasting results.

Paul wrote to the Corinthian church: "I planted, Apollos watered, but God was causing the growth."5

God’s work in the spiritual harvest is clearly distinguished from that of His human servants. The time factors Paul describes in this process are very different. When Paul and Apollos planted and watered the seed (the message), the tense in the Greek verbs used indicates specific time frames. For a period of time, Paul planted the seed. For another period of time, Apollos watered it. But when Paul describes God’s activity in this process, the verb clearly reveals that God did not merely work after the seed was planted and watered, but all along "God was causing the growth."

After telling His parable concerning the sower and soils, Jesus explained to His disciples that the seed in the spiritual harvest is the word of God.6 The Holy Spirit prepares the "soil" of people’s hearts to receive the "seed" of the message. The believer’s work in evangelism is to enter into God’s work in people’s lives. As Jesus said to His disciples, "… the saying is true, ‘One sows and another reaps.’ I sent you to reap that for which you have not labored; others have labored and you have entered into their labor."7

A revealing example of God’s working with one of His messengers is found in Acts. When Paul and his companions went to a riverbank outside Philippi to pray on the Sabbath day, they sat down and began speaking to a group of women. "A woman named Lydia, from the city of Thyatira, a seller of purple fabrics, a worshiper of God, was listening; and the Lord opened her heart to respond to the things spoken by Paul."8 Paul spoke the message. The Lord opened Lydia’s heart!

We have the privilege and responsibility of sharing the message. But only God can open a heart.

We are dependent on God to open the doors of opportunity, to bring understanding to the hearers’ minds and move their hearts to decision.

Make the message clear
"… that I may make it clear in the way I ought to speak…"

Paul said the message he must speak is the "mystery of Christ."9 The focus of our message must be Jesus.10

John Bueno, executive director of Assemblies of God Foreign Missions, was called as a missionary to El Salvador in 1961. The first years saw steady but slow growth. The church grew from 100 to just 300 in nine years. Then came a breakthrough. John felt led to preach the same sermon on the lordship of Christ 13 weeks in a row. Within six months the church was packed with 2,000 people each Sunday. People were confronted with who Jesus truly is and His claim upon their lives. When they were called to decision and challenged to discipleship, they entered a new dimension — a greater level of commitment. In 11 years the church reached 22,000 in Sunday morning attendance.

Missionary Bernhard Johnson saw more than 1.8 million people come forward for salvation in evangelistic outreaches in Brazil. I once asked him, "What do you believe accounts for the great numbers who respond in your services?"

He replied, "I always exalt Jesus Christ."

Jesus promised that the Holy Spirit would glorify Him.11 It is the Christ-centered message the Holy Spirit will honor and use.

Be wise with "outsiders"
"Conduct yourselves with wisdom toward outsiders…"

After telling the Colossians to devote themselves to prayer, Paul instructs them to act wisely with outsiders. The word outsiders is significant. We have all been in settings where we have really been "outside." The insiders have private jokes and expressions we don’t understand. We are left out because the meanings are private.

Paul’s term — outsider — is an appropriate and practical way of describing where unbelievers are in relation to the church. And for a variety of reasons, most unbelievers with whom we will share Christ today are farther outside the Christian context than ever. In a rapidly changing secular environment, we cannot expect people to have the same goals, desires and fears as the majority of Americans had even a decade ago. In America, Christianity is a progressively diminishing moral and social influence. We cannot assume that unbelievers have a commitment to Christian values or even an understanding of them.

The church now faces the challenge of communicating the message of Christ more interculturally, much as missionaries to foreign countries do as they learn to communicate the gospel across cultural barriers. Two major challenges we face are cultural diversity and secularism.

A nation of immigrants, America has been called a "melting pot." This is a meaningful image, but not a true picture of what America has become. More accurately, we are a multicultural society in which people strive to retain their cultural identity while becoming a part of American society as a whole.

With most unbelievers, we must recognize that we are communicating from a church culture to a secular culture. We are communicating with people whose American culture we share. But, if we have spent much of our lives in the church, we have acquired the perceptions, values and even vocabulary of the church. The Christian and the unbeliever may both speak English, but the Christian often uses church terms that are unfamiliar or mean something different in secular culture. When we use Christian jargon freely with unbelievers, we erect a communication barrier. We understand words such as saved, gospel, and anointing, but they are confusing to people who are unfamiliar with those terms. Unbelievers must be reached through their vocabulary, not ours.

Unbelievers must be interested in what we have to say. Our conversation should address their interests and concerns. People’s interests are different. But one subject in which almost all people are interested is themselves. We must listen to them and learn about them. That will only happen if we spend time with them.

Paul was committed to personally identifying with "outsiders." To the Corinthians, he wrote: "Though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. … To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some."12

Seize opportunities
"…making the most of the opportunity…"

Opportunities are framed in time. The common saying, "Opportunity doesn’t knock twice," is true. An opportunity may never arise a second time. Each opportunity is unique, because people and circumstances are different. We need "truth on call" — understanding of the truth that is both relevant and ready, to be recalled as the moment requires. Jesus promised that the Holy Spirit would call things to our remembrance.13 We need to always be "increasing in the knowledge of God,"14 so the truth is in our minds for the Spirit to use.

God’s timeless truth must be communicated in a timely manner, with the right words for the right occasion. A prepackaged routine can produce a sense of security because we think we will always know what to say. But in many situations, our preplanned message would be uninteresting and irrelevant, expecting others to respond to us when we should respond to them.

Being prepared to respond to people is not accomplished simply by memorizing a group of Scriptures or completing a witnessing course. Those can help. But knowing the truth that enables us to respond to people individually in a variety of situations requires an ongoing lifestyle of learning. It means growing in a personal knowledge of Jesus Christ. We never graduate. We are all on a spiritual journey. And what we are learning personally can sometimes be shared with a freshness that is convincing to unbelievers.

Many feel inadequate to witness because they feel they can’t retain all the information they believe is necessary. They can’t remember all the Scriptures they think they should. Even if they did, they aren’t confident they can recall them when needed. But every believer has a personal testimony. Sharing our personal experience and relationship with Jesus Christ with sincerity and conviction can be the most compelling argument of all with some people.

One of the most opportune ways of ministering to unbelievers is prayer. When they express problems, ask for the privilege of praying with them. If we truly believe God answers prayer, we should practice our belief by praying with and for people, believing God to answer. Hearing a believer pray can have a significant effect on unbelievers. When genuine believers pray for a need, people can tell they are sincere and have a relationship with God. And when God answers prayer, it can be the means of opening hearts to the message of Christ.

Season conversation with grace
"Let your speech always be with grace, as though seasoned with salt…"

Not only what we say is important, but also how we say it.

Much of our interpersonal communication is nonverbal. If there is a contradiction between what someone says and the way that person says it, we will believe the way it’s said every time. An apology can be given with exactly the same words in two different ways and be perceived as either sincere or sarcastic. Voice inflection and facial expressions can send mixed messages that contradict the words we say.

Many of those we are trying to reach in the United States have a negative history with the church and are defensive or even hostile to Christian witness. Others are emotionally scarred and have become insensitive to spiritual matters. The Christian with personal grace and credibility will help counteract the mixed signals people have received from those whose lives have been inconsistent with their message.

As salt seasons food, a spirit of grace should season our conversation with unbelievers. We must not compromise the truth. But we can communicate the truth with kindness.

Respond individually
"… that you will know how you should respond to each person."

Which of us has not been frustrated trying to deal with a company on the telephone and being prompted through a series of choices for prerecorded answers? As customers we believe we deserve more. We want someone who can personally give us the specific answer we need. In this day of impersonal electronic voices, people need personal relationships.

Most people who come to Christ through personal evangelism are not led to Christ by strangers, but by someone they know. Most of our witness will be among people we know and with whom we have ongoing relationships. In these relationships, memorizing an evangelistic routine will not be enough. We can’t keep repeating the same things to people we know. We must be ready to respond to them in a variety of ways.

Relevance is an individual issue. In our efforts to understand and act wisely toward outsiders, we must never forget that each outsider is an individual. Learning the mind-set, values, concerns, interests and desires of people in various cultures and generations is very helpful. But generalizations can be misleading because every person is unique. Baby boomers, busters, or gen X-ers, members of a post-Christian or post-modern culture — these profiles and stereotypes are tools, not personal realities. No single mold exactly fits every person within a particular generation or ethnic group.

When Paul says we are to respond to each person, it implies that we will respond differently, because each person is an individual. Effective evangelism is not merely a clever routine with predetermined, memorized answers. We should try to be sensitive to each person’s needs.

Those who are lost and headed toward eternal judgment deserve more from us than canned answers to serious, heart-searching questions. People are not just statistics, not merely souls to be won for the Kingdom. They are individuals with distinct personalities — unique creations for whom God has a personal plan and purpose. God’s kingdom is built one person at a time.

God, who cares about the sparrow that falls and numbers the hairs on our heads,15 values each person on earth for whom His Son gave His life.

Jesus — our example
The greatest example of Paul’s teaching about responding to people is Jesus. Jesus’ teaching was clear to His hearers. He used vocabulary and word pictures that came from the daily life of His audience. He identified and connected with them, using language they could understand and concepts to which they could relate.

In New Testament times, one of the greatest social barriers was between Jews and Samaritans. To Jews, Samaritans were outsiders. Yet Jesus penetrated that barrier. When He dealt with the Samaritan woman at the well, He communicated in ways she could understand. He dealt clearly with the issue of sin, but He did it by centering the conversation on the woman’s needs and interests. Jesus guided the conversation but did not totally control it. He responded to the woman, as Paul exhorted the Colossians to do.

We should remind ourselves that the most quoted verse in the Bible, John 3:16, was not part of one of Jesus’ sermons. It was in a conversation spoken softly in the night to Nicodemus, as Jesus responded to the Pharisee with the searching questions.

Though He taught the multitudes, Jesus focused on people as individuals and responded to them. People who are lost deserve what those who came in contact with Jesus received — a personal response.

Those who called Jesus "a friend of sinners" meant it as an insult. God the Father sent His Son Jesus to seek and save the lost. And Jesus said, "…as the Father has sent Me, I also send you."16 If we are to reach people as Jesus did, we also will become "friends of sinners." We will spend time with them — to know and understand them. Then we can share the message of Christ effectively with them.

Response evangelism
The response evangelism approach puts a burden on us — and lifts an even greater burden from us.

The burden response evangelism places on us is that we must be prepared to respond to people as individuals. It demands more than merely learning a witnessing routine, because we don’t totally control the conversation. It involves not just speaking but listening and being ready to answer unbelievers’ questions and responding to their interests and concerns.

The burden response evangelism takes from us is that it frees us from the wrong assumption so many have — that it is our responsibility to convince people to become Christians. Evangelism is not merely a work of human persuasion; it is a work of the Holy Spirit. Jesus promised that the Holy Spirit would convince the world concerning "sin and righteousness and judgment …"17 We are responsible to clearly share the message. The Holy Spirit persuades the heart of the listener.

Response evangelism is possible because God takes the initiative in salvation. When we understand His work in evangelism, it enables us to be bold — depending on His persuasive work. We can also be patient — trusting His timing rather than trying to push people to a premature decision. It will free us from anxiety and allow us to be neither hesitant nor hasty as we deal with people.

Everyone — our friends and family members, our neighbors and co-workers, and every person we meet — will spend eternity in heaven or hell. And every person should be given an adequate witness and the opportunity to make a decision concerning Christ’s offer of salvation.

God has given each of us the awesome privilege and responsibility of having a part in evangelism. We have no excuses. God will do what we can’t — if we will do what we can. Because God is already working in people’s lives, every believer can be an effective witness.

This article is adapted from the new book Response Evangelism by Randy Hurst, available from Gospel Publishing House. To order call 1-800-641-4310 and ask for item #03EZ6552.

Randy Hurst is commissioner of evangelism for the Assemblies of God.

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1Ephesians 2:8-10 (NIV)

2Ephesians 4:11; all Scriptures are from the NASB unless otherwise noted.

3Colossians 4:2-6

4Colossians 1:29

51 Corinthians 3:6

6Luke 8:11

7John 4:37,38

8Acts 16:14

9Colossians 2:2

10Read Colossians 1:13-23, 28 and 2:9-15.

11John 16:14

121 Corinthians 9:19,20,,22 (NIV)

13John 14:26

14Colossians 1:10

15Matthew 10:29,30

16John 20:21

17John 16:8


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