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Eight habits of highly ineffective evangelists

By Scott Harrup

Imagine Michelle. She’s put in a 12-hour day serving customers at the Tex-Mex restaurant where she holds down her second job. A single mom of twins, she wouldn’t think of declining an opportunity for extra hours, even on a Sunday when she’d much rather take the kids to the park. Finances are that tight.

The group of six comes in for dinner 15 minutes before closing. When the hostess seats them at one of Michelle’s tables, Michelle swears under her breath. She had her section cleaned and ready for inspection. Now she’s going to have to stay past closing and pay her babysitter a bonus. But she carves a smile on her face and approaches the late-night diners.

They’re well dressed. They don’t order alcohol. They’re in Michelle’s section because they wanted a nonsmoking table. She hears chitchat about the Sunday evening service they have just attended.

Michelle takes down their order and starts to cheer up. Their dinners, even with soft drinks, will drive the tab for this size group close to $100. That’s a $10 tip at least, she figures, even if they’re feeling stingy. Too bad there weren’t seven of them; the restaurant would have added a 15 percent tip automatically.

Imagine Michelle’s reaction when the group leaves. At first she’s thrilled. There’s the folded face of Andrew Jackson peeking at her from under the edge of a plate. But when she pulls it away, it unfolds to reveal a poorly rendered copy of half of a $20 bill.

It’s the cover of a gospel tract. Inside, she’s told that the information she is about to read is infinitely more valuable than any amount of money.

The message of the gospel is certainly of infinite value, but it should never be used as a substitute for a personal debt. An ethical believer wouldn’t think of holding back a well-deserved gratuity from a server, hotel maid, taxi driver, bellhop or anyone else. Pretending that a tract for a tip is the preferred means of personal evangelism only augments the offense.

It isn’t the only way believers manage to mangle an effective witness. Consider the following evangelism types:

Vulnerability vultures. These people prey on other people’s sorrow. They see a funeral or a stay in the intensive care unit as the perfect opportunity to inquire about someone’s soul or the soul of a loved one. There are some serious problems with this approach. In the first place, if a loved one has died without Christ, how will it encourage a grieving friend or relative to accept the Lord as Savior if it is suggested that the deceased is now spending eternity in hell? How will an ill or injured patient, or that patient’s family, be drawn to the gospel by a warning that they are “about to face God’s wrath”?

The best approach, the only effective approach, is one of compassion. A believer must let a bereaved person cry on his or her shoulder, and even cry with them. Compassion renders funeral parlors and hospital rooms natural environments for sharing the gospel. Compassion is a hinge on which the door of personal evangelism can swing. Offer to pray with those who sorrow. Pray out loud for their comfort and that God will show himself to them in a special way. You’ll be amazed at the conversations that can follow.

Hellfire-breathing dragons. Hell is real. The Bible never describes it as a symbol or a parable. Every scriptural warning of eternal separation from God deserves attention. But preaching hellfire and brimstone to a nonbeliever can create the wrong emphasis. In reality, the world is already full of images of God as a vengeful deity waiting to pounce on any and every sin. People naturally recoil from this concept of God, all too readily equating it with vengeful human authority figures such as abusive parents, cruel teachers or oppressive employers.

The sacrificial death and resurrection of Jesus Christ — not hell — is the gospel’s foundation. John 3:16 has been quoted so often, it seems trite to some people. But John 3:17 is quoted less often: “God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved” (NKJV). Nonbelievers need to recognize their lost condition — and be made aware of its eternal consequences — but the focus of any evangelistic presentation must be God’s love and His ultimate sacrifice to save sinners from hell.

Holier-than-thous. A lot of Christians start with Romans 3:23 when sharing the gospel but totally miss the verse’s meaning. “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” “All” means that the speaker is included. To hear some believers confront nonbelievers, you would think they had forgotten their own sins. They use the gospel to attack the actions or lifestyle of their evangelism “target” and never once speak of their own struggles with sin or their desperate need to trust Christ each day in the battle against temptation.

Yes, God changes believers and wants them to mature into the image of His Son. But Christians need to be honest about the lifelong process involved and make it clear that they haven’t arrived at some higher spiritual plateau from which they can look down on the lost.

Christianese-speakers. When sharing the gospel, the last thing you want is a barrier to communication. Many expressions that Christians take for granted are completely opaque to nonbelievers. A question as basic as “Have you accepted Jesus into your heart?” can create a roadblock rather than an avenue for spiritual healing. If you have a biblical degree from a college or seminary, don’t even think about throwing in references to “the original languages.”

You will best communicate the gospel by describing in everyday terms how Jesus has changed your life. Don’t talk about Him being in your heart. Talk about how He is alive and, as God, is able to be with you and anyone else 24 hours a day. Talk about His love and concern for you and how your relationship with Him helps you make right choices large and small.

Door-to-door salesmen. The gospel is not a “product” you have to “sell” to anyone. Your relationship with Christ should be something that excites you and motivates your life in obvious ways. As you exhibit the joy of God in your life and show yourself to be genuinely fulfilled, others will take notice and ask some basic questions. When they do, don’t go in for the “hard sell.” Sometimes, the harder you push, the more resistant someone can become to the truth.

Recognize that the Holy Spirit speaks to the human heart and convinces people of God’s truth. You can relax and let Him give spiritual power to your words as you obediently share simple expressions God lays on your heart.

Embarrassed evangelists. Sure, you’ve heard the stories about “hypocrites” who claimed to be Christians but misled or hurt someone in some way. Maybe the person you want to witness to has had such an experience.

Don’t buy into this. Without being confrontational, simply point out that anyone who is genuinely living according to Jesus Christ’s teachings and personal example will not behave in these ways. Even committed Christians are “works in progress” and God is patiently building His character into their lives. Admit that your own life is no exception and that you have a lot of ways you need to grow spiritually. Your honesty, as well as your commitment to defend the gospel, will have a positive effect.

Eternal waiters. Yes, there are God-appointed opportunities for sharing your faith with someone. But it’s easy to create impossibly high standards for such a moment and put it off indefinitely. There are as many excuses for a moment not being right as there are excuses for avoiding church, skipping Bible study, postponing water baptism or neglecting any other expression of your faith in Christ. Remember, witnessing to the lost is just as natural a part of who you are in Christ as any spiritual discipline you can name.

In most cases, there isn’t going to be one perfect moment to witness to someone. As you develop a relationship with that friend or neighbor or relative, you can find many opportunities to connect your conversation and activities with what Jesus Christ means to you.

So, there you have it — eight pitfalls to avoid when seeking to rescue lost souls. There are others you may think of. But remember, you will have overcome the biggest pitfall when you simply get past your own hesitancy and take a step of faith … by sharing it.

Scott Harrup is associate editor of Today’s Pentecostal Evangel.

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