Why I'm stopping students doing walk-up evangelism

  • Mikey Lynch
  • 5 February 2018

Last December we had our largest contingent ever of Tasmanian students at the AFES National Training Event in Canberra. It was great watching them soak up the teaching, make friends from all over Australia, max out their baggage allowance for the flight home at the bookstall, and be inspired to live their lives for the kingdom of God.

One great moment was when half the Tassie cohort voluntarily chose to join other students in an expedition into the centre of Canberra to do walk-up evangelism. My heart swelled with the good kind of pride, delighted to see that their love for Christ was overflowing with an eagerness to go out of their comfort zone to share him with others. Their experience was largely positive and exciting; they did this risky awkward thing and ended up having some in-depth conversations with strangers about the gospel.

So it’s not surprising that they’ve now got a taste for it. A group of them are keen to start the new academic year with more cold-contact evangelism on campus here in Hobart. It’s a real buzz to see this kind of self-starting radicalism; it reminds me of myself as a newly converted uni student. As a campus evangelist, I would so much rather spend my energy restraining zealous Christians who go a bit too far than trying to egg on sluggish Christians who don’t go far enough.

So why then do I find myself saying: “Yes, you can do some more scary and exciting walk-up evangelism… but could you please not do it now?”

Over the last few years we have given a massive boost to our efforts during Orientation Week, going from our regular “advertising and contacting” approach to a much more ambitious ‘O Week Mission’.1 Basically we try to mobilize all our existing Christian students (as well as many non-student helpers from local churches) to invite as many non-Christians as we possibly can to participate in a brief ‘spiritual values’ survey. We invite everyone who participates to free pizza parties held Monday to Wednesday, and then to our main Christian Union gathering on Thursday night. Then, over the next few weeks, we contact everyone who voluntarily gave us their contact details and invite them to meet for coffee one-on-one—and figure out the best way to minister to them from there. Both years we have done this, we have met biblically illiterate non-Christian students who have come to faith in Christ: praise God! Also, the number of new people who have joined our fellowship, or investigated Christianity with us, has increased too.

So, as we prepare for O Week Mission for another year, we really need all hands on deck. It would make things so much harder if some of our keenest students were putting their energy into walk-up evangelism rather than focusing with us on O Week Mission. We want to support them in their newfound zeal for walk-up evangelism—but we are asking them to hold off until week two of semester.

This is a fairly reasonable request, but I’m keen to be as persuasive as possible. Moreover, I’m keen for the preparations to be an opportunity for a bit of teaching and training. That’s why I’m taking the time to explain the great value of the O Week Mission to these keen evangelists: how the survey/pizza party/coffee approach is a kind of fast-track walk-up evangelism where we can move people from being ‘strangers’ to being ‘acquaintances’—or even ‘friends’—much more quickly. It’s a way of preaching the gospel in an ongoing and more relational way from the very beginning.

I’m also taking the time to help them think through missional practices. What kind of evangelism should we be doing? The best evangelism is not defined by how scary it is (walking up to strangers), nor on what’s currently normal (one could say ‘traditional’) amongst Christian groups or churches. Instead we should consider what is biblical, ethical and wise in our particular context.

God does not give us a specific evangelistic medium or strategy in his Word. We must speak the word with loving clarity, boldness and truth. We should adorn it with our godly lives and our loving communities. We should be willing to set aside personal and cultural preferences for the sake of removing obstacles to communication. The gospel also needs to be conveyed as authoritative: a declaration, a command. And responses to the gospel must be genuine, and so evangelism requires reasoning and persuasion. But we are not handed a biblical outline for dialogue dinners, mission rallies, doorknocking, Bible placement or ten-week evangelistic courses.

Yes, we are to imitate the apostle Paul who became “all things to all people, that by all means [he] might save some” (1 Cor 9:22). But we need to recognize that in context this passage is not about diverse mission programs but about setting aside cultural preferences. Moreover, even if it does offer a broader principle for doing all sorts of things to win the lost (which I think it does), this does not mean that every single Christian ministry must regularly do every single possible kind of evangelistic strategy!

Perhaps the book of Acts leads us in the direction of regular walk-up evangelism? After all, in Athens Paul “reasoned in the synagogue with both Jews and the devout persons, and in the marketplace every day with those who happened to be there”. (Acts 17:17). But this is not really an example of what we call walk-up evangelism. In his cultural setting, he is engaging in meaningful conversation with people in the place where others were already engaging in meaningful conversation. The marketplace of the 1st Century is not a direct analogy of the mall of the 21st century. Moreover, Acts was not written as a manual for concrete mission practices. We are not supposed to imitate exactly what they do in Acts precisely as they do it. In fact we can’t, because we don’t really have enough detail to do it accurately; those who try unintentionally import their own assumptions.

Our duty as Christians is to pursue mission strategies that are shaped by biblical understanding, priorities and ethics. But the particular programs and strategies we adopt in any one place, or any one season, are determined by any number of factors. There’s nothing particularly unique about walk-up evangelism (or open-air preaching or dialogue dinners) that means we must privilege them. I believe there is a limited benefit to walk-up evangelism. It’s a long-shot strategy, like Gideons Bible placement. But, like the Gideons Bibles, when walk-up does lead to conversions it’s often people we might not have otherwise reached.

Who am I to quash eager young Christians? If they want to do a stack of walk-up evangelism they should go for it! And I’ll join them. I’ll pray their efforts teach them heaps about relying on God, the opinions of non-Christians, how to explain the gospel and answer objections. And I’ll pray that it pleases the Lord to bless their efforts with success: new brothers and sisters coming to faith in Christ because of a conversation on the library lawn. But during O Week I’m saying to these keen students: channel your energy into the common cause of the O Week Mission, so that in partnership with the rest of the Christian Union we can make the biggest impact at the start of a new year. Surely, all things considered, that is a better way to go? Then what you do in week two is up to you!

1. You can read a series of posts about this on my Christian Reflections Blog, starting here with the 2016 overview and then our 2017 efforts.