I first heard the gospel at 18, from an older lady I’d never met before. She told me the good news of Jesus while I was pumping fuel into her car (I worked at a petrol/gas station1). She then said that I should go to a local church to learn more about Jesus. We had almost nothing in common, and relationally she didn’t have a leg to stand on, but she trusted in the power of the gospel to save (Rom 1:16) and she understood that loving her neighbour meant going outside of her comfort zone for her neighbour’s salvation. As a result, I went to church, started reading the Bible, and God saved me.
This lady talking to a stranger in a petrol station modelled the conviction of Paul:
How are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? ... Faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ. (Rom 10:14, 17)
For many years now, convicted of this truth and compelled by her example, I try and block out time every couple of weeks to walk up to strangers and love my neighbour by sharing the same powerful gospel that saved me.
Most Christians know that the gospel is the power to save, but they lack the confidence to know what to say or how to say it. But when a Christian comes to trust the gospel, Jesus’ call to Peter should be understood as their new job description: “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men” (Matt 4:19). So Christians talk about the importance of fishing and the abundance of fish, and we tell others to fish—but few actually go out and fish, because we feel we’re no good at it. This article will give you some practical tips from my own experience so that you will be more confident in actively sharing the gospel with others—really getting out there and putting your line in the water.
First, organize to go with another Christian. Fishing together rather than on your own keeps you accountable to going out (our sinful natures are always looking for excuses) and enables you to be a disciple-making disciple who is training others.
Prepare by reading a passage from one of the Gospels that you will point people to during your conversations. The word of God is the sword of the Spirit (Eph 6:17), and I believe the Spirit works to prompt us in our evangelism by reminding us of his word (John 14:26). Additionally, Bible passages are helpful if you get stalled in the conversation, as you can read them out. Generally I go to passages like the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector in Luke 18:9-14, because they are very clear gospel summaries.
I recommend learning Two ways to live by rote before going out plus having a physical copy or downloading the app on your phone, because this gives you four options:
Before I go out I pray that God will lead us to his elect (Acts 18:10); that God’s Spirit will give us boldness, convict people of sin, and grant the gift of faith and repentance; and that God will ultimately be glorified whether his message is intended for hardening or for granting mercy. As Spurgeon puts it: “The same sun which melts wax hardens clay, and the same Gospel which melts some persons to repentance hardens others in their sins”. Such a mindset is essential as it takes the outcome from our hands and places it in the hand of God.
When I begin to chat to someone I am mindful that in the first five seconds they want to know three things: who I am, where I’m from, and why I’m there. It’s important to be up-front with people about Christ so they don’t feel we are being deceptive or concealing our motives but instead are commending ourselves as people of integrity (2 Cor 4:2). If people insist on not wanting to talk then I am polite and thankful to them for their time, as this alone can be used by God to commend the gospel (1 Pet 2:12).
My first question is generally, “Who do you think Jesus is?” This keeps the conversation on the person and work of Christ, which I find hard if we begin with a broader topic. It also gives people an opportunity to pull out of the conversation early, rather than after five minutes when they finally realize you want to chat about Jesus (see above).
I try and build rapport directly after introducing myself and the topic of discussion, going with something basic like how their day is going, or if they have an animal or some shopping asking a question about that. Often I try and make a humorous observation to lighten the mood and show them that I’m not a weird religious nut but a normal person. I also try to mirror their tone and pace of speech, their body language, their volume and even their word choice to help our connection and show empathy when they share their beliefs.
I then move to some probing questions. This is necessary as it encourages people to open up. If they ask what you did on the weekend, mention church and ask them if they also go to church—if so, why; if not, why not? It can be as simple as this, but you can also engage at a deeper level. For example, people will often say something like “I’m not that interested, I’m not religious” or “I’m atheist” or “I’m Roman Catholic”. This is the critical point in the conversation. You need to say something like: “No worries, I love chatting to non-religious people, I used to be non-religious myself. What led you to that conviction?”; “So that means you’ve investigated a few religions; why did you find atheism most convincing?”; “What was it like growing up in a Roman Catholic family?”. I follow this up with a lot of ‘why’ questions before I start engaging them with the gospel. This shows you are genuinely interested in getting to know them and it gets people to start talking, which means you can begin to understand their world view, its deficiencies, and the issues behind their presenting objections. It also gives you time to think about which aspect of the gospel they have misunderstood or need to hear again. My model for this is Paul in Acts 17:16-34, who sought to understand the polytheism of the Epicureans and the pantheism of the Stoics in order to expose their idolatry and ignorance of the one true and living God, so that he might call them to repentance.
I always ask open-ended questions. I don’t ask questions like “Do you want to chat about Jesus?” as such questions don’t offer people an opportunity to share what they believe but instead may be used as an easy out of the conversation before it has really begun. Even if someone calls themselves a Christian, this can mean a wide variety of things. For this reason I still ask them who they think Jesus is, seeking to clarify whether they have understood the gospel, and seeing it as an opportunity to encourage, pray forand train those who do trust Christ.
I also have a couple of key diagnostic questions such as “If you were to die tonight, where would you go?” and “When you die, why should God let you into heaven? Do you have certainty of this?”. I find these help uncover key issues such as what they do with their guilt and what their authority is, as well as creating a proper sense of urgency (which people have often suppressed via materialism and consumerism).2
The Bible teaches that all truth is dependent upon the triune God of Scripture. Therefore, I believe unbelievers are often borrowing from Christian presuppositions and are therefore fundamentally inconsistent within their stated world view. I have a couple of key questions such as “Can we have objective morality, logic or ultimate meaning without God?” to show to them the absurdity of their attempts to deny God’s rule over their lives.
Due to our sinful desire for autonomy, the unbeliever refuses to submit themselves to God. Their ultimate commitment is to self-rule, which means they will always distort the truth in some way to preserve that (Rom 1:21, 8:7). To use Reformed theologian Cornelius Van Til’s famous analogy, sin acts like a pair of coloured glasses cemented to an unbeliever’s face, distorting all they see so that they can’t see things as the Christian does.3 Therefore, I never assume a ‘neutral’ stance with non-Christians or with regards to ‘evidences’ for or against the Bible but maintain my commitment to the authority of the Scriptures, God’s self-testimony in them,and the necessity of the Spirit’s work to grant understanding and faith. For this reason, I try and get them to read a passage from the Scriptures themselves and ask them what they think it means. I do this because I am convinced that fallen human reason suppresses and corrupts the truth about God in creation and cannot know the gospel unless it is revealed to them and received by faith (Rom 1:18-21; 2 Cor 4:3-4). This means I don’t talk endlessly about historical reliability or scientific plausibility for example—these may remove stumbling blocks but can never save. It also means I don’t distort the gospel to be more culturally acceptable, or leave out the bits that are uncomfortable like sin, hell and repentance. In other words, I don’t self-censor. However, I am careful not to let my manner, approach or choice of words become needlessly offensive and thus a stumbling block to others (2 Cor 6:3-4). By reading Scripture with people we demonstrate our confidence that faith comes through hearing the word of Christ (Rom 10:17). Memorizing some verses that get to the heart of the gospel to share as part of your testimony is also a great way you can bring Scripture into the conversation.
When the person I’m chatting to heads off on a tangent, I generally answer their question within 30 seconds and conclude it with a direct refocusing in on the gospel—this is where you want to keep the conversation. I find it helpful to ask them what they think the Bible says, as they are often arguing against a false understanding of the Scriptures. I then put their question within the context of the whole Bible, showing how in Christ God offers what we truly need. If I don’t know the answer to a question I am honest about this and tell them I will research it and get back to them, assuring them that the answers to all important questions are found in the Bible.
This process has really helped grow my understanding and confidence in the Bible and can lead to further opportunities to discuss Jesus with them. In each conversation my aim is not to win every argument, nor to explain every aspect of the gospel every time, but to challenge them with the claims of the gospel. To this end I emphasize Jesus’ resurrection and Lordship that proves he will return to judge and requires all people now to repent (Acts 17:30-31). This is particularly helpful in putting objections into perspective, as it reminds people that such questions do not ultimately dismiss the bigger concern of whether Jesus rose again and therefore is coming back to judge.
In attempting to deny our perilous state before God, people in their pride will always attempt to justify their God-rejecting lifestyle by downplaying our sin and resting in their own righteousness.This blinds people to their need for Jesus and can make people apathetic to the good news. In response to this, I will sometimes use God’s law to convict people of their sin. This is one of the purposes of the law: that the light of the gospel might shine even more brightly against the backdrop of their sin (Rom 3:20). As John Calvin said, the law acts as a mirror reflecting God’s righteousness and our sinfulness so that we, “feeling our weakness under the law, may learn to implore the help of grace” (Calvin, Institutes, Bk. II, 7:306).
When doing so I will mention the Ten Commandments given to Israel as an expression of God’s perfect righteous character, and then read out Jesus’ deeper understanding and application for his disciples in the Beatitudes for such commandments as murder, which Jesus relates to anger, and adultery, which Jesus relates to lust (Matt 5:21-22, 27-32). I do this to show them that we all fall short of God’s perfect standard, and it is only with this conviction that we will understand and feel our need for Jesus who fulfils the law and takes the punishment we deserve for our rejection of God’s rule over our lives. As one Puritan wrote, "We must go with the stick of divine truth and beat every bush behind which a sinner hides, until like Adam who hid, he stands before God in his nakedness"—it is in this state that people may finally see their need to be clothed by Christ’s righteousness.4
I try and give them a tract or a gospel, and offer to meet up with them again if they would like. This means always trying to have a gospel or tract on you, plus leaving your phone number and name in any you hand out. I also leave them with a challenge, saying something like “If there’s a possibility that it could be true, isn’t it worth a little of your time to investigate the claims of Jesus in the Gospels?” If, by God’s grace, people express a desire to continue the conversation, I usually try to invite them to church and take them through You, Me, and the Bible, a set of evangelistic Bible studies based upon Two ways to live. Then if, after asking questions and understanding the costliness of following Christ, they demonstrate the signs of a genuine conviction of sin and need for Christ, I get them to pray the prayer at the back of that booklet (also found at the end of Two ways to live). Whether or not they have come to trust Christ, I then take them through the gospel of Mark or a booklet called Back to Basics that helps people understand the foundational aspects of being a Christian. At this point my goal is to integrate them into a Bible study group where they can continue to ask their questions and grow with other Christians.
After I finish I return to where I started: praying in confidence that God would use his word to accomplish his purpose, even through weak people like myself (Isa 55:10-11). In my experience of evangelism, very often people come up with ideas that I have never heard of. Very often I feel my answers are inadequate. Very often I feel as if I wasn’t able to fully answer their questions. Sometimes I say things that I wish I hadn’t. Sometimes I look foolish. In short, I often feel like an ineffective fisherman. However, so many times God has given me wisdom from his Word that I didn’t have prior to that moment in the conversation. So many times I have seen God challenge and begin to convict people through the plainest of biblical answers. This reminds me that we never go out alone, for Christ is with us (Matt 28:20), and that all I need to do is prioritize taking the gospel to people, even people I haven’t met before who might not know a single Christian, and to keep praying for those I have spoken to that God might work through a weak messenger by giving his word an effectiveness my most convincing and eloquent arguments never could (1 Cor 2:1-5). I have almost never gone out and not had a good conversation about the gospel. I don’t often see the fruit of my labour but I trust God will call some to faith as he did me when I first heard the gospel at a petrol station all those years ago. And I pray God might use other disciples in this same way.
Let me leave you with this exhortation from Charles Spurgeon on the great urgency and necessity of evangelism:
If sinners be damned, at least let them leap to Hell over our dead bodies. And if they perish, let them perish with our arms wrapped about their knees, imploring them to stay. If Hell must be filled, let it be filled in the teeth of our exertions, and let not one go unwarned and unprayed for.5
1. Gas station, for North American readers.↩
2. I’m thankful to Gerard O’Brien for this insight.↩
3. Cornelius Van Til, Defense of the Faith, Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing, Phillipsburg, New Jersey, 2008, pp. 77.↩
4. Joel Beake & Randall Pederson, Meet the Puritans, Reformation Heritage Books, Grand Rapids, 2006, p. xxi.↩
5. Charles Spurgeon, Spurgeon At His Best, ed. Tom Carter, Baker Books, Grand Rapids, 1988, p. 67.↩