Evangelism – learning from unbelievers

There’s a saying in chess that, if you are in doubt about your next move, choose the move your opponent would like least.

I reckon a similar, but opposite, saying might apply to christian evangelism: if you are wanting to evangelise, try to choose the behaviour your friend would most appreciate.

A recent study by the Barna Group in the US provides some invaluable insights from those who are the targets of christian evangelism.

What non-christians want from faith conversations

Non-believers and non-churchgoers were asked questions about characteristics in a christian that would make them willing to talk about faith with them, and whether christians they knew showed those characteristics. Some answers were telling.

Listening without judgment

62% of non-believers said they would be willing to discuss faith with a christian who was willing to listen without judgment. This trait was the most valued of all, but only 34% said they saw this in their christian friends. 76% of christians agreed this was an important trait, but only 44% thought they exhibited this consistently.

Not being pushy

Unbelievers are willing to listen to people who don’t push the conversation to a conclusion (50%) and leave the unbelievers to draw their own conclusions (43%) but find that christians they know are much less likely (26% and 22%) to behave this way. Again, christians agree these behaviours are desirable but recognise that they fall short.

Being interested in people

Non christians also want to know christians are interested in them as people (29%) and are good at asking questions (27%) but find that only a small number of christians (17% and 16%) live up to this. Christians believe these matters also are important, and recognise they don’t do as well as they should.

A christian emphasis where it isn’t appreciated

Christians tended to think some qualities were more important than the non-believers did – confidence in sharing their own perspective (58% vs. 33% of non-christians and lapsed christians), exhibiting a vibrant faith of their own (57% vs. 15%) or helping others have a spiritual experience of God for themselves (53% vs. 13%).

Non-believers don’t want to speak with super-christians, but with real people who are interested in them.

Learning a rueful lesson

I was a very argumentative person as a child, I think because I had a concern for truth and justice, but had little natural ability to relate to people. So when I began to follow Jesus, I saw issues of right and wrong, correct doctrine and apologetics as being of greatest importance, and the personal impact of my behaviour on people very much as secondary. It took years of marriage to a patient and people-oriented wife, learning to work in and lead teams at work, and simply growing older and more mature, to teach me something different. I still sometimes struggle when I see obvious errors of fact or logic, or unfair statements.

I think these results show I’m not alone. Western christianity has become very cerebral, theoretical, doctrine-centred, whereas I find the New Testament strong on the very basic doctrines, but much more concerned about behaviour and the impact on others than with less important doctrines.

  • 1 Peter 3:15 encourages us to be ready to answer questions from unbelievers, but urges us to “do this with gentleness and respect”.
  • Jesus said our behaviour shows more about us than our words (Matthew 21:28-32), and said good behaviour would lead people to God (Matthew 5:16).

People, not scalps or souls

Let’s be interested in people, for their own sakes (they are after all made in the image of God), and not just so we can evangelise them. Let’s demonstrate the love of God by our selfless behaviour.

At the beginning of the musical Godspell, the song Save the people speaks volumes about caring for people for their won sake:

When wilt thou save the people?
Oh God of mercy when?
Not kings and lords but nations,
Not thrones and crowns
But men
Flowers of thy heart
O God are they
Let them not pass like weeds away
Their heritage a sunless day
God save the people

Read more

Read more on this site about evangelism and the mission of God in the world.

Photo by Trung Thanh on Unsplash

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  1. Yes I think being interested in people personally is very important , otherwise evangelism just looks like a recruitment campaign, although being interested in people is called friendship and there doesn’t need to be any evangelism for this to occur.

  2. Hi, haven’t heard from you for a while! Nice to see you back.
    It’s a tricky question, because I agree that it would be demeaning to make friends with someone just for the purpose of recruiting them, but it would also be uncaring for a christian believer to not want to share their faith with their friends.

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