It All Starts with a Conversation
One day a couple my daughter had invited to church was in the service, sitting by me. Our pastor was giving an illustration about trying to button up your sweater by buttoning the top button using the wrong hole. He demonstrated that all the other buttons are in the wrong place. He said, “It’s really important to get the first button right.”
Then, the pastor made a spiritual connection: “In your life, it’s important to get the first button right.” The woman, whispered to me, “I think my first button is off!”
I replied, “I know what you mean. My first button was off too. Someday, I want to tell you how I got that straight.”
We invited the couple to our home. Out of that button illustration, I built a dialogue, and we talked about their spiritual journey.
I told them my testimony and shared the gospel. Both the man and woman prayed that day to receive Jesus Christ and joined our church. It wasn’t forced, and they were thrilled when they found Jesus.
Four Ps in Relationship
I have always tried to help people understand the dynamics and stages of evangelism with an illustration from marriage. There are four “Ps” in marriage: presence, proclamation, persuasion, and preservation.
When I met my wife and became interested in her, I began to spend time around her, took her to dinner, talked to her, and we discussed our backgrounds. All of that is a form of presence.
As I got more serious, I proclaimed my interest in her. I even said, “I love you.” And so now this relationship was deepening.
However, we didn’t get married just from presence and proclamation. Finally I had to ask her a decision question: “Will you marry me?” I put her in a situation where she had to make a decision. At first Nancy was reluctant, but I didn’t give up. Finally she said yes, and we were married. It was a specific event, specific point in time: a time when persuasion became convincing.
But that’s not all. There is still the preservation: growing the marriage and keeping the romance alive, so that now after 55 years we’re having some of our best days in our marriage. Presence, proclamation, persuasion, and preservation are vital in relationships.
The same is true in evangelism. You build a relationship with people, you get to know them, you get to know their background. You show kindness, you’re around them: presence.
You begin to talk to them about the gospel. You help them understand that God loves them. You may share the gospel thoroughly, but that still is not conversion. Somewhere along the line you need to ask a decision question: “Will you accept Christ? Will you take Him as Savior and Lord? Will you follow Him?”
If you have the presence and the proclamation, rarely do you get conversion unless you ask a decision question. This is one thing I am concerned about: that we include in our evangelism more than presence and proclamation, but also loving persuasion.
After they have accepted Christ, the journey of discipleship begins: preservation or perseverance. That’s why I developed Basic Bible Studies as a tool to begin the follow-up of new converts. That’s why we ask, “Do you have a disciple? Who’s discipling you? Who are you discipling?” For the rest of their lives discipleship is taking place.
Discipleship Produces Multiplication
We want new converts to become strong enough so they in turn will disciple others. I like what Gordon Wetmore once said: “Our mission is to make disciples who will make disciples, who will make disciples, who will make disciples.” And on it goes.
The Challenge: When to Move from "Presence" to "Proclamation"
Relationship building is very important. If I am interested in a person, I want to know about him or her. As you get to know a person better, and they tell you about themselves, you begin to find opportunities for spiritual conversations.
I don’t treat everybody the same way. Their level of openness gives me a signal as to how much I will say. As we get closer, they will naturally start to tell me about themselves. With some people that can take 30 minutes, but with some people it takes months.
Sometimes, a crisis can escalate the level of openness and trust. A neighbor I was trying to build a friendship with—we will call him Greg—would politely excuse himself from any spiritual conversation for years. He had absolutely no interest. One day my wife called to talk to his wife and learned the two had just divorced. I called Greg and said, “Greg, I’m sorry about the breakup of your marriage. Why don’t we go to lunch together?”
I didn’t talk to him about spiritual things over lunch; I just tried to get to know him better. We started to build a relationship. A few weeks later he said, “I want to take you out to lunch.” We got a little closer. This happened two or three times. One day he said, “Chic, I don’t want us to just be neighbors; I want us to be friends.”
I knew he was beginning to trust me. He began visiting church. He still has not committed himself to Christ, but this interaction is a good example of what I have been discussing about being sensitive to building genuine relationships.
I watch and listen for what people say that would give me a hint. We build rapport with others over time. You will not be effective if you try to share the gospel with someone who doesn’t have that feeling of rapport yet. Sometimes that happens quickly; sometimes it takes a long time.
My Story, His Story, Their Story
For a little while in my life I was an agnostic, and I had to come to a place of saying, “Yes, there is a God.” As I worked through that issue and got to the stage where I could say intellectually, “Yes there has to be a God,” I still was not converted. I did not have a relationship with God. Having to work through that issue has helped me with people who are agnostics.
So, if I’m dealing with that kind of a person, before I start with “You need to accept Jesus Christ,” I talk to them about my own story: “Here is what I had to deal with to finally say there has to be a God. And if there is a God, the most important thing in life would be to get to know Him.”
Let’s say a person has been invited to church by a co-worker, has been there three Sundays in a row, is starting to show signs of openness, and the pastor takes me while I’m in a local church revival to see that man. There’s a good chance that many of those roadblocks have already been dealt with, and I might be able to share the gospel with him that day. But it depends on where people are, and they give you signal: they’ll ask questions, and sometimes even their body language will also tell you things.
God's Work in Communication of the Gospel
Nobody comes to Jesus Christ by human effort. Jesus said, “No man comes to me except the Father draw him.” All of this is above and beyond us; it’s the work of the Holy Spirit.
I have been talking to people when they start weeping, and I know God is speaking to their hearts.
As far as having a plan to present the gospel, I believe every person needs to have that as much as I believe a pastor needs to have a plan for a sermon. Whenever I ask pastors, “Do you preach best if you just go to the pulpit and off the top of your head you just give some things you think are important? Or do you think through, plan, get key points in mind, etc.?”
They all say, “I have a plan.”
You should plan for witnessing, too. Now, of course I know about Roman Road, the Bridge, I have been to Willow Creek and learned their method, etc. I say to pastors and students, “I’m going to ask you to learn this. But I’m not saying this is what you have to do in your ministry. You should find a method you feel comfortable with, that you can teach to others in your congregation.” I believe some kind of methodology is still important. And I go back to a lecture at seminary where an outstanding Presbyterian professor said, “Every one of you should know how to present the gospel in a meaningful way within a five-minute frame of time.” God may change your plan, but having one to work with helps.
The Ever-Widening Circle
Finally, I would say start with the people near us: the people we know in our neighborhoods, on our job, in our social circles. But every church should try to go beyond that as well. Now a lot of our people would have trouble going into other cultures to reach people. But I say go as far as you can. And once a person in a particular culture is saved, he or she can go and reach even more people.
We need to go as far as we can go in our areas of comfort, but then we need to try to build bridges, and take the universal message of the gospel to all people.
CHARLES “CHIC” SHAVER has been an evangelist and professor of evangelism for over 50 years in the Church of the Nazarene. He is the author of several books, and you can find more information on his ministry at www.drchicshaver.com.