I started this current line of thought about witnessing with a quote that I think comes from Francis of Assisi, “Witness always, use words when necessary.” I spent a lot of time on the issue of our lived witness and how we need to become much more aware of and intentional about that if we are going to be effective witnesses. There is probably a whole lot more that could be said on that part of the quotation and I may deal with it again at some point.
But I also think I need to spend some time on the second part of the quotation, “…use words when necessary.” It would be really great if the fullness of our witness was taken care of by our lived example–and there are probably examples out there of people whose decision to become a part of the faith was completely due to the lived witness of other believers. But most people are going to need some words at some point in the process to help them understand what they are seeing and what God is calling them to. And that means that all of us are likely going to be called upon at some point to be the ones supplying the words someone needs to help them move along in their journey to God.
Finding those words is the issue. Now, there are lots of suggestions out there. Most believers in the conservative church have been exposed to things like the “Four Spiritual Laws”, “The Roman Road”, “The Sinner’s Prayer” and a variety of other memorisable and pre-packaged sets of words that are recommended as ways of presenting the Gospel to people. Other approaches are less programmed but do offer a clear set of things that need to be covered–people need to acknowledge their sin, repent, accept God’s forgiveness and so in.
While any of these approaches is going to work sometime with someone, my suspicion is that overall, these canned approaches are not particularly effective overall. For all the effort put into memorizing them, printing and distributing booklets containing them, packaging seminars and workshops on how to use them, the results are meagre. I don’t personally know anyone who came to faith through the use of such programs, nor do I know anyone who has actually used one of them to help someone actually make the decision to follow Jesus. I have read lots of stories about their effectiveness, generally in the promotional literature that accompanies them.
While having preprogrammed words gives us something to say when the time for words arrives in the witnessing process, it doesn’t seem to make the process all that effective. Evangelism isn’t slowing the decreasing number of people interested in the Christian faith. It may be that we need to re-think the whole process of what we actually say to people when the time comes to use words in our witnessing.
A few years ago, I made an interesting discovery during my Bible reading. I was working through the Gospel of John as part of my devotional reading and realized that in the first ten chapters or so of the Gospel, there are a series of encounters between Jesus and individuals that easily qualify as good example of evangelism. We see Jesus with some of the disciples (chapter 1), wedding guests and people at the temple (2), Nicodemus (3), the Samaritan woman (4) and others.
The fascinating insight that I saw at that point was that every encounter was different–Jesus didn’t have any one particular verbal formula that he used in every case. The stories show us that Jesus focused on the people he was with and out of that particular situation, he found the words to use with that particular person. Since that time, I have given the issue a lot of thought and used the insights I gained as the basis for sermon series, seminars on evangelism and even a course on evangelism that I taught to Kenyan theology students.
I think we can use those chapters of John, along with other encounters that Jesus has with people to develop some principles of evangelism that help us when it comes to figuring out what to say when the time comes to say something. So in the next few blogs, I will look at those principles that can help us find the words we need when they are needed.
May the peace of God be with you.