An old friend from high school reconnected with me recently, thanks to the wonders of Facebook. We did a lot of laughing when we hung out in high school, and he thought we could just pick up where we left off. I doubted it. For much of the time we were together—almost 50 years ago!—we were drunk.
Since then, I became a Christian. He’s continued to get drunk. After a few moments of “Wow!” “It sure has been a while” and “How have you been?” we made plans to meet and re-establish our long lost friendship. And we did meet. And we did laugh. But both of us realized things (i.e., he and I) had changed.
He did know I’d become a Christian. The last time we saw each other face to face, I presented the gospel to him and gave him a book about the resurrection. He told me that John Lennon shaped his religious views and that “God is a concept by which we measure our pain.” He visits Strawberry Fields, Lennon’s memorial in Central Park, whenever he’s back in New York.
Today, I continue to pray for him, reach out to him with phone calls and emails, and talk about meeting up when I’m nearby (we now live more than 1,000 miles apart). I’m convinced I need to pursue some pre-evangelistic conversations with him before he’ll be ready to hear the gospel in a way that can penetrate. I’ve tried the direct evangelistic approach several times, and that hasn’t worked. I need another strategy.
Most of us need another strategy to reach unsaved people around us. If ever there was a time when “people were ready to receive Christ” (and I doubt it was ever that simple), those days are gone. But how do we start?
Here are three strategies for pre-evangelism that might help your friends move from “Are you crazy? Christianity is ridiculous, narrow-minded, homophobic, and stupid!” to “Well . . . maybe I need to rethink this” to “OK, I’ve not been fair in the ways I’ve pigeonholed religious people” to “All right, I’ll take a look at that book about God you gave me.”
1. Level the Playing Field
Sometimes, our non-Christian conversation partner feels superior to us. They may think they’re intellectually superior because, they assume, all Christians are simpletons, anti-intellectual, anti-science, or just plain stupid. (In some cases, they’ve seen solid evidence to support this prejudice.) They believe that science “proves things religion can’t” and that it’s the better basis for knowledge.
Or they may feel morally superior to Christians. They see themselves as open-minded and tolerant but see Christians as narrow-minded and exclusive.
Before we can tell them they need to repent and be born again, we may need to show them they’re narrow too.
Before we can tell them they need to repent and be born again, we may need to show them they’re narrow too. In fact, with enough conversation, we may show them that Christians are in fact more open-minded than they are. This takes work and time and patience. But it’s absolutely crucial, or our gospel presentation will fall on deaf ears.
We can level the playing field by asking people how they’ve come to their belief that science is a better basis for knowledge than faith is. Their trust in science is a faith-based belief. It can’t be validated scientifically. We want them to see that we’re similar—we both hold our beliefs by faith. Now we want to compare our faiths. We should also pursue the realization that we both have doubts, and we should compare our doubts.
2. Adjust the Thermostat
Some conversations about the Prince of Peace can disturb the peace. Sometimes people get angry or sarcastic or harsh—on both sides of the exchange. Our current political climate exacerbates the problem terribly. In some cases, we need to point this out, take a deep breath, and ask if we need to take a break.
It can sound like this:
“You sound rather upset about all this. Why do you think this is so disturbing?”
“Wow. I think I struck a nerve. Should we change the topic?”
“It’s hard to talk about these kinds of things. Isn’t it? I’d like to try to continue. But I wonder if we can do that with a bit less anger. What do you think?”
In our current overly sarcastic, frequently dismissive, disturbingly insulting times, we would do well to reflect on the wisdom of Proverbs’s insight that “a gentle answer turns away wrath” (Prov. 15:1).
3. Step on the Clutch before Shifting Gears
Sometimes we need to have a conversation about the conversation. Before we launch into a discussion about religion (often considered the worst taboo), we might need to ask permission to do so. Or we might need to introduce something they’ll accept to pave the way for something they resist.
It’s like stepping on the clutch in a car with a standard transmission before shifting gears. I realize this illustration may be too antiquated for some people. If you’ve never driven a car with a stick shift, just accept this: if you don’t perform a preliminary task (stepping on the clutch), you won’t be able to do the important task (shifting gears).
Some conversations about the Prince of Peace can disturb the peace.
Here’s what it could sound like:
“I realize some people avoid discussions about faith. But I wonder if you’d like to try. Could we grab a cup of coffee sometime to compare our beliefs?”
“You’ve asked me some questions about my views about sexuality. I’m certainly willing to try to answer as best as I can. But I have to first say you shouldn’t be surprised if my views are unpopular. The Christian views about sex have always been in the minority.”
“I think the topic of faith is more complicated than what fits on a bumper sticker or in a tweet. But I’d still like to talk about it. Would you?”
More than 50 years ago, Francis Schaeffer wrote, “Pre-evangelism is no soft option.” He was reaching out to disenchanted, secular Europeans who had abandoned Christianity long ago. But he reached many with the gospel and saw a lot of dramatic conversions. His approach needs to be inserted into our evangelistic efforts now more than ever before. I certainly need to try these ideas with my old friend.
Randy Newman explores these ideas further in his most recent book, Unlikely Converts: Improbably Stories of Faith and What They Teach Us about Evangelism (Kregel Publications, 2019).