Evangelism Is Not a Sales Pitch

An Interview with Randy Newman

A few weeks ago I was at my weekly lunch with David, a non-Christian reading the Gospel of Mark with me. David has been spending time with Christians for about a year but had yet to repent of his sins and trust in Jesus. By God’s grace, before our lunch was over, David professed faith in Jesus!

What happened during that lunch?

Just days before, I had finished reading Randy Newman’s excellent book, Questioning Evangelism: Engaging People’s Hearts the Way Jesus Did (Kregel, 2017). Newman calls Christians to employ questions in their evangelism—questions “to move the conversation in a Christ-ward direction, questions that non-Christians are asking (either directly or indirectly), and questions that Christians can use as answers” (19).

At my lunch with David, I put into practice what I learned from Newman’s book. I listened to him more, I asked follow-up questions, and eventually (and unexpectedly) the door opened for me to ask a penetrating question that I believe the Holy Spirit used to open David’s eyes to the reality of his sin and his need for forgiveness.

Questioning Evangelism will benefit Christians in their pursuit of more faithful evangelism. The book is the fruit of Newman’s decades of experience in personal evangelism. Further, as a teaching fellow for evangelism and apologetics at the C. S. Lewis Institute and the founder of Connection Points (a ministry to help Christians proclaim the gospel well), he is uniquely qualified to teach, train, and encourage others.

Newman answered some of my questions, providing further insights and encouragements that I trust will benefit your evangelistic efforts.

You mention that motivations to share the faith have changed over the years. How have motivations changed? How can pastors and church leaders encourage proper motivations for evangelism?

I do think motivations have changed. For quite a while, I sensed people wanted to learn how to share their faith because they felt guilty they weren’t witnessing more. The results weren’t always pretty. If you want to share the good news simply to feel better about yourself or to alleviate a vague feeling of guilt, your focus won’t be on the person or your message. It’ll be on yourself, and that will distort the evangelism process terribly.

Then, I think we gained confidence to share our faith because we had a lot of apologetic ammunition. I choose that word ammunition on purpose, since our motivation was to win battles and arguments. Much of it arose from arrogance. I think that was even worse than the days of the guilt motivation.

Today, as I interact with Christians seeking training in evangelism, I sense the motivation has shifted to concern for people. They see how messed up people’s lives are without the Lord and want to help them. In other words, the dominant motivation has moved from guilt to pride to love. That’s a great trend.

Pastors and leaders can share their concern for people through sermons and discipleship conversations. They can tell of attempts to witness and how they saw the other person as lost and in need of salvation. And they shouldn’t always tell success stories. People need to hear that this isn’t easy, even for pastors and “full-time” ministers.

What are some of the pitfalls of viewing evangelism as a sales pitch? How can we boldly share the gospel without giving the impression that it’s a product we’re selling?

We can definitely learn some things from people in the world of sales. I’ve benefited from listening to how salespersons engage their potential customers in conversation by asking good questions. I’ve also learned a few things about how to move a conversation toward a desired end. But the gospel isn’t a product, and evangelism isn’t a sales presentation. We need to think about how the Bible talks about people coming to faith and about God’s design for evangelism.

The gospel isn’t a product, and evangelism isn’t a sales presentation.

People come to faith in ways similar to the wind (see John 3). There’s a mysterious nature about it, along with some logical discussions (consider how Jesus appealed to Nicodemus’s intellect). Evangelism is both a supernatural event (God raises us from the dead) and a human enterprise (we’re to “speak clearly,” as Paul puts it in Colossians 4).

The more we think biblically about evangelism, the more we’ll pray and ask God to do what only he can do. At the same time, we’ll step into gospel conversations because we know God uses people in the process.

‘I don’t know’ or ‘I need to think about that’ can be some of the best evangelistic lines we can say in a day when people are tired or skeptical of know-it-alls.

And it helps if we don’t always know what to say! “I don’t know” or “I need to think about that” can be some of the best evangelistic lines we can say in a day when people are tired or skeptical of know-it-alls.

One of the biggest surprises in your book—and one of my favorite aspects—was your use of the Old Testament, particularly Proverbs, in encouraging evangelism. What can we learn about evangelism from the Book of Proverbs?

A lot of us want a formula for evangelism, but evangelism requires wisdom more than a script. Proverbs helps us see life as complex as it really is and people as multifaceted as they really are. It helps us with emotions like anger and issues like foolishness. These things do play a significant role in evangelism. Sometimes people get mad at us, or we get mad at them. Sometimes people say foolish things to us, and sometimes we’re the fool!

Proverbs helps with many vital aspects of the process beyond just the content of our words.

Can you remember any conversations you’ve had about the Lord that should’ve been avoided? Why? How could you have handled it differently? 

How many hours do you have to listen? More important, how much Prozac can you give me? I’ve had many failures and made many mistakes. My book could have easily been titled Evangelism by Trial and Error.

I’ll just share one. I was at an art show and saw a painting filled with spiritual images. I guessed the artist was into New Age beliefs based on his paintings, and, after asking a few questions about his work, I found I was right. At that point, I was doing okay. Asking questions can sometimes be a good idea—or so I’ve heard.

But after he finished explaining his painting, I simply preached a mini-sermon about how he was wrong and Jesus was the only way. Astonishingly, he didn’t respond well! I wish I would’ve asked more questions, asked him if he’d read much of the Bible, suggested some things for him to consider, and allowed the process to go at the rate the Spirit was working instead of according to my prepared recipe.

You encourage sharing a testimony that emphasizes the daily differences that faith in Christ has made rather than the typical how-I-became-a-Christian testimony (240). Can you elaborate on this point? Why do you see the former as more valuable than the latter?

Both kinds of testimonies are valuable, but the “here’s why this is important to me” testimony connects to a wider audience than the “here’s how I became a Christian” testimony. We should be ready to share both. “Here’s how I became a Christian” testimonies can easily be dismissed with comments like, “I’m happy for you.” In some cases, if our testimony tells of deliverance from a great problem like drug addiction, anyone without that problem can believe it has no relevance for her life. But when we share how faith makes a difference in our lives now, it can better connect.

Evangelism requires wisdom more than a script.

That said, we need to express our experience as it relates to all people. In other words, it’s far better to talk about having a clear conscience because of our sins are forgiven, or not fearing death because we have eternal life, than it is to talk about “Jesus makes me happy.” Everyone needs forgiveness, and everyone faces death.

What’s the difference between sharing my testimony and sharing the gospel?  

The gospel is a precise message of God sending his Son to pay for the sins of people, who need to respond. There are many messages that could pave the way for a gospel presentation—apologetics or a personal testimony, for example. There are also many conversations that could follow a gospel presentation—how the gospel changes people or cultures, for example.

But we need to keep a narrow definition of the actual gospel message. Otherwise, we’ll start saying (as many do today) “That’s the gospel!” when we’re talking about feeding hungry people or working for justice or producing beautiful art or doing good work. All of those things flow out from the gospel or point to the gospel, but they are not the gospel.

Sharing your testimony, for instance, can point to the gospel, illustrate the effects of the gospel, compel people to consider the gospel, or many other things. But it must not be mistaken for the gospel. Do I think, then, that sharing your testimony isn’t worthwhile? Certainly not. It’s one of the best pre-evangelistic things you can do. You can even weave the two together. You can give your testimony and say something like, “I never realized why Jesus had to die. When someone explained to me . . .” Then you can preach the gospel while sharing your testimony. I think that’s what Paul did in Acts 26. He wove in components of the gospel to his story of his conversion (see especially verses 6–7 and 20–23).