Three Types of Evangelistic Contexts: Contact, Context, and Friendship
Over the years, I have noticed at least three different kinds of evangelistic contexts we may encounter when engaging in personal evangelism. Of course, if there are three types of contexts, there may be 33; but for the purposes of this article, let’s look at these three.
First, there is contact evangelism.
This is the kind of situation similar to what is depicted in John 4, where Jesus meets and speaks with the woman at the well, or the passage in Acts 17, where it speaks of Paul in Athens talking to anyone he happened to meet in the marketplace (or Agora).
Unique to this context is the fact that the one with a heart to share the love of God and his offer of forgiveness in Christ goes out and encounters whoever happens to come by. The context is one of intentionality.
Both Jesus and Paul are there with the goal to share the gospel with others. It is interesting to note that both begin their discussions with what is accessible and noteworthy, common to all parties. Jesus begins his discussion with the woman at the well with water. He even puts himself and his needs at the disposal of the woman and begins with the request, “Give me a drink.” She is surprised by the Jesus’ disregard of social custom and her curiosity awakens. From this, the discussion begins and opens up until the gospel is presented to a hungry soul.
Similarly, Paul is talking to those he meets also using the signs he observes in the culture. Consequently, he is brought before the intellectuals of Athens as they gather at Mars Hill. Here, Paul’s observation of Athenian culture provides further points of contact and he is able to open the door wider, enabling him to share the gospel also in the context of growing curiosity.
In this context, it should be noted that the one sharing the gospel is intentional about it. At times, one who has a heart for winning others for Christ may want to ask a complete stranger, “I’m out talking to people about Jesus, would you be willing to talk?” This puts all the cards on the table and gives the person an opportunity to say “Yes” or “No”.
My personal experience is that approximately 60% of the people I ask are willing. I think, in part, the openness is due to two things. First, since Jesus said, “The fields are white unto harvest,” (that is, there are people out there who want to know about him), he has already prepared the hearts.
So I pray, “Lord, if you are preparing people to hear about you, I am here willing to share about you. Would you be so kind as to lead me to those whose hearts are ready to talk about these things?” If somebody says he or she has no interest, I thank that person for his or her time and move on. Nevertheless, I always find people interested and even eager to talk.
The second reason why I find this is because I believe our culture is spiritually hungry. Our secular society remains by-in-large silent about serious talk about spiritual things. I think Augustine was right when he said, “Our hearts are restless. O God, until they find their rest in Thee.”
When a person is open to talk, introduce yourself to that person and ask him or her if he or she is a person of faith. Listen to his or her story. Ask God to guide you. When it comes time to actually present the gospel, you will know a little bit about the felt need of this person and can connect the good news at the very place of felt need. Of course, not all are as wired to engage in this method used by both Jesus and Paul, but there are at least two other ways remaining.
Second, there is context evangelism.
This occurs when a person finds himself or herself in a context thrown together with another person through circumstance. This might include sitting next to someone on an airplane, riding in a taxi or Uber, or in the waiting room at the doctor’s office. In these situations, it is relatively easy to begin a conversation drawing on the context itself for discussion.
On a plane, it is travel. In a taxi, it is asking if the driver is from that city, or how long he or she has been driving. Sometimes, you can even ask the person to tell you the story of his or her most unusual driving experience. These are sometimes very funny and open the conversation up.
Begin by asking public questions: “What is your name?” “Is this the city where you learned to drive?” Listen to the answers. Any new bit of information gives you permission to ask more deeply about what is disclosed. To be loving and genuinely interested often leads to a deepening discussion.
Eventually, spiritual hunger exhibits itself and then there is a place to Velcro the gospel in a natural, unobtrusive way. I have seen this happen over and over throughout my life. I do not have the gift of evangelism, but I do hold evangelistic interest as a high value. I am glad those who first shared the gospel with me did as well.
Furthermore, I have tried to learn from my mistakes and grow, through practice, at getting better at this very important spiritual discipline. Christianity is missional. All of us are called to let others know they are loved unconditionally by God and that there is no failure in life that he cannot forgive.
Context provides opportunity, every day, to the person alert to the heart of God for others we meet in the normal activities of life.
Third, there is friendship evangelism.
Many say that contact evangelism and context evangelism is beyond their comfort zone. They prefer to keep their evangelism in the realm of talking with friends. But friendship evangelism also has its challenges. Often, the friendship has grown and developed, sometimes for years, and the topic of spiritual things has never percolated to the surface.
In time, the friend may know things about us that makes it seem hypocritical if we bring up the topic. Sometimes, after long silences about these matters, it becomes difficult and awkward to speak about what might have been embarrassing for us to have addressed up until now.
There is one organization, Cru, that has a very effective way to address these circumstances and bring the gospel into the conversation. Simply remark to your friend,
You know, I was thinking about our friendship the other day and I became embarrassed about my failure before you. I have known you for years. I know so much about you: your favorite sports teams, your favorite restaurants, even the names and interests of your children. But I realized we’ve never talked about spiritual things. I know nothing about your spiritual story. Do you think, sometime, we can talk about this? I’d love to hear your story.
Cru found that about 90% of people respond with, “Yes, we can do that sometime.” The next time you have small talk with the friend, don’t bring up the topic. But the following time you talk together, recollect that you both thought that “sometime” you might have this conversation so you can hear your friend’s spiritual story.
Set up a lunch or breakfast appointment and listen. Ask appropriate questions to go deeper. After you hear the story, inevitably you will be asked, “Tell me your story.” This provides opportunity to tell of your own pilgrimage to faith. You will be able to connect your story to the felt need in evidence in your friend’s story.
If you see deep interest, do not be afraid to ask, “Is there any reason why you wouldn’t want to trust Christ right now?” If your friend has some obstacle in the way, don’t let that be a conversation stopper. Note that it is a worthy objection, question, or conundrum, and ask if he or she would mind if you nosed around to find if there is an answer to the troubling questions. It is likely that he or she will be open to this, and the conversation about spiritual things becomes a thread woven into the fabric of the friendship.
Keep praying. In time, it is likely you will really be doing friendship evangelism.
These three types of contexts for evangelism are easily accessible, and incredibly fun. I say fun because few things are more enjoyable than being in partnership with the God of the universe and sensing in your life that he is loving others to himself through you!
Dr. Jerry Root is Professor of Evangelism at Wheaton College and Director of the Evangelism Initiative at the Billy Graham Center.