Learning how to navigate through failure is a crucial element of success. We know this to be true in the business world, in ministry, in our family relationships, and in pretty much every arena of our lives.
This same principle is also true about evangelism.
Despite the important role it plays in cultivating success, a conversation about how to navigate failure is typically absent from our training in sharing the gospel. Evangelism training tools often equip us in how to start conversations and initiate new relationships. We also grow in our ability to share our testimonies and communicate the gospel.
While all of these are important components of evangelism, if we do not prepare and equip people to navigate failure well, our efforts to grow in evangelism will likely be short-lived.
So how do we address that gap? How do we equip others to navigate failure well, and how do we learn from failure ourselves? Let me offer three ways to begin navigating failure well in the context of evangelism.
First, allow God to redefine both success and failure.
When it comes to having spiritual conversations with people who don’t yet trust Jesus as their Savior, it is easy to define success as having the great answers for people’s tough questions and clearly communicating the different aspects of the gospel.
While both of those things are good and necessary, it is possible to do them and still miss the point of evangelism. First Corinthians 13:1-3 tells us that without love, even the greatest spiritual gifts don’t ultimately matter. This is also true about evangelism, which is both a spiritual gift and a spiritual discipline. If we have all the right answers and can clearly explain the gospel, but don’t have love, we’re wasting our breath.
As I let this truth sink into my soul, God began to shift my understanding of success in evangelism. I used to operate under a standard of performance that required me to say the right words at the right time, but that began to fade and it was replaced by a standard of love that focused more on me having the right heart posture toward others.
I learned that if I love the lost successfully, then it’s impossible to fail, and that realization has empowered me step into spiritual conversations with more courage and freedom.
Second, stand on the truth of Scripture to overcome past failure.
Evangelism involves spiritual warfare. As we share the gospel, we are communicating truth that has the power to set people free. We are partnering with God to bring people from the kingdom of darkness to the kingdom of light, and there is nothing that Satan hates more. Before we share the gospel, Satan will do everything he can to keep our mouths shut, and after we share, Satan will do everything he can to make us feel like failures – so that we don’t share again.
To be honest, I was kind of blindsided by this when I first began sharing the gospel. I would gather my courage to start a spiritual conversation and talk about Jesus with others, and after the conversation was finished, I would often be overwhelmed by a torrent of negative and critical self-talk.
This included thoughts like “You should’ve said that differently” or “Why didn’t you ask if you could pray for him?” or “You totally just stuck your foot in your mouth. Why did you open that can of worms?!”
Although some of that self-criticism can stem from the natural weaknesses of my driven personality, it was important for me to remember that Scripture refers to Satan as the accuser (Rev. 12:10) and that his voice of accusation can often sound like negative self-talk. In the midst of battling my thoughts, I desperately clung to Romans 8:1, which declares that “there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”
Whenever a self-critical thought would enter my mind, I repeated that verse and chose to reaffirm its truth in that moment. As I did so, I discovered that standing on the truth of Scripture powerfully silences the voices of accusation and condemnation that are otherwise easily overwhelming.
Third, take a few moments to learn from failure.
When we have moments where we feel like we’ve failed at something, we usually want to bury it and pretend like it never happened. The last thing we want to do is revisit it and talk about it – but that’s exactly what needs to happen if we want to grow. Learning from past mistakes requires humility and emotional resiliency, but it is well worth it!
As I set out to grow in evangelism, I discovered early on that I was going to make a lot of mistakes and that I wasn’t going to be perfect at it until maybe the millionth time I shared the gospel. In order to learn from my mistakes along the way, I began to ask two questions after each spiritual conversation I had:
1) God, what did you think about that conversation?
2) What can I learn from that?
These two questions have been game-changers for me. As I began asking God for his perspective, God repeatedly showed me something from the conversation that was worth celebrating. I needed this encouragement along the way, especially when it was hard to see past my mistakes.
Then, as I paused to reflect on where I could grow, my focus began to shift off of past experiences and onto future possibilities. I discovered that it’s harder to get discouraged in the process when tangible growth is evident.
Whether you adopt these two questions or choose to ask different ones, take a few moments to pause and reflect after each spiritual conversation you have. As you do, you will find yourself being transformed through the very same experiences that previously felt like failure.
As we grow in evangelism, it’s crucial for each of us to learn how to successfully navigate our own perceptions of failure. Let’s intentionally anchor our hearts in Scripture and invite God to redefine success and failure for us so that when we find ourselves in situations that don’t go as we’ve expected or hoped, we won’t get derailed from continuing to share the good news of Jesus with others.
Kerilee Van Schooten is Church Evangelism Research and Ministries Coordinator at the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College.