Pathways of Evangelism

 on June 9, 2023

Over the years, I have discovered a great strategy for teaching evangelism. In any group I was teaching, I would start by asking., “Did anyone here come to faith as an adult?” In a group of twenty or thirty, there are always a few. So, I ask, “Can you describe for us how that happened?” They would then tell their story. I would ask the group to listen carefully, and report what struck them. The seminar would then teach itself! How come?

Coming to faith is a very personal thing—like falling in love—and yet there are some things that all such experiences have in common. The first thing that people often notice is that coming to faith is a slow process. There are no quick conversions—at least, of the kind that last, generally. For the majority, it takes between six months and three years to figure out that they want to follow Jesus.

This shouldn’t surprise us. After all, many of Jesus’ parables are about farming and the process of ploughing, sowing, watering, weeding, waiting, and, finally, if all goes well, reaping. It is a natural phenomenon—but it is also a truth of the Kingdom. God’s ways of working are consistent across physical and spiritual realities.

During that process, different people play different parts. It may have been a kind neighbour who just happened to be a churchgoer. Or someone who invited them to a Christmas carol service, which touched deeply. From time to time, I hear people say, with some embarrassment, that something a street preacher said as they hurried past on the other side stayed with them and made them think. God is apparently very unscrupulous. Or a friend told the story of why their faith is important in their life.

In most stories, there comes a time when those moving towards faith begin to hang around the fringes of the Christian community. It might not have been a Eucharist, which is very alien if you’ve never encountered it before, but it might have been Messy Church, which was invented for that very purpose, or an informal Bible discussion group in a home. This is often called “belonging before believing.”

It’s not unusual for people to describe how they began to be involved in the things that Christians do. I remember doing a weekly Bible study in a coffee shop with a young man who was exploring faith. When the server asked what we were doing, I kept quiet and let him do the explaining—witnessing to the faith he didn’t yet have. He was good with computers, so I encouraged him to give technical support at a church-run home for new refugee claimants. In other words, I began to get him involved in the things that Christians do, even though he was not yet a Christian. That’s called “behaving before believing,” and it’s not an uncommon stage in the journey to faith.

At some point, those moving towards faith heard a verbal explanation of what it is all about. They may have asked a direct question: “So what exactly is this Good News you keep referring to?” and got a helpful answer. Or they heard a sermon about beginning the Christian life. Or they enquired about baptism, and were helped to understand the words of the baptismal service. We tend to downplay the importance of words—“I witness by my life”—but in my experience, discussion and verbal explanation are almost always an important part of people’s stories.

Often, people will have attended an introductory course to faith, like Alpha or something similar. Such courses are helpful in that they give newcomers time to think about what they are learning, ask questions, and come to their own decisions. But they also build community, usually over food—another opportunity to belong before believing.

Other factors come up regularly—a personal crisis, wondering about the meaning of life, guilt over wrongdoing, and so on. The order in which these things occur may vary, as may the rate of progress—of course. God works with us individually. But there is always a gradual process involving these different factors.

In her book Travelling Mercies, the writer Ann Lamott describes her conversion like this:

“My coming to faith did not always start with a leap but rather a series of staggers from what seemed like one safe place to another. Like lily pads, round and green, these places summoned and then held me up while I grew,” says Lamott.  “Each prepared me for the next leaf on which I would land, and in this way I moved across the swamp of doubt and fear.”

The people I have invited to tell their stories all described a sequence of safe places. Lily pads, if you will, to borrow from Lamott. Can we provide lily pads for those who are seeking faith? That might require some thinking outside our usual boxes.

One Advent, our church advertised a series of three sermons on Christmas movies—A Christmas Carol, Miracle on 34th Street, and How the Grinch Stole Christmas. A young woman walking past one Sunday morning saw the poster on the sidewalk, walked in to listen, and ended up being baptised the following Easter. The unconventional sermon topics were one of the final lily pads on her way to baptism. Does all this sound interesting? Exciting, even? If so, maybe we need to think again about evangelism.

  • John Bowen

    John Bowen is Professor Emeritus of Evangelism at Wycliffe College in Toronto, where he was also the Director of the Institute of Evangelism. Before that, he worked a campus evangelist for Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship. For over thirty years, John has been a popular speaker, teacher, and preacher, on university campuses, in churches and in classrooms, and at conferences, across Canada and the USA. His most recent book is The Unfolding Gospel: How the Good News Makes Sense of Discipleship, Church, Mission, and Everything Else (Fortress 2021).

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