How do I answer a Jehovah’s Witness?
What can I say to my intellectual friend who’s a scientist?
What’s a good resource for understanding Islam?
How do I speak to a complacent agnostic?
What’s the best approach with the New Age devotee?
Most weeks someone asks me a question like this. To be honest, most days I ask myself a similar one: How can I best communicate Jesus to this person? We never evangelize into thin air—there’s always an audience, always a conversation, always a context. Our lives of witness consist of messy circumstances and complicated people.
Those complications can be frustrating for folks like me who love to imagine ideal evangelistic encounters. In my head I’m able to concoct lengthy dialogues in which I trounce my unfortunate opponents, leaving them convinced of Jesus’s lordship (not to mention my own unquestioned brilliance). Yet this “shadow boxing” bears no resemblance to the real thing, and is disastrously divorced from the sharing of life that should normally accompany the sharing of the gospel (1 Thess. 2:8).
Evangelism isn’t a doctrine download. It involves doctrines, but God doesn’t beam down pure theology onto the unsuspecting. He reaches people through people. And people are tricky. This means evangelism can never be “one size fits all.” Each encounter will be different, and all those questions I began with will come into play. In fact, they will be greatly intensified.
Evangelism isn’t a doctrine download.
I want to make two basic points here. They may seem contradictory, but I think we must acknowledge and embrace both if we’re going to witness well.
1. Everyone Is Different
If I’m witnessing to my neighbor Abdul, it can be helpful to know what Muslims believe. But to imagine research into Islam will be the key to unlock Abdul is both insulting and naïve. It’s insulting because Abdul deserves to be known for who he is, not stereotyped. It’s naïve because even if I’ve perfectly understood what Abdul is meant to believe (which is a big “if”), Abdul himself may believe something quite different.
This holds true for all kinds of people. There’s no such thing as a “scientist” or “new ager” in the abstract. What exists are infinitely complicated people who are also academic scientists, new agers, and so on. We’re never dealing with pure ideology when we’re dealing with people.
This reality calls for an unquenchable curiosity. Before being an answerer, the evangelist is first and foremost a questioner. And this point turns on its head my natural assumptions about evangelism. I might have thought my job was to be interesting. In fact, my calling is to be interested. This is actually a relief since I’m not very interesting, and few things are more boring than a person trying to be interesting. On the other hand, there are few things more nourishing than an interested conversation partner. And this is what Jesus calls us to be.
Before being an answerer, the evangelist is first and foremost a questioner. . . . I might have thought my job was to be interesting. In fact, my calling is to be interested.
It’s often noted that Jesus asked far more questions than he answered in the Gospels. The eternal Word of God—heaven’s great answer—put 290 different questions to his hearers. When he was asked questions of his own he responded, as often as not, with another question. While many of us have our “silver bullet” answers on a hair trigger, Jesus didn’t handle his encounters this way. He delved into his questioners’ backgrounds, desires, motivations, and assumptions. The one who “knew all people” never stopped inquiring about them. How can we be any less inquisitive when we really don’t know our hearers or where they’re coming from?
When people ask me how to witness to those from other faiths and backgrounds, I’m heartened. We have 130 episodes of the Evangelists’ Podcast, of which a large number engage with the many faiths and worldviews out there. All of that training is important. But in all the advice I give, my bottom line is usually this: “If you want to know about Islam, ask your Muslim friends.” If you inquire of your friends, you will honor them, your understanding of that worldview will be far richer, and, crucially, you can then be sure you’re interacting with your friends’ actual beliefs. For all these reasons, I recommend treating your non-Christian friend as unique and therefore becoming ravenously curious.
2. Everyone Is the Same
This point might seem contradictory, but it’s not. There are a million ways for people to pursue the same goals. We need to honor both the differences and the similarities. As for the similarities, Dan Aykroyd put it well in The Blues Brothers: “There are still some things that make us all the same.” Then he sings, “Everybody needs somebody to love.” That’s a good candidate for a universal trait: the need for love. And with our Bible spectacles on we can recognize how true this is. “God has set eternity in the human heart” (Ecc. 3:11). He has “marked out [our] appointed times in history . . . so that [we] would seek him” (Acts 17:26–27).
This point relates to a question I’m always trying to ask in evangelism: What gets you up in the morning? What do you live for? We all have a common need for meaning, purpose, and significance. As part of my curiosity I’ll be delving into that area and looking for ways to speak of the surprising God of love—the God of Jesus who first subverts and then fulfills our longings.
Second, I ask: What gets you down? What is the shape of your struggles with life and struggles with yourself? At this point I’ll share about my own struggles, supremely those with sin and selfishness. (I find the best way to provoke repentance in others is to begin with confession myself.)
I find the best way to provoke repentance in others is to begin with confession myself.
Third, I ask: What gets you through? Given life’s struggles, what are your coping mechanisms? What comforts you? What gives you hope? Here I’m keen to listen to their experiences and share about “the hope that is within” me (1 Pet. 3:15).
First Peter 3:15 is, of course, a classic verse on evangelism. But we must read it in context. Peter’s command to “give an answer” isn’t a license to pontificate, for it comes in a deeply relational context. It’s part of a conversation. The whole paragraph begins with the admonition: “Be sympathetic, love one another, be compassionate and humble” (1 Pet. 3:8). This is our posture: sympathy, love, compassion, and humility. These are traits that could arrest and engage anyone, no matter his or her beliefs or lack thereof.
So let’s enjoy the differences of our non-Christian friends. Let’s explore them. And as we ask our many questions, we will see how the one, universal Answer shines through.
- 3 Ways to Share the Gospel This Week (Matt Smethurst)
Editors’ note: This adapted article originally appeared at Evangelical Magazine.