I teach college students how to share the Gospel with their peers. We always start by calling out the most negative thoughts or feelings we have on the subject. Coercion comes ups. Fear of rejection comes up. Negative associations of evangelism come up. I share that for the first 15 years of my faith I simply didn’t share the Gospel with others, even when given a golden opportunity. Why? Because I internalized a message that evangelism was synonymous with selling a used car. “What do I have to do to get you into Jesus today?” was my overwhelmingly negative association of evangelism.
I grew up hearing about the 3 B’s of church growth: baptisms, budgets, and buildings. Alternative versions of this list abound, but at the heart the message was a growing (and implicitly faithful) church concerned itself with how many people it brought it, how much money those people gave, and expanding facilities to fit in all the new people. The message for individual Christians was pretty clear. Our job was to convince other people to follow Jesus, give sacrificially of our resources, and help the church expand.
Bad at Evangelism
Convincing another person to do something is tricky. Without coercion, there is no guarantee that your attempts to convince will work. Persuasion simply isn’t a formula.
This is especially true when it comes to spiritual matters. If conversion– the act of repenting of our sin and placing our trust in the death and resurrection of Jesus– is actually a spiritual process, it likely won’t follow our notions of persuasion. Jesus taught as much: “The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.” (John 3:8)
As I learned once I started sharing the Gospel with others, we can do and say everything correctly, answer objections reasonably and whimsically, and still not convince our hearer. Are we then a failure because we didn’t “close the deal”? Within the 3 B’s framework, the answer is yes. An effective evangelist gets people to say yes to Jesus. Consequently, most rank and file Christians opt out of evangelism in spite of the repeated charges from their leaders to engage. They– and I for a long time– consider ourselves to be “bad” at evangelism.
Conversion Isn’t Like Flipping a Light Switch
Only measuring outcomes in evangelism not only misrepresents what we’re asking people to do, it also leads to faulty understandings of what conversion is. Many Christians seem to think that coming to faith in Jesus is akin to having one big “AHA!” moment. We tend to structure our own stories of coming to faith in this fashion. All of the background to our decision to follow Jesus is largely glossed over to share about our moment of clarity when it all seemed to click.
But even the most dramatic stories of conversion have tons of relevant background information. This first came into stark focus for me when I completed a project for my campus ministry internship. I wanted to find out who had influenced our ministry’s student leaders in both their initial coming to faith and growth in faith. I expected to hear my students share about one specific figure or moment when they described their conversion. Instead, I repeatedly heard stories that began in childhood and resulted in a decision to follow Jesus much later. I expected to hear about a singular influential person or moment. Instead, I heard stories of multiple significant figures and moments prior to deciding to follow Jesus.
In “I Once Was Lost,” Don Everts and Doug Schaupp interviewed a large group of young adults who had converted to Christianity from largely agnostic or atheistic backgrounds. The overwhelming majority of these new converts reported having multiple significant figures over a period of at least 6 years prior to deciding to following Jesus for themselves.
Conversion isn’t like flipping a light switch. It isn’t about hearing the magic words that makes Jesus “click” for us.
Instead, it’s a slow, steady, non-linear, spiritual process.
Our ministry started teaching students to think about conversion on a continuum ranging from 0 (I don’t want to believe God exists) to 10 (I have repented of my sins and placed my trust in Jesus). Assume you meet someone who is a 3 or 4 on that scale. They have a whole personal history that has led them to be there. Eventually, we want them to get to a 10. God can do whatever He pleases and is perfectly capable of drawing that person to faith in Christ after one conversation. At the same time, we have tons of evidence to suggest that this isn’t normative. Playing a part in a process is normative.
As a campus ministry, we might have 2-3 years of influence in this person’s life. If the standard from “I Once Was Lost” is 6 years, then a faithful witness in this hypothetical person’s life would be moving them from a 3 to a 6 over that period of time. It would included faithfully praying for God to draw this person to repentance and faith, taking multiple opportunities to share one’s testimony and the Gospel with the person, and inviting them to check out Christian community in some form.
In short, we invited students to play a part in the process of God drawing people to faith in Jesus. We removed the burden of making them feel like they were entirely and solely responsible for the work of conversion. And we emphasized the spiritual nature of the work that God invites us to participate in.
Since you measure what you treasure, how does one measure this process?
A Better Metric for Evangelism
Following the above process shifts the focus of evangelism from outcome to faithfulness. Instead asking people if or how many people they have led to faith in Jesus, we instead ask how many times they’ve shared Jesus with others. Opening one’s mouth and sharing the Gospel with a friend, family member, or co-worker is intimidating for most Christians. Celebrating the act of doing so normalizes the practice and reinforces the behavior.
It also leans into the spiritual dynamics at play. If it is true that “our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Eph 6:12), then teaching spiritual dependance is a necessary practice in evangelism. There will come a point in the process where a person feels at their end and powerless. Instead of being a point of abandonment, this becomes an invitation to deeper prayer and engagement with the Holy Spirit.
Emphasizing faithfulness is a framework that is more true to Scripture than emphasizing conversion. It’s more controllable for individuals, hence it’s less deflating when one “fails.” And it’s more in tune with the spiritual dynamics of conversion as described in Scripture.
It’s time for a shift in our metrics.