by Bob Smietana
For John Teter, evangelism means watching soccer these days.
Teter is pastor of Fountain of Life Church in Long Beach, California, where many of his neighbors are into soccer. So Teter is learning to love the game as well. “That’s not my normal cup of tea,” says Teter. “But I watch soccer games with them and ask a lot of questions.”
For Teter, evangelism starts with friendship. It’s an approach he first learned as an unbelieving college student at UCLA. Teter didn’t grow up in church and didn’t open a Bible until he was in his 20s. But he had a college friend who was a Christian and serious about his faith.
When his friend asked him to study the Bible, Teter decided to give it a try. Nine months later, he gave his life to Christ, thanks in large part to his Christian friend spending time with him and talking about God, the Bible and matters of faith.
“This friend helped me experience the Christian life for myself,” says Teter.
Evangelism yesterday and today
In the past, people came to faith first, Teter explains. Then they started to experience the Christian life in community with believers. Today, he says, experience often comes before belief.
He points to the contrasts between his conversion experience and that of his mother-in-law, as an example. Teter’s mother-in-law grew up going to Sunday school where she heard the gospel. She received Christ and then joined a church. That’s when she learned to experience God in community with other believers.
By contrast, Teter learned about the Bible and experienced Christian community long before coming to faith. “It used to be that people believed and then they belonged,” he says. “Now they belong first, experience Christian community, and then believe.” They see the Christian life lived out in front of them.
At Fountain of Life, it’s common for folks in the neighborhood to take part in church events like Bible studies or mission projects long before they recieve Christ.
It’s a bit like how we buy music today, says Teter. When he was growing up, people bought albums and hoped they’d find at least one song they liked.
“Today’s generation says ‘I want to experience that song, and then I’ll give you my 99 cents,’” he says.
A personal approach
Teter focuses much of his evangelism training on teaching members of his church how to be a friend. Ask your neighbors about their lives, he says, and be genuinely interested in them. Hang out together—watching sports or working on neighborhood projects. And don’t be afraid to talk about spiritual things.
“If you know how to pray, if you know how to be a friend, if you know how to help people experience God, and if you have learned how to tell the story of the gospel, you can do evangelism,” he says.
When it comes to evangelism, that kind of personal approach works best, according to a 2009 report from Lifeway Research. Most Americans are open to hearing about faith from a friend or neighbor (56 percent), or from a family member (63 percent).
Other approaches seem to turn off most Americans. Three out of four (76 percent) say they are unwilling to hear about matters of faith from people going door to door. Americans are also unwilling to receive spiritual information from door-hangers (66 percent), a letter in their mailbox (55 percent) or social media (66 percent).
Less than half are interested in a TV ad (40 percent) or radio spot (41 percent) on faith.
A personal approach is also a better way to invite people to church. Nearly two out of three (63 percent) Americans surveyed say a personal invitation from a friend or neighbor was an effective way to be asked to visit a church. An invitation from a family member was rated as effective by 67 percent of those surveyed.
Less than a third (31 percent) say a door-to-door invitation would be effective. Radio (33 percent) and TV (34 percent) also received low ratings. So did email (30 percent) and social media (30 percent).
About half (52 percent) say they might visit a church after receiving a postcard on a topic that interested them.
Time of year and current events also impact Americans’ openness to spiritual conversations. Americans were most open to matters of faith at Christmas (47 percent), Easter (38 percent) or after a natural disaster (34 percent). They were least open in summer (11 percent) or fall (11 percent).
A March 2013 online Lifeway poll of 1,054 Americans found that faith remains a common topic among Americans. One in three (32 percent) say someone shared their faith with them in the last week. One in four (24 percent) say someone prayed with them—outside of a church setting—in the last week as well.
All of that is good news, says Teter.
He says many people are open to talking about spirituality among friends. “In our evangelism, we fundamentally believe people are open,” he says. “We try to assume God is already at work and find out how.”
New methods for an old message
Gary Poole, a church consultant and author of Seeker Small Groups: Engaging Spiritual Seekers in Life-Changing Discussions, also believes listening is a first step in evangelism.
Poole worries that many Christians rely on what he calls the microwave approach to evangelism. They present the gospel and expect a nonbeliever to make an instant decision.
But giving your life to Christ is not often a snap decision. A microwave approach doesn’t give a non-Christian time to ask any questions or to tell their story, Poole adds.
“So much of the time evangelism is about me,” he says. “I feel I have to tell a non-Christian God’s story in three points or less. And we skip an important part of the process—listening to their story.”
Building real, lasting relationships is more important than ever when sharing the gospel in the age of the nones—those who have no religious affiliation. Churches will have to find new ways to inspire their people to reach out to their neighbors, especially those with little or no religious memories.
Poole suggests spending more time with non-Christians outside of the church. Inviting non-Christians to church is good, but spending time with them in real life can be better, he says.
That’s led Poole to develop the idea of holding small groups for non-believers. In a church, non-Christians usually are outnumbered by Christians and can feel intimidated. There’s often no space for them to ask questions or to share their experiences, he says.
Poole prefers what he calls a “spiritual discovery group”—with a few Christians but more non-Christians, where it feels safer to ask questions about matters of faith. “We found that non-Christians love to talk and share their stories,” he says. “It’s just they can’t find too many Christians who are willing to stop talking long enough to listen.”
A greater passion for mission
When it comes to areas of discipleship, churchgoers struggle most with sharing Christ with non-Christians, according to a recent study of church-going American Protestants.
Lifeway Research found 80 percent of churchgoers believe they have a personal responsibility to share their faith, but only 39 percent had told another person about how to become a Christian in the previous six months.
David Gibbons, founding pastor of NewSong, a multi-site, multiethnic church with campuses from California to Bangkok, says he’s moved away from the idea that the preacher is the main evangelist in a church. “I think everyone needs to see they are the ones who will be sharing the good news,” he says.
Gibbons also sees a move away from what he calls “pre-packaged formulaic presentations” of the gospel. Instead of using Christian jargon, Gibbons encourages Christians to speak in everyday language to tell the story of what God is doing in their lives.
“Evangelism, to me, is not a sales job or a presentation,” he says. “Evangelism should be more like a way of life. I am a living witness of who Jesus is.” He challenges his members to live like this.
Most of all, he says, Christians should love their friends, whether those friends accept Christ or not.
Go and tell
“For several decades we have focused on come and see, invest and invite, bring your friends to church by attracting them with a great program,” says Ed Stetzer, president of Lifeway Research. “We call that attractional ministry. Now we are facing the reality that fewer unchurched people are willing to visit a Christian church.
“This should compel us to embrace a go and tell—or incarnational—approach,” he says. “Should we invite our friends to church? Sure. But should we be, do and tell the gospel to people in culture? You bet. It is not only biblical, but it is even more essential today as our culture grows increasingly resistant to the church.”
While unchurched people are open to relationships, few church members are intentionally investing time developing relationships with non-Christians.
Says Stetzer: “Believers must resolve to step into their world and join Jesus in the harvest fields all around us to share the good news.”
Bob Smietana (@bobsmietana) is the senior writer and content editor of Facts & Trends.