I’ll call him Hal. He was trying to teach me how he did street evangelism, and trying to show me how he picked people to witness to.
First, pick a place to stand, and watch the passers-by as they come your way. Look at their body language: Do they walk quickly, eyes straight ahead, pretending you’re invisible (like they do with beggars), pretending they have somewhere to be? Or do they walk slowly, glancing around, nodding hello, willing to listen to you if you stopped to distract them? That’s the sort of person who’s open to you speaking with them. The other will usually just tell you, “Sorry. Not now.”
Still, Hal pointed out, don’t forget to listen to the Holy Spirit in all this. If the Spirit interrupts you and says, “No, not that one,” then no, not that one. If there’s a man nearly running by and the Spirit says, “Stop him,” then stop him.
Okay. Armed with this knowledge, I took my position and people-watched. The first two wouldn’t make eye contact. (I even said “Hello” as they passed—I do that ordinarily; it’s not a trick to get people to break concentration.) The next few were likewise too busy to turn aside.
Hal got impatient.
“Is the Spirit telling you no on all these people?” he said.
“They’re all giving off the ‘uninterested’ vibe,” I pointed out.
Two power-walkers later, Hal lost patience altogether and accosted the second man. “Hello!” he said, and began his spiel… only to have the man respond that no, he really was in a hurry to get someplace, and off he went. I resisted the temptation to ask Hal whether the Holy Spirit had said yes to that guy.
Hal proceeded to break his own procedure three more times. We got nowhere.
I think his guidelines are quite valid, though. If you ever find yourself having to do street evangelism, remember: Holy Spirit and body language. If they don’t look interested, don’t try to force Jesus upon them. And if the Holy Spirit overrules your impressions, follow his directions.
But I tell you this little story to make a bigger point: Patience.
Hal is a patient man. I changed his name so that you don’t get the wrong impression of him. It just happened to be that on that day, we were fishing for souls and the fish weren’t biting. Sometimes that happens. Can’t be helped. Annoyingly for him, it coincided with my training day, which meant the day was a bust in two ways. So he was trying to force the situation… and, as he himself coulda told you, it doesn’t work that way. You can’t force circumstances. You work with the conditions you have.
Other evangelists do not agree, and do try to force circumstances. They perform stunts: They dress outrageously, or get a bullhorn and get loud, or hand out free food—but you gotta listen to their message before you can have the food.
Or they’ll write what they consider clever tracts, “guaranteed” to get attention. Usually the tract looks like it’s about something other than Christ, just to get you reading. Sometimes there’s shock value involved: They condemn something, like another religion (whether it be Mormons or Muslims or even fellow Christians) or certain things in the popular culture (like Harry Potter books or reality shows). Or they threaten you with hell and mayhem. Whatever gets you to start reading… and then put it down in about two minutes, and mutter to yourself, “Oh, it’s Christian. Feh.”
You can see the general theme though. They aren’t willing for things to happen naturally. The rest of the world doesn’t work that way, you know. We have to make our opportunities. We have to seize the day. We have to go out and get that job, or that sale, or that bargain, or whatever it is that we have to go out and get. We can’t passively sit around and wait for things to fall out of the sky. So they assume the same is true of evangelism. Go into all the world and make disciples, right? Don’t just expect them to wander into your church.
And I agree: Christians should be active, not passive. Where I disagree is the sort of activity we engage in. “Active” means actively obeying God and following the Spirit’s direction. It doesn’t mean, “Well, I don’t see anything happening, so I’m gonna go make it happen.” If something’s not happening, sometimes that’s because God’s time has not yet come. Christians aren’t obedient enough yet, and need rebuking. Or Christians haven’t prepared enough yet, and need training. Or Christians are too unfruitful to lead others, and need maturing. Could be any number of reasons. The answer to all your problems is not to bypass them with a six-week evangelism seminar, a slew of gospel tracts, a citywide campaign, and people willing to hassle passers-by. It is not to co-opt the methods of multi-level marketing in order to share Jesus. That works great for selling a consumable product, and for temporarily committing people to buy that product. Jesus wants people to voluntarily and totally surrender their lives to him. He’s hardly a product. (If anything in my analogy compares, we are more like the product than Christ is; he wishes to use us.)
So back to Hal’s directions. Watch for body language—Pay attention to the people whom you’re interacting with. Are they open to spiritual things? Are they willing to talk about Jesus? Or are they too busy, or too locked in to another religion, or their prejudices tell them religion is foolish; or do they think they’re just fine with God so long that they don’t sin too much? Force nothing on anyone. But if they’re willing to talk, talk.
And of course, follow the Spirit. Regardless of what you observe, you don’t know the whole picture. The Spirit, however, does. If he tells you to ignore what you observe and share Jesus anyway, do it. If he tells you to ignore what you think is an open door and shut up, do it. He knows all; we don’t; it’s idiotic to ignore his warnings simply because “God’s word won’t return void,” so go ahead and play leapfrog in that minefield.
And last, and equally important, be patient. Don’t force opportunities by creating set-ups and scams and shock. Watch your environment carefully for the opportunities that the Spirit has already set up for you. They’re there already; you just have to ask him to show you where they are. Do your job when the time comes—your job being to share your experiences with others, and tell them who Jesus is and what he’s done for you. Not to “seal the deal”; that’s the Spirit’s job. Nor to apply pressure; that, too, is the Spirit’s job. Just share. And when it’s not time to share, wait. And get ready.