Lenten Guest Post – Day 6 – A Discouraging Word

“A lot of people won’t take no for an answer. I just wanted you to know that I’m not one of them. I can be easily discouraged. I will take no for an answer.” — spoken by the character Josh Neff in The Last Days of Disco.

What exactly happens when you “share the gospel” with someone? What is it that you hope will happen? I imagine that most christians hope that the other will say, “yes, you are right, I DO need to repent of my sins and turn exclusively to Jesus for my salvation and guidance. How soon can I be baptized and join your church?”

I had the good fortune a number of years ago to hear Os Guinness speaking on evangelism, and he shared an idea, or rather a vivid picture, of an alternative way to think about this issue. He said we could picture people as being somewhere along a one dimensional meaure where -100 would be as opposed to the gospel as possible, 100 would be a fully matured believer, and 0 the point of acceptance of the gospel. He then added that most works on evangelism focus exclusively on dealing with people who are at -1 or -2 and getting them across that threshold. He suggested, instead, that perhaps we should be content, in some or many cases, to move people from -60 to -50. Our work is not to “save” people, but merely to announce the Word to them, and anything bring them closer to understanding and receiving is a good work.

How do we go about this? Guinness suggested, I think wisely, that much of this can be done by asking people challenging questions. Jesus does this quite often in the gospel stories. However, I don’t want this simply to be a recapitulation of Mr Guinness’s lecture, so I will point toward another method employed by Jesus.

In John chapter 1, verses 35 through 38 we have the following:

The next day as John stood there again with two of his disciples, Jesus went past, and John looked towards him and said, “Look, there is the lamb of God.” And the two disciples heard what he said and followed Jesus. Jesus turned round, saw them following and said, “What do you want?” They answered, “Rabbi”—which means Teacher—“where do you live?”—NJB

I hope I’m not badly misinterpreting this passage, but it strikes me that Jesus sees these people who obviously WANT to follow him and asks them, “Exactly what do you think you are doing?” This is known in the sales technique world as the “take away”. The idea is that one can build interest and/or curiosity by suggesting that the prospect wouldn’t really be the right person for what you have to offer. The works by triggering the prospect to think “I need to show him that I AM good enough/qualified enough for this thing.”

Perhaps this might also be familiar to you from watching old martial arts films. When the young man in the film needs to pursue his vengence on the evil warlord, he seeks out a great martial arts teacher who can instruct him on the proper techniques for kicking, umm, well sometimes just kicking. The teacher sends the youth away. The youth is persistent enough to be accepted by the teacher, only to be put under a strenuous regime which seems to have little to do with fighting skills. This serves to build up the strength and will of the young man so that he can achieve excellence in kung-fu, or whatever.

I’m not sure I have ever seen this method proposed as an evangelistic strategy, but I’m enough of a contrarian to think it might be worth pursuing. I would certainly love to hear from anyone who either has ideas on how such a strategy could work or from someone who has actually tried it. Two situations occur to me where such a strategy might possibly be appropriate.

First, the use of curiosity to build interest. This needs to be done VERY carefully. One simple application is as an intro to some sort of evangelistic event (this could include something as simple as a small group Bible study). The way it works is by inviting someone with the opening, “I don’t know if this would be your sort of thing . . .” or “I don’t even know if this would interest you, but . . .” This has to be followed by something which might generate some interest, but you should NOT go into great detail about what to expect. The less you say, the more the other is free to imagine. A simple statement to get interest might be, “my wife and I have really enjoyed/expect to enjoy this and we though you (and your wife if applicable) might like it as well.” Perhaps a bit more than that, but again, shorter is better.

Second would be the sort of situation Jesus was in. Folks seem to show some sort of interest in Jesus, and what do we normally do? We pounce, invite them to everything under the sun, treat them like a tiny bit of tinder which might go out at any moment. Perhaps we really should go the opposite direction. Rather than trying to answer all their questions, whatever those might be, we should challenge them to develop their own reasons. The only ideas people ever really believe, it is said, are those they develop on their own. Again, as Jesus did, focus on questions. Asking questions does two things. It helps you get a better sense of where the other person really is, and it helps them to think through things for themselves.

Again, I would love to know how these things have worked, or will work for you. Feel free to comment here or drop me an email at paulthepianoman @ yahoo dot com.

God’s blessings on all of you as you strive to follow Jesus.

Paul is a father, husband and piano technician living in Mebane, North Carolina. He also is a member of Church of the Good Shepherd (PCA) in Durham where he helps with music and with youth ministry.

About Alastair Roberts

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University) writes in the areas of biblical theology and ethics, but frequently trespasses beyond these bounds. He participates in the weekly Mere Fidelity podcast, blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria, and tweets at @zugzwanged.
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