Empathetic Evangelism

One of the biggest challenges for many Christians is sharing our faith. At church things all seems clear and coherent and compelling. We hear the call to share Good News with others. We are excited but nervous. We get so nervous we try to avoid evangelism. The problem is that the only reasons not to share are bad reasons.

Are you ashamed of the gospel?

Are you afraid of what others think of you?

Not wanting to be an unfaithful Christian, church people take classes and make commitments to get out there and be a witness. Sometimes people are surprised at how well things go. Those people return to the church and tell the kind of stories that make everyone else wonder.

Why am I so bad at sharing the Good News?

Should I just try harder, or should I go back to quietly avoid evangelism discussions?

Explaining ideas that matter to us is risky. We are concerned about the ideas, obviously, but we are also concerned about our relationship to others, including our own conscience. How can we effectively honor all of these variables? Not only are we looking for how to say something important in a way that increases the likelihood of successful communication, we are also looking for how to say something that lowers the likelihood of lost relationships. There are ways to do that. Here is how the apostle Paul did it in Athens.

Acts 17 describes Paul sharing ideas with people he barely knows. They are urban polytheistic philosophers. He is a Jesus-preaching Jewish monotheist. They are locals, he is passing through. They regularly discuss variations of their polytheism. Paul wants to share what he considers to be good news. The problem is that his message is foreign to them, both in content and context. How will he overcome those challenges? 

1. Learn your message. 

Paul knew what he believed and why it mattered for him and for others. The more we ask meaningful questions of our own faith, seeking to understand what is so good about the Good News, the more confident and clear we will be when we share with others.empathetic-listening-lucy

2. Learn from others.

Paul cared about others as they actually were, not just as he would prefer them to be. Paul cared about people enough to learn from them, even memorizing lyrics from their own poets. Paying attention to others, seeking to understand from their perspective, is not compromising our own beliefs.

3. Learn to share your message for others to understand.

Paul’s interactions with others, including their ideas, leads to him being invited to share his own ideas. When the opportunity comes for him to present his ideas in a concise but comprehensive way, he is ready. Even though your priority in learning from others is to actually learn from them, it is also good to use that information to share with them. By presenting your ideas in terms and images that make sense to them you increase the chance of them understanding you. Whether they accept or reject your message is something altogether different. The goal is to speak faithfully to them, to yourself, and to your message.

How did Paul do this in Acts 17: 22-31?

1. Connect & Distinguish: “Same Same but Different”

Relationship evangelism is sometimes understood as a form of an undercover sting operation. “Appear to be the same as the person you are trying to connect with, and at just the right time, ambush them with Good News!” That is not only weird, it is very ineffective. Instead, be clear from the beginning. You are genuinely and respectfully aware of them, but you see some important things differently. Acts 17:22,23

2. Communicate Concretely: “Truth with Textures”

The gospel message is not a truth above life, it is life. Life is experienced. God as the source of the goodness we experience, even when people do not acknowledge Him in those experiences, is essential to our message. It is also a point of connection that engages both mind and feelings. Acts 17:24-28

3. Challenge Selectively: “Keep the Main Thing the Main Thing”

Jesus’ warning against judging others is primarily practical. Mutual fault finding, done negatively or positively, is an endless cycle. The goal is not to try and fix the other person or their life. The goal is to point to the ultimate person who gives ultimate life. Jesus as the anointed one, the genuine ruler, is the point. Allegiance to Jesus as the ruler of Life and Death, of Heaven and Earth; that is your “ask”. Make it clear. Acts 17:28-31

P.S. Why isn’t this titled “3 Easy Steps to Successful Evangelism?”

Paul successfully shared the gospel. He communicated the risen Lord Jesus such that some understood him and rejected him while others were intrigued. We cannot take responsibility for the responses of others, but we can be responsible for how we share with others. Acts 17:32,34

Those who wanted to hear more did so, in no small part, due to the empathetic explanation the apostle Paul gave regarding the hope that was withing him. The apostle Peter must have been proud!

Always be ready to offer an explanation, humbly and respectfully, when someone asks why you live in hope. Keep your conscience clear… 1 Peter 3:15ff

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