Just Start Talking: Introducing Jesus into
Evangelism Ministries, Sydney, 2008.
Available from Moore Books
John Chapman’s earnest face fills the camera: “You could teach yourself to be a talker about the Lord Jesus … and this could just be the very thing you’ve been waiting for”. With a twinkle in his eye, he continues: “It mightn’t be the very thing you’re waiting for, but it’s the very thing you should have been!”
So goes the promotional DVD for Just Start Talking, an evangelistic resource from Evangelism Ministries. It’s a three-week, interactive training course in which participants follow a workbook through a series of Bible studies, discussion questions, and role-plays, punctuated with clips from a training DVD. The DVD is co-presented by a congenial Samantha Boog and a zany Colin Buchanan. It contains a host of vox pop interviews in which Christians openly share their fears and difficulties in personal evangelism. It also includes a number of thought-provoking, if caricatured, role-plays of evangelistic encounters.
The interactive format represents a paradigm shift in both training and evangelism—a departure from older courses such as Everyday Evangelism. As a training course, Just Start Talking tips the hat to postmodern culture by asking opinions and experiences of its participants, rather than searching for textbook answers. It also caters to the attention-challenged generation by flicking channels rapidly between Bible, discussion, activities and DVD clips. The same strategy is used to good effect in the recent Evangelism Ministries course on welcoming, however, a possible shortcoming of all this spontaneity is that three one-hour sessions could feel quite lightweight to some.
As an evangelism course, Just Start Talking proposes that what holds most Christians back from sharing their faith is not a lack of things to say, but a lack of ways to start. Evangelism has become such a guilt-ridden imperative, the punter in the pew feels that every opportunity to speak is all or nothing—so he generally chooses nothing. In response, Just Start Talking studiously avoids the E-word in both its title and its content. Instead, the goal is natural, everyday conversations that lead to sharing your story—the postmodern equivalent of giving your testimony. The difference here is that your story is boiled down to a compact hundred words. The implication is that no more can be squeezed into natural conversation without being ‘preachy’.
The Bible plays a satisfyingly central role in each session. The usual texts from the New Testament are employed to tease out the two major theological premises of the course—firstly, that God is sovereign and so our role in evangelism is taking the opportunities he gives and trusting him for the results (Col 4:3), and secondly, that opportunities are mostly just questions asked of Christians due to their visibly Christ-affected lives (1 Pet 3:15). The way to ‘just start talking’ is to explain how relationship with God has shaped your attitudes or lifestyle when these come up in conversation—that is, to tell your story.
This follows the recent trend of seeing personal testimony as the trump card for evangelizing postmoderns. My testimony is part of my personal experience, so it must be acknowledged and respected. This is evangelism ‘from below’—beginning with the individual and working up towards the gospel. Much of 20th-century evangelism can be characterized as the opposite—evangelism ‘from above’—presenting the objective truths of Scripture and working down to the individual’s response. Of course, neither approach is necessarily better. But perhaps it is a sign of our relativistic times that the average person is more open to a conversation begun ‘from below’. Yet I can’t help wondering whether this approach risks the domestication of Christian experience. As with the great Christological heresies of the early church, evangelism ‘from below’ can easily slide from the authentically human to the merely human.
For example, there’s the warning not to include any “strange experiences” in your story, lest you make others feel uncomfortable (p. 17). Yes, we’ve all cringed while listening to a blatantly ‘supernaturalized’ conversion story. But the Christian life is, by definition, infused and indwelt by the supernatural. This is what leads to the outsider’s awestruck confession that “God is really among you!” (1 Cor 14:25). Just Start Talking might introduce the subtle temptation to start talking only because you think you won’t be saying anything outlandish. But however a gospel conversation starts, it will inevitably involve ‘strange ideas’ for the outsider (Acts 17:20).
This is not to ignore the great strength of the course, which is that it addresses a dire need among western Christians. It plots a course from everyday life toward a conversation about Jesus. It gives us a starting point, and that is the low hurdle at which so many of us stumble. Maybe John Chapman is right: maybe this course is exactly what we should have been waiting for.