The problem with pre-evangelism

I have never really been 100 per cent behind the ‘point of contact’ view of evangelism. Leaving aside the pretty stark dichotomies in the Scriptures (e.g. “what fellowship has light with darkness?”—2 Cor 6:14b), which appear to suggest that there is absolutely no common ground between truth and error, it just seems to be filled with all kinds of problems.

Of course, nobody else really cares that this solitary individual can’t give the 100 per cent nod to this kind of enterprise. As I look around and listen, it seems that more and more are urging the expediency or even necessity of this kind of approach. With all the hand-wringing in our major denominations about declining numbers (including in my own), we are being urged to find fresh expressions of church (which I am not necessarily opposed to)—as if it is our venues or times or styles that are problematic (which I seriously wonder about). The urge to be ‘culturally relevant’ is now heard about as frequently as John 3:16 (perhaps it has become John 3:16), and is theologically often attached to that famous verse with some kind of ham-fisted ‘theology’ that speaks of us having to ‘incarnate’ the gospel. (Even if the Son of God’s action was not absolutely unique, how can we do that? We are already ‘carna’—flesh—so how can we become flesh all over again???) Then there are those good old, long-serving slogans (and, despite our advertising-ridden world, is it really possible to distil truth into slogans???): “You have to earn the right to evangelize”; “You have to build bridges before you cross them”; “You have to be in relationship”, and the like.

The problems are many. Everyone wants to become the culturally sensitive guru, and thus develops a new kind of priesthood. For those who don’t reach these heights, discouragement! Everyone gets about focusing on their fresh expressions, thus threatening to siphon off energy from the real task of telling people about Jesus. Everyone gets to building bridges, seeking after common ground, learning more and more about the culture around us—which is all an absorbing process (need I say more?) And since this kind of enterprise is really nothing new, we already have plenty (more than plenty) of evidence that although ‘pre-evangelism’ perhaps has a place in the scheme of things, when it takes over, it leaves good-hearted Christian people overworked, exhausted and frustrated from never really seeing any results for all their efforts. For, after all, ‘pre-evangelism’ is never ‘evangelism’.

It is a very different picture to the simplicity presented to us in the New Testament. The power of God is not in our efforts, our cultural sensitivity, our brilliant relationship-building powers or our anything! It lies clearly and firmly in one place: the gospel itself (Rom 1:16). Our task then becomes quite clear: “we … believe, therefore we … speak” (2 Cor 4:13b). The ‘ethos’ in which we speak is also clear: we speak the truth in love.

It is also funny how we seem to desperately want to find a ‘point of contact’—as if that is also far from clear. Isn’t the ‘common ground’ told to us by the gospel, and isn’t it already plainly in sight? People are human beings; there is a creator. People are sinners; there is a saviour. People are guilty; there is forgiveness. People are dying; there is eternal life. People are frightened about the future; there is the kingdom of God coming soon. It doesn’t seem to be rocket science.

The hard bit is introducing yourself to your neighbour and opening your mouth to ask whether they want to hear some really good news that once turned the world upside down, and is about to do so again.

17 thoughts on “The problem with pre-evangelism

  1. Amen to that Peter!  And may I say, it’s good to see a post that deals with one of the many and pressing problems we are facing at the moment.  We need to discuss those issues that influnce Christians in a certain way but which are not necessarily as true to the Bible as we might think.

    Let’s have more such posts!

  2. <i>The hard bit is introducing yourself to your neighbour and opening your mouth…</i>

    Not to put to fine a point on it, but you usually need…a point of contact. A reason to be talking to that person in the first place.

    For a few years, our church would go out every year for door-knocking. The brief in the early years was “just try and have a gospel conversation”. But we found very few people willing to talk.

    Having a reason to be on the doorstep (“We’d like to give you this book”, or “Here’s our business card” or “Here’s a sheet with the activities we run”) led to many more conversations – and some of those turned into something deeper.

  3. Is ‘love’ presented in the Bible as necessary for effective evangelism?

    If so, that has implications for how we relate to people we seek to present the claims of Christ to…

  4. Hi Peter. Is a re-write of ‘Mission Minded’ in the works wink

    Good point about incarnation being meaningless for humans!

    There is a corrective in here that is helpful. But the overall tone of the post strikes me as an over-corrective, which forces too strong a distinction between proclamation and engagement.

  5. I guess I need to be a little clearer on the ‘point of contact’. Often this is discussed as if there is some kind of connection between ‘gospel’ and ‘receptor culture’ to be found that will unlock what we might call ‘gospel success’. If we miss the connection, we will be doomed to what we might call ‘gospel failure’. If I can grab the energy behind Craig and Peter and Mikey’s comments, hopefully without distorting their point, what they have put their finger on is that the real ‘point of contact’ is one person encountering another (in love) and offering them the good news. that is, it is not some theoretical cultural connection, but the real-world connection of one human being engaging with another as the proclamation gets going in that just-begun relationship. In this human encounter, the gospel word can then be set loose and its power begins.

  6. Helpful clarification Peter –

    I agree that the pressure to ‘connect’ and be ‘relevant’ makes many of us feel unable to simply witness to those around us.

    There are other factors which contribute to the problem – in the UK there is the very real fear of legal prosecution for causing offence – but it is undoubtedly true that our attempts to train people in evangelism have sometimes actually disempowered them.

  7. Hi Peter

    Good stuff. Couple of comments.

    Yes, we are flesh, but we need to incarnate the Word. The whole problem with any promise of Hope and Change is that Word has to become Sacrament, ie. people have to make – or be -sacrifices to bring it about. Then God gives the third element of the Trinity – government. This goes right back to Eden.

    Secondly, the harvest Jesus spoke about in the New Testament was the result of 400 years of synagogue building and Torah teaching throughout the Gentile oikoumene. The book of Acts has Gentile God-fearers coming out of the woodwork. My point is that pre-evangelism is seed sowing, especially in Sunday School and Scripture. For adults, I think we should be offering courses in getting a big handle on the Bible. “We won’t ask you to believe it, but you should understand it because it is the foundation for everything good in our culture.” Then they will hear the Word. So we shouldn’t be surprised if we don’t see the results from Connect 09 till Connect 19.


  8. I’ve read this article a couple of times now and thankful for the comments of others and Peter your clarification. I do agree that we are timid in declaring the truth of Jesus, and we wimp out of many amazing opportunities got gives us.

    Neverthelss, I really think ‘point of contact’ / pre evangelism has its place. 

    We got to also remember that the gospel be getting preached week in week out in our weekend services… evangelism is happening more than we think wink

    If we make sure the gospel preaching remains core business, then much of the pre-evangelism acts to compliment not compete.

  9. Hi Peter,

    I’ve been on holidays this week so have only just read your post. Thank you – I absolutely agree. We often exhaust ourselves with pre-evangelism in the hope of finding the ‘right’ moment to share the gospel with someone. But in the end, it hardly ever feels like the ‘right’ moment; it’s never easy to tell someone that they are a sinner on their way to hell (or to imply it).

    I agree that there is a place for pre-evangelism. If someone knows you care for them, and if they trust you in other areas of life, then they may be more willing to listen to what you have to say about Jesus. Then again, they may not (especially if God has not chosen them).

    If you needed to tell someone to get out of their beach house because a tsunami was on the way, you wouldn’t waste time trying to build a relationship with them. You’d just tell them.

    Maybe we’ve just lost the sense of urgency that the apostles had.

  10. I think many like the concept of ‘pre-evangelism’ very attractive (and I speak from self-condemning personal experience) because it means less risk for me that the person won’t like me, will contradict me and ask a question I won’t be able to answer, will mock me or persecute me, or will win me over to their point of view.

    In other words, pre-evangelism is much more fun and doesn’t really require that I lose my life for the sake of Jesus and his gospel. It means that in reporting back, I can talk more about what I did than what God did. I can make it all about me, me and me. Preaching the cross can only be about Jesus, because the cross revels preacher and listener alike to be sinners.

    I think if there is such a thing as authentic ‘Pre-evangelism’, it really is everything else that we do & say that isn’t explicitly talking about Jesus. Most of it is unconscious, and is our lifestyle and attitude as salt and light that cause people, when they see our ‘good works’ in the context of hearing the Gospel, to praise our Father in heaven instead of praising us.

    A cup of cold water on its own will make them praise me for being a good, kind person (and may even inspire them to be nice to someone else). A cup of cold water in Jesus’ name (ie. in the context of a proclamation of the Gospel) will make them praise the Father because only His grace could transform a sinner like me to want to give someone else a cup of water while telling them the greatest news the world has ever heard.

  11. Oh, and by the way, there is no command to give a member of the general public a cup of water anyway. Matthew 10:42 and Mark 9:41 both refer to Christians caring for other Christians, as do many of the other imperatives or examples of ‘social justice’ that are often taken as ‘pre-evangelistic’ principles…

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