Speech and salvation 8: Learning how to talk

This is the eighth and final post in a series about gospel speech. Read parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7.

“I can’t do what they’re doing.”

Maybe you’re convinced that gospel-speech is at the very core of what it means to be a Christian. Maybe you’re convinced that the world needs to hear the gospel. But you look around, and you see real live gospel speakers. You watch them closely, and listen to the way they talk. Then you look at yourself, your own speaking abilities, your own background, your own life situation. And you realise, with a mixture of bewilderment, disappointment, and maybe even a twinge of jealousy, that you’re not like those gospel speakers. You don’t have their gift. How could you ever do evangelism like they do it?

Oops, there’s that word again: ‘evangelism’; the word I said was going to avoid. Now that I’ve said it again, I might ask well ask you what images it conjures up in your head. Who do you think of as ‘evangelists’?

  • The crazy street preacher on a soap box?
  • The smart guy who’s memorised a gospel outline and knows how to use it in a variety of contexts, even backwards if required?
  • The stadium speaker who preaches his heart out and gets thousands coming forward to know more?
  • The Christian supermum who not only looks after her husband and 5 kids but also writes evangelistic books, speaks at evangelistic coffee and chocolate nights and updates her trendy yet tastefully decorated blog twice a day?
  • The person who effortlessly strikes up conversations in supermarkets, bus queues and taxis, and invariably turns them into conversations which are all about Jesus but at the same time aren’t weird? (How do they do it?)
  • The serial inviter? At every evangelistic coffee and chocolate night, she invites fifteen friends, and all of the friends come.
  • The “full time” ministers?

Most of what we learn in life comes from following the example of others. Children copy their parents; younger kids look up to older kids; students are inspired by passionate teachers. It’s the same with speaking the gospel. In this area, like many areas in life, role-models are a gift from God (check out 1 Cor 11:1, Phil 3:17, 1 Thess 1:6, Heb 13:7). We need real-life flesh-and-blood examples of gospel-speech in operation. But if you focus too closely on these role-models, you end up with a problem. You think that you have to speak the gospel exactly like they do. And you’re afraid that if you can’t speak the gospel like they speak the gospel, you’re not a gospel-speaker at all. Sometimes, specially gifted gospel-speakers can make the problem worse. They can be so passionately committed to their own way of doing evangelism that they end up faithfully reproducing their own methods, instead of faithfully reproducing the gospel itself.

Given this problem, what should you do?

Firstly, keep remembering to rejoice in specially gifted gospel speakers. They are members of Christ’s body, and therefore they are united with us in faith and love. Don’t envy them. Acknowledge that they are God’s gifts to his people. Listen to them, encourage them, love them and support them. Express your fellowship in the gospel with them, both prayerfully and, if they need it, financially, so the gospel can go forward. If you think other people in the world need them, send them out!

Secondly, treat them as role-models. Learn to imitiate specially gifted gospel speakers wherever you can. They’re there to enable the whole body to grow and change and speak the gospel more and more (Eph 4:11-16). Remember that no matter what ‘body part’ you may be now, your role isn’t fixed for life. Just because you can’t do something today doesn’t mean you’ll never be able to. As I think back over the 25 years I’ve been a Christian, I realise how grateful I am to various gospel-speaking role models who pushed me beyond my comfort zone. Sometimes they did it simply by their own example; sometimes they explicitly urged me to try new things. Either way, they spurred me on to speak the gospel in ways that were unfamiliar, scary, and highly worthwhile. Growth can be painful. But at least when you’re growing, you know you’re alive.

Thirdly, and most importantly, keep focussing on and delighting in the gospel of Jesus Christ himself, not in particular gospel-speakers. Keep growing in your knowledge and love of the gospel. Don’t ever say that you’ve got the gospel sorted out; never claim that you understand everything there is to know about the gospel. You can never master God’s word. God is too powerful for that. Through his word and Spirit, God judges you, transforms you, changes you, and moulds you into his child. And he keeps doing it, every day. It’s living and active. That’s why is so important to keep soaking yourself in the Bible. “Jesus is Lord” is the gospel. But it’s a very short sentence. The Bible is the extended version. The Bible will give you the breadth and depth of insight you need to understand how you might speak the gospel into your own particular situation.

Finally, learn to understand yourself in the light of the gospel. God speaks to each one of us where’s we’re at. We have different life circumstances, different webs of relationships, different personalities, different skills, different knowledge, different motivations. We love different things and we know different people. So everybody speaks the gospel differently. I’ve enjoyed reading Tony and Col’s book, the Trellis and the Vine, because it makes this precise point. All Christians are supposed to be speaking Christians. But there are an infinite number of different ways for Christians to speak (check out, for example, the various ideas on pages 54-55).

How many different ways can you think of for Christians to speak the gospel? Here are just a few ways I’ve been personally encouraged by great gospel speakers:

  • There’s a bloke I know on disability benefits, who lives in a share home. His housemates know he’s a Christian, and give him flak for it. He writes letters to me regularly about his struggles and failures and joys in knowing and living for Jesus, and tells me he’s praying for me.
  • Jean, once a month, gets together with a group of other school mums to pray for families at the school. Together, they use the opportunities that God gives them to build relationships that will lead to meaningful conversations about Jesus.
  • There’s a retired gentleman I know, who sings songs in church very loudly and completely out of tune with obvious joy in his heart. It’s fantastic.
  • There’s a student I know who gets barraged with questions and objections to the gospel by her coursemates. She tells them how Jesus makes a difference in her own life, answers their questions when she can, tries to find out more so she can be better equipped, and invites her coursemates and Christian friends to share meals and talk further about the issues.
  • There’s a kid I know who was asked to do a school project on rainbows and wrote about God’s promise to Noah not to flood the world again.

“Are all Christians commanded to evangelise”? I hope I’ve convinced you by now on how many levels that question is wrong. The real question is this: what is the gospel? And the second question is: how can I speak it in my particular circumstances? This is a question that I hope you’ll spend a lifetime answering.

18 thoughts on “Speech and salvation 8: Learning how to talk

  1. *Secondly, treat them as role-models. Learn to imitiate specially gifted gospel speakers wherever you can.*

    The challenge is that you don’t actually see these guys “in the field”. Chatting to a godly man or woman over coffee after church is very encouraging, but I find there’s a huge leap between that conversation and work on Monday morning.

    To use a phrase from your previous post, we see the gifted speaking to “insiders”, but not to “outsiders”. As you point out, the gospel message is the same. But the differences in context are simply enormous.

    • Hi Craig, you’ve rightly identified a problem that exists in various church / work contexts. Have you (or any others in similar situations) got any ideas for how the problem could be overcome?

  2. Lionel and other pastors/word ministers,

    Craig’s good question reminded me of one of the very best of San Jose church-planter, Justin Buzzard’s blog posts… Go to Where Your Men Work.
    A small quote…

    This helps the men. It shows them that I care about their callings, how they spend 50+ hours of their week, and the people they work with.

    This helps me. It teaches me about the unique opportunities and challenges men are facing in their different workplaces, it opens my eyes to a world bigger than our church, and it helps set new trajectories for my preaching and discipling.

    I would add that in the few times I have done this, and I have been introduced to one of my church member’s work colleagues, it has quite often led to an evangelistic conversation of some sort, so the church member gets to see how I do it. (I do not consider myself very gifted in this area.)

  3. Good question Lionel. I’ll put together something of an answer, though I believe it goes against our SA culture a bit.

    As a layman, what encourages me in evangelism, more than anything else, is hearing about other laymen doing it. For example, a while ago I heard a mate at church describe how he was planning to witness to the bloke in the next cubicle. That did more to encourage me than 10 sermons on evangelism would have done.

    Assuming I’m not alone in this, what can you do as a pastor to facilitate this? My completely untested suggestion would be for you to find the 2 or 3 laypeople in your church who are naturally good at gospelling and give them many opportunities to share their stories, either from the the front or through the chuch newspaper, or whatever. Real people, really doing it.

    The other thing I’d do is get those 2 or 3 people together into some kind of lay evangelists society, and make it a priority to meet up with that group every month, and coach and develop it. I reckon you’d see that group grow, and it would leaven the whole church.

    As I said, these are just untested ideas, and they run against our church culture a bit. I look forward to hearing other suggestions.

    • Hi Craig, I reckon these are excellent suggestions, and worth trying out. I’ve seen something like your first suggestion in operation, and it’s been a tremendous encouragement. Any church culture that finds something like this strange or threatening deserves to be shaken up.

  4. Craig, Lionel, two more thoughts.

    1. Isn’t the idea of prayer triplets – I think ECOM calls their variation EPTs Evangelistic Prayer Teams (based in workplaces in their case) – one way of achieving what Craig was talking about? A prayer triplet 3 men or 3 women meeting regularly each to pray for 3 unsaved friends/relatives/colleagues/contacts each and sharing how its going.

    2. Years later, I am still impressed by John Chapman’s story (Is it in Know and Tell the Gospel?) where he and his fellow teaching colleague (back when he was a teacher) committed to reading the newspaper’s editorial each day, then would ring each other to see if they could think of something to say about the day’s topic from a Christian point of view, and then they were ready for current affairs (what we call water cooler) conversations in the staff room at morning tea and lunch time, generally with one and often two ideas or Christian gambits to try out.

  5. Hi Sandy,

    Prayer triplets can be terrific, but I think they are quite a different approach to what I was suggesting. Here’s my reasoning.

    The reason I thought my suggestion (esp. #2) was counter-cultural (in our denom at least) is because we have a strongly egalitarian everyone-is-an-evangelist culture. I suspect there are some who would think a dedicated group of “lay evangelists” would send the wrong signals.

    The problem with the egalitarian approach, imo, is that the preacher is always pitching his evangelism-motivational sermons at the lowest common denominator, in the hope that those who are doing nothing might start doing a little bit. It also, in my experience, leaves those who want to do more feeling uncertain how to proceed.

    Coaching a group of people who are already committed to evangelism would involve a very different approach. My (untested) theory is that the existing evangelists would be fired up, and those on the fringe would be drawn in.

    My leadership texts tell me that the most valuable thing I can give my subordinates at work is my time. Same is true for a pastor. As soon as you are in a position of authority, people will value your time. Investing your time in the lay evangelists group every month (fortnight?) sends a very powerful message.

    As I’ve said several times, this approach cuts against our cultural grain. But I’d be interested to see someone give it a go.

  6. OK mate, I get what you are saying this time. Fair call.

    I imagine the fellow teacher working with Chappo was getting some expert help from a gifted one! (And at the same time, Chappo was honing his gifts!)

  7. Pingback: Speech and salvation: a role for pastors? « Forget the Channel

  8. Hi Lionel

    I only found this website recently and thank God for it. I don’t often come across such encouraging and stimulating current Christian ideas.

    I just wanted to second Craig’s comments on the difficulties of lay outreach, and was really impressed by his suggestions for parish based growth in reaching out to work friends, etc.

    Sharyn Saville

  9. Hi Lionel! I’ve been a bit slow and have only managed to read through your entire series now (hard to find the time with young kids!) But I also wanted to say how much I appreciated it and how I found it very encouraging. Many thanks!

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