by Bob Wilkin, Originally published in the September/October 2008 edition of Grace in Focus
The First Thing You Say Is Vital
Journalists are trained to put the heart of their story in the first paragraph. That initial paragraph is called the lead and it is considered vital that it draw the reader in and tell him what the story is about.
The same is arguably true in evangelism. Your first sentence or two ideally should grab the listener’s interest and tell him what it is you want to say.
Yet it has been my experience that most people do not lead with something that is either particularly interesting or that well summarizes what they are about to attempt to prove.
Often You Don’t Get to Finish
What You Wished to Say
In my three years involvement with Campus Crusade for Christ I probably shared my faith one on one over a hundred times. In my four years on staff with CCC I probably shared my faith one on one over a thousand times. In the 30 years since I’ve left the staff of CCC I’ve shared my faith one on one with many more people.
My experience is probably like yours. For every ten people you start to evangelize, over half will not listen until you finish your presentation. I’d peg the percentage who allow you to say all you planned to say to be between 10 and 20%.
That means that the majority of people are not going to hear much if anything after your first sentence or two.
That was true of my time with CCC both as a student and a staff member. I found it very frustrating. But I didn’t learn from it. I just kept doing the same old thing.
After I left CCC, I started evangelizing differently. It wasn’t long before I got the guts of what I wanted to say in the first sentence or two and then I waited to see how the person I was speaking with would respond. This freed me up to be more spontaneous. But it also meant that even if I didn’t get to say more than the open sentence or two, I got the message out there. Since 80 to 90% of the people never heard more than that, I was greatly improving the effectiveness of my witness.
Of course, since this was the way the Lord Jesus witnessed, it made sense to me that I should follow the pattern He set. But most people don’t do that. I think in most cases it is because they haven’t considered what they want to get over in the lead.
Most Start with
“You Are a Sinner Separated from God”
Most people start with a statement about the sinfulness of the listener: “You are a sinner separated from God. Paul said in Romans 3:23…”
Does that introduction draw the listener in so that he wants to hear more? Maybe. My experience is that it doesn’t do that for most people.
Does that introduction tell the person the heart of what you want to say to them? Definitely not.
Yet if eight or nine out of ten don’t listen past your opening sentence or two, that is the message you left them with.
Some Start with “God Loves You”
The CCC model starts with “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life.” This has the advantage of being positive. It does cause some listeners to want to hear more. Still, most people aren’t going to listen much beyond this.
But have your said what you wanted to say? No. You’ve not come close to saying what it is you want to share.
Some Start with the Deity of Christ
Another approach is to say something like, “God became a man. Jesus Christ was born in Bethlehem and lived a sinless life…” That approach might have drawn a listeners interest 50 years ago, but it doesn’t do so well today. Most people have heard this a lot and are not interested in hearing more when this is the start.
And this approach fails the test of giving the main parts of what you intend to say. If this is all you get to share, then you really haven’t communicated enough to help the person be born again.
Some Start with “Jesus Christ
Died on the Cross for Your Sins”
This approach is certainly a common one. In this approach you can both get in the work of Christ on the cross and the sinfulness of the person to whom you are talking.
But is this something that grabs people’s interest? Most people are not interested in hearing more when you start this way. The reason is simple. They’ve heard this approach many times.
Nor does this start give the core of what you want to share. It is a start. But it isn’t enough so that the person really grasps what it is you are trying to say.
Why Not Start with John 6:47?
I like to start with some variation that says that Jesus guarantees eternal life to all who simply believe in Him. I might say, “Jesus said, ‘He who believes in Me has everlasting life’ (John 6:47).” Or I might say, “As you surely know, Jesus said, ‘For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life (John 3:16).” I might even start by simply paraphrasing one of those verses.
What I’ve found is this. When I say something like that and wait to see how the person responds, more than half of the people will make a comment or ask a question. They might say, “That’s too easy,” “If that’s true, then bad people could go to heaven,” or “Only people who live for God are going to make it to heaven.”
Sometimes they cut me off when I start to reply to them. Sometimes they listen briefly and then change the subject. Other times they listen and we continue the conversation for a time.
Most of the time that approach does grab the listener’s interest. You can almost see them thinking, No one ever talked to me about Jesus in this way before!
And, the beauty of this approach is that you do communicate the heart of what you want to say in the first sentence or two. If that is all the person is going to hear, and it will probably be for more than half the people, then at least you’ve told them what they need to believe to have eternal life.
But, some will object that no one could believe in Jesus for eternal life without knowing about his sinfulness and Jesus’ death and resurrection. That may well be true. I’ve never met a single person who was born again who didn’t also believe that they were a sinner, that Jesus is God, and that Jesus died on the cross for his sins and rose bodily from the dead. However, how many people have you met in the United States who don’t know about their own sinfulness and about Jesus’ death on the cross and resurrection from the dead?
Let’s say that one in ten people doesn’t know that, though I think the number is more like one in a thousand. If you share John 6:47 with them, you’ve given them something to think about. They may well leave wonderingWhy should this Jesus of the Bible be able to give those who believe in Him eternal life? That may well result in them learning about His deity, death, and resurrection and then coming to faith in Him.
But if you don’t get the faith alone in Christ alone message to the person before they stop listening to you, have you really done a good job of sharing your faith? If you tell them they are a sinner and that’s all you get to share, you haven’t shared your faith. If you share the deity of Christ but no more, you dropped the ball. If you share His death on the cross for the sins of the world and nothing more, you told them something they likely already believe, but that’s all.
Now let’s ask the question the other way. How many people have you met who already believe that simply by faith in Jesus Christ that they have eternal life that can never be lost? My experience is that less than one in twenty, or less than 5%, of the people I meet already believe that. The vast majority do not. Thus when I share that message, I’m sharing something they don’t know and often haven’t even heard before and which they really need to hear.
The KISS Method
The KISS method stands for Keep It Simple Saint. You may have memorized a 5 or 10 to 15 minute presentation that goes from creation to Christ or from Bethlehem to the empty tomb. All of that is fine if you are able to get across the faith alone in Christ alone for eternal life message. But if you too find that most people won’t listen to your whole message, then why not move up to the front what you consider to be the heart of the message?
A simple approach has the advantage of being the one our Lord used. Study the way He spoke with the woman at the well in John 4. It is a very simple approach. Seven times He made short statements and seven times she made short responses. Right away He got to the heart of the matter, living water and everlasting life that He gives to one who drinks/believes in Him (John 4:10, 13-14). He called her to faith in Himself for eternal life with an extremely simple message.
Even if you are determined to share a KICS message (Keep It Complicated Saint), at least won’t you start with the simple truth of John 6:47. If you do, you may notice a change in the way people respond to your opening statement. And you’ll be glad you did if the person doesn’t listen beyond your first sentence or two.