The Master Plan of Initiative Evangelism
What is Initiative Evangelism?
I’m a huge fan of The Master Plan of Evangelism. Can I get an amen? The principles in that book have shaped the way I go about doing ministry. However, a year ago one of my mentors challenged me to study the activities/principles of Jesus in Scripture. I was greatly edified, encouraged, and challenged by what I saw Jesus do repeatedly. I found additional principles that I saw Jesus practice, and noticed that I have seen some of the most effective evangelists utilize as well. While there has been much written on Jesus’ ministry principles and disciple-making and relational evangelism, I have seen very little written about Jesus’ principles and methods for doing initiative evangelism.
What is initiative evangelism? It is the type of evangelism where a Christian takes initiative to meet new people and initiate a spiritual conversation with them in a short time frame, typically in that first meeting. This is sometimes called “Cold-Call” evangelism or “Discovery” evangelism. While some people cringe at the thought of that, I believe both relational evangelism and initiative evangelism are key to any ministry start up. Initiative evangelism is one of the best ways to sow broadly, and we see Jesus as a practitioner and example of this type of evangelism. In this article, I will go over four evangelistic principles that Jesus exemplifies for us in initiative evangelism.
1. He Spent a Ton of Time with Non-Believers
Jesus used very practical methods for gathering new converts. I suppose, with him being God, he could have sat at home and magnetically drawn people to him. But he didn’t. Instead he took initiative to get out among the people he wanted to reach. This is how he came across those who later would become The Twelve (John 1:37). He went around where John was baptizing (1:35-37). He traveled through Cana, Galilee, Capernaum, Judea and Jerusalem (John 1:43, 2:1, 13, 3:22, Luke 4:31). He went to teach in homes and in synagogues (Luke 4:38, 43); and even spent time with tax collectors (Luke 5:29-30). Jesus took initiative to strategically meet an abundance of non-believers. You get the point.
Being a ministry leader, there are lots of logistical tasks, management tasks, and office work that need to get done, and that is important (believe me, I’ve tried ignoring that stuff and it doesn’t work out), but we need to intentionally plan time to get out there and be on campus, meeting non-believing students.
I’ll always remember my first overseas missions experience. We were on a summer trip to East Asia with David Worcester as our leader. From day one David led us to be out there on the university campuses. He set the expectation high for us of what it looked like to be out amongst the people. We knew no other way. Literally we were sharing the gospel everywhere—at lunch meetings, and at parties. On one occasion one of my teammates commanded the attention of everyone in a coffee shop to share the gospel with them. And this was in a communist country that is opposed to the gospel. Guess what? On that trip, we saw an average of one person a day making a profession of faith. I know some of those may not have been “genuine conversions,” but they were positive responses to the gospel.
While this was undoubtedly a display of the Holy Spirit’s power, I believe that David’s initiative to lead our team in getting lots of time with non-believers gave the Holy Spirit plenty of opportunities to be “making his appeal through us” (2 Cor. 5:20). Some people have a natural inclination to be out there meeting bunches of new people, and others (like myself) need to be even more intentional with it.
Ideas for spending tons of time with non-believers:
- For the first four weeks of each semester, plan to spend at least three hours a day meeting new students during the weekdays. Invite your students to join in.
- For the first four weeks of each semester, host events where new students can come. In this article,Paul Worcester recommends doing an event almost every night of the week.
- Pick a personal ministry target (an affinity group) that you will spend time with every week this semester.
- After the initial “push” at the beginning of each semester, have a regular outreach time where you go out on campus.
- Set up opportunities to meet with the friends of your students, such as a meal together or even a Discovery Bible Study.
2. He was willing to do what was Socially Abnormal for the Sake of a Spiritual Conversation
Jesus often did things that were shocking to people in his culture. He asked provocative questions (John 1:38) and made radical statements such as “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up” (John 2:19). He said things that people wouldn’t understand unless they pressed in, unless they asked him a follow up question.
One of the often cited occurrences of Jesus breaking a social norm was when he initiated a conversation with the woman at the well (John 4:7-27). This was shocking for three reasons. First, Jesus was a Jew and the woman was a Samaritan; these two cultures had some negative history. There was some racial tension. Secondly, Jesus had initiated a conversation with a woman, which was not socially normal at the time. And last, Jesus initiated a conversation with a complete stranger. Now, it’s easy for us in hindsight to look back and see that people should not have let racial tension or gender keep them from having a conversation. But we often fail to identify the ways we are not willing to break our culture’s social norms for the sake of the gospel.
Our culture has social norms, too. Although they may not be written anywhere, or displayed on a wall, they are pretty much understood. I will try my best to articulate some of them here:
- It is not socially normal to ask people personal questions about their faith.
- It is not socially normal to discuss your faith in a class presentation.
- It is not socially normal to ask deep questions to a stranger.
- It is not socially normal to ask your doctor, chiropractor, etc. about their spiritual beliefs.
- It is not socially normal to walk up to someone and ask if you can pray for them.
- It is not socially normal to call out to someone from across a parking lot who you don’t know in order to ask them a spiritual question.
- It is not socially normal to chase an unknown skateboarder down a hill in order to share the gospel with him at the bottom.
- It is not socially normal to gather the attention of a group of people in a public area in order to preach to them.
- It is not socially normal to ask a store clerk or employee how you can pray for them, and have a deep conversation with them.
If you have any degree of social IQ, you may be cringing at the thought of breaking some of these social norms. Which of these social norms would Jesus have been willing to break in order to reach a lost soul? My guess is that he would have crossed as many as he needed to. I have had the privilege of knowing Christians who have been willing to imitate Jesus, step out in faith, leave their comfort zone, and break these social norms to engage people in spiritual conversations, and it has often been astonishing.
I’ve watched my friend initiate a spiritual conversation with a store clerk, where she came to tears. I watched my wife chase a skateboarder down a hill to share the gospel. I’ve watched another friend gather the attention of a group of people in a city square. One of the young women who lives in our discipleship house, Nicole, frequently engages in spiritual conversations and shares the gospel with her clients at work. And in my best moments, God has used me as well to push through social norms in order to share the gospel.
Many times, the most miraculous evangelistic experiences happen when social norms are pushed aside. On multiple occasions when I have pushed through social norms and engaged a person in a spiritual conversation, they have said something like, “It’s crazy that you came up to me, I was just wondering if there was a God and asked for a sign. I can’t believe this is happening.”
Now, I am not suggesting that we go out and break social norms for the sake of being weird, or for a thrill. In fact, we should be as winsome as we can be. Be tactful and thoughtful in how you do things. What I am saying is that we should not allow social norms to block us from what the Holy Spirit is calling us to do. How many opportunities to share the gospel are we blind to because we only allow ourselves to be open to what is socially normal? I often think, “Well, I didn’t really have an opportunity to share the gospel today.” But how many more opportunities would I have seen if I was willing to obey the Holy Spirit’s leading, regardless of whether or not it was going to be awkward?
3. He Relied on the Holy Spirit
Oftentimes, we forget that Jesus was full of the Holy Spirit (Luke 4:1). And he followed the leading of the Holy Spirit. I think this is one reason Jesus was willing to go, do, or say things that seemed so socially abnormal, but led to such a profound impact. It was this fullness of the Holy Spirit that empowered Him to do miracles, signs, and give prophetic words. All these played an important role in the evangelism of Jesus. He did many signs in Jerusalem (John 2:23), He rebuked unclean spirits (Luke 4:35), and healed many people. On some occasions the Bible tells us he healed every sick person who came to him in that place (Luke 4:40, Matt. 6:19). And Jesus says in John 14:12 that those who believe in Him will go on to do even greater works than he did. I frequently need to come back and ask myself, “Do I really believe this?”
I’m a Southern Baptist, and let’s just say, we aren’t known for signs, miracles, and the prophetic. Isn’t that stuff for the Pentacostals and Charismatics? I believe we miss out on much of what God wants to do in evangelism, if we are not open to the Holy Spirit utilizing us for the miraculous. When I read the book of Acts, I see the example of the Holy Spirit showing up in miraculous ways as the disciples stepped out in faith to witness for Christ. I believe we must follow the example of Jesus and the disciples in Scripture and be ready for miraculous manifestations of the Spirit to aid in evangelism. I’m not leaving this amazing opportunity to be reserved only for the Charismatics out there. I want in.
Early on as a campus minister, there was a student who our ministry was reaching out to. While he would come around here and there, he never got on fire for Christ, or seemed to see how real Jesus was. Then one day he showed up to school with a leg injury that made it so he needed to use crutches. During that year, there was another student on campus who was a Christian from a Charismatic church named Brendon. This guy was on fire for Christ and would take opportunities to pray for people everywhere he went. One day, Brendon saw our buddy with crutches and took initiative to pray for Jesus to heal the guy, and he was healed. This guy could no longer deny the power of our God. This undeniable manifestation of the Holy Spirit served as a far more powerful evangelistic tool than anything else I know.
On another occasion, Brendon was hanging out with one of the students from our ministry named Ryan. As they walked into a store together, they saw a woman driving a mobility cart. They initiated a conversation with her and asked if they could pray for her in Jesus name. They did, and she experienced healing. After standing up and walking around, she indicated a decision to place her faith in Jesus.
Over the years, I’ve watched Charismatic brothers and sisters be used by the Holy Spirit to perform healings and utilize prophetic words of knowledge in evangelism, and I have made up my mind: I no longer want to “outsource” the miraculous side of Christianity to other ministries. We are going to pray for miracles, signs, and prophetic words that will lead people to see the power of Jesus Christ.
One of our staff members, Shannon, has a very strong prophetic gift. Last year, she sensed the Holy Spirit leading us to go to a certain area behind the bookstore on campus. When we walked over there, we found a guy sitting on a bench. This was the guy we needed to talk to. After we shared the gospel with him, he began opening up about his life and the sin he had felt so ashamed of. He recommitted his life to Christ on the spot and then said, “my friend needs this, can you share this with my friend?” Shannon waited there until the other friend arrived, who then heard the gospel and prayed to receive Christ.
Ideas for improving reliance upon the Holy Spirit in evangelism:
- Before you go out and share the gospel, ask the Holy Spirit if there is anything he wants you to be aware of: a place to go, a word to say, a person dressed a certain way, etc.
- As you meet people, ask that God would show you things about them that only He would know. If you sense something coming to mind, humbly say something like, “I feel like God might be leading me to ask you about ________. Does that mean anything to you?”
- Ask them if they need any physical healing. Then pray for that thing. Ask them if they notice any difference? I have seen multiple occasions where after prayer, the person went back to their doctor who said, “I don’t know what happened, but we no longer need to treat/operate on you. You are all better.”
- Pray each day for opportunities to share the gospel and for God to use you to do a miracle.
4. He didn’t allow Rejection to Hinder His Boldness
One of the most striking observations about Jesus’ evangelism, is how he kept on speaking, despite so much rejection. I recently asked one of my friends who has a masters degree in child development how kids learn how to behave in social settings. Her answer was essentially that as they interact, they naturally change their behavior over time based on what is accepted and rejected by those they are around. Why? Because it hurts to get rejected.
Not long ago, my six-year-old son touched a pan that was on the stove. His response was naturally to pull his hand away and not make that same mistake twice. Our natural response to pain is to stop doing the thing that causes pain. Rejection causes pain. Yet Jesus continued to proclaim the gospel of the Kingdom, the very thing which caused him rejection. He was rejected by those he came to save (John 1:11) and the people of his own hometown almost killed him (Luke 4:28-30).
Why, then, would Jesus continue to preach that He was the Messiah? Because it was worth it (Heb. 12:2-3). It was worth it for the sake of those who would come to salvation and spend eternity in heaven. It was worth it to train up a group of disciples who were willing to follow his example, because they too would experience rejection and suffering for the gospel.
Jesus could have lived a comfortable, Jewish life, where he obeyed the commandments and worked diligently. He could have still lived a “sinless” life as far as avoiding what the Bible said was wrong. But he would have not fulfilled what he came to do. He would not have impacted the world. He was willing to keep going hard in the same direction, preaching boldly through the rejection. Will you follow his example?
As I have studied the revivalists of the past, I have seen a common theme amongst them all: they all sufferred torturous amounts of rejection. Jonathan Edwards is despised by the world to this day for being a “turn or burn” preacher. George Whitefield literally had pieces of dead cats thrown at him while he was preaching. And these were the men who God used to Ignite the first Great Awakening in America.
What I have noticed is that there tends to be a strong correlation between the impact of a person’s life for Christ and the amount of rejection they receive. So, I believe that we must make up our mind ahead of time that we are willing to be rejected, then eagerly proclaim the saving message of Jesus Christ with boldness and zeal.
5. Lead the Charge
I know that I am the one to whom students are going look to as an example of what a lifestyle of evangelism looks like. Just as my mentors set the pace for me, I will now set the pace for those I lead. So, I ask myself the question, what example do I want to be setting in evangelism? The truth is, I want to see an awakening of students who are willing to go anywhere or do anything for Jesus. I want to see students who follow the example of Jesus—who intentionally spend time meeting non-believers, who are willing to push through social norms in order to share the gospel, who are willing to rely on the Holy Spirit, and who boldly proclaim the gospel no matter what rejection they face. My question for you is this: Will you take initiative and lead the evangelistic charge for your ministry?