Three (More) Common Evangelism Mistakes

In my last post, Two Common Evangelism Mistakes, I talked about two ways Christians often get evangelism wrong. You can…

  1. Present the wrong message.
  2. Live like you don’t believe a word you are saying.

In this post, we’ll look at three more ways we often get it wrong. The goal is to grow to maturity, both in how we live with integrity, and also in how we respect and love our friends, family, co-workers, and neighbors.

1. Be completely unprepared to back up your position.

One of the students I mentored while in Boston got off to a rocky start with his freshman roommates. A few weeks into the fall semester, he felt that the initial connection had been made, trust had been built, and it was now time to ‘come out’ as a Christian (a genuinely courageous choice at his secular university). So he let his roommates know he was a Christian.

The problem is, they were fascinated. “Do you believe in the Old Testament? Yes. How do you deal with the genocide of the Canaanites? Um, well...” and on it went. By the end of the night, my friend was wondering if Christianity made any sense at all.

Contrary to expectations, the interest of his nonChristian friends about Christianity exceeded his own level of preparation! Which raises some interesting questions. For instance:

  • What kind of intellectual curiosity does your church foster?
  • What kinds of questions are encouraged at the youth group?
  • Is the spiritual formation and training at your church adequate for the spiritual curiosity of our culture?
  • What does it say about us when atheists are asking more questions about the Bible than Christians?

In a pluralistic society, you have two basic choices: make your beliefs about tiny little things like, say, God, and make them entirely private and irrelevant to all of your work, friendships, and decision making, or… be public about your commitment to following God’s supreme authority in every sphere of life, and be prepared to have those convictions challenged by people who think and live a different way, according to their ultimate convictions. When that challenge inevitably comes, you need to have two answers in place: one, the credibility of a life sincerely lived for Jesus, and two, the credibility of a mind that can give a persuasive explanation for your decisions.

For instance, some Buddhists believe that “the world is empty of self and permanence” (the doctrine of anatta). If you don’t already believe that, well, to fully embrace this doctrine would require a great deal of explanation, wouldn’t it? You’d want to know about the nuances and clarifications and approach to reality that leads people to embrace the teaching of anatta.

Likewise, here’s Alex Rosenberg, an atheist professor at Duke University, on the meaning of atheism:

What is the purpose of the universe?
There is none.

What is the meaning of life?

Why am I here?
Just dumb luck.

Does prayer work?
Of course not.

Is there a soul? Is it immortal?
Are you kidding?

Is there free will?
Not a chance!

What happens when we die?
Everything pretty much goes on as before, except us.

What is the difference between right and wrong, good and bad?
There is no moral difference between them.

I find Rosenberg’s perspective to not only be false, but shocking. The implications of a consistent atheism are rather troubling. Here’s the thing: many people find Christianity to be equally false and absurd. Do we care enough about our friends, and do we believe a relationship with God is important enough for them to meet God, that we will take the time to understand and graciously answer their genuine questions?

I’m glad to say that my friend in Boston did his research, analyzed his questions carefully, and is now living an active Christian life. There’s no reason not to have good reasons for why we follow the way of Christ. If we are going to proclaim the gospel, then we also need to explain why we believe the gospel is true.

2. Treat people like they are targets.

Some churches have rightly acknowledged that evangelism should be a top priority. However, sometimes this can create a culture where Christians are so pressured to be evangelistic that their witness becomes rather false and hollow. For example, when I lived in Memphis, one of my friends was attending a conservative seminary. As part of his enrollment, he was required to share the gospel with someone every single day. I remember sitting at Starbucks with him one evening, when he realized that he had not yet completed his assignment for the day. So, after explaining his predicament to me, and apologizing, he stood up, looked around, found someone sitting by themselves, and went over to share the gospel.

Let’s say that one in a thousand people who received this kind of evangelism ended up becoming Christians. Was it worth it? To my mind, it wasn’t, not if 999 people became embittered towards the gospel by their experience of Christians rudely interrupting them, reciting a canned presentation, and asking in a scripted fashion if they wanted to receive Jesus as Lord and Savior. How many more people might have come to know Jesus if another approach had been employed? The most aggressive method is by no means the most effective or faithful approach.

Think about it. How do you respond when someone calls your home and tells you, “Congratulations! To show our appreciation for who you are, you’ve won a cruise to the Bahamas!” I hang up the phone and think, “Too good to be true.”  How is it any different when we interrupt people and say, basically, “Congratulations! God loves you so much that you can go on a one-way trip to heaven when you die!” (Perhaps there are good ways of doing ‘contact evangelism’, but in my experience, these seem to be the exceptions).

During my seven years of ministry at Harvard, I had many conversations with students who had been turned off by the hard sell of an evangelist with a megaphone. Whether it is personally interrupting someone enjoying a quiet moment in a coffee shop or publicly interrupting everyone who had the audacity to walk outside in a public square, sometimes Christians come across like desperate salesmen for Jesus.

From my own experience of doing evangelism like this, I can’t say that I was terribly motivated by a loving concern for the person I was talking to. Rather, I wanted to impress other Christians with my evangelistic zeal and success. Hmmm. Do you think anyone else noticed my motivation for ‘sharing the gospel’? Is it any surprise that, at least in my life, no one ever came to know Jesus from these impersonal and scripted encounters?

3. Turn conversations into sermons – or interrogations.

I remember a long car drive I once had with a friend. She disagreed with me on some point, so I helpfully responded with a series of questions designed to expose all of the weaknesses in her position. To my surprise, she felt attacked, disrespected, and frustrated. Looking at the conversation from one point of view, there was (probably) a compelling logical case to be made. But from a slightly larger frame of reference, I was being a jerk. As Google defines the term, that is “a contemptibly obnoxious person.”

Even with good friends, sometimes conversations about faith are the most awkward ones. The stakes feel high. The pressure is on. Just one wrong word or bad answer and everything will be over! We’ve been praying for this moment for so long. Maybe it is our only chance.

Sometimes the people who do the evangelism training are Type-A personalities with an overzealous personality, and despite everything they say about gentleness and respect, we still pick up the energy in the room as the main thing. We’re left with a sense of frenetic urgency to go and do something.

Whatever the reason, many Christians seem to face a very real temptation to switch from ‘normal friend mode’ into ‘awkward religious zone’ whenever the conversation turns to Jesus.

We need to trust that God is in charge. Jesus is the one with “all authority.” Spiritual transformation is God’s work. The Holy Spirit is the one who converts people.

When these truths sink in, two amazing transformations take place: first, we are all the more eager to share the gospel, because we know that we do so in partnership with the All-Powerful God of the Universe. That’s encouraging.

Second, we are all the more patient, gentle, kind, and respectful when we talk about Jesus, because we don’t feel any pressure to perform or get quick results. This is all part of God’s plan, not ours. The only reason we’re living for Jesus, and talking about Jesus, is because of Jesus. If God managed to get ahold of our lives, unlikely as that is, then just maybe He is capable of working in our friends’ lives too.

So there’s no need to be artificial or fake about it. We don’t need to manipulate people (reminder: that is actually wrong). We are, as one illustration has it, just one beggar telling other beggars where to find food. Does that require a lot of hype and spin? Or do we just need to say, “Look, I had a good meal there just this morning. All you need to do is go down this street for ten blocks, take a right, and you’ll see it on your left in about five minutes.”

Ok, it is a little more complicated than that, but the bottom line is to be genuine about our own experiences with God and point people to Jesus. And this means that you can have perfectly normal and wonderful conversations about God with just about anyone. Trust me, if your life is being changed by Jesus, and you are asking the Holy Spirit to use you to lead others to know Christ, there will be plenty of opportunities.

When we are confident about what we believe, grateful for what God is doing in our lives, prepared to answer people’s questions, and trusting in God’s plan, we are far more likely to have a relaxed and genuine approach to conversations about God.


In this two part series, we’ve looked at five common evangelism mistakes. They are:

  1. Present the wrong message.
  2. Live like you don’t believe a word you are saying.
  3. Be completely unprepared to back up your position.
  4. Treat people like they are targets.
  5. Turn conversations into sermons – or interrogations.

Perhaps you’ve done all five of these. I know I have. The goal isn’t to wallow in guilt and shame. Rather, remember the gospel message (#1), be transformed by this good news (#2), understand why you believe what you believe (#3), treat people with basic decency and respect (#4), and acknowledge that God is in charge of all things (#5).

We’re in this together. You and me, and our church families and Christian friends, and everyone else who is affected by how we live our lives. We have some really good news to share. Let’s ask God to help us share it in a really good way.