Evangelizing with Open Ears

For many people, the most frightening part of evangelism is just getting into the conversation. Even as a full-time pastor, this is one of the areas that I find challenging as well. Sure, if someone came up to us, fell on their knees, and cried out, “What must I do to be saved?” most of us would know how to share the gospel with that person (I hope). Let’s face it, though: This has not happened to many of us. (By the way, if that has happened to you, would you let me know?)

Because getting into spiritual conversations can be so nerve wracking, it’s good to have a few tools in your tool belt that can get things going. Now, a tool is only as good as the person wielding it. No evangelistic tool I’ve seen is a magic bullet, and there is absolutely no substitute for Spirit-fueled love for our lost neighbors. Fortunately, we do not need to choose between genuine compassion and helpful evangelistic aids.

One of the more unwieldy evangelistic tools out there is the “diagnostic question.” This is supposed to be a nonthreatening question that leads to a natural conversation about God. Something like, “Do you consider yourself a spiritual person?” or, “What do you think happens when you die?”

One of the problems with diagnostic questions is that they can feel so ridiculously cheesy. You tilt your head just the right way, change your tone of voice, and squint your eyes. The end result is that the question is anything but natural.

Diagnostic questions are often much better in theory than in practice. But I think diagnostic questions can be redeemed. A lot of it has to do with the way we ask the questions. This may seem like common sense, but if you plan to ask a disarming and natural question, then ask it like a sincere question and listen to the answer.

We are all wired to recognize and bristle against a sales pitch. People are clever enough to know the difference between you asking a sincere question and you setting a person up for an information bomb. So ask with the intent of listening, not as a ploy to score evangelism points.

We can also choose wiser and more natural questions. There may have been a time when asking someone, “If you died tonight, how sure are you that you would go to heaven?” was a question that would open up conversational doors. It seems less so now. One question that I find rather useful to ask is, “Do you sense yourself moving toward or away from God?” It’s an open ended and nonthreatening question, but the answer lets me know where a person is coming from — provided I actually listen.

There are a host of others that I think can be useful:

  • What do you think are some of the biggest misconceptions about God?
  • What has been your experience with the church?
  • What do you think a successful/happy life looks like?

Again, none of these are sufficient on their own, but if we ask sincerely and listen with compassion, we may be surprised by where the Spirit leads us.  

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J.D. Greear, Ph.D., is the President of the Southern Baptist Convention and pastors the Summit Church in Raleigh-Durham, NC. Tagged by Outreach magazine as one of the fastest growing churches in America, the Summit has grown in the past 8 years from 400 to over 5,000 each weekend. The Summit Church is deeply involved in global church planting, having undertaken the mission to plant 1000 churches in the next 40 years. J.D. has authored Breaking the Islam Code and the upcoming Gospel: Recovering the Power that Made Christianity Revolutionary.