Evangelistic Theory

By James M. Rochford

Good evangelists know that only the power of God can change a person’s heart. For every person, it is important to utilize (1) prayer, (2) Christian community, and (3) sound biblical teaching.

(1) Prayer

Prayer is integral in reaching people for Christ. In his book Church Planting Movements, author David Garrison studies explosive evangelistic movements that reach thousands of people for Christ. After charting the various church planting movements across the globe, he concludes his book by describing the universal elements that he found worldwide in groups that are effective for Christ. His number one factor that was commonly found in all church planting movements was prayer.

Pastor Chuck Smith agreed with this conviction. His church—Calvary Chapel—has planted roughly 1,500 churches across the world. It is also filled with people who have come to faith in Christ as adults (roughly 50% of the people at Calvary met Christ there). Smith himself attributed this widespread influence on his personal prayer time. (Smith read the Bible and prayed for 3 to 4 hours daily!) In his excellent book Effective Prayer Life, he writes,

Intercessory prayer is a real labor. It’s a real conflict in the battle against Satan. It’s the deciding factor, and that’s why Satan fights it so hard. Suppose that someone attacked you on a dark street and started wrestling with you. If he were to pull a knife, the whole battle would suddenly be centered on one thing—control of the knife. All of a sudden, you’d forget about punching him in the nose. You’d be grabbing for his wrist and trying to knock that knife out of his hand for you realize that it is the deciding factor in this battle. Satan knows that prayer brings you victory and spells his defeat. He knows it’s the deciding factor in this spiritual warfare. That’s why he concentrates all his efforts against prayer. He’ll do all he can to upset your prayer time, and keep you from praying.[1]

You’ll be amazed at the disturbances that come your way when you kneel down and start praying. The telephone will ring. Or someone will be at the front door. Or you’ll suddenly remember something you’ve been wanting to do. When I pray I usually take a notepad with me so I can jot down those thoughts of the forgotten things that need attention. Otherwise I’m tempted to get up and do them immediately. Satan will do anything to get you away from prayer.[2]

We can’t skip the basics. Prayer is at the heart of evangelistic influence. After several weeks of regular prayer, you’ll begin to see open doors for the gospel (Col. 4:2-4).

(2) Christian community

Most people who come to faith in Christ as adults can’t remember the subject of the first Bible study that they heard. They often can’t even remember hearing the gospel multiple times from Christians around them. But they very often remember the presence and power of Christian community!

Jesus taught this almost 2,000 years ago: “A new commandment I give to you,” Jesus said, “that you love one another…. By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another” (Jn. 13:34-35; c.f. Jn. 17:21-23). If we asked Jesus how people come to faith, he would say that the love of Christians is a large part of this process. It’s amazing to see some of the most hardened people find themselves warmed and disarmed when sitting with a group of loving and walking Christians.

(3) Sound Bible teaching

During Bible studies, we have a tremendous opportunity to unleash the word of God on spiritual seekers. When they hear the word taught publicly, this has a potent effect on their hearts. Hebrews 4:12 states, “The word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart” (NIV).

Working with diverse people

Good evangelists know that people need time to make a decision for Christ. They don’t feel the need to pressure someone into making a hasty decision in receiving Christ. Doug Pollock explains evangelism with a golfing illustration. It isn’t often that a golfer makes a “hole in one.” Usually, it takes several strokes for you to get the ball into the hole. But this shouldn’t discourage us. If you drove the ball 250 yards and put it on the green, you should consider this a good swing!—even if you didn’t put the ball in the hole. As evangelists, we need to adopt a similar view. The question is this: Are you playing your role in getting somebody closer to coming to Christ?

Hostile people

Hostile people aren’t as far from the gospel as we might think. In fact, in our experience, we would rather work with a hostile person, than an apathetic one. At least they are considering the claims of Christ. There are several keys to communicating with hostile people:

Discover why they are so hostile. Sometimes it is helpful to ask the person, “Why does discussing this make you so angry?”

Discover their relationship with their father. In his book Faith of the Fatherless, Freudian-trained psychologist Paul Vitz documents a multitude of atheists who had abusive, absent, or weak father figures growing up. From this, Vitz argues that our belief in a heavenly Father closely relates to our relationship with our earthly one. Imagine how difficult it would be to believe in God the Father, if your father was abusive, absent, or passive. Consider being physically abused by your father and then hearing that there is a cosmic Father out there that wants a relationship with you! This concept might be more of a threat than a relief.

Discover what their church experience has been. Many people in our culture have been inside a church before. Many were dragged to church weekly. What was their experience like? We recently talked with a hostile atheist. After a short conversation, she related the story of how her former charismatic church had brought her 16 year sister up on stage (in front of the entire congregation!) to pray the demon of lesbianism out of her. It’s no wonder that this girl would have emotional problems with the Christian faith, after witnessing such a traumatic event.

Break Christian stereotypes. Show the person that Christian culture is weird and bizarre. Share your interests in popular culture, books, and film. Show that following Christ can be incredibly fun and exciting.

Learn to love the person instead of being defensive. With the hostile person, this can be difficult, but put your ego aside. Remember that Jesus called believers to a high level of love (Mt. 5:44). Learn to rejoice when persecuted (Mt. 5:11-12). Learn to turn the other cheek (Mt. 5:39).

Encourage the person to call out to God. God promises to find those who seek for him (Mt. 7:7). Several years ago, I saw this firsthand. A friend of mine explained to an agnostic high school student that he should ask God to reveal himself in a personal way. The student was skeptical, but he agreed to pray to God about this. Two weeks later, my friend asked the student if he had prayed for God to reveal himself. He said that he did.

“And…?” my friend asked.

“I had a dream…” the student said.

“And…?” my friend asked again.

“In the dream, Jesus Christ appeared to me. Jesus told me, ‘I know that faith is confusing for you. I understand that you struggle with believing in me. That’s why I’ve come to appear to you, right now. I’ve come to tell you that I’m real, and my forgiveness is true!’”

My friend’s jaw dropped in astonishment. “And…?” he asked.

“And then…” the student paused. “I woke up.” Two days later, the student placed his faith in Christ. We should encourage people to speak directly with God. What do they have to lose?

Learn to identify a fool. Jesus refused to argue with certain people. For instance, when people tried to trap him regarding his authority, he gave them a dilemma to answer (“The baptism of John was from what source, from heaven or from men?”). When they couldn’t answer, he refused to continue the discussion (Mt. 21:23-27). Elsewhere, he said, “Do not give what is holy to dogs, and do not throw your pearls before swine, or they will trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you to pieces” (Mt. 7:6). Solomon writes, “The mocker seeks wisdom and finds none, but knowledge comes easily to the discerning” (Prov. 14:7 NIV). He writes, “Do not speak to a fool, for he will scorn the wisdom of your words” (Prov. 23:9 NIV). He writes, “Do not answer a fool according to his folly, or you will also be like him” (Prov. 26:4). Identifying a person like this is difficult. We should probably err on the side of giving the person the benefit of the doubt, while at the same time having a category for walking away.

Apathetic people

Apathetic people are very difficult to reach for Christ. It’s amazing that people could be so disinterested in such important questions, as the meaning of life, eternity, and God’s existence. However, as believers, we should consider a number of ways to approach people like this:

Remember that God is pursuing all people—even the apathetic. God has placed “eternity in the human heart” (Eccl. 3:11), he is actively drawing all people to himself (Jn. 12:32), and he is bringing conviction for their need for Christ (Jn. 16:8-10). Repeatedly, we are shocked time and time again that people are more interested in Christ than we can perceive.

Discover what they are passionate about. We do not believe that people are simply emotionless, disinterested, and blank-faced animals trudging through life. Everyone is interested in something. Discover why that brings them joy, and explain why a life with Christ is more fulfilling.

Build trust and love them. Often apathetic people have never encountered a truly dedicated follower of Christ. When they see this zeal and love in your life, this can often get them questioning their own lives (“What do they have that I don’t?”).

Ask questions about their worldview. The presuppositional argument (see “Does God Exist?”) can be particularly helpful in getting a person to consider their worldview rationally and consistently.

Curious people

We should assume that all people are curious about Christ, unless proven otherwise. While the above concepts are certainly good for all people, we can consider more for a curious person.

Read through key Scriptures on coming to Christ together. William Fay suggests reading a passage and asking, “What do you think this is saying? How would you put this in your own words?” It never ceases to amaze how powerful it is for a person to read the Bible for themselves. It can have a supernatural effect when they see the passages for themselves.

Use simple illustrations to present the gospel clearly. Read through our earlier paper “Do Good People Go to Heaven?” for some ways to explain the gospel.

Give your friend something to read. Ask them if they have ever considered the Christian worldview before or read anything from a Christian thinker. (For many, this term is considered an oxymoron!). Give them a book on Christian apologetics or an evangelistic book on grace (Discovering God by Dennis McCallum; How Good is Good Enough? by Andy Stanley; John 3:16 by Max Lucado).

Read through predictive prophecy with them. Daniel 9, Isaiah 53, and Psalm 22 are particularly good (see Evidence Unseen, chapters 5-8, for preparing a study like this). Keep this short and sweet. After one of these prophecies, show them how Christ gave us these prophecies to verify his claims for forgiveness.

Encourage them to read the Bible on their own. It’s better if they buy their own Bible. But if they do not have money, buy them a good study Bible. Give them a simple reading plan, such as reading through the gospel of John and writing down any questions that they have. This leads to further discussion later, and it allows them to consider the claims of Christ themselves.


There is no formula for evangelism that we need to follow. This is our biggest critique of books like William Fay’s, Sharing Jesus Without Fear. While Fay’s five questions are very helpful, they are too formulaic and rigid. Since people are so diverse, it is unwise to use an identical formula for each unique individual. Instead, we should prefer a flexible approach to sharing our faith that keeps our friend in view. While we think that these methods above are helpful in reaching diverse people for Christ, we shouldn’t worship our methods. Remember to be flexible in approaching people from different backgrounds and keep your methods open to change.

[1] Smith, Chuck. Effective Prayer Life. Costa Mesa, CA: Word For Today, 1980. 14.

[2] Smith, Chuck. Effective Prayer Life. Costa Mesa, CA: Word For Today, 1980. 13-14.