February / March - 2020 Vol. 108
Person to Person: A practical approach to effective evangelism

two students talking

Sharing Our Christian Faith and
Speaking About Jesus Christ

by Jim Berlucchi

Communicating spiritual truths in our natural settings, can be a great challenge. Sometimes our attempts result in embarrassment.

 I remember a job I held years ago. I was eager to use every opportunity to tell others about my relationship with the Lord. In the absence of natural opportunity, I sometimes engineered ill-fated conversations about spiritual subjects.

One of these took place one day with a co-worker named John. Poor John desperately needed to hear the gospel, though he didn’t know it. He was recently divorced, involved in another relationship, and anxiety ridden about his career. If only someone spiritual like me could open the gates of heaven for John!

 The right moment never seemed to come as my eagerness to talk to John brewed nearly to a boiling point. Finally, one day, I attempted a spiritual ambush. In the midst of a pleasant conversation, I made my move:

 John (with some anxiety): “I’ve got to find a new job. I’m really at a dead end here in this place. I need more money.”

 Jim (in a crouch position): “Well John, life is really just a mist. Before you know it we’ll all be gone, jobs and all.” (I refrained from citing Psalm 90 as a reference.)

 John (ending the conversation with indignation): “Well, that sure is a religious statement if I ever heard one!”

 Somehow, the spiritual relevance of my comment escaped John and practically ended any chance I had to reach him with the message of salvation.

 My comment to John backfired for at least two reasons. First, I was impatiently manipulating the conversation. Second, my pious comment smacked of an impersonal religiosity that didn’t speak to his expressed concern.

 When speaking about Christ, spiritual truths, our prayer group, community, or church, we need wisdom as well as zeal. Wisdom should be our guide in communicating effectively about the Lord’s life to outsiders. “Conduct yourselves wisely toward outsiders, making the most of the time. Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you know how you ought to answer everyone” (Colossians 4:5-6).

This passage cites wisdom and discretion as key ingredients in effective communication. Discretion demands our alertness not only to the person but to the situation. Though my comment to John was true enough, it was not sensitively geared to the overall conversation. “A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver” (Proverbs 25:11). “To make an apt answer is a joy to a man, and a word in season, how good it is!” (Proverbs 15:23).

Speak Simply

 An ex-marine once told me of a frequently used abbreviation in the corps – KISS.

 “That’s interesting,” I countered, “What does KISS mean?” “Keep It Simple Stupid,” he replied. For our purposes, let me substitute: “Keep It Simple Saint.”

 Everyone appreciates simplicity of communication. We need not be complex or theological as we talk about the Lord. We don’t need to overpower our hearers in a torrent of words.

Speak Personally and Sincerely

 The apostle Paul was a great preacher to both Jew and Gentile. Yet he was remarkably and consistently personal in transmitting the gospel. He uses many situations to give his personal testimony in the record of the Acts of the Apostles. Even in the midst of his eloquent defense before King Agrippa in Caesarea, he presents his personal story. Agrippa responds by saying, “In a short time you think to make me a Christian!”

Likewise, it is usually best to speak personally about our own relationship with the Lord and his people. The hot air of theological debate can be quickly deflated with personal reference to the Lord. Tell people how God has worked concretely in your life – answering prayers, giving guidance, changing your marriage, easing your problems, strengthening your character, providing for your financial needs.

Avoid False Piety

 We should diligently avoid jargon that sounds strange to unchurched ears: “Praise God, I was really blessed and edified!” “If it weren’t for the fellowship and the blood, I’d be a backslider.” “Let me tell you about life in the body.” “For the grace of God that bringeth salvation hath appeared to all men.” These and similar sounding phrases can alienate men and women.

 If our speech is to be seasoned with salt, we should realize that much Christian jargon is not only perplexing but often offensive to outsiders. Within decent bounds (that is, righteous and appropriate), our speech should fit into the given environment.

 Christians can also use jargon which is not necessarily religious sounding but which is unique to their church or fellowship, and thus meaningless to outsiders. Although I am a “coordinator” in the “Word of God,” an interdenominational Christian community, I describe myself to others as one of the directors of a Christian organization. We should be careful to avoid jargon, especially when talking to outsiders. This advice proceeds from the scriptural recommendations to “be all things to all men.”

 Don’t Be Moralistic and Pushy

One of the surest ways to alienate non-Christians is to confront them about their morals. They will respond defensively, and you will simply be reinforcing the widely held misconception that Christianity is primarily a moral code. While morality is of critical importance, moralizing is most often harmful, particularly to those who have never heard the good news.

 I know a young man who was involved in serious wrong at the time of his conversion. In ignorance, he continued in this wrongdoing until another Christian gently educated him in the matter. He immediately changed his behavior, motivated by his desire to live completely for God. It is normally only this motivation plus the operation of God’s power that can produce such moral change. Without these two bases, moralizing will most normally provoke resistance and defensiveness.

 Likewise, pushiness usually provokes mistrust and reluctance. Take the case of Carl. A successful student and star athlete, he was nonetheless disenchanted with his life and was looking for a spiritual solution to his problems. As he came into contact with some Christians on campus, he was keenly interested but cautious about expressing commitment. Encouraged by Carl’s interest, but failing to note his uncertainty, a Christian worker doggedly pressed Carl for a commitment, only to lose him completely. Had that Christian exercised patient faith and greater sensitivity, Carl might well have taken the needed step.

As servants of the Lord, we must always be attentive to the initiative of the Master. No one can come to the Father except by the Son. No one can come to the Son unless the Father calls him. Placing our trust in the action of God in others can often be a great challenge for a fervent, well intentioned Christian ambassador. Without faith however, our work will be to no avail. As we exercise patient faith for others, we will see results.

 This is not to say that we shouldn’t urge or gently push at the right moment. Nor should we be tepid and indecisive in calling others on to the Christian life. The important point is to be sensitive both to the person and the work of the Holy Spirit in the other person. A Spirit filled push at the right moment can be just what’s needed. 

Guard Your Tongue

 Complaining and criticalness come naturally to human beings. Our society encourages us to evaluate and criticize everyone and everything. Politicians, ministers, foreigners, neighbors, relatives, spouses, bureaucrats in Washington, barbers, socialists, capitalists – everyone is a target for criticism and slander.

 In this atmosphere of negativity the command of Jesus rings out unmistakably: “Judge not, that you might not be judged” (Mt 7:1). The Christian who faithfully obeys this command refuses to follow the crowd. Christians should not judge and criticize others, except in cases where they have responsibility over people or situations. Even then, their judgment should be objective and merciful.

 The inclination to find fault with others can seem overpowering. It’s easy to see how others fall short. But what are we conveying when we openly criticize others? If nothing else, a criticizing Christian demonstrates that he or she is no different than anyone else, no light on a hilltop, no lamp on a stand.

 One cannot overestimate the positive impact of speech that is uncontaminated by slander and meanness. I know a number of individuals who were initially drawn to Christ through witnessing the positive attitude and speech of Christians. This was a trait that impressed me before I fully encountered the Lord. I would even attempt to draw Christians into a negative conversation and then marvel at their resistance. I found their behavior mystifying and irritating at the same time. What strange view of reality could support such positive attitudes and speech? If the Christians around me had spoken like the rest of my contemporaries, I probably wouldn’t have been very curious about Christianity.

 Never underestimate the power of the tongue – for great good, or great evil. Christians should “speak evil of no one” (Titus 3:2a).

 Finally, for the sake of both righteousness and witness, we should avoid criticism of other Christians or Christian groups. Would not an outsider conclude “See how those Christians hate one another!” The current scandal of division among Christians should greatly motivate us to speak well, or not at all, of our brethren. 

Be Gentle and Courteous

 Three striking phrases follow on the heels of Paul’s recommendation “to avoid quarreling, to be gentle, and to show perfect courtesy toward all men” (Ti 3:2). This might strike us as ill-suited advice from someone who seemed to thrive on debate, as the apostle Paul. His strong verbal defense of the gospel always occurred in contexts where debate was socially acceptable. Moreover, Paul repeatedly demonstrated courtesy and meekness in his dealings with both Jew and Gentile. His immediate apology for a harsh and ill-informed rebuke to Ananias the high priest, is a striking example of Paul’s allegiance to his own teaching (Acts 23:1-5).

 Paul’s interest in gentleness and courtesy is due to his interest in evangelism. In 2 Timothy 2:24-25 he states, “And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kindly to everyone . . . forbearing, correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant that they will repent and come to know the truth.”

 Peter shows a similar concern to instruct his listeners in discreet speech: “Always be prepared to make a defense to anyone who calls you to account for the hope that is in you, yet do it with both gentleness and reverence” (1 Peter 3:15).

 Both Peter and Paul highlight the value of courtesy, gentleness, and reverence in speech. Interestingly, they correlate these qualities with evangelism. Sidestepping futile arguments and avoiding a quarrelsome tone is stressed in a number of passages regarding speaking with outsiders. Non-Christians will frequently try to provoke and draw a Christian into similarly obnoxious behavior. It is essential for us to overcome such a temptation if we are to communicate the truth about Christ. The manner in which we speak is normally as closely scrutinized as our words themselves. We can still speak softly, knowing that we are, indeed, carrying a big stick.

 The above six recommendations cite both how we should and should not speak about the Christian life to those who are not Christians. They recognize certain tendencies of the tongue and errors into which we can readily fall. It is perilously easy to commit any or all of the six errors mentioned. With ease, we may find ourselves:

1. presenting the Gospel in a complicated or confusing manner

2. speaking impersonally, theologically

3. using religious jargon

4. pushing when we shouldn’t

5. criticizing others

6. running roughshod over people, being defensive and insensitive.

If you can relate to any of these tendencies, don’t be disheartened! Though we are filled with the Spirit of God, we are still hampered by our imperfect human tendencies. As we master the tongue, we will not only be more pleasing to God but to outsiders as well.

This article is adapted from the book, Person to Person: How to Be Effective in Evangelism, © 1984 by Jim Berlucchi, and published by Servants Books, Ann Arbor.

A nine part series of articles based on the book by Jim Berlucchi can be found in the Living Bulwark archives. See links below.

Person to Person: How to Be Effective in Evangelism

by Jim Berlucchi

> Part 1: True “No Limit” Message
> Part 2: Everyday Evangelism
> Part 3: Be Open - Be Natural
> Part 4: Building Bridges
> Part 5: Authentic Evangelism
> Part 6: Portrait of the Christian Ambassador
> Part 7: Prayer Makes a Difference
> Part 8: Speaking About Jesus Christ
> Part 9: Earning the Right to Be Heard

Jim Berlucchi is the Executive Director at Spitzer Center for Ethical Leadership. He formerly served as the Executive Director of Legatus, an international association of Catholic CEOs. He is the work/life columnist for Faith Magazine, and a published composer and recording artist. Sample audio clips of his music are available online. He served for many years as a community leader in The Word of God and The Sword of the Spirit.He and his wife Judy reside in Dexter, Michigan, USA. They are the grateful parents of eight children and enjoy a steadily increasing number of grandchildren. 
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