You are utterly incapable of converting people. Three decades in public evangelism have taught me many important lessons, but this is by far the most important. When I first got started, I suspected that the best evangelists won the day with compelling arguments. Speak the right words from the front, many people believe, and the response to the appeal will be astonishing.
I knew that others believed this idea as well, because of the number of people who approached me, asking me to speak to their friends. “Pastor,” one woman implored breathlessly one Friday evening, “my friend is at the bar right now. Please go and talk to him!”
More painful yet: “My husband is an unbeliever. Maybe you could come over and talk to him this evening!” Truth be told, I’d probably be interested in befriending that husband over a longer term, because I’m a recovering heathen myself: this is the tribe from which I hail, and I still love them. But there is, short of divine intervention (it does happen), no argument I could make that will win him over 45 minutes after I meet him.
It doesn’t work that way. It never has. Siccing the pastor on your friends and family is far more likely to generate resentment than conviction, and wise pastors will typically refuse to do it. Your loved ones know exactly whosent the pastor and why, and it’s almost a guaranteed formula for elevating resistance. Think telemarketer—they often interrupt your day and attempt to use sophistry to make you interested in their product. How much do you love those calls? (I’ll be honest, I dokind of love those calls, because I’ve made a game out of keeping them on the line as long as possible.)
Pastors in training aren’t handed a cue card full of top-secret phrases that unfailingly generate conversions. It’strue that there are wise and unwise ways to state things when having conversations, and the language used when speaking with interested parties is important (even critical!)—but there’s no magic argument that suddenly makes people interested.
The history of Christian apologetics gives us much to think about. In the earliest years of the church there was considerable effort to convince the Romans that Christians weren’t a threat to the Roman Empire but were in fact valuable citizens. Justin Martyr, for example, wrote to the emperor to persuade him to ignore nasty rumors about believers and consider the evidence for himself: “For we have come . . . to beg that you pass judgment, after an accurate and searching investigation, not flattered by prejudice or by a desire of pleasing superstitious men, nor induced by irrational impulse or evil rumors which have long been prevalent.”
Others focused on the burgeoning problem of pagan syncretism: the Gnostics were attempting to harmonize the teachings of pagan mystery schools with the teachings of the Bible. As we move past the earliest centuries, however, apologetics generally followed two schools of thought: empiricism and rationalism. The empiricists argued that God’s existence could be convincingly demonstrated from the evidence of your senses; assemble all available data, and you will find God. Perhaps the best-known proponent of this approach was Thomas Aquinas, who offered five proofs for God’s existence, four of which had been plagiarized from Aristotle. His key argument, known as the cosmological argument, hung on the idea of cause and effect; something must have originally set this universe in motion, he said, and that something was God.
The rationalists,on the other hand, believed that you could discover God through sheer reason. Anselm of Canterbury provides us with a great example of this approach, with his ontologicalargument. Imagine a being, he said, of which no greater being can be conceived. If that being exists only in your mind, then you could still think of something greater: a God who existed in reality. (This argument has been mercilessly picked apart over the past millennium.)
Almost the entire body of Christian apologetics falls into one (or both) of these camps, until you get to the Protestant Reformation, which saw a return to a scripturalapproach. “Therefore,” Luther taught, “we must needs turn to Scripture with the writings of all teachers and from that source get our judgment and verdict concerning them. For Scripture alone is the true lord and master of all writing and teaching on earth.” Scripture, the Reformers insisted, was all the argument you needed.
I’m personally grateful for the works of the empiricists and rationalists because they have provided me with many opportunities to reflect deeply on my faith. But I’m already a believer who has been seized by conviction. These types of arguments have produced relatively few converts over the centuries when compared to the scriptural approach. Why? Paul makes it clear in his first letter to the Corinthians: “These things we also speak, not in words which man’s wisdom teaches but which the Holy Spirit teaches, comparing spiritual things with spiritual. But the natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; nor can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Cor. 2:13, 14, NKJV).
Paul understood something crucial: preachers don’t produce conversions. He points out that “man’s wisdom” will never do the trick; spiritual things require a spiritual understanding. The “natural man” can’t get to the finish line by using reason alone. Human reason has been warped by the Fall, and the unregenerate mind is at odds with God. Our very best arguments look foolish to people who aren’t under conviction.
Paul should know. When he was stopped on the road to Damascus, Christ’s primary appeal to him wasn’t based on his education (which was considerable) or on logic: “It is hard for you to kick against the goads” (Acts 9:5, NKJV), Jesus said. Saul, in other words, was fighting conviction. The Spirit had been working on his heart long before his dramatic conversion.
Scriptural apologists depend on the convicting power of the Holy Spirit to make their case, because they understand that we cannot generate conviction. The Scriptures provide the most compelling argument to accept Christ, and for good reason: when you share Scripture with people—even people who have never been exposed to it, as is increasingly the case—if they have been hearing the voice of the Holy Spirit, they suddenly recognize that Voice in the words of the Bible. The One who inspired Scripture is the One who has been whispering to their conscience. “The divine Spirit that had borne witness to Nathanael in his solitary prayer under the fig tree,” we are told, “now spoke to him in the words of Jesus.”
Faith, Ellen White wrote, “is an assent of the understanding to God’s words which binds the heart in willing consecration and service to God, Who gave the understanding, Who moved on the heart, Who first drew the mind to view Christ on the cross of Calvary.”
If you go back and think about your own conversion, you’ll see it. Long before a Bible worker, an evangelist, or a pastor invited you to accept Christ, you were already hearing His voice. You had been bothered and wondering. You were interested before you were approached by a human being. God sends usto help people connect the dots and to invite them into the family.
That’s how it works in every single case. Read through the book of Acts and see if the notable conversion stories were cold interests. (Hint: they weren’t.) On the day of Pentecost, Peter’s audience is made up of “devout men, from every nation under heaven” (Acts 2:5, NKJV). Philip’s interest had been in studying Isaiah long before God sent him to make an invitation. Ananias was sent to Saul after His encounter with Christ. Cornelius, the first recorded Gentile convert, was “a devout man and one who feared God with all his household” (Acts 10:2, NKJV).
The disciples were working with people whose interest had already been piqued; these were spiritually inclined people. I’ve been working in the arena of public evangelism for three decades, and I can say that this has been true of everybody I’ve seen baptized—and my case study involves tens of thousands of people at this point. Invariably, I’m not the one who made them interested; the interest was already there. In fact, by the time Imeet many of these people, they’re halfway into the church.
What does this mean for outreach? It’s simple: we aren’t in the business of converting people; we are in the business of seeking out people that God is converting. Ellen White described it like this: “Do not feel that the responsibility rests upon you to convict and convert the hearers. The power of God alone can soften the hearts of the people. You are to hold forth the word of life, that all may have an opportunity of receiving the truth if they will.” And “arm yourselves with humility; pray that angels of God may come close to your side to impress the mind; for it is not you that work the Holy Spirit, but the Holy Spirit must work you. It is the Holy Spirit that makes the truth impressive.”
Some might believe that this narrows the field considerably, because we’re suddenly not pursuing everybody. This approach would be a mistake; I still pursue everybody, but I prioritize those who are experiencing conviction. The rest? You keep them in your life so that you’re there when it happens. To use an illustration that Ellen White used, we don’t pick green berries; we pick those that are ripe. Later we go over the same bushes to see if there are more ripe berries.
This is why bait-and-switch methods of advertising evangelistic events don’t work. If you’re going to be preaching Bible prophecy, advertise prophecy. Why? Because you want the right audience for what you’re going to say. It is far better to have a small, interested audience than a massive audience that came out for all the wrong reasons.
Some years ago a church member excitedly told me about his plans to bring an audience to the church. “We’re going to hire a balloon artist and a Christian magician,” he said. “That’ll bring people out.” Yes, it might. But is it the right audience? People aren’t stupid; if you promise a show and switch to biblical themes, you might find a few interested people. I’ll grant that. But those people would have come for your biblical expositions if you’d advertised that . . . as well as others.
No one concept has brought me more relief in my witness. I used to think that if I was making an appeal to an audience and I wasn’t convincingenough, it would flop. I didn’t want to be that sad and lonely preacher who stands at the front, meekly pleading for 25 minutes, “Is there just one person here ready to take a stand?” I finally realized: I’m not convincingthe audience; I’m appealing to those whom the Holy Spirit is convincing. Once I grasped that concept, the response to appeals improved immediately.
It also becomes impossible to “burn territory.” I hear some church members complain that they’ve done too much outreach and the territory has become unresponsive as a result. That can happen particularly when we become obsessed with the number of decisions we submit to the conference; some evangelists, sensing performance pressure, begin to push uninterested people too hard. And of course, no argument will convince them . . . and so we lose them.
But if you’re focused on working with the interested—the ripe fruit—you can’tburn the territory. You can come back every few months and find more to harvest. In fact, you will never run out of interests. Look for where God is working, and join Him there —you can’t go wrong.
“Preach the word,” Paul told Timothy, “in season and out of season” (2 Tim. 4:2, NKJV). Even if the audience isn’t particularly receptive, switching material isn’t going to make them morereceptive. Arguing is God’s job, not ours, and not even the greatest of apologists ever bested God when it comes to the matter of conviction.
You will be delighted when you discover, particularly after two years of lockdowns, just how much interest the Spirit continues to generate. We need to pray for the eyes of heaven, so that we can see people the way that God sees them. “Lift up your eyes and look at the fields,” Jesus pleaded, “for they are already white for harvest!” (John 4:35, NKJV).
Shawn Boonstra is speaker/director of the Voice of Prophecy media ministry, based in Loveland, Colorado, United States.