Book review: Irresistible Evangelism: Natural Ways to Open Others to Jesus

Steve Sjogren has written extensively on his experiences with Servant Evangelism, a style he characterizes as “High grace, low risk.” In this book, Irresistible Evangelism, he teams up with Dave Ping and Doug Pollock to consider the broader picture of evangelism, showing how servant evangelism can fit into the total evangelistic ministry of the church.

The authors recognize that many have set out to do evangelism – from a variety of motives – but have often found their work unproductive In fact, many of the things Christians do in their attempt to evangelize lead people away from Jesus rather than toward him. They identify 7 “deadly sins” in particular:

  1. Scheming – Using slick marketing and “bait and switch” methods to bring people to Jesus
  2. Scalp Hunting – Out for numbers; highly impersonal
  3. Screaming – Self-righteously afflicting people with the gospel
  4. Selling Jesus as if He’s a Juicer – Jesus as a fix-it man for life’s every difficulty
  5. Stalking – Giving people no space; suffocating them with the blessing of your witness
  6. Sermonizing – Offering all the answers before you hear any questions
  7. Spectating – So paralyzed by fear you do nothing

If these are practices to avoid, what ought we to do? First, we ought to have a better understanding of what evangelism is. When I teach on the subject I teach that evangelism has three components: (1) What we say; (2) What we do; (3) Who we are – and each of these three components needs to be done by Christians as individuals as well as in groups. The authors say something similar. As they put it, “True evangelism is not merely proclaiming a message of good news; it is becoming a living representative of God’s heart toward people.” That is very well put. As a consequence of this understanding of evangelism, they emphasize that it is something we do not merely with designated unbelievers, but with everyone we encounter. God want to use us to help all people move closer to Him.

Once we understand evangelism as God’s action through us, what next? The authors suggest that discover each person’s “spiritual address.” They identify four levels of needs: Physical, Emotional/Relational, Directional, and Spiritual. We all have these needs, but respond differently to messages and actions addressed to each, depending on the situation. They observe that,

“we subconsciously evaluate whether what’s being communicated connects to any of our basic needs. If it doesn’t, we will choose to turn away and ignore it. If it does connect, we’ll begin to turn toward it and give it more attention. Once we begin turning toward the message and have started to understand it somewhat, the second set of choices kicks in. Based on a largely intuitive appraisal of the potential threats involved, we’ll choose either to begin to embrace or to reject the message.”

We usually only let these needs-meeting messages into our lives when we trust the messenger. Obviously, therefore, one of our primary needs as witnesses is to prove ourselves safe and trustworthy people.

Over the next several chapters Sjogren et al. address four methods to address these four kinds of needs:

  • Active Kindness (Servant Evangelism) – meets physical needs of people, showing them God’s love in a practical way. Evangelists working at this stage need to avoid an instrumentalist approach: I’ll love you if you respond to my love. Rather, true servant evangelism is done “with no strings attached;” it’s offered freely. Does Servant Evangelism “work?” We pragmatic Americans always want to know if something works; too often we decide whether something is true, good, or to be done solely on the basis of whether it works. Sjogren’s Cincinnati church provides strong evidence that Servant Evangelism is a factor in reaching people for Jesus. He says, however, that it doesn’t work quickly. A church needs to keep at it at least a year before assessing effectiveness. He has three further suggestions for using it in the church: (1) Keep it simple so more people can participate; (2) Do it regularly – treat it as an ordinary part of the Christian life; (3) Be friendly – count the relational aspects as essential to the process.
  • Active Friendship – Learning to pay attention to people and engage with them; the varieties of Friendship evangelism come in here. Take time to get into their lives and discover what matters to them. If you find that they’re sinners – with sinful desires and motivations – don’t reject them. Seek to understand them and love them where they’re at. Let friendship – loving them as Jesus would – be your main agenda item.
  • Active Wondering – Creatively looking at the message of Jesus and connecting it with people’s lives. Apologetics fits in here, and can be mistakenly standardized in a one-size-fits-all approach. The key method they advise in this part of the process is asking open-ended questions (they provide 99 sample questions) probing their understanding of life in a non-threatening, non-judgmental way.
  • Active Sharing – Helping people discover the “how to” of becoming a follower of Jesus; an essential part of evangelism, but too often the only focus of training in evangelism. In their chapter on this part of the process, they look at how the sharing process works in different kinds of relationships.

The final chapter of their book, “An Arsonist’s Guide to Evangelism,” presents 5 “fuelish” ways to “ignite ordinary church members with a passion for introducing their family, friends, neighbors, and complete strangers into life-changing relationships with Jesus Christ.” These five “fuels” include: Kindness, Fun, Generosity, Humility, and Prayer & Worship. At the same time we need to remove the “asbestos” items from the church: Fear, the idea that evangelism is something only for the experts, apathy and self-centeredness.

If you’re looking for help in developing a well-balanced approach to evangelism in your church, this book would be worth considering. (There is also a training kit available, but I haven’t checked it out yet.)

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