Don’t be dismayed or discouraged if you run into any of the following roadblocks to your witness; the Lord can help you find a way around them and any other problem you may encounter.
Judging by outward appearance or first impression
If Jesus had judged people by their outward appearance, do you suppose He would have chosen uneducated fishermen and hated tax collectors—among others—for His disciples? And what would have become of Mary Magdalene, Zacchaeus, the Samaritan woman He met at the well, or a host of others that Jesus loved and helped and won? “The Lord does not see as man sees; for man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.”1 Ask God to help you see each person He sends your way as He sees them.
Some argumentative types argue because they are skeptical and unbelieving and just want to try to cause you trouble and waste your time. But not everyone who seems argumentative at first falls into that category. Some sincere seekers will argue with you because they really want the answers; they want to be convinced. How do you tell the difference? First of all, shoot up a silent prayer, asking the Lord to help you discern the person’s motives. Then shoot up another prayer for patience if the Lord shows you to give the person the benefit of the doubt.
You’ve usually got to win people to yourself before they are going to listen to and believe what you’ve got to say about Jesus and the Bible and get saved, so try to find and stick to points you can agree on. If after spending a few minutes trying to relate to them and answer their questions they clearly don’t want to listen to God’s answers from the Bible, just tell them politely that you have no other answers to give them, and leave it at that.
Look at how Jesus answered the questions He was asked: Some came from people who sincerely wanted to know the truth, like Nicodemus2 and the Samaritan woman whom He met at the well.3 These He answered sweetly and patiently. Other questions came from His enemies, who were trying to trap Him in His words. When Jesus perceived that those questioning Him only wanted to cause trouble for Him, He answered very carefully.4 Sometimes He saw that there was no use in even talking to certain people, so He said nothing at all.5
Some people will challenge you by either belittling you and what you are saying, or by coming on strong about what they believe. Often it’s not because they are really so sure of what they profess to believe, but because they want to find out how convinced you are about what you are telling them. Others act that way with nearly everyone: they try to dominate others by putting them down. In any case, what you need to remember is that you have something that those people desperately need—Jesus. You shouldn’t feel intimidated because, in actuality, they’re not opposing you—the Devil is opposing them. Keep your composure and continue to speak with conviction. “God’s people must not be quarrelsome; they must be gentle, patient teachers of those who are wrong. Be humble when you are trying to teach those who are mixed up concerning the truth. For if you talk meekly and courteously to them, they are more likely, with God’s help, to turn away from their wrong ideas and believe what is true. Then they will come to their senses and escape from Satan’s trap.”6
Sometimes if you try to witness to two or more people together, one person will be unreceptive and try to spoil your witness for the others by making derogatory comments, asking insincere or belittling questions, or doing other things to interfere. That’s why it’s usually best to witness one-on-one.
One-on-one, it’s easier to find a person’s key—the thing that will spark faith or compel him or her to receive the Lord—and that key will likely be different for each person in the group. Also, many people feel awkward about talking about God and faith and spiritual matters in front of others, especially their friends, and especially if they haven’t given those things much serious thought before.
This is one reason why it’s good to witness in pairs or small groups when possible. That way, each person witnessing may be able to strike up a personal conversation with one person from the group they’re witnessing to. One-on-one, even those who may have seemed unreceptive while in the group, due to peer pressure or trying to maintain their image in front of their friends, often turn out to be very receptive.
Avoiding the devoid
Some people don’t just want to argue or harass; they are so devoid of the truth and light and Spirit of God that they will try to put a stop to your spreading the gospel by causing you bodily harm or serious problems—just as they did Jesus.7 This is the type of people Jesus was referring to when He warned His disciples, “Do not give what is holy to the dogs; nor cast your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you in pieces.”8
In other words, don’t cause yourself unnecessary trouble by witnessing to people who you know will resent and reject and oppose your message and persecute you for it. “Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves,” Jesus told His followers. “Therefore be wise as serpents and harmless as doves.”9
There’s a story about a boy who was swimming in a river when he suddenly became tired and was in danger of drowning. The boy called to a man on the riverbank for help, but the man started to lecture him about how he should have been more careful and stayed closer to the bank. “Rescue me now!” cried the boy. “You can lecture me later, when I am safe.”
We laugh, but you’d be surprised how many would-be witnesses for the Lord do the same thing, often without even realizing it. It’s much more important to get people saved and help them establish a personal relationship with Jesus than it is to warn them about the evils of smoking, drinking, drugs, gambling, foul language, sexual promiscuity, or perversions. Actually, there are sins of the spirit that can be even more damaging, such as anger, hatred, prejudice, extreme jealousy, or psychological or verbal abuse of others. Once they’re saved, it will be easier for them to change as they’ll have the Lord’s power behind them.
However, in the case of those who already recognize that they have a problem with a certain addiction, like alcohol or drugs, and are seeking a way out, you can explain that asking Jesus into their hearts is the first step in getting His help to overcome their problems. Then after they have Jesus, you can suggest or discuss ways to go about making the changes that they and you know they need.
The long, solemn sermon
Don’t make the common mistake of preaching a sermon instead of witnessing. David Brandt Berg once told of a time he went witnessing door to door with a certain preacher:
“We knocked on the door of a family that neither of us knew, and a woman answered. Immediately, the man with me began to preach a sermon. ‘Dearly beloved, we are gathered here together…’ Well, it wasn’t quite as bad as that, but you would have thought he was preaching to a congregation! The only way he knew how to witness was to preach a sermon. He may have been a good preacher, but that’s not the way to witness. All the dear little housewife at the door could do was blink her eyes and wonder. I could almost read her mind: What in the world is this preacher doing on my doorstep? The baby’s falling out of his highchair, dinner’s burning on the stove, the laundry’s waiting to be hung out to dry—and I’d like to hang this preacher!”
Hellfire and brimstone
In the past two thousand years a few people may have been scared into heaven with warnings that hellfire and brimstone awaited them if they didn’t repent and turn from their wicked ways, but a heaven of a lot more people have been won through love. Too many people picture God as some sort of angry monster who carries a big stick and is just waiting for them to get out of line so He can clobber them, and sadly, this type of presentation by Christians has turned a lot of people away from the Lord. Don’t perpetuate that wrong image. God is love.10 He knows each person’s fears and problems, heartaches and secret dreams, and He wants to take their hand and lead them to the happy, meaningful lives they desire.
Unwise choice of words
A big part of relating to people is in using vocabulary that is not likely to offend or rub them the wrong way. For example, people need to hear that they need a Savior, but instead of telling them that they are “rotten sinners,” you’ll get further by talking in terms of things that they’ve done that they know were wrong or unloving, things that they now regret having done because they realize that they hurt others. The point is that people need God’s forgiveness, but it’s not your place to judge them for their sins. Help them see the light without feeling the lightning bolt.
First things first
You should sympathize with people about their problems, and sometimes you need to show them God’s love in a tangible way by helping meet their immediate needs before they’re ready to hear the gospel or get saved. As someone aptly put it, you can’t preach the gospel to a man with an empty stomach. In other words, you need to relieve his preoccupation with hunger in order to both get his attention and show him that God cares about him.
But don’t get so involved in trying to help them sort out all their problems that you fail to point them to the answer man. Get them saved as early on as possible, so that He can then help with their problems. Once they’re saved, the Lord may want to use you to also give them His advice or help them in practical ways, but He is the one who has the answers and the power to change them and their situation.
Talking too much about yourself
Someone once defined a bore as “someone who talks about himself when I want to talk about myself.” There are times in your witness when it’s appropriate and even important to talk about yourself, particularly when you’re establishing points in common and explaining your own salvation experience, but don’t you become the focal point of the conversation. A safe rule of thumb to follow would be for every word you say about yourself, let others say twenty about themselves.
Different strokes for different folks
You can’t use the same approach with everyone. What turns some people’s keys may turn others off. One man’s meat is another man’s poison. For example, the elderly and the terminally ill are probably thinking about what awaits them at death, so the promise of eternal life in heaven will probably inspire them more than anything else to receive Jesus. Most teenagers, on the other hand, feel they have their whole lives ahead of them and are far more concerned about coping with the present, so the promise of a friend who truly understands and will love them unconditionally may be just the thing to win them.
People are different, so try to tailor your witness to the needs, backgrounds, and mindsets of those you witness to, and communicate with them on their level and in a way that is most likely to appeal to them. This was one of the secrets to the apostle Paul’s success: he found common ground, and in effect, became a servant to those he was trying to win to Jesus by adapting his message and personal example accordingly.
“Though I am free from all men,” Paul wrote, “I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win the more; and to the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might win Jews … to the weak I became as weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some.”11—Shannon Shayler
He who would win some must be winsome
In order for people to communicate well, they must have some things in common. So in your witnessing, approach others in a positive way with a positive attitude. Establish points of contact. Develop a rapport. Be friendly, loving, understanding, compassionate, and sympathetic. Find as much common ground as you can. The apostle Paul said that he became all things to all men in order to win some.12
Fighting false systems and false doctrines can be a temptation when you know you’re so right and others are so wrong, but that’s a negative type of witnessing—the kind that doesn’t show love or win people. The best way to handle points of disagreement is not by refuting what the other person says, but by hearing them out and then presenting the truth in a loving and positive way. “Quietly trust yourself to Christ your Lord, and if anybody asks why you believe as you do, be ready to tell him, and do it in a gentle and respectful way.”13
Dwell on the positive, not the negative. Instead of preaching against things, preach Jesus and uphold Christ, and He will draw all men unto Himself.14—D.B.B.
Show people Jesus
When witnessing to people from non-Christian backgrounds, don’t dwell on the differences between your religions. Neither do you need to get into discussing big theological questions about who God is. That’s why Jesus came—to show everybody what God is like. Just talk about Jesus, the man who went everywhere helping people and doing good. Jesus has a pretty good reputation—even where Christianity does not. He’s your biggest asset. Just say frankly, “I love Jesus, and He loves you!”
In talking about Jesus with people who know little or nothing about Him, you don’t even need to go into how He died for their sins and they need to ask His forgiveness. These things you can explain later. They may not understand that their problems are the result of sin (or even what sin is, for that matter), but they know that they have problems.
So just tell them, “If you want to straighten out your life and be truly happy, you need to ask Jesus to help you. He is the spirit of goodness and light and love, and He’ll solve all your problems. Do you like love? Jesus is love! He’s the light that chases away the darkness. He’s the love that chases away the hate. He’s the good that chases away the evil. He’s love and mercy and forgiveness and everything good. Jesus is God’s love, and He wants to love you! Just ask Jesus to come into your heart.”—D.B.B.
Let’s not argue over doctrine; let’s get people saved! God’s mercy doesn’t hang on legalistic theological technicalities. How much can a small child understand? Yet Jesus said, “Unless you are converted and become as little children, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven.”15 Children don’t waste most of their time arguing over doctrine or theological fine points.
The American orator and statesman Daniel Webster (1782-1852) once said, “The Bible is to be believed and understood in the plain and obvious meaning of its passages, for I cannot persuade myself that a book intended for the instruction and conversion of the whole world should cover its true meaning in any such mystery and doubt, so that none but critics and philosophers can discover it.”
It’s the Devil who tries to make salvation seem so complicated or so difficult that people can’t understand it. Don’t let him lead you or others away from the simplicity of the gospel.16
Not everyone can understand strong doctrine, but everyone understands love. Stay on the main line and preach the most important doctrines of all—Jesus and His love and salvation!—D.B.B.
Be a wise witness
The Lord expects us to exercise wisdom in how and when and to whom we witness. “Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves,” Jesus told His disciples. “Therefore be wise as serpents and harmless as doves.”17 We owe the message of God’s love to everyone, but especially to those who will believe and receive it. The Lord doesn’t mean for us to cause ourselves unnecessary trouble by giving the message to people who we know won’t receive it and possibly even persecute us for it. The whole purpose of witnessing is to win others with the Lord’s love, not antagonize or offend.
In some non-Christian countries, unwise witnessing can lead to serious persecution. In such situations, you must be very selective in who you witness to, and even then you must be very prayerful in how you go about it. Don’t end your witnessing opportunities prematurely, when just a little patience and wisdom could help you avoid trouble.—D.B.B.
1. 1 Samuel 16:7
2. John 3:1-21
3. John 4:5-29
4. Matthew 22:15-22; John 8:6-8
5. Matthew 26:62-63
6. 2 Timothy 2:24-26 TLB
7. John 15:18-20
8. Matthew 7:6
9. Matthew 10:16
10. 1 John 4:8
11. 1 Corinthians 9:19-22
12. 1 Corinthians 9:2214. John 12:32
13. 1 Peter 3:15 TLB
15. Matthew 18:3
16. 2 Corinthians 11:3
17. Matthew 10:16