David Gustafson: The Practice of Witnessing—Part 2

Practical advice on reaching your neighbors for Christ

Catch up on part one of our interview with David Gustafson, author of Gospel Witness: Evangelism in Word and Deed (Eerdmans, February 2019). In part one, Gustafson explained why we need to take a fresh look at the way we evangelize in the American church. Here, in part two, he offers practical advice for how to do it in a way that’s effective for our context today.

A major concern in the western evangelical church today is that evangelicals aren’t evangelizing. What’s at the root of the problem? How can church leaders or pastors move their congregations toward a culture of evangelism?

Donald McGavran was the father of church growth. He really saw what was the homogeneous unit principle. At that time there was also a wedding between the church growth movement and the megachurch movement. The goal was to see people come to faith and into the life of the congregation, so we became very ecclesio-centric rather than mission-centric. We emphasize and measure gathering, with nothing much on the scattering. As American evangelicals, we became proficient at the same time with programmatic ministries. We’re so good at running programs that we’ve kind of disconnected from any understanding of how to connect with people generally. There’s a book called The Art of Neighboring, by David Runyon and Jay Pathak, which I highly advocate. Their thesis is that we’ve become so proficient at programming that we’ve lost the art of neighboring. A lot of evangelicals don’t know how to engage their neighbors, to just befriend them. It’s almost been deemphasized in the local church, where we celebrate what is happening on the church’s campus but not what’s happening in our community with Christians engaging people. That’s part of the problem.

I think that’s where a lot of churches are: How do we make this shift? It’s not that programs are bad, but if they’ve been our way to get people in, we’ve not encouraged the training and releasing of people into their neighborhoods. We have to celebrate that kind of thing: prayer walks in the neighborhood; taking time to get to know your neighbors; asking them what they’re doing for vacation; borrowing something from them rather than going to the hardware store.

Here’s the shift: From programmatic, centralized ministry to decentralized. We’ve always had a big Easter egg hunt the Saturday before Easter. That’s been the old programmatic way of getting as many people on campus and introducing them to the central facility. This year our children’s ministers stuffed plastic eggs and encouraged church members to pick up a pack of eggs and do egg hunts in their own neighborhoods. It’s a shift toward encouraging a culture of evangelism.

How should we equip people in the church to live their lives this way?

I think local churches really have to think through their ecclesiology, so I make a contrast between a pastor-oriented church and a disciple-oriented church. They’re not necessarily mutually exclusive, but the accent of the church should be on equipping people for ministry, not on the pastor as the person. The churches that are doing this are mobilizing their people.

We also have to find ways to share the gospel simply because of what I call the confidence factor. The average Christian layperson on a Sunday has to be equipped and trained in ways to share the gospel simply, because if it’s too complicated they won’t do it. The confidence level breaks down. Historically we’ve trained people in sharing the Four Spiritual Laws, and they can reproduce it pretty quickly. And something like God’s Human Drama, or James Chung’s Four Circles, or a one-minute testimony, is simple enough. I advocate a number of things like that. Those are things Christians can write down, think about and rehearse, so that in a conversation they can just introduce them. Starting questions are huge too. We kind of find our own favorite ones. I always go, I’m curious, or I’m just always interested in where people are, what do you do with the spiritual side of life? All I have to do is ask that, and the conversation is going. Those are ways to train people in a congregation. If you can teach people a few starting questions, a one-minute testimony and then a simple way to share the gospel, I think there’s a healthiness to that.

Pastors and churches also need to start thinking about ecclesial life not just being Sunday morning in worship, divine service or even small groups, but as the church serving in mission in the community and cultivating what I call missional spaces. Those are places where Christians are routinely on a rhythm and talking to people. Churches need to find these missional spaces where they can routinely connect with people. Those are as much church as when we’re in a divine service or in a small group. And pastors can communicate that application from the pulpit by connecting worship to witness. You may have to say, Now, this week when you’re in your missional space and you’re connecting with people, think about this. A pastor’s application from the pulpit has to start to reinforce missional life and evangelistic witness when the congregation is in those places.

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You encourage people to see their neighborhoods as a missionary would view a foreign mission field. What does that look like?

There is a missional theology that people have to understand. Something like this: that God is at work in our neighborhood. We’re partnering with him, and we have to see where he is at work. We’re watching, we’re listening, we’re responding to people as God opens doors. And it’s not that we need to think systematically about sharing the gospel with everybody, but we practice and encourage the person of peace principle: Who’s open, who invites you in? We’re listening and responding to people. We are thinking about gospel intentionality. Our own neighborhoods are our own local mission field.

There’s something I practice called “Lean In, Lean Out.” I’m first going to lean in with anybody I’m having a conversation with, which means I’m going to try to take the conversation a certain direction, maybe with a starting question or something like that. Hey Joe, I’m a guy who believes in prayer. If there’s some way I can pray for you, let me know. Now that’s a little lean in. But I’m also going to lean out. It’s cool if you don’t to, no pressure. In other words, I’ll back off and let him respond and maybe turn the conversation in a different direction if he’s uncomfortable. That’s gospel intentionality, social sensitivity and respect. And I think we need to just ask a lot of questions. Like Francis Schaeffer said, if I have an hour with a non-believing person, I’ll ask questions and listen for 55 minutes, and I’ll have something to say the last five minutes. We have to engage people and get to know who they are. It’s a long-haul ministry we have, especially with our neighbors.

Evangelism is important, but it’s not the end-all, be-all. How can we move from a culture that prioritizes just getting people saved to one that also nurtures their spiritual growth?

Evangelism is a means to the end, which is the Great Commission to make disciples of all nations who are taught to obey all that Jesus commanded. I’ll go back to God’s Human Drama. It is an explanation of the gospel that’s not just framing who Jesus is, but the whole idea of kingdom, of Jesus coming, of the invitation to nonbelievers to enter into his kingdom. To enter the kingdom is this idea of joining God in his mission. I think I make that clearer than a lot of gospel presentations, where it’s just to have faith and go to heaven. I think sometimes gospel presentations try to get people to the finish line without having them really think through the implications and how their life would look different. There’s this idea of entering into the kingdom and participating with God in his mission to restore the world. So to me that’s a call toward discipleship. You have an immediate role.

In 2 Corinthians 5:18 where Paul says God reconciled himself to us through Christ and made us ministers of reconciliation, he doesn’t skip a beat. He hardly takes a breath between saying we’ve been reconciled to God in Christ and made ministers of reconciliation. As soon as we enter the kingdom, we’re doing something with God. We’re not just waiting for heaven, but we’re called. And quite frankly, I think that’s been missing. Maybe Christianity has not been attractive to some people because it’s just about your sins being forgiven and going to heaven someday, and very little about a call to do something in the world today. I think that’s what we’re about. The idea of calling people to believe in and follow after Jesus, so there is more of an intentional discipleship part of our gospel message than perhaps before. And this is not works. It’s faith. You’re believing, and as you do, you’re following after Jesus.

Biblical authority is crucial to the gospel witness. But it can be challenging for many churches to do that well when sin is so often normalized in the culture. Given this context, how ought Christians to evangelize? We don’t want to immediately push people away, but we need to be true to what the gospel says.

I have a section in the book on resistance or rejection of the gospel. Very few books on evangelism discuss how to handle a person who rejects the gospel. I think that’s problematic because it creates in the mind of the reader that if somehow they’re rejected, they’ve failed. I say people have the right to not believe the gospel. If every evangelism story ends with somebody coming to faith in Jesus, it’s going to really discourage somebody. So I’ve tried to prepare people for that.

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So that’s on one side. And the other is having a high view of Scripture. The gospel is the driver, it is what sustains us in mission. When we give up our convictions about the authority of Scripture and the central message of the gospel, then we just go to philanthropy, to humanitarian efforts. And philanthropy and humanitarian efforts on their own only last so long. But the motivation of Christians for 2,000 years has helped us carry out the mission because of the gospel. Conviction is the driving force of mission. We can hang in there for a lifetime because of the promise of the gospel. But you start giving up the authority of Scripture, and we’re in trouble pretty quickly. People have to wrestle with that.

In talking about gospel praxis, you write that “perhaps one of the failures today is that evangelism has been reduced to a series of practices premised on human rather than divine action.” When guiding people in the mechanics of witnessing, how do we make sure we don’t take a cookie-cutter approach and allow room for the Holy Spirit to work?

In the book, I talk about the principle of simplexity. Our message has to be simple but not reductionistic, so that we can add to it. It can become complex, but we can’t start with complexity because it’s confusing to the listener. But if they say, Well hey, what about this? then we can expand. That confidence factor for Christians to do it is important, plus the non-believer really needs to be able to understand it clearly. When I was at Cru, rather than using a tract, we would use the Four Spiritual Laws, and we could add to it. When I’m using God’s Human Drama, I’m doodling it out on paper, so we’re borrowing from educational theory and how humans learn and conceptualize these sort of difficult-to-understand concepts.

I do believe in Spirit-filled preparation. Think your testimony out, write it down. And as you’re giving it, be Spirit-led. I don’t advocate just Spirit-led witnessing, but a degree of Spirit-led preparation and then listening and speaking in the moment to allow for Spirit-led explanation.

Any final thoughts?

We do some research here at Trinity. We’re field-testing different ways of sharing the gospel. Right now we’re comparing God’s Human Drama and James Chung’s Four Circles. We’re not just letting non-believers determine how we share the gospel, but we’re listening to understand how clear we are. A lot of times gospel presentations are made up by somebody somewhere in the world and they become popular, but they’re never evaluated on certain criteria. So we’re trying to do that, to actually understand how certain gospel presentations come across to people and if they are clarifying.

One of my students shared God’s Human Drama with a Muslim guy the other day, and he loved it. He said for the first time he really understood Christianity. My view is, you can use anything. You can use an ichthus on the back of an SUV to share the gospel with somebody if you explain it. Sometimes short-view things are just ways to get into the conversation. Evangelism is just a believer talking to a nonbeliever and bringing Jesus of Nazareth into the conversation. There are a lot of ways to get there, but we need to get there some way.

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