When Jerry leaned over the fence one evening gripping the local newspaper in
his hand and asking about church, Robert could hardly believe what he was
hearing. They had been neighbors for almost two years, and while they often
talked about the weather, their favorite sports teams and their jobs, Jerry
hadnt seemed interested in anything spiritual until now.
Didnt you say you go to First Baptist Church? Jerry asked, pointing to a
news photo on page 10. Whats going on over there?
Do you mean the new building were planning?
Yeah. It says here that your church has doubled in size in the last couple
of years. It sounds like you guys are gonna have a huge construction
Its pretty amazing, Robert said. But like our pastor says, When Gods at
work, amazing things happen.
Jerry grinned. So this is part of some sort of divine plan?
Sensing a green lightThe first time Becky and
Amanda met, Amanda had just moved to the area and was looking for relational
connections. Becky reached out to her, and the two women struck up a
As the weeks passed, Becky spent time with Amanda, getting to know
her. She wanted Amanda to know her, too, so it seemed natural to invite her to
visit the discussion group Becky was leading. Amanda came and appeared
stimulated by the discussions on spiritual topics.
One day over coffee, Becky gently began to probe Amandas spiritual
background. She explained the essence of Christianity, and how a person crosses
the line from unbelief to faith in Christ. Amanda listened, but when the coffee
cups were empty, she didnt seem any closer to God than when she
The discussion group took a summer break, and Becky didnt see Amanda
for a while. But when fall arrived, with its work, school and family routines,
the two friends connected by phone and agreed to meet at a local
So, where are you these days in your spiritual journey? Becky asked
after theyd run out of small talk. And as she listened prayerfully to Amandas
halting response, she sensed a green light to move ahead.
Grabbing her pen and a paper napkin, Becky made a simple drawing to
illustrate the chasm that sin has created between us and God, and the futility
of trying to reach God through human efforts. Only Christ, she explained, can
bridge the gap for us.
Which side of the chasm do you think youre on? she asked. I dont
know, Amanda said, suddenly unable to hold back tears. I think Im on the wrong
side. Do you want to cross over?
Amanda nodded. Clearly the time was right, and there in the tearoom,
she opened her life to Christ.
Sensing an opportunity, Robert took a deep breath. Actually, Jerry, God has
a plan for each one of us. And as plainly as he knew how, Robert began to
explain the basics of the gospel.
When he paused for breath, Jerry broke in. Look, Robert, I respect your
beliefs and all, but I really just wanted to find out who the general
contractors going to be. My company would love to put the roof on your new
building. Can you help me out?
Not surprisingly, Robert walked away from that conversation with his
confidence shaken. Had he said the wrong thing? Or had he just picked the wrong
Like Robert, Ive sometimes struggled with a sense of appropriate timing when
it comes to evangelism. Ive wondered if I should say something now, or wait for
a more opportune moment.
King Solomon asserted that theres a time for everything under the sun. So
how can I be sure that nows the right time? And if it isnt, how am I to know
when the times right?
Obviously, not everyone shares my dilemma. I once met a man who had an
evangelistic word for everyone he met. When the supermarket checkout clerk
would ask, How are you today, sir? his enthusiastic reply was, Saved by grace!
And how about you? Perhaps he reasoned that since everyone needs to hear the
gospel message, the most benign comment signaled an opportunity to talk about
his faith. But while hes certainly to be commended for his boldnesssomething I
often lackhe clearly never gave much thought to the subject of timeliness.
We often think of evangelism in terms of the parable of the sower in which
Jesus emphasized the importance of soil conditions, a metaphor for the
condition of your listeners heart.
The better quality the soil, the more receptive it is to the seed.
To take the agriculture analogy a step further, the farmer must pay close
attention to the seasons and weather conditions as well as the soil. Seeds sown
in a hurricane or a monsoon are wasted, as are those planted in the dead of
winter or the heat of summer.
Of course, God may bless gracious words spoken for Him at any time, but
words are especially effective when offered at the appropriate time. Proverbs
15:23 confirms that its wonderful to say the right thing at the right time
In Building a Contagious Church, Mark Mittelberg reminds us that the journey
to faith is a process. Where many traditional forms of evangelism were largely
designed to be an event that reminded semireligious people of what they already
knew and then challenged them to commit to it right there on the spot, more
recent trends in evangelism take into account the secularization of culture and
our need to reach out to people where they are, not where we wish they
For those of us who, like Robert, may be overanxious to make the most of any
apparent opening, Mittelberg cautions that people need some space as they put
the puzzle pieces together to see if the rational side of Christian teachings
makes sense and as they weigh the costs and benefits of actually following
Christ. In short, we must allow people to move ahead at their own pace.
To be sure, we should encourage and sometimes challenge them to keep up the
pace and to continue taking steps forward. And we certainly dont want to do
anything that will slow down their progress! But Ive learned the hard way that
pressing people to take steps for which theyre not yet ready will backfire. In
some cases it can even short-circuit the whole process.
Naturally, no on mission Christian wants to short-circuit the
process, but neither do we want to miss out on the chance to see a life
transformed. Paul and Elizabeth Musser, longtime missionaries to France,
sometimes worry about the amount of time it often takes to develop a friendship
bridge before sharing the gospel. At times I probably err on the side of not
wanting to offend someone, admits Elizabeth, and maybe I let opportunities pass
To be fair, however, the matter of timing, like much of evangelism, is
anything but an exact science. Just as theres no one-size-fits-all approach to
sharing biblical faith, theres no universal magic moment.
But that in no way means you are helpless to say the right thing at the
Here are several things you can do to hone your evangelistic timing:
1. Listen to people. Unless you tune in to a friends felt
needs, you probably wont get to address his real need. Kent and Davidene
Humphreys, authors of Show and then Tell, observe that we Christians
are often so concerned with giving answers that we fail to hear what people are
really asking. Ignoring a friends questions or felt needs in favor of a
predetermined approach nearly guarantees that your timing will be off.
Listeningreally listeningcan help you say the right thing at the right
2. Be genuine. We are to preach the gospel at all times,
St. Francis of Assisi tells us, using words if necessary. Or, as U.S. Director
of The Navigators Alan Andrews puts it, I do not need to preach or be overly
urgent in sharing Jesus, but I do need to make certain that others see my
relationship to Jesus as central to who I am. Why? Because it will make people
curious, and curious people ask questions. And when they ask, a well-considered
answer will be right on time.
3. Exercise patience. Remember that evangelism is a
process, not merely an event. Often it takes years for a friend to move from a
secular mindset to the point where hes ready to hear that Christ died for his
sins. Most people come to faith via a series of incremental steps. Trying to
press someone to stretch too far often has negative results. If you feel like
youre being a little too pushy, says missionary Paul Musser, you probably are.
Adds Alan Andrews, Wait on the Holy Spirit to lead. He knows when its right to
say a word and when its better to wait.
4. Be ready. It may be easierand feel a lot saferto avoid
saying the wrong thing at the wrong time than it is to risk saying the right
thing at the right time. All the listening, genuineness and patience in the
world are likely to come to nothing if you fail to speak up when the moments
right. And if you are asked about your Christian hope, always be ready to
explain it. But you must do this in a gentle and respectful way (1 Peter
3:15-16, NLT). Become a student of the gospeland human natureso that when
it comes, the right time wont pass you by.
5. Pray, pray, pray. Its impossible to overestimate the importance of prayer
to the subject of appropriate evangelistic timing. Prayer helps us keep pace
with the Holy Spiritneither racing ahead nor lagging behind His leading. Time
spent in prayer talking and listening to Godand an outpouring of wisdom from
the Holy Spirit says Mark Mittelberg, is whats needed to help us find the right
balance between patience and persistence.
David Horton is an editor, freelance writer and the author
of three books.
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