Evaluating Evangelistic Courses

Pastors regularly ask for a recommendation on evangelistic courses. What works best? What do you think of X or Y course? Do you have something that suits English second language contexts or a less literate demographic?

Recently, that question has been sharpened around the course best suited for an online ‘digital’ presentation of the gospel (as COVID 19 has revealed more engagement than expected through digital platforms/social media).

In Australia (especially Sydney where I am based) there are now many evangelistic resources available[1]. How will we decide what is a ‘good’ evangelistic resources/tool and the one best suited for a specific context?

Obviously ‘effectiveness’ must be considered: has this resource proved fruitful, by God’s grace, to see people come to repentance and faith and be established as disciples of Jesus? Do the unbelievers report the resource as making the gospel clear and compelling?

It cannot be right to have a resource that very effectively communicates a false or misleading gospel. The end does not justify the means in Christian ministry.

The Right Gospel

We must, however, also ask other questions beyond the practical ones. It cannot be right to have a resource that very effectively communicates a false or misleading gospel. Some communication methods are inconsistent with the very gospel itself and Christian values. The end does not justify the means in Christian ministry. The message of the gospel and the method of communication are linked. You cannot use deceitful means to communicate truth! You cannot shout with harshness a message of grace and kindness and love. Even more so, our life must match up with the proclamation we have on our lips.

Paul reminds the Corinthians that there is no place for deception or distortion of the gospel. Our real confidence is in the God who opens blind eyes not in the messenger or the methodology (2 Cor 4:1-6). The parable of the sower warns us there are responses to the gospel that are shallow and easily uprooted. A shallow gospel that does not call for deep repentance and wholehearted submission to Christ as Lord is in then end dishonest and ineffective. Jesus was up-front about the cost of commitment—the suffering and rejection that walking with him would involve (Luke 9:57-60, 14:25-35, John 15:18-25).

So it is essential that leaders think carefully and biblically about the material they will use in evangelism. Churches and ministries ought to have articulated theological principles that inform their evangelistic strategy and plan. Once these are articulated determining what course or tools you might use will be easier.

Here are some principles worth considering and then some questions that might assist us:

  1. Everyone is saved by hearing (or reading) and understanding the gospel message of salvation through Christ Jesus. This is happens by the grace of God through the agency of the Holy Spirit. It is a spiritual rebirth that is divinely initiated. That has not changed in 2000 years. (2 Cor 4, Romans 10, Eph 1). That means people need to hear and heed a declaration, a message. Christ comes to us clothed in words. People are not saved by being in community, experiencing unconditional love, or by powerful testimonies or compelling arguments, although all those things might be used by the Holy Spirit to bring understanding and faith. They are saved by hearing and understanding a message leading them to repent and put their faith in Christ Jesus as Saviour and Lord.

We need to be clear about what constitutes evangelism and what might be considered ‘pre-evangelism’. There is a category mistake easily made and therefore a significant danger of misrepresenting or being unclear about what we think we are doing at any point. Many so called ‘evangelistic courses’ are evangelism-adjacent—either pre-evangelistic (making contacts, building relationships, establishing trust, moving the conversation towards the gospel) or evangelism-supporting (testimonies, apologetics etc). Both might be valuable but they cannot stand on their own. If the gospel is not brought into sharp focus and if there is no call to respond, there is still no ‘evangelism’.

  1. Foundations matter. There is only one true foundation for faith and the Christian life and that is Christ Jesus (1 Cor 3:12-15, Eph 2:19-22). Thus, an evangelistic course must focus must be upon the saving work of God in Christ and be clear about the life of faith that his Lordship demands. If the person and work of Christ and the climactic events of his death and resurrection are not explained clearly, look for a better resource. It is also worth asking how clearly the resource uses the words of Scripture and especially whether they get participants reading the Gospels. The Gospels themselves are expressly given to us as evangelistic resources (Luke 1:1-4, John 20:31). We ought to use them in our evangelism as divinely inspired words designed to bring about faith.
  2. Evangelism is a spiritual battle, not just an exercise in human communication (Eph 6). Any resource, however impressive in content and communication will be useless unless it is accompanied by fervent prayer. It is worth asking how prominent is the place of prayer in the resource and in the training of leaders to use the resource.
  3. There is weakness and yet power in the gospel—weakness in human terms so that the power is shown to be God’s—and yet it is the power of God for salvation (1 Cor 1-2, Rom 1:16-17). While we use technology and the latest in communication techniques, we must take care that our trust and confidence remains in God and his Spirit and not in us or the resource or our communication methodology. The slicker and more impressive our presentation, the greater the danger. Substance must trump style. Don’t doubt the power of just reading the Bible with someone or of going through a simple explanation of the gospel or of telling your story of how a spiritually blind person came to see. We don’t actually need anything other than prayer, God’s Word and ourselves as humble messengers used by God.
  4. Effective gospel proclamation always achieves two things—salvation and hardening: the gospel is aroma of death or the fragrance of life (2 Cor 2). We must therefore expect both responses to any course or evangelistic activity. If no one ever opposes and the world thinks our message is great, we ought to be suspicious. The gospel is a stumbling block and an offence (1 Cor 1-2). It confounds the wisdom of the world and is foolishness to those who are perishing.

When the gospel is made clear there will be a negative reaction from some, because the gospel warns us as well as comforts us. God is the righteous Creator and Judge and is angered by human sin and rebellion. Our temptation is to avoid this truth and to ensure that everyone has a positive experience. Reflect carefully on whether a resource is clear and unashamed about the judgement of God and his wrath against sin. The cross of Christ is watered down and God’s glory diminished if we do not speak of God’s justice and holiness.

  1. There are unnecessary stumbling blocks that can and should be removed to better enable the gospel to be heard. We must work hard at listening and out of love we must adjust how we speak and communicate to best suit the hearer. Paul speaks of persuading, reasoning, arguing, and convincing his listeners (Acts 18:4, 26:28, 2 Cor 5:11). He wages war not by worldly weapons but with Spirit empowered words, demolishing arguments and taking thoughts captive to Christ (2 Cor 10:3-5). He clearly thought hard about how to ‘win’ someone over. Paul’s sermons in Acts vary in approach depending on the audience. He reminds the Corinthians of how he endeavoured to become ‘all things, to all people so that he might save some’ (1 Cor 9:19-23, 10:31-33). People are different. We minister to individuals not categories—we need to be ready to adapt to cultural background and differing worldviews, aware that what persuades one may not another.

In light of all this, a variety of approaches and flexibility is required. Is the resource you are thinking of using adaptable and flexible? Will it communicate clearly in my particular cultural or social context? For example, westerners often want to be listened to and understood before being spoken to. Does the resource recognise this reality? Does it encourage dialogue and listening rather than just telling?

  1. The biblical metaphor of planting, watering and harvesting reminds us that there are different tasks in evangelism but all are important if someone is to come to faith. Sowing seeds (or, to extend the metaphor, ploughing the ground in readiness for planting) is necessary but not sufficient. Somewhere there must be a call to repentance: ‘shaking the tree to get the ripe fruit to drop’, as John Chapman liked to put it.

There is a place for ‘pre-evangelism’ and for getting people ready to listen. This can be achieved in many ways; by godly and attractive compelling Christian lives, acts of kindness and generosity, apologetics that answer people’s questions and objections and point out the inadequacies of other world views. At some point however there must be a call to repent and believe.

Ask whether the resource you are considering has a call to respond? The gospel is a command, not a polite invitation we can take or leave. We ought ask whether the resource we are using is saying enough about Christ Jesus and his saving work for us at the cross to make the call for repentance and faith appropriate and clear.

  1. Thinking of evangelism as agriculture means patience will be required. It takes time, and often many people are involved: presenting, explaining, reasoning, nurturing, challenging, and modelling the faith. The best evangelistic resources anticipate this and will take a long view with multiple opportunities for questions, engagement and explanation. Ensure that the resource you choose fits into an overall throughout plan over time that allows participants a clear pathway towards life and hope in Christ.

In this, relationships matter. Almost invariably evangelism is done in relationship—with a trusted friend or family member or acquaintance who listens and explains and invites and prays and shows kindness. Does the resource support the development of long-term trusting relationships in which the good news can be communicated and heard over and over?

  1. Evangelism is something every believer can and should be involved in. Evangelism is teamwork (1Cor 3:1-5). Resources should ideally enable and mobilise everyday Christians. While evangelism is hard work for most of us, we must not communicate that it is exclusively a specialist task for highly trained professionals. The best evangelistic courses will be ones that the ordinary Christian person can use confidently. How easily can Christians be trained to use the resource? Does it require lots of knowledge or preparation or skills to use? Will the resource increase people’s confidence in the gospel and make them to want to reach out to others with the good news of Jesus?

We ought not settle for a ‘bring’ model where we train our congregation to start conversations with goal of inviting a person to church to hear the professional clinch the deal. We want to see Christians equipped and confident to do evangelism themselves ‘out there’ in community not just by bringing people into church.

Summing Up

In the light of these biblical principles it is worth asking the following questions:

  • Does this resource get the gospel right?
    • Is the content biblically and theologically sound?
    • Is it building on the foundation that is Christ?
    • Does is cover the basics of the gospel and the work of Christ at the cross?
  • Does this resource get the gospel across?
    • Is the means of communication effective and clear?
    • Is it flexible and adaptable for the cultures and background of my group?
  • Does this resource get the gospel in?
    • Is it compelling, addressing mind and heart and will?
    • Does it call for response?
  • Does this resource enable and equip everyday believers to reach unbelievers?
    • Is it easy to use?
    • Will it help mature and grow believers in evangelistic competency and confidence?

There will be lots of other practical questions to think through when deciding on what resource to use – how long it runs, the format it uses, the technology required, can it be done online or in person and so on[2].

It is not hard to find helpful critiques of the many evangelistic and pre evangelistic tools available. One size will not fit all. You need to work out what is best for your context.

Get hold of at a few resources, review them thoughtfully, trial one or two with both believers and unbelievers, then decide on your preferred option and then launch in! There is a value in sticking with one thing for a while rather than chopping and changing all the time. Remember ultimately the resource itself, like us, are simply tools and agents in the hands of the Master to do his sovereign work. So pray hard!

[1] Just to name a few – Two Ways to Live, Christianity Explored, Simply Christianity, Introducing God, Alpha Course, The Word 121, The Life Course, LIFE, etc.

[2] See a helpful article by Dave Jensen on these practical questions at https://genevapush.com/resources/how-to-run-an-effective-evangelistic-course/