This year I started a new role doing ministry on university campus, which meant doing something very new for me: walk-up evangelism. You know, the thing where you accost a random stranger and try tell them about Jesus.
And I’ll be completely honest. When I first heard I was gonna be doing it, I was pretty sceptical. For me, it wasn’t so much nervousness about talking to strangers, but more a strong hesitation about whether walk-up evangelism actually works.
It wasn’t so much nervousness about talking to strangers, but more a strong hesitation about whether walk-up evangelism actually works … My preconceptions were completely wrong.
Does walk-up evangelism actually lead to any good conversations? Won’t it just annoy people and put them off? Won’t it get us nowhere while simultaneously leaving a bad taste in people’s mouths?
But I figured I’d better give it a shot. And after one semester of doing walk-up evangelism, I was pleasantly surprised to see that my preconceptions were completely wrong. Walk-up evangelism has actually been my favourite part of campus ministry so far!
So here are three surprising things that I learned from a semester of walk-up evangelism.
1. People are open to talking about spiritual stuff
I initially expected that the vast majority of people we approached would say “no.” But I was wrong. In my experience so far, a significant majority (about 65-75%) actually say “yes”. This was certainly a pleasant surprise! Now it’s important to clarify, what were they saying yes to? Well, here’s my opening line. “G’day, my name is Ben and this is [insert partner’s name], we’re Christians and we’re interested in hearing what people believe about spiritual stuff. Do you wanna chat?”
And lo and behold, about two thirds of people said “yes” to that. In the 12 weeks of semester one, I went out 17 times (always with a partner) for an hour-long session of walk-up evangelism, and that led to gospel conversations with more than two-dozen people who don’t yet know Jesus. How cool is that!
I’ve certainly been surprised at people’s openness.
2. Walk-up evangelism leads to really good conversations
Another pleasant surprise has been not just the quantity of conversations (people saying “yes”) but also the quality of those conversations. Of the 70% of people who said “yes”, some of those conversations only last about 10min or so. But more than half ended up being substantial conversations ranging from half an hour to 1.5 hours.
Initially we put the emphasis on getting to know what they believe, and ask a lot of questions. We try to take the position of a ‘curious explorer’, seeking to understand what they believe (and why) before we tell them what we believe. This has at least two big benefits. Firstly, after they’ve shared about what they believe for 20min (and sometimes longer!), they’re much more open to hearing what we believe. Secondly, knowing what they believe allows us to communicate the gospel in a way that connects with them.
Some of the conversations have led to follow-up encounters as well. From those 17 sessions, more than half a dozen people agreed to have another conversation (“let’s catch up sometime next week to talk more about this”), and four of those people followed through. Three of them have led to continuing weekly engagement. One of them has been reading Luke’s Gospel (and other parts of the Bible) with me each week.
From those 17 sessions, more than half a dozen people agreed to have another conversation … Three of them have led to continuing weekly engagement. One of them has been reading Luke’s Gospel.
So in God’s kindness, I’ve been pleasantly surprised at how many good conversations come from walk-up evangelism!
3. Atheists are hard to find
A third surprising thing is that, so far at least, atheists have been very hard to find. In fact, of the more than 30 people I spoke to last semester, not one was an atheist. Some initially said they were, but later changed their mind (!). Almost without exception, the people I have encountered are agnostic. They believe in some kind of higher power, but also that we just can’t know who or what that higher power is.
One guy I talked to initially identified as an atheist, and said he didn’t believe in any spiritual reality. We got talking for a while about the origin of the universe and some other things, and then after a while he said out of the blue, “Actually, I’m gonna contradict what I said before. I actually do believe in ghosts.” He wasn’t joking. So it turned out he did believe in some kind of spiritual reality after all, albeit a somewhat odd spiritual reality!
Almost every person I’ve spoken to so far could be described as having some variation of “tolerant apathy”. Tolerant: most people say something to the effect of ‘religion is fine because it helps you be a good person’, and ‘whatever personal beliefs you have are fine’. Very few are openly hostile to Christianity. Apathy: most people just don’t really care about spiritual stuff and the big questions of life. They haven’t given them much thought at all.
So while I often get to have good gospel conversations with people, most people aren’t interested in pursuing these questions themselves beyond the initial conversation.
It’s been a reminder that people’s hearts are hard, and only God can soften them. Only God can take away the apathy and spiritual blindness.
So I’ve been very encouraged by one semester of walk-up evangelism. But I’ve also been reminded of the need to pray, because only God can perform the miraculous heart surgery required to make people see their need for Jesus and want to find out more about him. If you’re reading this, please join me in praying! Pray that God would save many through walk-up evangelism (as well as other means). I can’t wait to get back onto campus in August for semester two!
First published at https://thebensmartblog.com