In the 1980s, when I was just out of school, the assistant minister at my church invited me to take part in a new evangelistic course he was going to run called Christianity Explained. It has just come out, was based on Mark, and sought to explain the gospel to non-believers over six sessions. I was a keen Christian, very engaged with anything to do with outreach, a little chuffed that the assistant minister wanted me to be involved, and so readily agreed.
35 years has given me the opportunity to reflect on what has changed and what’s stayed the same—and to mull over possible ways forward.
Since then, I have run various evangelistic courses, such as Christianity Explained, on about 65 occasions; at five different churches, two cricket clubs, one soccer club and one school. I make no claim to be the greatest evangelist in history, but 35 years spent running such courses has given me the opportunity to reflect on what has changed and what’s stayed the same—and to mull over possible ways forward.
You need more time with non-believers
In the 1980s the thinking was that, given the reduced level of biblical literacy, non-believers needed more than a one-off presentation to properly appreciate the gospel. Perhaps in the 1950s, when non-believers still had a fairly good Bible knowledge, a one-off presentation could be effective. But by the 1980s things had changed. One participant in a course I ran with members of my soccer team didn’t know what the Old Testament was.
Christianity Explained was designed to address this—a six-week course that unpacked aspects of the gospel which may have been be very familiar to Christians, but which were probably quite alien to non-believers.
Things have moved on since the 1980s. Biblical literacy has dropped further.
But things have moved on since the 1980s. Biblical literacy has dropped further. My experience, and the experience of people in other churches, is that six weeks may not be enough. I started adding a follow up course that I put together about 15 years back. Another church I know adds a five-week course, followed by a different five-week course, followed by a different five-week course and then a final five-week course. Another church I know does an evangelistic course and then mixes the attendees in with other courses that cater to to both believers and non-believers. I am currently doing a follow-up course at my church and am considering doing a different and further follow-up course next term – thus a total of three different courses in a row.
More diversity in presenting the gospel can help
In the 1980s, the idea was that you presented Christianity Explained over six weeks in as comfortable and non-threatening a way as possible. The presenter spoke; referred to passages in Mark; used flash cards and gave a handout at the end of each session. These days, when I use Christianity Explained (for example) I add things to the course that provide variety; things that help people with different learning styles, and which address concerns about the truth and appeal of the Christian faith.
So, for example, in week 1—to address truth concerns—I present some brief material on the historical reliability of the New Testament accounts of Jesus. In terms of presentation and content, I now provide a handout that people can follow from the start of each session, and include short video extracts on relevant topics each week. I also encourage non-threatening large group and small group discussion. Furthermore, I include my personal testimony and often the testimonies of other believers during the course. This highlights that the gospel is not just of academic interest, but impacts and changes real lives.
It can be good to have some church members in the group
The thinking back in the 1980s was to keep Christians out of these sorts of groups as much as possible as they might answer all the questions, dominate discussion and thus intimidate non-believers. I now think that, while it is good to ask believers not to dominate discussions, their presence is helpful. They can get to know the non-believers in the course. If and when a guest gets to the point of deciding to attend church, they will already know a few people other than myself. Much has been written in recent times about the persuasive value of Christian community, this allows the non-believer to have some exposure to a small segment of the church.
Christians also benefit from doing the course as it reminds them of the great truths of the gospel.
Christians also benefit from doing the course as it reminds them of the great truths of the gospel, equips them with tools to use in their own gospel discussions, and gives them confidence in the course. I find that when church members do the course, they are more enthusiastic about inviting people along in the future.
In promoting our evangelistic courses at church, I often say it is a good course for Christians to go over the basics of their belief, and for interested inquirers to look into the faith. It is sometimes that case that regular church attenders discover that they have never really understood the gospel of grace and are either converted, or have their understanding of the faith greatly clarified.
What’s the Same?
We still need to keep evangelism on the table
In the cut and thrust of church and individual lives, it is easy for evangelism to get pushed to one side.
Now, as much as before, we need to make sure that our churches and church members are prioritising activities that help non-believers to come into contact with the gospel message in some way or other. In the cut and thrust of church and individual lives, it is easy for evangelism to get pushed to one side. Regular courses help keep evangelism on the agenda. Sometimes the courses will be well attended, at other times only a small number will come along. We may want to change the courses around but keep something happening on a regular basis.
Evangelistic courses can be run through a church or privately
There is no reason why individuals cannot get hold of the materials for a course and do it with their own contacts. I have run it at two cricket clubs, one soccer team and with some friends. When running the course through sports teams I was greatly assisted and encouraged when I was able to do it with a fellow Christian teammate.
Train and involve others
I started teaching Christianity Explained because I was invited to take part in the course by the assistant minister of my church. Since then, people who have done the course with me have gone on to do the course with others. It is also possible to run “How to run [insert name of particular evangelistic course]” courses, although I think having someone do a course with you and then talk to you about it, is probably the best way.
Make it welcoming
It is always important to make the course welcoming. I like to have the venue nicely set up with some food and drink available. I try to be kind to people who do the course, and to finish on time each week. Many people are tired during the week, and if I “go on” until well past the finish time, participants may be less likely to come the following week if they are exhausted.
Of course, as Ephesians 6:10–20 makes clear, life for the Christian is a spiritual battle and we need to fight it with spiritual weapons. We need to have our “feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace,” (v. 15) and we need to pray for evangelistic endeavour (vv. 18–20).
The Way Forward
It would seem to me that the things that have stayed the same, STILL need to stay the same—clearly explaining the gospel, praying, being welcoming, training others, and prioritising outreach in personal and church life. I would also suggest that the trends I’ve noticed probably need to continue. So, evangelistic courses in the future should:
- highlight the truth, personal relevance and appeal of the message;
- use a variety of presentation methods to assist different learning styles;
- use both propositional truths and stories (particularly personal testimonies);
- aim to maximise the amount of time non-believers have in contact with believers and the gospel message; and
- put non-believers in contact with a few members of the Christian community (not just you).