“I can’t do what you do,” says the Christian, sidling up to me sheepishly after an evangelism training session. “I’m no good with words.”
This always strikes me as an odd admission. Usually it comes after five minutes of genial conversation. We’ve discussed the sports scores, the weather, the kids, and Netflix. There have been no awkward pauses, no embarrassing slips of the tongue, nothing to suggest that this person struggles significantly with English comprehension or communication. But apparently they are no good with words.
This struggle rarely manifests when discussing their favorite team or show. But it does present itself when the topic for discussion is faith. It turns out they’re actually quite good with words. Most people are fairly decent at the whole speaking thing. Civilization is built upon it. So, what is the problem?
The problem is fear. We just don’t fear enough.
What Grips the Heart Wags the Tongue
In perhaps the Bible’s clearest verse on personal evangelism, Peter tells us to be “prepared.” We’re not, like the Boy Scouts, to be prepared with a Swiss Army Knife. We are to be prepared with words, with an “apologia” — meaning answering words (1 Peter 3:15).
“We are always evangelizing. We are always speaking of what is ‘holy’ to us.”
But what form should this preparation take? Peter does not really have the classroom in mind. He’s not so much recommending that we rote learn a list of philosophical proofs for God’s existence. Here’s the ultimate preparation for evangelism: “In your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy” (1 Peter 3:15).
As the old saying goes, “What grips the heart wags the tongue.” Or, to put it the way Jesus does, “out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks” (Matthew 12:34). We speak out what we are “full of.” This is an inescapable fact of human psychology. We are always evangelizing. We are always speaking of what is “holy” to us. If something is sacred, set apart, consecrated, of first importance, it will overflow from our hearts and into our conversations. So Peter counsels us to fill our hearts with “Christ the Lord.”
This is the answer to the fear we naturally feel when we live and speak distinctively for Christ (1 Peter 3:12–13). The fear which dominates us apart from Christ is the “fear of men.” We enter a room and take the temperature in a heartbeat. Before we’ve even consciously considered it, we have calculated the words that will gain most acceptance and provoke least opposition. We don’t need the world to censor us; our own fears do that job better than any totalitarian regime.
I’m always trying to discern which words will be most warmly received by my conversation partner. Peter tells me to focus my discernment elsewhere. I’m not to choose my words according to how they’re received (no one can control how their words are received). My discernment should center on the origin of the words more than the destination. Do these words come from a heart that honors Christ the Lord as holy?
In saying this, Peter is virtually quoting from Isaiah:
“Do not fear what they fear, nor be in dread. But the Lord of hosts, him you shall honor as holy. Let him be your fear, and let him be your dread.” (Isaiah 8:12–13)
“When it comes to evangelism, we fight fear with fear.”
The “fear of the Lord” is not about cowering away from God. It’s actually about being magnetically attracted to, possessed with, and awed by his all-compelling majesty. Isaiah will go on to tell us about the Messiah who shall delight “in the fear of the Lord” (Isaiah 11:3). Here is a delightful dread. It’s being overwhelmed by the radiance of the Lord’s glory.
Such fear is a liberating fear. It means that, when it comes to evangelism, we fight fear with fear. The fears will come. They came to Paul, and they will definitely come to us (Ephesians 6:19–20). But as we enter a conversation, we are not to be awed by the desire to be liked. Instead, we should be awed by the all-surpassing greatness of Christ.
As you read this, you may think, “That sounds so spiritual, so lofty, so unattainable.” But really it’s not. It’s simply the way human beings tick.
Think of the sports fan, covered in his team’s merchandise, walking up to the stadium. He is grinning from ear to ear and sharing with anyone who will hear the unsearchable riches of his team. How does he do it? In his heart he has honored his team as holy.
Think of the office colleague, holding forth on their unpopular opinion. Star Wars is terrible, they say. Comic Sans is highly underrated. Nickelback is actually a terrific band. They have set apart a conviction in their heart, and it overflows into words.
In these everyday examples, people have managed to overcome the fear of unpopularity. They have instead been centered on a greater passion, and the passion flows forth. This is the answer for Christians fearful in evangelism.
Let Passion Overflow
I have a friend who says to those he meets for the first time, “I am a massive fan of Jesus. Massive! You?” I don’t say you should copy him. It’s a very “him” thing to say, and it sounds great in his thick Liverpool accent. But I encourage you to find some expression of your heartfelt devotion to Christ. Personally, I will often say, “That’s what I love about Jesus.” I won’t tell you how I finish that sentence, because it’s not about learning a form of words. It’s about a passion overflowing.
“Our passion for Jesus will communicate more than our eloquence ever could.”
If the words aren’t coming — and we all struggle in this area — the answer is not to learn a new set of arguments or techniques. Neither is the solution simply to redouble our resolve and to discover our inner contrarian! Instead, let’s return to the source: the glory of Christ, a treasure greater than all the sports teams, all the celebrity gossip, all the pet peeves, all the hobbyhorses that fill our conversations.
As we are captured more by his glory, so we will speak. Not fluently. Not impressively. But genuinely, from the heart — and our passion will communicate more than our eloquence ever could. “Therefore, knowing the fear of the Lord, we persuade others” (2 Corinthians 5:11).