3 Ways to Make the Most of Every Opportunity
When opportunities for evangelism arise, how should we respond to make the most of them?
Is your preaching and teaching ministry doing enough to prepare your church for the task of evangelism? In this series, Andy Paterson offers biblical encouragement that every Christian has a role to play, free from false guilt.
This is part 16 in the series.
In Paul’s letter to the church in Colossae, he wrote:
“Be wise in the way you act towards outsiders; make the most of every opportunity. Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.” (Colossians 4:5-6)
So what can make our conversations salty? How should we respond when opportunities arise?
Let me suggest a few principles that emerge from the Apostle Paul’s practice.
Start from where people are
Rather than assume that people are familiar with biblical concepts and ideas, we must start from where they are.
As we’ll discuss in a later article, it’s possible that their worldview means they see things completely differently from you.
Maybe you’ve been a Christian for a long time and instinctively you think in categories defined by your faith. So, you talk about sin and the Bible and the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross and assume your friend will immediately understand the words and terms you are using. But it is quite possible – indeed likely – that their whole worldview has been shaped by a variety of other influences that may have been quite ‘anti-Christian’ in their origin.
In this situation, there’s little point in talking to them about the fact that they have “fallen short of the glory of God” when they have no comprehension of what those terms mean. We need to start further back. We need to understand those we’re chatting with as well as the message that we’re sharing.
I was profoundly helped and affected by reading a book by Roy Joslin called Urban Harvest back in the 80s. It opened my eyes to the different approaches that Paul adopted for sharing the gospel in Pisidian Antioch and Lystra (Acts 13,14).
In Pisidian Antioch, Paul was addressing Jews and God-fearing Gentiles within the context of a synagogue gathering. He identifies as a Jew and bases his argument upon the commonly acknowledged authority of God’s word. He outlines Jewish history and points to Jesus the Messiah who fulfilled the Messianic promises.
Whereas when we come to Lystra we discover an entirely different community. This is a farming community made up of a largely uneducated population who seemed to be ignorant of Greek culture and who speak their own language (‘Lycaonian’ Acts 14:11). So does Paul get out his old sermon notes from Pisidian Antioch and preach the same message? Not at all. The Lycaonians would not have understood. In fact, Paul does not refer at all to Scripture (although all that he says is biblical). Instead, Paul appeals to the universal witness of creation, something he is to later write about to the church in Rome (Romans 1:19-20). Here is something those in Lystra could relate to – simple, uncomplicated, and visually illustrated, free from abstract Greek thought.
And in the same way, we need to understand, as far as we can, where our friend is coming from and what they can relate to.
The core gospel message never changes, but it’s not a one-size-fits-all presentation. This only goes to underline what we have been saying previously: the good news about Jesus is best presented in the context of relationships of trust and friendship, where we understand the person we’re sharing with and know how to connect with their own life experience and categories.
Speak their language
There’s no point using words that have no meaning to our listeners.
When I’m with biblically literate believers I’m really happy to talk and sing about being washed in the blood of the Lamb. It’s precious and richly biblical language but my friend next door wouldn’t have a clue what I was talking about. In fact, I would be raising his weirdo-meter very quickly, and could be in danger of losing his friendship! Instead, I want to use phrases and descriptions that are accessible to him.
I imagine that many who read these articles have received some form of academic or professional training, and therefore are accustomed to and have been trained in grappling with complex language that may well be highly conceptual. But not everyone has – not necessarily because of ability but because of experience.
So, the language we use must be appropriate to our hearer. Jesus, the master communicator, used language full of ‘concrete thought forms’ as opposed to abstract expressions, whereas Paul, in defining and defending the gospel message, found the more conceptual Greek language a better vehicle for his purposes. One is not better than the other. We must never play off the gospels against the letters.
But what we are saying is that we need to exercise discernment and wisdom to ensure that we communicate as clearly as we can with the listener before us. We need to remember that most thinking in Western culture is shaped by television (where even for a news journalist the average length of a report is 18 seconds), or Twitter (messages confined to 280 characters), or Facebook (where the optimal length of a status update is said to be just 40 characters).
Identify with your hearer
What points of contact can we establish? What do we have in common? Does our friend think we can enter into what they are going through? Or do we come over as aliens from another planet trying to enforce our ideas upon them?
Paul was the master at connecting with his hearers whatever the situation. In Pisidian Antioch and Ephesus, he connected as a Jew; in Athens, he connected through what he had seen whilst walking around the city; before the rioting crowd in Jerusalem, he told them of his religious training; in writing to the Corinthians, he argued for appropriate flexibility so that we might effectively communicate with our hearers (1 Corinthians 9:19-23).
The reality is that you and I will share many experiences with others who live in this broken and fallen world. Disappointments and regrets; broken hearts and failing health; miscarriages and bereavements; the list goes on. And it’s in the course of a friendship that we’ll be able to discover where we connect and what it might be that will enable our friends to understand what we’re trying to say.
Next time: Illustrating the culture.