Question: "What is personal evangelism?"

Answer: Personal evangelism is the act of a person sharing the gospel with another. There are many different methods of personal evangelism, and it is a hot topic within Christianity. Books, classes, and seminars are dedicated to the subject of witnessing, soul-winning, and helping others find salvation through faith in Jesus Christ. Not every method is effective or biblically supportable; according to Bible teacher Dr. John MacArthur, “Jesus would have failed personal evangelism class in almost every Bible college and seminary I know.”

According to a 2016 Barna survey, 73 percent of Americans claim to be Christians. However, after applying scriptural tests to those claims, only around 31 percent actually qualify as practicing Christians. The Bible knows no other kind (Matthew 7:19–21; 1 John 3:7–10). Clearly, what has passed for personal evangelism for the last several generations has not been effective.

When Jesus practiced “personal evangelism,” He often seemed to make it more difficult for those who showed interest (Luke 9:57–62). His encounter with the rich young ruler in Matthew 19:16–24 is a good example of showing an unbeliever what true discipleship costs, but this type of personal evangelism is rare today. Jesus was not interested in what has come to be known as “easy believism.” Some modern methods of personal evangelism are so mechanical that salvation is presented almost as a business arrangement: “Plug in this sinner’s prayer and voilà! Eternal life!” This presentation may result in many responses, but is that real salvation? The Barna statistics indicate otherwise.

Paul exemplified effective personal evangelism. After his radical conversion to Christ (Acts 9), Paul’s entire life changed. His new life motto was encapsulated in these words from Galatians 2:20: “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” Paul lived evangelism. Everything he did was for the glory of God (1 Corinthians 10:31). He sought ways to impart truth everywhere he went, in every cultural context (1 Corinthians 9:20–22). The other apostles practiced personal evangelism in the same way. At times, they gained massive responses, and churches were started on the spot (Acts 9:35, 42; 11:24). Other times, the first Christians were mocked, beaten, jailed, or run out of town (2 Corinthians 11:23–28; Acts 16:22–23). So even the best methods of personal evangelism won’t always produce converts.

We can learn a lot about personal evangelism from those first Christians. The following are some factors that contribute to effective personal evangelism:

Prayer. Beautiful words and impassioned speeches may move a soul, but they cannot transform a hard heart. Only the power of the Holy Spirit can bring conviction and repentance (2 Timothy 2:25). The first Christians relied on massive amounts of prayer before they attempted to do anything for the Lord, and God blessed their efforts (Acts 1:14; 4:31; 6:6; 13:3; Colossians 4:4). When our prayer lives are consistent and meaningful, we are ready to engage in personal evangelism.

Biblical knowledge. We don’t have to possess a seminary degree or the ability to read ancient Greek, but we do need an overall understanding of what the Bible says. Many people allow this factor to silence them, citing their lack of biblical knowledge as a reason they don’t witness for Christ. But there is no reason that we cannot study and learn for ourselves what God says about His plan of salvation. Christians should be experts on the gospel. Second Timothy 2:15 commands us to study as unto God so that we will become “as one approved, a worker who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth.” We need to know the basic truths of Scripture in order to have effective personal evangelism.

A story. We all have a story. If we’ve come to know Christ and have experienced forgiveness of sin and His transforming power in our lives, then we have a story to tell. Effective personal evangelism often incorporates a personal testimony. Paul often recounted his own conversion story in his evangelism, reminding his audience of how wicked he had been and how far God’s grace had brought him (Philippians 3:4–6; Acts 26:9–23; 1 Corinthians 15:9). An example of how a story affects personal evangelism is found in John 9. Jesus healed a man born blind. The Pharisees plied the healed man with questions about Jesus that he could not answer. Finally, in frustration, the man cried out, “Whether he is a sinner or not, I don’t know. One thing I do know. I was blind but now I see!” (verse 25). We may not know the answers to every question we are asked, but we do know what Jesus has done for us. We know that once we were blind to spiritual truths, and now we see.

The right attitude. Much damage has been done in the name of Christ by people trying to conduct personal evangelism without love and without humility. First Corinthians 13:1–3 reminds us that we may do any number of noble-looking deeds, but if we don’t do them in love, we have accomplished nothing. Love for Christ must be first (Mark 12:30), followed closely by a love for people. Our motivation in personal evangelism must never be anger, a desire to condemn someone, or a need to win an argument. We should check our own hearts before embarking on a quest to evangelize others (Matthew 7:3–5). We don’t have to be perfect, but we need to be certain that our desire is the salvation of the lost, not the motivation to look spiritual or to be right. Galatians 5:22–23 is a list of character qualities that will be a part of effective personal evangelism.

Obedience, not results. It is often tempting to scale down biblical truth in personal evangelism in order to elicit the response we desire. But to do so only undermines the work God wants to do in that person’s life. Scripture is replete with examples of people obeying God’s commands, even though the results were nothing like they assumed: Abraham followed God to Canaan—and a famine hit right away (Genesis 12:10). Mary accepted the role of mother to the promised Messiah—then watched Him be mocked and crucified (Luke 1:38; John 19:25). Paul followed the Holy Spirit’s leading to Philippi—and was arrested and imprisoned (Acts 16:6–24).

In our personal evangelism, it is good to remember that we are only responsible to God for our obedience, not the results of that obedience. We may present the gospel thoroughly and lovingly, and the person to whom we witness may hear and understand but choose to walk away. We are not responsible for that reaction, only the level of obedience involved in our presentation. Jesus explained in Luke 8:5–15 that human hearts are like types of soil. The seed sown is the same in each case, but people receive the Word of God differently and respond differently. Our job, as the sowers of seeds, is to present truth as effectively as we know how and entrust the results to God.

Personal evangelism is the responsibility of every believer. God calls each of us to different tasks and endows us with different gifts, but the goal is the same—the salvation of the lost (1 Corinthians 12:6–7; Luke 19:10). He places us in strategic positions for influence, not privilege. We have neighbors, coworkers, friends, and relatives who need to hear the good news about Jesus. Whether we’re called to lead evangelistic crusades or simply cultivate a relationship with an unsaved neighbor, personal evangelism should be the driving force in our lives. Jesus’ words spoken to His disciples more than two thousand years ago still apply to His followers today: “As long as it is day, we must do the works of him who sent me. Night is coming, when no one can work” (John 9:4). As long as we have breath, we can do personal evangelism. As long as we stay surrendered to the Holy Spirit, He will do it through us (Luke 12:12).