What Unlikely Converts Can Teach Us About Evangelism (and Ourselves) by Elliot Clark for The Gospel Coalition
Perhaps nothing is more encouraging to Christians than a conversion story. Like our Savior, we rejoice to hear of even one sinner who repents, which makes the latest offering from Randy Newman, Unlikely Converts: Improbable Stories of Faith and What They Teach Us about Evangelism, a particularly heartening read. He tells the stories of many who have come to faith in Christ, some in rather unexpected ways.
This is familiar ground for Newman. His well-known work Questioning Evangelism reflects on the evangelistic method of Jesus, helping us engage others with the gospel by asking questions. But this newest book follows a different path. Here Newman—senior teaching fellow with The C. S. Lewis Institute in Washington, D.C.—speaks with multiple unlikely converts, researching their testimonies, then gleaning observations both practical and also biblical for all would-be evangelists.
Evangelism Is a Process
Coming to Christ takes time. If there’s one lesson that permeates Newman’s research, it’s this: people generally accept the gospel gradually. This isn’t to argue against conversion as a work of the Spirit at a point in time. But it’s a recognition that the Spirit often opens blinded eyes through a series of events. He tends to do so through the witness of believers over a period of weeks, months, even years.
Some do experience sudden conversion, of course; there’s no prerequisite to faith. But when we see dramatic transformation in a moment, we sometimes overlook all that led to that point. For example, instantaneous conversion stories from the Bible are themselves often the result of what some might call “pre-evangelism.” Whether it’s the woman at the well (John 4), the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8), Cornelius (Acts 10), or the Philippian jailer (Acts 16), each had prior exposure to Scripture and the believing community.
Given this point, Newman suggests a number of applications. He reinforces the benefits of pre-evangelism, the work we do to prepare others to receive the gospel. But he also advocates for the work we do to prepare ourselves with the gospel, what he calls evangelistic brainstorming. To this end, each chapter concludes with questions to help us think ahead of time, before we try to speak the good news with others.
Understanding the process of conversion helps our evangelistic approach in other ways. Christians tend to withhold the gospel based on our assumptions of others’ interest in the gospel. But as Newman shows in the numerous stories, unbelievers rarely verbalize what they’re internally processing. In fact, sometimes their thoughts are in direct conflict with their demeanor and actions. Just because a person leads a promiscuous lifestyle doesn’t mean they’re convinced it’s either right or good. Only when someone takes the initiative to ask a personal question, give them a Bible, invite them to church, or speak the gospel is their internal processing on spiritual matters engaged.