How Evangelism is Like Falling Off a Cliff

By Luke Cawley


Panic and screaming.

I was dropping to earth at an uncomfortable rate.

I had fallen off the cliff and would hit the ground at any moment.

Just time for a quick final prayer, and it was time to say goodbye to this world.

Only...I didn't plummet to my death. A rope was attached to my waist, strung through a rivet on the rock face, and held tightly by my friend below.

I was a teenager and rappelling for the first time in my life, so my sense of terror was understandable. It was, after all, the first time I had fallen off a cliff. My understanding of gravity far outstripped my confidence in the climbing ropes. Why on earth wouldn't I scream?

It may seem comical to envision a teenage boy freaking out while dangling from a rope (go ahead, have a laugh at my expense!), but the truth is that my life would have been in very real danger had one simple thing not taken place: Preparation.

The ropes, the person anchoring me, the rivet, the choice of climbing location...all of these were selected and prepared in advance to ensure that, should my foot slip, I would still live to tell the tale.

Evangelism with Ropes

It's not just in rappelling that we need good preparation. Thinking ahead makes for less stressful shopping trips (if we have already written a list), warmer relationships (if we remember someone's birthday), and better times at the movie theater (if we check that the film we want to see is actually showing at that location).

Preparation, then, is the stuff of everyday life.

If we want to help other people consistently, preparation becomes even more important. Imagine visiting a doctor who'd never studied medicine, seeking help from a sales clerk who couldn't direct you to anything in the store, or studying under a professor who’d never read a book on the topic she was teaching. Every one of those scenarios would be extremely frustrating.

It’s strange, then, that we sometimes experience a twinge of misgiving when somebody talks about "preparing for evangelism" or "evangelism training." Despite the fact that preparation is essential to so many other areas of life, the idea of learning and training to be an evangelist feels inauthentic.

Perhaps some of this perception comes from encountering evangelism training that focuses on pushing a scripted message down the throats of unsuspecting (and probably unwilling) conversation partners.

But just because there is such a thing as bad evangelism training doesn’t mean that it can’t also be done well.

In fact, a follower of Jesus preparing well for evangelism is as vital as a doctor understanding human biology and a rappelling instructor tying the ropes.

Think back for a moment over your past conversations with friends who don’t follow Jesus: Has anybody every complained that you explained things too clearly, posed questions that were too insightful, or were able to assist them too helpfully with their own questions?

I’d be surprised if you have. When I talk with my friends who aren’t Christians, many of them actually express appreciation that I have taken the time to think about how to convey my faith in a way that would make sense to them.

We become better friends to those around us when we work hard to be genuinely useful in aiding them on their spiritual journeys.

Learning the Ropes

There’s a great story in the Luke 10 about how Jesus prepared his disciples for evangelism. It involves Jesus sending out his "InterVarsity chapter" of 72 disciples to speak about him in various villages. He does four things to get them ready:

1) The first thing that happens is that Jesus conveys essential information about good practice. He insists, for example, that they not knock on every door in the village. Instead, they should seek out an individual who can usher them relationally into the entire community.

2) Next, Jesus lets the 72 go and speak on his behalf. There is no hint that Jesus instructs them for days on end before they leave. He just conveys the essential information and then sends them off to actually get into conversations and also preach.

3) Thirdly, Jesus gives them space to share their own experiences of evangelism: As the 72 come back celebrating the miracles they have witnessed in the villages, Jesus helps them understand their own experiences in the light of the bigger picture. He tells them to rejoice not primarily in the miracles but, rather, in their own salvation.

4) Finally, Jesus prays for them and thanks God for what he is doing through his 72 messengers.

This is a great model for our own evangelism training. We can imitate Jesus if we:

1) Figure out the essential content that needs to be conveyed to those we are training.

Examples of such content include how to listen to the Holy Spirit, how to ask good questions, and some simple gospel illustrations that can be used to make things clearer to our conversation partners.

2) Mimic Jesus’ emphasis on actually sending people out.

If our evangelism training is all about sitting in a room discussing best practice, then it’s a bit like a fishing trip where the whole weekend is spent in the tent looking at diagrams of fish. Fascinating but useless. If you are running a weekend or full-day training event, why not have everybody go out and strike up conversations with locals? Perhaps you could have one question they need to ask somebody, or maybe you could train them in using Pocket Proxes and then have them go out and use them on the campus.

3) Avoid one-way downloads of "how to evangelize."

Like Jesus, create space within your training for people to actually share their own experiences and struggles, and then shape some of your content around directly addressing those issues. I almost never speak about evangelism without having lots of gaps/pauses for people to ask questions and throw "but what about..." scenarios my way. This helps people feel engaged, and also ensures that we stay grounded in the realities (and not just the theory) of good evangelistic practice.

4) Make prayer integral to evangelism.

Prayerful encounters with God fuel and help us process our day-to-day evangelistic practice. Find ways to weave prayer into all aspects of your training. Why not, for example, lay hands on one another and pray for God to help us communicate well on his behalf? Perhaps also pause when speaking to actually pray for the people you are addressing.

There are lots of good models for evangelism training within InterVarsity, and if you don’t adopt any of them directly, you can always borrow bits from various sources, mix them together with Jesus’ example in Luke 10, and create something uniquely appropriate for your own context.

Preparation enables us to better help others encounter God. The better we prepare, the less we feel like we are rappelling without a rope.

If you’ve been put off evangelism training in the past, what do you think has pushed you away? And if you’ve ever found evangelism training useful, why not share what helped you in the comments section below.