My wife, Judi, and I lived in a rental home in the Northpointe subdivision in Florida, United States, while we awaited the construction of our new home across the causeway in Pace, Florida. The week before the big move, we had a garage sale to discard our unwanted belongings. As I sat in a lawn chair in the driveway watching people pull up to the curb and rummage through our stuff, it dawned on me that many of these people were our own neighbors, but I did not even know their names. That is when God gently implored, “David, you’ve lived in this neighborhood for twelve months. You’ve driven past these homes hundreds of times to conduct preaching services and board meetings, visit parishioners, and give Bible studies across town, but not once have you walked across the property line to get acquainted with your neighbors!” Right then and there I confessed, “God, You’re right. Please give me another chance. Show me how to be a better witness for You.”
Christians’ reluctance to witness
Just before Jesus ascended to the Father, He challenged His church to “‘go and make disciples’” (Matt. 28:19, NIV). This work of leading others to Jesus is the highest priority of Christ’s followers. Yet, let’s be candid; it is one of the hardest things God ever asks us to do. Most of us would rather run a marathon than cross the street to greet our neighbor. We are plagued with feelings of fear and inadequacy and with the realities of being too busy. This is true not only for church members but also for pastors. According to one study by Thom Rainer, 53 percent of pastors have made no evangelistic effort to share the gospel with unbelievers during the past six months.1 It is easy to become side-tracked by the “tyranny of the urgent” and ignore the evangelistic mandate of Christ. The reality is, pastors must first model the evangelistic value that lost people matter to God before their churches will ever emulate it.2 As Alvin Reid puts it, “Your church collectively will not be more evangelistic than you are personally.”3
Discovering seven witnessing styles
When I was in Pensacola, Florida, I used to stroll along the fishing pier and watch the people fish. It was interesting to note that they used different kinds of bait to catch different kinds of fish. You involve more members with a multidimensional evangelistic approach because each member uses a different witnessing approach. And you reach more people because different people are better attracted to different styles. This loaded “tackle box” creates a win-win situation. It involves more members and “catches” more people for Jesus Christ.
I will never forget one of my first doctor of ministry assignments. Our professor, Dr. Joseph Kidder, instructed us to take our Bibles, scan through the book of Acts, and look for the different methods of evangelism that were used by the early Christian church. I was a third-generation Seventh-day Adventist who grew up as a preacher’s kid (PK). I knew this message backward and forward. My stereotypical view of evangelism was public reaping meetings by a professional evangelist, with the four beasts on the screen. But we prayerfully made up our individual lists and then compiled our collective list on the whiteboard, filling the board with more than 40 evangelistic methods. Though Ellen White had attested that “different methods are to be employed to save different ones,” 4 this exercise was a great eye-opener for me. I subsequently grouped the methods into seven witnessing styles:5
1. Prayer—Interceding for the salvation of friends, family, and work associates.
2. Friendship—Forming relationalbridges to communicate the gospel in a low-key, nonthreatening way.
3. Service—Demonstrating God’s loveby doing practical acts of service with no strings attached.
4. Testimony—Relaying from one’s own personal experience the great things God has done.
5. Invitation—Inviting family, friends, and acquaintances to social events, service projects, culturally relevant seminars, or spiritual events where Jesus and His gospel and truth are introduced.
6. Conversation—Utilizing casual conversation to introduce people to Christ and His truth.
7. Proclamation—Declaring the absolute truths of God’s Word in an authoritative, non-judgmental way through teaching or preaching.
Personalizing the witnessing styles
Just as every organ in the body has a unique design and specialized function, so it is with every member of the body of Christ. God distributes different spiritual gifts to build up the body of Christ (Rom. 12:4–8; 1 Cor. 12:7–11; Eph. 4:11–16). He, likewise, dispenses various witnessing styles to reach people for Christ. This is illustrated in 1 Corinthians 3:5–11 by the use of two metaphors: agriculture and construction. In farming, different hired hands have different roles to reap the harvest—some plant and some water. Likewise, in building, some subcontractors pour the foundation, while others frame the walls. In both cases (farming and building), all workers are needed, each with his or her own specialized role, in order to complete the task.
The same is true in the work of soul winning. Some are better suited for cultivating the soil (through prayer, friendship, or service); others are more proficient at sowing seed (through sharing their personal testimony, inviting people to community seminars, or engaging in spiritual conversation). And still others are better equipped to reap the harvest (by sharing the truths of God’s Word through teaching or preaching).6 All roles in the soul-winning process are vital to bringing lost people to Christ.
It must be noted that while God outfits each of us with a preferred witnessing style, we should not restrict our witnessing to just one style. There are examples in the Bible of people (such as the apostle Paul) who used multiple witnessing styles. The parable of the talents (Matt. 25:14–30) reveals that talents used are talents multiplied, and talents squandered are talents lost. As we faithfully practice the witnessing styles that God entrusts to us, He will add new styles to our repertoire so that over time we will become proficient in the use of multiple styles. Although we will usually default to our preferred style, the Holy Spirit may, at times, empower us to use styles that are outside of our comfort range for the sake of the one we are witnessing to. In our daily interactions with people, we should be willing to use the style that best fits the faith journey and receptivity level of the one we are sharing with, regardless of our own personal preferences.
Different strokes for different folks
One of the common mistakes we make as Christian witnesses is to treat everyone alike and use the same witnessing approach on everyone. In Christ’s parable of the sower in Mark 4:3–20, the four types of soil represent four types of hearers or different levels of receptivity to the Word of God. This shows that not all lost people are at the same stage of their spiritual journeys or distance from God. People vary in their understanding, attitude, and need of God. Some are antagonistic; others are receptive. Some have never heard the name of Jesus, while others have a working knowledge of Scripture. Our role as Christian witnesses is to discern an individual’s faith stage, or receptivity level, and then witness accordingly.
These faith stages can be plotted on a linear graph known as an Engel Scale.7 This scale represents an individual’s spiritual pathway starting from the far left with antagonistic (−5), resistant (−4), indifferent (−3), receptive (−2), seeking (−1), and finally, to conversion (represented by the cross). One analogy that helps to explain the different faith stages is the open and shut doors.8 For the person who is antagonistic (−5), the door is shut and padlocked. The person who is resistant (−4) has a door that is cracked. The person who is indifferent (−3) has a door that is partially open. The receptive (−2) person has a door that is mostly open. A person who is seeking (−1) has a door that is wide open and is begging, “Please share Christ and His truth with me!”
The important point to remember is, the further one is from having faith in Christ, the more we need to use the earlier witnessing styles (prayer, friendship and service). As an individual’s heart becomes receptive, we can use the later witnessing styles (testimony, invitation, conversation, and proclamation). Again, we need to cooperate with the work of the Holy Spirit by discerning where a person is on the faith scale and then giving them that next gentle nudge toward Christ through the appropriate use of the witnessing styles.
This gentle nudging is comparable to a golf game, where the object of the game is, through a series of strokes with various golf clubs, to get the ball from the tee to the hole—first stroking the ball down the fairway, then onto the green, and eventually into the hole.9 This is not to say that we should “club” people along the spiritual pathway (this is obviously where the metaphor breaks down); rather, we should gently nudge people along their pathway. Just as golfers use different clubs (drivers, long irons, short irons, and putters) for different strokes, depending on the distance of the ball from the hole, even so, soul winners use different witnessing styles for different individuals, depending on their distance from Christ. Using this same golfing analogy, we do not deem the putter to be more important than the driver because it sank the ball in the hole. Neither should we consider the proclamation style more valuable than the friendship style because it nudged the individual into the baptistry. No, each club or style has its essential role, and consequently, each is of equal importance.
I am thankful that God has given me many more chances to share His love with others since that epiphany during my moving sale 26 years ago. God will use you, as well, as you use the various witnessing styles and train others to do the same.
Sidebar: Implementing the personal styles: A case study
What happens when a church transitions to a multi-dimensional approach—training members to use the various witnessing styles?
When I completed my doctor of ministry degree from Andrews University in 2007, as well as a project on the personal styles of evangelism, God impressed me to implement the harvest cycle and witnessing styles in my local Highland Seventh-day Adventist Church in Portland, Tennessee, to see whether it would positively affect evangelism. After participating in scores of reaping meetings during my 24 years of ministry (up to that point), I was convinced that merely running the harvest combine through the fields without first breaking up the ground and sowing was not the way to have a successful harvest. Consequently, we planned a reaping series with Amazing Facts evangelist Jason Sliger in the fall of 2008. However, this time we engaged in proper preparation by emphasizing the witnessing styles, especially the first three that “cultivate” the soil (prayer, friendship, and service).
Nine months before the meetings began, I emphasized a different witnessing style each month at the Highland Church. In January we talked about intercessory prayer; in February, the value of friendship; and in March, the need for service in our community through practical acts of kindness, and so on. Along with preaching on the witnessing styles, I also showed short video clips demonstrating the proper use of the styles. I urged members to use the cultivating styles, or “keys to the heart,” in their daily interactions with others, and we featured testimonies of members who were exercising the styles. The church also made prayer a special focus during this preparatory time. As a result of the reaping series, 20 people took their stand for Jesus and were baptized. Sixteen of the 20 came as a direct result of church members using the keys. Only 4 came exclusively from the handbills.
As a pastoral family, my wife and I used the friendship and invitation styles with our neighbor, Susan. Somewhat jaded by Christianity, Susan declined Judi’s and my initial invitations to come to church. But she eagerly joined us for Sabbath lunch and a hike at the state park. Over time, she commented, “You folks have so much peace. There’s something different about you.” She commented, “You never cut your grass on Sabbath—how come? Tell me about this Sabbath.”
The joy and gratitude that filled Judi’s and my hearts were unspeakable. We can attest that the witnessing styles really work, especially when you combine the relational styles (1–6) with the proclamation (7). It makes for a winning combination. After two and a half years of our steadily loving Susan with prayer, friendship, and acts of kindness, Susan’s heart was gradually opened for something more. She ventured to the Highland Seventh-day Adventist Church. She attended the meetings. She joined the Seventh-day Adventist Church.
For more on the topic, see David L. Hartman, Winning Ways to Witness: Seven Witnessing Styles That Attract People to Christ (Collegedale, TN: College Press, 2018).
1 Thom S. Rainer, “The Dying American Church,” The Christian Post, April 18, 2006, christianpost.com/news/the-dying-american-church-6685/.
2 Lee Strobel, “Helping Churches Become Stronger Salt and Brighter Light,” presentation at Southern Union Pastors’ Conference, January 10, 2018, in Orlando, Florida, United States.
3 Alvin Reid, “Creating an Evangelistic Church,” Center for Great Commission Studies, September 15, 2016,thecgcs.org/2016/09/creating-an-evangelistic -church/.
4 Ellen G. White, Evangelism (Washington, DC: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1946), 106.
5 The idea of a variety of witnessing styles is not original with me. In 1994 Mark Mittelberg and Bill Hybels proposed six styles of evangelism in their witnessing manual, Becoming a Contagious Christian (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994), 119–132; see also Mark Mittelberg, Lee Strobel, and Bill Hybels, Becoming a Contagious Christian: Leader’s Guide, rev. ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2007), 70–95. Their list of styles includes direct approach, intellectual approach, testimonial approach, interpersonal approach, invitation approach, and service approach. I was not aware of the Contagious Christian resource at the time of my discovery of theevangelism styles in Denver and subsequent decision to write my doctor of ministry dissertation on the evangelism styles, but it is interesting how God has led different individuals to discover the various evangelism approaches from the same original biblical source. During the process of writing my dissertation, I became aware of the Contagious Christian resource and was greatly blessed by itscontent. I took the basic principle that believers should specialize in the evangelism style that best fits their unique temperament and then developed a system that integrates the evangelism styles and the faith stages of conversion to optimize the evangelistic opportunity.
6 For more resources on the correlation of temperament types and witnessing styles, see Mike Bechtle, Evangelism for the Rest of Us: Sharing Christ Within Your Personality Style (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2006); David A. Farmer, Power Witnessing: How to Witness to Different Personalities (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1999); and Mels Carbonell and Stanley R. Ponz, My Personal Mission Profile (Blue Ridge, GA: UniquelyYou Resources, 2006) available at the uniquelyyou website, uniquelyyou.org/content/personalizing -my-faith-my-personal-mission-profile.
7 This graph was originally developed by Dr. James Engel, who served as chairman of the Communications department at Wheaton Graduate School in the 1970s. See the original Engel Scale in James F. Engel, Contemporary Christian Communications (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson,1979), 83. The scale was later refined by Thom Rainer, president of LifeWay Christian Resources. See Thom S. Rainer, The Unchurched Next Door: Understanding Faith Stages as Keys to Sharing Your Faith (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2003), 20, 21.
8 Rainer, The Unchurched, 21, 78, 102, 126, 150, 1172.
9 See an extensive explanation of the golfing metaphor in Steve Sjogren, David Ping, and Doug Pollock, Irresistible Evangelism: Natural Ways to Open Others to Jesus (Loveland, CO: Group, 2004), 73–88.