How I Became a Successful Personal Evangelist and Why I Quit

When I was in tenth or eleventh grade, a missionary to Cuba spoke at the Free Will Baptist church my father founded and pastored. I was enraptured as he spoke of his work among the native-Americans of the island—I wanted to do that. I wanted to be a missionary.

Some months later, an elderly Free Will Baptist minister also came as guest speaker. After the service I told him I was going to be a missionary, and he asked me how many souls I had won to Christ.

None,” I said.

We didn’t do things that way in our church.

personal evangelism

Becoming a Personal Evangelist

Sometimes our preachers visited someone they knew and tried to persuade them to get ‘saved’, but mostly we invited people to church where there was an altar call at the end of each service. Those under conviction went up to the altar to pray, and many members followed to pray for them; sometimes one or more would actually walk down with them because ‘sinners’ in attendance were often approached by Christians who plead with them to go to the altar and be ‘saved’.

The elderly minister insisted that I should begin winning people to the Lord right away, and he told me how to do it. His method was based on Perceive, Believe, Receive. This sounded very strange; it didn’t reflect the powerful emotions, agonizing struggle, and ‘praying through’ that accompanied getting ‘saved’ at the altar. 

It wasn’t until the summer after graduating from high school, however, that I won my first convert. I worked the evening shift at a restaurant, and after closing I spoke to the crew about being ‘saved’. After considerable discussion we knelt on the floor of the kitchen and three of them accepted Jesus.

I was elated; the Lord had given me words to say when I needed them, though by this time I had replaced the Perceive, Believe, Receive approach with The Roman Road technique I learned from fundamentalist leaders John R. Rice and Jack Hyles.

Using Romans 3:10, 3:23, 5:12, 6:23, 5:8, and 10:9-13, this technique intends to show that we are all sinners and cannot save ourselves, that sinners go to hell, and that Christ died to save sinners from hell. This all leads to the sinner’s prayer and a public confession.

Growing as a Personal Evangelist

I was witnessing to people I knew, but that was a limited number. Then I hit on a way to broaden my efforts—hitchhikers! 

Any time I saw a hitchhiker on the road, I picked them up and talked to them about Jesus. Some were uninterested, and a few asked me to let them out of the car, but it is remarkable how many prayed the sinner’s prayer.

Joining the Personal Evangelism Community

When I attended Bible college in 1971, I was very excited to join the personal evangelism club. Until then I had been a loner in my efforts.

The activities of the club centered on ‘invasions’; congregations within driving distance of the college invited us to their church for a weekend invasion. We taught classes on witnessing and took members into the community to demonstrate how to lead people to be ‘saved’.

I was excited about the club because I wanted to learn to be a better soul-winner. As a freshman newbie, I was paired in my first invasion with an experienced member. However, as we spoke with candidates, she based her appeal on the urgent need to prepare for the rapture in order to avoid the terrible tribulation period that would follow.

After a few presentations, I suggested to her that the rapture might be 100 years away and that there might be a different way to approach people. She vehemently rejected the idea; the rapture was almost upon us!

In spite of this conflict, I was able to participate in one discussion and led that person to salvation. In fact, I had at least one convert in each of the invasions I attended that semester, and in one of them the only convert was mine.

The summer of my freshman year I participated in an extended invasion in Philadelphia. On one occasion, I led seven people in the sinner’s prayer—one after the other; they had to wait in line.

Encountering Evangelism Explosion

Soon after this, my denomination, and the college, adopted the Evangelism Explosion program of personal evangelism. I was certified and had significant success. Within a few years I was teaching advanced Evangelism Explosion classes for our denomination’s leading congregation in the same city as the Bible college. It was a congregation of 2000-3000–a megachurch in those days.

It was while I was serving in this capacity that I began to have reservations about this form of evangelism. One day, I shared my concerns with another prominent leader in the congregation’s Evangelism Explosion program, and he agreed. Shortly thereafter, we recommended to the Evangelism Minister that we discontinue the program. After some conversation, he accepted and we killed it.

Many people were outraged, and I took a lot of heat.

Ending My Personal Evangelism Career

This was pretty much the end of my evangelistic efforts of this sort, and next time I will tell you why.

Photo Credit: Chris Yarzab via Compfight cc
I invite your comments and observations below.
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Have a great day! ~Tim
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23 Responses to How I Became a Successful Personal Evangelist and Why I Quit

  1. Interesting story Tim! Can you share a bit about that specific moment when you realized that you had to publically turn from the path of evangelism that you were on, and why?

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  2. michaeleeast says:

    It is interesting that most of your readers come to Progressive Christianity from a fundamentalist background. I have come the other way from a rejection of the Church, if not God.
    Your story sounds like a nightmare to me. But you seem to have woken up.

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    • Michael, I think you are right that many of my readers (at least those who comment) come from fundamentalist/evangelical backgrounds. Probably it’s because that was my background and it often comes through in my writing.

      However, I am pleased to have readers from a number of other backgrounds as well; baggage is baggage no matter what religious culture promotes it.

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  3. Theodore A. Jones says:

    The soteriological system you believed was right started in the wrong place in Romans. Paul’s soteriological belief, and he is right, begins with Romans 2:13. I was in a church one time that was using Evangelism Explosion too. I got involved in that, but not for long. Is your soteriological perspective now any better than Evangelism explosion? Not a chance. The fact is Jesus Christ did not die in anyone’s place.

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    • Theodor, the passage you refer to is: “For it is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous.”

      I certainly see the connection. Our church culture was very legalistic, and legalism is one of the biggest reason I participated in ‘soul-winning’; it’s what I was told I was SUPPOSED to do.

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  4. Tim, I look forward to reading more about your experience! What a huge pendulum swing!

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  5. jamesbradfordpate says:

    Looking forward to the next parts!

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    • Thanks James. I am not sure the church of your specific religious background used this approach. Did they?

      I did a lot of reading on your old group many years ago but what I noticed most about promotion and growth of the group was publishing–and particularly radio.

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      • jamesbradfordpate says:

        Yeah, you’re right about that. In one of the offshoots I grew up in, however, there was a series about personal evangelism, but a lot of that had to go with teaching people our peculiar doctrines, not getting them to pray the sinner’s prayer. I was exposed more to the pressure to evangelize within Adventism, and also evangelicalism.

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        • Yes James, I was thinking of your first group. But that brings me to a question about Adventism.

          I have had many discussions with Adventists, attended Adventist city-wide tent meetings (that was a long time ago), and visited on the Collegedale campus. I also read Sam Bacchiocchi and Desmond Ford (in addition to Ellen White).

          The emphasis seemed to be primarily on the Sabbath, the investigative judgment, and sometimes the mark of the beast. Legalism was very pronounced.

          In my neighborhood there are two groups that still go door-to-door–JWs and Adventists. I stopped inviting religious visitors in for discussion many years ago, so I don’t know the Adventist line of approach in personal evangelism. Is it similar to the fundamentalist/evangelical message? Do they use something similar to the sinner’s prayer? Can you share something about it?

          You can use my email if you wish: tchastain@cfl.rr.com.

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          • jamesbradfordpate says:

            I’d say it’s similar to the evangelical message, but it also has Sabbath, prophecy, etc. My guess, though, and this is based on what some have told me, is that Adventism usually succeeds in getting converts from people who are already Christian, rather than from the “lost.”

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        • This makes sense, and I think you may be right about them recruiting from other churches rather than the unchurched. I know a few other groups that also do that.

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  6. Hi Tim, I found you when Jonny mentioned you in his blog and from the discussion on his board about “hell”. So glad to have found you!! I just about gasped out loud when I saw Jack Hyles name in your post. The church/school I grew up in was BIG on Hyles. He was like a god to our pastor. We would travel from Colorado to Indiana every summer to attend Dr. Hyles “youth conference” held at the college. Brings back memories…

    It is encouraging to me to find people that have already traveled the path I find myself on. What Michael pointed out earlier, about most of your readers coming from fundy backgrounds and moving into Progressive Christianity, is true of me. I had never heard of “Emergent” or Progressive Christianity until last summer. I am learning SO much and clinging to the freedom it offers!

    It is refreshing to know I don’t have to “win” others to Christ, or adhere to the dogma I am slowly untangling from. It is a slow process. I am very much looking forward to hearing what you have to say about your move away from evangelism. It’s water to a thirsty soul.

    Stacey

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    • Welcome Searcher! I am glad you found the blog and hope you continue to find it helpful. Jonny has been my friend ever since I started blogging, even though we disagree on some things like the significance of Jesus.

      There are a lot of us fundies on this path together. It is sometimes frightening, at first, to cast off baggage we have believed to be the absolute word of God, but as the fog of fundamentalism thins the journey becomes more fulfilling than it ever was before!

      Let me know if I can help you in any way. If you have something private you can even email me at tchastain@cfl.rr.com.

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  7. Pingback: Why I Quit the Soul-saving Business | Jesus Without Baggage

  8. Lynn says:

    This is an interesting post. The things you were exposed to are quite different from the things I was exposed to in my early years. It’s an education for me to read this. It helps me understand just what the daylights is going on with some people who speak such a hard line regarding the Lord.

    Having only recently joined Twitter, I’ve been a bit shocked when I read tweets about how certain churches are so appalled that there are still isolated people in (name economically poor country here) that haven’t ever heard the name of Jesus Christ. They fly out there, across the globe, and tell them all about him – and then they feel they’re saving them. It freaked me out the first time I read this. I kept thinking, “And the God the “poor wretch” knows is not your God, they must be forced to use a different name, they must be forced to believe differently???” It upset me about the waste involved, the damage being done to confuse the convert. It gets me on my high horse about how many people they could REALLY help LOCALLY with the money they expend on a far-flung trip around the globe to save people who don’t REALLY need them. Locals here surely do need them to get enough food to eat and a safe place to live right here in America, and many of them already do believe in Jesus Christ.

    It reminds me of this quote I read the other day from the bible: James 2:14-17 Faith and Deeds

    14 What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? 15 Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. 16 If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? 17 In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.

    I don’t believe that their aggressive approach to conversion is what James was speaking of, I believe it can be taken more literal regarding the example cited. Being exposed to so many heavy-handed “Christians” on Twitter has been a shocker for me.

    Anyway, I digress, as I often do. 🙂 Looking forward to your next installment, which I see you’ve just posted. Will be on that one in the morning.

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    • Lynn, you are right that some Christians can be quite heavy-handed. I believe it is important to share the good news of Jesus (I will say more about that next week), but I think the aggressiveness and the guilt and fear used in this approach is harmful.

      You mention that this approach is different than what you were exposed to in your background. Can you share briefly what your background or church was?

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  9. Lynn says:

    Thank you for the feedback, Tim. The church I was raised in was Roman Catholic. I’m not an official practicing Catholic. I retain certain beliefs, but have concerns. A group that appeals to me are the more liberal Quakers, but I have not attended Meetings. I don’t know enough about many protestant faiths. I am presently not affiliated with any group. I just pray – & try to let others know that it’s okay to talk with God no matter where we are in life. 🙂

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    • Thanks Lynn,

      I am not big on labels, but sometimes knowing a particular church background provides a bit of context. And you are correct, this type of evangelism technique is not likely to be used in Catholic circles. It is more common in certain fundamentalist and evangelical groups.

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  10. Pingback: The Problem of Impersonal Evangelism | Jesus Without Baggage

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