In 2016 I went on a mission trip to Provo, UT for outreach to Mormons. A couple of weeks later as we returned home, I was hanging out with my then-girlfriend when, suddenly, there was a knock on the door. It was a Sunday afternoon so it was a bit odd. When I opened the door I saw two women and noticed they were LDS sisters. God, in His providence, had provided a gospel conversation at my girlfriend’s doorstep a couple weeks after learning Mormon doctrine.
As I let them talk, I told myself I needed to take this opportunity to be perfectly honest with them. I asked them to explain the Mormon perspective of grace, salvation, Jesus, and the like. I knew I needed to say certain things that would deeply offend or upset them. And I did.
After I told them a few that things that were tough to say, one of them started to tear up. That pained me. The goal isn’t to make somebody cry. Though I was gentle and soft-spoken, the truth of what I was saying was enough to make her upset.
This is the point of our gospel witness here: you can be soft-spoken, gentle, and as compassionate as anyone, but the truth of the gospel will always offend. This truth doesn’t negate the point of being gentle and compassionate, but it’s a reminder that being gentle and compassionate doesn’t save anybody.
Why do I tell this story? I don’t use this example as a way to puff myself up; I simply use it as an example to show there are times to be soft-spoken and other times to be more up front. It all comes down to analyzing the situation. You don’t want to analyze too much or be too pragmatic, but it makes a difference. Ultimately, we do different things in order to glorify God.
I saw that these two women were open to discussing the matters at hand, so there wouldn’t be any ignoring. Additionally, I knew that LDS people are usually very nice and well-tempered, which meant I could probably say a few things that were hard to hear for them but knew wouldn’t make things escalate too much. More than anything, I knew I probably had this one conversation with them, so I had to proclaim the good news.
DON’T UNDERSTAND THE AUDIENCE
Like I said above, knowing your audience isn’t some magical formula. Usually, if you’re yielding to the Holy Spirit you will know how to speak, act, and respond. It will come naturally. So I am not saying to look intensely at the other person to figure out how to respond. The Spirit will help; follow His lead. But many times we’re not following the Spirit’s guidance when we evangelize. We rely on our own smarts and not God’s and Proverbs 3:5-6 gets thrown out the window. This is when we get offensive.
Part of understanding how to speak to the other person is recognizing the context. Where are you? Are you at a university, the local Planned Parenthood, or a busy sidewalk? Maybe you’re simply sitting down with a friend for a cup of coffee. How you speak depends on the context and the person.
Take for instance speaking with somebody—or many people—at a university. You go there every Friday morning when everybody is walking to class so you’re likely to strike up a conversation with somebody. How do you speak to them? It largely depends on how they speak to you first. Do they come off gentle and curious? Then be gentle and compassionate back. Do they come off as abrasive? At that point, I believe it’s appropriate to calm them down first but also be very straightforward, yet with a calm tone. A blunt answer with a harsh tone won’t solve anything, but a blunt answer with a calm tone might redirect the conversation.
I don’t mean to be the tone police—as I believe the culture places too much emphasis on tone—but it needs to be said: tone matters. You might have to say very difficult things, but if you do it in the correct tone, then the person will either be receptive or, at the very least, open to continuing the conversation. We shouldn’t create tension or animosity with our tone.
It’s very important to know your audience, which means knowing your surroundings. If I am not aware of the person I am talking to or the people in my general vicinity, I may come off as offensive because I’ve failed to present the gospel in the right tone. For example, you don’t want to walk into your local Starbucks with a megaphone and start yelling “Repent!” Not only would you be offensive (and obnoxious), but you would also make things awkward. If you’re in a coffee shop, grab your coffee, sit at a table, and be welcoming (Romans 15:7). There is an evangelist who has a cover on his laptop that says, “My name is Tony and I’m a Christian. Have any questions about spiritual matters? Have a seat. Let’s talk!” I think this is outstanding. It’s like a glorified gospel tract. They walk past, see it, and can decide whether to come talk or not. All you do is sit, sip your coffee, and be welcoming.
This article has been adapted from my forthcoming book Gospel Smugness: Displaying Christlike Character in Evangelism