By All Possible Means
Faith Coaching as an Approach to Evangelism
Sharing God’s kingdom is at the heart of Christian ministry. For those in ministry, God has called us to proclaim the good news and equip others to do the same. Even so, too often we understand the work of evangelism as something better left to the experts (evangelists) or undertaken by only one method (lifestyle, personal, confrontational, etc.).
The apostle Paul challenges us to understand evangelism as a “by all possible means” work (1 Corinthians 9:22). While the good news of Christ’s work is true and unchanging, our means of sharing can vary. The New Testament has examples of different approaches taken by believers who wanted to share and bring others to faith.1 Likewise, ministers today embody this call to evangelize in ways as unique as their gifts and the circumstances in which they encounter lost people.
Faith coaching is one approach that can enhance our efforts to evangelize by all possible means. Coaching offers tools to help people receive the gospel and move forward in faith, including: listening, asking questions, exploring options, goal setting, identifying and removing obstacles, and offering encouragement.2 Through the particular lens of the Parable of the Sower in the Gospel of Matthew, I present ways we can successfully apply coaching skills to gospel-sharing conversations.
Seed and Soil
“ ‘A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants. Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop — a hundred, sixty, or thirty times what was sown.Whoever has ears, let them hear’ ” (Matthew 13:3–9).
In the Parable of the Sower, the “seed” is the good news of God’s kingdom shared by Jesus and His disciples. When the farmer sows the seed, it falls in different places with differing results. Here are practical ways we can use faith coaching to address conditions in which evangelism occurs and support efforts to bring people to Christ.
Sown along the path
“ ‘When anyone hears the message about the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what was sown in their heart. This is the seed sown along the path’ ” (Matthew 13:19).
When we share the good news and people do not understand it, this is like seed sown on the hard-packed path. The seed falls to the earth but has no opening in which to germinate and grow. So the evil one can snatch it away.
People harden themselves to the gospel for various reasons: from cynicism to fear to shame. Satan seizes any hardness of heart as an opportunity to steal the good news before a person can receive it. The coaching approach is one way to engage in relationships where there is not openness to receiving the Word of God. Coaching recognizes that sometimes the first work is preparing the soil.
One minister took this approach in a relationship he developed with Terry, a congregation member’s son. Terry’s boss fired him from his job under allegations of wrongdoing. Terry’s parents were concerned for their son, who was not a believer and had a long line of failures. The first time Robert and Terry met, Terry let Robert know he was not interested in being preached at. Robert took a different approach from what Terry was expecting. He invited Terry to tell him his story and Robert listened carefully. Terry noticed Robert seemed more interested in asking questions than in telling him what to do.
As their relationship grew, Terry began to drop some of his tough exterior. He began to look forward to visits with Robert, one of the only people in the community who did not seem to be embarrassed by him. Terry began thinking about things differently and sharing some of those thoughts with Robert. One day he mentioned his growing fear.
Robert: “What are you afraid of?”
Terry: “I’m afraid I’ve missed my chance.”
Robert: “Missed your chance for what?”
Terry: “For the kind of life I want.”
Robert: “And what kind of life is that?”
Terry: “I don’t like what people think about me. I want a life where people trust and believe in me.”
Robert: “What would it take for people to trust and believe in you?”
Terry: “I would need to be honest about the mistakes I have made and the pain I have caused. I am not as bad as some people think, but I have made some selfish choices. I do not want to keep being the person who always lets people down. Lying about my mistakes is not helping me to be the person I want to be. I am starting to understand that. But I am afraid people have already given up on me.”
Robert: “Hmm.” [Thinks for a moment.] “May I share something with you?”
Terry: “Of course.”
Robert: “When I first met you, you were in a really different place. I can see today how much you have changed and how much more you want to change. God is working in your life. What do you think?”
Terry: “I do feel like things are changing for me, but why would God want to work in my life?”
Robert: “God has not given up on you.”
Robert shared the gospel with Terry, and Terry decided to follow Christ.
The coaching approach Robert took with Terry helped open Terry to receive the Word of God. Among other things, Robert’s approach built trust through listening and genuine care, enlisted permission or buy-in for scriptural truths, and minimized the divisive impacts of jargon.
The coaching approach to evangelism embraces the admonition to “be quick to listen, slow to speak” (James 1:19). In Robert’s relationship with Terry, listening helped build trust and prepare the soil to receive God’s Word. Listening did not condone Terry’s behavior, but it did show Terry he was valuable and worth hearing. Likewise, Robert’s approach to ask instead of tell showed his genuine interest in and concern for Terry.
When Robert shifted from asking to telling, he asked permission first. Asking permission honored the trust he had built with Terry. We cannot coerce people into faith in Jesus. Just like Terry was free to reject Robert’s offer to share, he was free to take or leave Robert’s perspective.
Finally, Robert’s approach shows the value of using language that is meaningful to the person being coached (PBC). Theological training and immersion in the life of faith equips us with technical language, called jargon. Language such as “sin,” “atonement,” “salvation,” “blood of the Lamb” may be deeply meaningful to us. In our own appreciation of the richness of our doctrinal, theological, and scriptural language, we sometimes forget that this language is foreign to nonbelievers. More common expressions such as “hurts” or “mistakes,” a “desire to make things right,” or “find more meaning” are entryways.
Sown on Rocky Ground
“ ‘The seed falling on rocky ground refers to someone who hears the word and at once receives it with joy. But since they have no root, they last only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, they quickly fall away’ ” (Matthew 13:20,21).
When my husband and I planted our first blueberry bush, I could not wait for it to bear fruit. It spit out a few berries and I was delighted. Later, when I purchased more blueberry bushes from a master gardener, she told me to pick off the flowers the first season. “Young plants need to put their energy into strong roots,” she explained, “so in the long run they will be healthier and more productive.” In the years that have followed, I have learned this truth firsthand. In the midst of droughts, that first bush suffers the most and, in spite of being oldest, is my least-productive plant.
Sometimes people hear the good news and begin to grow in relationship with Christ, but the evil one, or even their own rebellious nature, fights the gains of the gospel. With only shallow roots, it is easy for people to suffer under and fall away from God. The coaching approach orients us to the long view of fruit bearing by encouraging root growth.
One way the gospel takes root in people’s lives is by connecting to the knowledge or experiences they already have. We can use coaching to identify ways in which the PBC is fragile in their faith, take steps to protect the new growth, and connect them to nourishing resources.
Here is a sample of faith coaching questions that help encourage and deepen root growth:
- Looking back, where was God already working in your life even before you recognized Him?
- How do you recognize when you are separated from God? Or, How would you name sin in your life?
- Who or what stands in the way of your relationship with God?
- What things will change in your life if you are going to follow Jesus?
- What do you see as the impact of those changes?
- What challenges do you anticipate? How will you prepare for them?
- What does the voice of the Holy Spirit sound like in your life?
- Where do you find your ear most tuned to the Spirit’s voice?
- What options/resources do you have?
- Who do you know who can help you?
- What will you do differently?
- What can you see now that you could not see before? What is still unclear?
Growth at the roots strengthens the relationship with Christ and produces “fruit that will last” (John 15:16) in the life of the new believer.
Sown Among Thorns
“ ‘The seed falling among the thorns refers to someone who hears the word, but the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth choke the word, making it unfruitful’ ” (Matthew 13:22).
I have a weed growing in my garden. I remember noticing it growing among my strawberries when it was small and leafy. I thought, I should pick that. When it got big enough to be bothersome, I grabbed it with my bare hands and tiny thorns I had not noticed before sent shooting pains into my fingers. Several days later I went out with gloves, but found it too difficult to uproot. The thorns were big enough to poke through the gloves if I gripped too tight. By that time it had also flowered. It was not too unsightly, so I left it. I learned the hard way about weeds going to seed. It only took a few weeks for these intruders to overwhelm my strawberry plants.
Thorny weeds act as barriers to light from above and nutrients from below. They compete with healthy plants; and, if we do not remove them, they will slowly (or not so slowly) choke out growth. Unchecked, they are both difficult and costly to remove.
Coaching questions help identify the barriers and the things that compete with the gospel while also tapping into the motivation and will to remove them:
- What habits or practices do you have that are inconsistent with God’s hopes for you or what you believe?
- What are the costs of changing them? The costs of not changing them?
- What can you do today?
- What things particularly tempt you not to choose God?
- Where can you find the strength to face them/avoid them?
- On a scale of 1 to 10, how much do you want things to be different?
- What motivates you? What gives you courage?
- What are you willing to do?
- What worries do you carry with you?
- What options do you have for dealing with them?
- How do you know when you are being deceived? When you are deceiving yourself?
- To what truth do you do not want to admit?
Coaching also encourages a proactive, do-it-now approach to moving forward and facing obstacles. Weeds, like obstacles, are much easier to contend with when they are small.
Sown on Good Soil
“ ‘But the seed falling on good soil refers to someone who hears the word and understands it. This is the one who produces a crop, yielding a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown’ ” (Matthew 13:23).
Sometimes we sow the good news in soil that is ready to receive it. A coaching approach recognizes we must nurture growth in relationship with God in ways appropriate to what is unique and wonderful about each person. Just as a coaching approach helps people take an honest accounting of the sin that separates them from God, coaching also helps take an equally honest assessment of the unique strengths and gifts they have to leverage in a life of faith.
As pastor of a small church, I often met with the close-knit youth group. Casey was the visiting friend of one of the group. She did not fit the profile of these rural youth who had grown up together. She and her family had moved to the area from a different state, a fact apparent in everything from her style of dress to her accent to the way she stayed quietly outside the conversation and activity.
A transplant myself, I had compassion for her. I also admired her for the courage to keep coming back. During an overnight retreat, I learned that, even more than courage, Casey had a deep desire to put on new life in Christ. Her challenge was to capture the vision of what fruit bearing would look like for her. Together we asked, “What unique gift does God want to bring into the world through you?” and “If there were no limits, what would you offer to God?”
I could not have imagined or prescribed what would blossom in her when she began to profess faith in Christ. Casey knew she was different. With her new understanding of the body of Christ, however, she began to see the unique gifts she had. She also began to hear, through the voice of the Holy Spirit, God’s plans for her life.
Coaching helps support people who are envisioning and pursuing God-sized goals and encourages them to rely on the work of the Holy Spirit to empower their growth.
Evangelism I Can Do
I hear this comment consistently from ministers and church leaders who are introduced to the faith-coaching approach: “This is evangelism I can do.” Perhaps that is because the coaching approach, as described here, offers another accessible tool for joining in work to which we feel a call. The personal work of evangelism happens in a larger context of God’s saving work in the world. Paul reminds the church at Corinth: “I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow” (1 Corinthians 3:6,7). In my experience, I have played many roles in sharing the good news. Sometimes I have planted seed; sometimes I have helped work the soil; sometimes I have given attention to the roots; sometimes I have helped remove the weeds; other times I have helped nurture fruitfulness. But it is God, by all possible means, who makes things grow.
1. Becoming a Contagious Christian, by Bill Hybels and Mark Mittleberg, is a resource for looking at evangelism styles and how to use them effectively.
2. See Faith Coaching: A Conversational Approach to Helping Others Move Forward in Faith by Chad Hall, Bill Copper, and Kathryn McElveen.