Research in any field uses skills akin to those of a detective. The daily work of a researcher is to observe and make sense of data. Rick Mattson, is an InterVarsity staff minister who comes alongside graduate student groups to equip them in sharing their faith in contextually relevant ways in the grad context. He proposes that both research and witness involve becoming good detectives, whether paying attention to data, or what God is doing in the lives of people around us.
Most days I get one or more unwanted spam calls on my cell phone that I don’t answer. The scriptural call to “evangelism” can be similar. Often, we don’t answer that call because of the negative images we harbor of evangelism as hellfire preaching or as the obligation to share Jesus awkwardly with disinterested friends (perhaps turning them into former friends!).
And in higher education evangelism can be interpreted as “proselytizing,” an activity frowned upon as an unwelcome imposition of one’s beliefs on others. Thus, we can end up neglecting the practice of evangelism (or “witness,” as it’s called) altogether, perhaps falling back on the famous axiom, “Preach the gospel at all times. Use words if necessary.”
But I’d like to suggest a radically different way to think about evangelism, a way that leaves behind forceful preaching, awkward selling, and silence. In Reimagining Evangelism, Prof. Rick Richardson of Wheaton College paints a picture of God’s role and our role in witness. He says that we are members of the “Holy Spirit Detective Agency,” meaning that the Spirit goes before us, and our job is to act as detectives. Detectives, not salespeople. We’re in the business of doing research. We prayerfully ask questions of those around us, seeking to discern (detect) what the Spirit is already doing in their lives, then we step in and participate.
A graduate student I know in the Midwest, Kayla, discovered that Jesus was working in an unlikely place: the life of a skeptical friend named Monica. Previously, Monica had rejected the gospel message. But through sensitive, patient conversation and prayer, Kayla came to believe God was providing an open door for witness. So on Easter Sunday she texted her friend an encouraging psalm, then waited.
A few days later Kayla received a text back from Monica, quoting the same psalm and thanking Kayla for her thoughtfulness. Monica’s heart was changing from a posture of rejecting God to being open, because Jesus was active in her life. The two women have since begun studying the Bible together.
So if our starting point is God and his missional activity rather than our efforts and skills (or lack) in evangelism, we’ll begin to see people around us in a much different light. In Acts 16, for example, God calls Paul to the region of Macedonia, then “goes before” the apostle to bring Lydia to faith. Verse 14 is amazing: “The Lord opened Lydia’s heart to respond to Paul’s message.” No wonder Paul asks for prayer in Colossians 4: “Pray . . . that God may open a door for our message.” Paul knows who the true Evangelist is – the head of the Detective Agency, the one who opens doors. And, as Prof. Richardson states, we act as junior partners in that agency, called to step through open doors wherever we find them.
As investigators, how do we do it? How do we conduct research into God’s activity? One simple way is to ask questions, which Philip models for us in Acts 8: God leads him to the chariot of an Ethiopian official who’s traveling home from Jerusalem. Philip finds the official engaged in reading a messianic text from the prophet Isaiah, so he asks him, “Do you understand what you are reading?” Wow, what a great research question! The end result, after a Bible study in the chariot, is the conversion of the Ethiopian. Note that God appears in the story first, directing traffic (so to speak) and opening a spiritual door, while the human witness, Philip, arrives later and plays his designated part, which includes posing a strategic question that uncovers a soul primed to receive salvation.
Often as detectives we must take certain risks to discern the activity of God in human hearts. When I meet up with people I make it a regular practice to identify myself as a Christian by mentioning prayer, church, Jesus, the Bible – almost any Christian reference – to see what the response might be. I remember boarding a flight out of Missoula, MT, in February a couple years ago at an unholy hour. I’m not an early morning guy so I had to force myself to pray as I entered, “Lord, if you want me to witness about you to someone, go ahead and open a door. Otherwise, I’m taking a nap.” I was really hoping for the nap, to be honest, but I decided to take a small risk and say hello to the middle-aged woman in the adjacent seat. She responded by telling me of her weekend plans in L.A. I sighed and said a bit jokingly, “Lord Jesus, I need a miracle. Send me to L.A. instead of freezing cold Minnesota!” Somehow that little jest of a prayer led to an extended discussion of the woman’s spiritual life, which had been put on hold long ago.
High stakes witness
As a traveling evangelist for InterVarsity, I’ve had dozens of encounters like the one above, many of them with strangers at thirty thousand feet. But what of longer-term relationships, say, with colleagues and neighbors, where it seems more is at stake? If a stranger dismisses me, not a big deal. But if I witness to a co-worker who happens to take great offense at the gospel message and perhaps even to the messenger (me), I must still face that person every day in the office. So the stakes are high! Consequently, we may find ourselves holding back from witness to those we know best.
An important question, then: Do the same rules of detective work apply to long-term relationships as with strangers and casual acquaintances? I’d like to suggest that yes, they do.
Step one is to remember that God is at work in the heart and mind of every long-term friend we have. This belief is indispensable. Step two is to pray for discernment, a connection point, an open door. Step three is to put on the detective’s hat and launch into research, meaning, listening to the whole life of a fellow image-bearer of God. Myself, I like to ask the other person questions about vocation, hobbies, values. At the same time, I’m revealing who I am so that the exchange is mutual rather than a one-sided interrogation.
And as I listen broadly to the full range of a neighbor’s life, I want to listen in stereo, one ear attuned to the Holy Spirit, the other ear to the person before me. I’m trying to discern God’s leading. What does God want me to say in the present conversation? What’s my next line of questioning or personal sharing? What act of service or hospitality might the Spirit be suggesting I carry out?
The questions just mentioned are the ones graduate students that I coach in evangelism must also ask of the Lord. Most have a small circle of students and professors they see every day in their departments. As God’s junior partners, they must learn to discern the Spirit’s movement, “listen to the whole life” of the person close at hand, step into the divine process, verbalize their faith. It means connecting with God moment by moment, perhaps in off-site discussions with nonChristian associates at Happy Hour or lunch, on walks or in service projects. I remind them that long before they arrived, God began acting in the lives of their fellow scholars, and he’s calling them as God’s ambassadors to share the faith in the manner of Paul (to Lydia) and Philip (to the Ethiopian official).
Witness and fun
One of the main opportunities for long-term relationships for me is the golf club I joined in 2014 near my home in Minnesota. Warming up for a round of golf, I usually take time to walk up and down the practice range to greet friends and say hello to strangers. I’m an introvert so it takes an effort, but God goes ahead of me. I ask fellow golfers, “How’s your game? How’s your sore shoulder? How’s your wife doing with her cancer? Are you new to the club?” Then I tell them I’ll be praying for their needs, or I’ll actually pray for them on the spot, perhaps with a hand on their shoulder. Some guys have a faith of their own, some avowedly do not. In any case, a bit of initiative on my part to participate in the ministry God has already started has led to dozens of gospel conversations. And now that I’ve known many of the members for several years, there’s significantly more at stake when I bring up spiritual matters. So evangelism is riskier in that sense. But in a different sense evangelism is easier, because, after “listening to their lives” for so long, I’m able to discern something of how God is working. Not that I always get it right. I don’t. Human error is practically a constant. But while I might say too much or too little to this person or that, I find the more I practice evangelism, the more natural it feels. And the more I neglect evangelism and live in fear of rejection, the harder it is to even start.
As you think of what it means to participate in the Holy Spirit Detective Agency, what are your thoughts and feelings? You may think of yourself as inadequate for witness or have a real sense of fear and dread. Many Christians feel guilty for neglecting evangelism, but aren’t sure how to jump in. I’d like to offer the following checklist for self-reflection, or better yet, for discussion with a fellow Christian:
- Theology of witness: Have I come to the point of believing that God goes before me? That God is the chief evangelist and is working in the hearts and minds of my nonChristian friends?
- Prayer: Do I pray for spiritual discernment and for open doors in the lives of nonChristian friends?
- Detective work (research): Do I listen broadly to the lives of those around me? When I’m with them in person, do I listen “in stereo” to both God and the other person?
- Risk: Having walked through the first three items above, am I willing to step out in faith, enter spiritual conversation, and avail myself to God as his junior partner in the way of Paul or Philip?
In my view those are four crucial questions for self-reflection around witness. Strive to grow in them, and I believe God will employ you as a significant partner in his missional activity.
Rick Mattson is a national evangelist and apologist for InterVarsity, speaking at over eighty campuses the past few years. He lives in St. Paul, MN with his family. He studied at Bethel Seminary of St. Paul, MN, where he received his masters in the philosophy of religion. As part of his current duties he serves as evangelism coach for graduate students at several universities. Rick’s a committed family man and serious golfer. He is the author of two books: Faith is Like Skydiving and Faith Unexpected.