Getting Off on the Wrong Foot

Photo by DDP on Unsplash

There is probably no one less qualified to talk about getting off on the wrong foot than me. I have not taken one step without the aid of leg braces and crutches in my entire life, so I know little about walking. It’s been more than a decade since I took any step. I do know the importance of footwork from my limited experience. If you want an adventure, walk on a wet tile floor, or step on a piece of ice while using crutches. The adventure usually ends on the ground.

Although I never played baseball, I have been a big fan all my life. I have heard infielders talk about the importance of making the proper first step toward a batted ball. As the Second Baseman looks at the batter, he learns not to make the first movement with his right leg if the ball comes to his right. Instead, he needs to crossover with his left leg, which allows him to get to the ball quicker. Getting off on the wrong foot often means a base hit for the opponent. Do it enough times, and the fielder is headed back to the minor leagues.

Success often depends on how we start. If we begin something by digging ourselves into a hole, we might never achieve the goal. This is what happens when Christians attempt to share the Good News of Jesus with others.

As a pastor, I attended nearly every evangelism conference and training provided by Southern Baptists. I began by marking the Roman Road in my Bible, so I could quickly flip through the pages. Then I graduated to the more advanced approaches of Evangelism Explosion (EE) and Continuing Witness Training (CWT). These are elaborate memorized presentations that allow even introverted believers to share the faith.

Let me confess upfront that even though I was equipped with the latest and best evangelism strategies, I wasn’t good at it. I couldn’t get comfortable talking about such important matters with a stranger; it seemed like the whole thing missed the point. This caused me a lot of guilt over the years. After all, I was the pastor, so it was my job, especially being a Baptist pastor. Sharing the gospel was the only reason for our existence.

Our church was small. Our community wasn’t much bigger than the church. I counted and concluded there were approximately 400 people in our town and the surrounding area close enough to be considered potential church prospects. On a typical Sunday, 50 of us would gather. On an especially good Sunday, it might even be 75. Our average was great!

But I could always count on being embarrassed when it was announced every year that thousands of Southern Baptist churches had fewer than two baptisms a year. That was us. Honestly, I didn’t know of anyone in our community who didn’t already know the message of Jesus, so what was I to do?

I’ve thought about this frequently over the years and have come to a conclusion. The problem is that every evangelism technique I was taught starts off on the wrong foot. The result is that we never get to where we want to go.

The famous question that initiates these personal evangelism approaches goes something like this: “If you were to die tonight and Jesus asked, ‘Why should I let you into heaven?,’ what would you say.” Even the older approach of using the Roman Road begins with identifying the person as a sinner (Romans 3:23) and that their destination is hell (Romans 6:23). Whenever questioning the approach, the frequent answer provided was the importance of convincing a person they are lost in order for them to get saved. This is the wrong approach for several reasons.

Incorrect Motive

What is happening is that we are frightening people in hopes they will be saved. It’s essentially fear-based evangelism. Fear is a powerful motivator, but it shouldn’t be used to make decisions about our spiritual life. The process is to scare people into making an eternal decision.

Over the years, I’ve heard a few what they used to call “Hell-Fire Sermons.” They consist of the preacher shouting out graphic depictions of eternal burning and explaining that’s where everyone is going because of sin. If you’re a sinner, and who isn’t, then you will roast in flames beginning the moment you die. There’s no time to waste; even if you’re young, you might be hit by a bus on the way home.

Fear is a powerful motivator. People can get extremely creative or aggressive when put in a fearful situation. People use it on us all the time to get us to act. The bill collector threatens your credit if you don’t pay, the boss suggests you might be fired if you don’t produce more, your spouse plans to leave if you don’t change behavior. The problem with using fear to motivate is that it doesn’t last. Either the problem goes away, or the situation becomes too stressful, so we give up.

Using fear as an evangelism technique is extremely shortsighted. It might be a good way to get an initial notch on the witnessing belt, but it seldom lasts. A small percentage of those who respond positively to the fear-based witnessing technique follow through with baptism, which is how many determine if it was a serious response. The fear that motivated the initial decision goes away, and nothing changes. That’s the problem with using fear to start the process.

Jesus instructed his followers to make disciples, not scare the hell out of them or scare them out of hell. If we want to offer something good to someone, the worst approach is to scare them. People have enough to be afraid of without adding God to the list.

Incorrect Understanding of God

A second problem with this style of evangelism is that it’s based on an incorrect understanding of God. The premise behind asking the question, “Why should God let you into heaven” is that God needs a reason not to send us to hell. That’s not the message that Jesus brought.

Jesus began His ministry with the announcement that it was “good news to the poor… release to captives… recovery of sight to the blind… and freedom for the oppressed” (Luke 4:18). Rather than following Jesus’ lead with a message of good news, we begin with a message of fear. Perhaps the reason is because of a failure to understand God.

God is not about the business of sending people to hell. Everything that God has done has been motivated by a desire to live in communion with man. One of Jesus’ direct messages was that humans need to change their minds (repent) about God and sin. Jesus introduced a quality possessed by God that had eluded humans for centuries. The concept of forgiveness was seldom addressed in the Old Testament. Even one of the most well-known Psalms acknowledging guilt for sin, the Psalmist claims he was born a sinner as he pleads for mercy (see Psalm 51). Note how the Psalm concludes with reference to God’s delight in burnt offerings. The purpose of burnt offerings was to secure atonement, a way to satisfy a God who had to punish something/someone for sin. After pleading for compassion and mercy, he felt a sacrifice was still required.

When Jesus showed up, the practice of sacrifices for sin was in full bloom. He came to reveal the truth about God that had been missed. God is forgiving. Imagine if Adam had confessed his sin and sought forgiveness instead of hiding from God. From what Jesus tells us about God, Adam would have been forgiven, and perhaps, allowed to remain in the Garden. I don’t know how God would have responded, but Jesus doesn’t talk about the anger of God. However, he does talk about the forgiveness of God. In fact, God’s forgiveness is behind everything Jesus was and said.

The primary message of Jesus is that God wants to have communion with us. He is the father, waiting for the prodigal son. Everything God has done was intended to create, continue, and contribute to communion with humans. After each element of creation, God made the observation that it was good. After creating the human, God declared, “it was very good.” From the beginning, the relationship between God and humans has been special.

If you want to introduce someone to a loving, forgiving, merciful God, beginning by telling them they are heading toward hell is a bad start. You will end up telling them about a God who doesn’t exist.

Incorrect Understanding of Discipleship

When people get off on the wrong foot in their relationship with God, it doesn’t end well. Jesus’ proclaimed purpose was to re-establish man’s relationship with God. The frequently taught evangelistic witnessing process presents God as not someone anyone would want to share an intimate relationship with. Suddenly they are given assurance that everything is good with God because they recited a suggested prayer. It’s not surprising that as soon as they are told they are saved from hell, they get on with life with no change.

To make matters worse, once people have assurance that they are good with God, they have little interest in spiritual matters unless life becomes extremely difficult. Reciting a “sinner’s prayer” is not discipleship. It’s nothing more than hoping the words will magically make everything right with God.

Even if the new convert sticks with the faith, the new life will be built on the lie that God is to be feared unless He is continually appeased. This might explain why there is so much legalism in Christianity. If God is potentially angry, we must be careful not to do anything to rekindle His anger toward us. If Jesus’ death was some kind of sacrifice that appeased an angry God, then we might find ourselves living like the Pharisees. Even though they made all the necessary sacrifices they believed God required, they still lived in fear of breaking His laws.

Once you start on the wrong foot, it’s difficult to get to the intended destination.

My father lost his leg on Iwo Jima, so he lived his entire adult life with an artificial limb. Like me, he knew the dangers of wet tile floors. Walking into an office building one rainy day, on the first step into the building, his leg slipped out from under him. Sprawled out on the floor in a busy foyer, he faced a problem. His artificial leg came loose, and in order to put it back on, he had to take off his pants. For the artificial leg to be useful, he had to start over and put the leg on correctly.

It might be time to rethink how we do evangelism and begin sharing a Gospel that is genuinely Good News.

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I'm a full time follower of Jesus, writer, book publisher, inquisitor, and skeptic. My goal in writing is to cause people to think about life and God.

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Terry Austin

Terry Austin

I'm a full time follower of Jesus, writer, book publisher, inquisitor, and skeptic. My goal in writing is to cause people to think about life and God.

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