I do try, but I can’t seem to have much success or consistency.1 I often find myself hiding behind the excuse that “I’m an introvert.” But the real problem is that I am just not loving my neighbor as myself.
The task is made even more difficult when the people I am trying to reach are different from myself. I live in Montgomery, Alabama, the self proclaimed “Birthplace of the Civil Rights Movement.” However, there is hardly a place that more demonstrates the need for racial reconciliation than this city. So, within that cultural milieu, I try to build relationships and overcome the relational and cultural barriers between me and my neighbors. Those barriers are numerous and varied: racial, cultural, generational, and religious, to name a few.
As I have reflected, studied, and prayed about my commitment to personal evangelism, I have gleaned a few tips that have helped me overcome the relational barriers it takes to reach out to people, especially people different from myself.
1. Pray for both evangelistic opportunities and the awareness of them
I can’t remember how many times I have reflected upon a conversation and realized I had blown a genuine opportunity. I do pray that God will providentially provide opportunities for gospel conversations AND that I would have the awareness and boldness to seize the opportunity.
2. Ask questions
I sometimes find myself not wanting to engage my neighbors in conversation simply because I don’t think we have much in common. I am afraid of an awkward conversation or a long pause. So, one method that has helped me is to simply ask questions and listen. I don’t have to drive the conversation. Typically, people are willing to talk to you if you just show an interest in them. If they have children, ask about them; parents usually love to talk about their children. Ask about their work, or their family. Ask for ways you can pray for them. Ask about anything.
3. Listen closely
It’s not enough to simply ask questions; we also have to pay close attention too. This is important. Our neighbor needs to feel like we are actually listening. Listen for potential areas of need that you could help. For example, my wife and I learned that our neighbor was nearing the delivery of her child. We listened to her tell about her financial troubles and knew that she was concerned about the costs that come with a new baby. So, a very simple and thoughtful gesture was for us to buy a big pack of diapers for her. We were surprised to see how impactful such a simple gift was for her. Listening to her allowed us to know the best way to serve her.
4. Take notes
One of the barriers to evangelism is the relational effort it takes to overcome cultural barriers. A simple example of that cultural differences is my (in)ability to remember names. For example, as a white American I can easily remember names like Joe, Rob, or Tony. However, I have a harder time remembering names like some of my neighbors: D’Shonte, Marquez, and Quell. This is even harder when I try and remember names of people from other countries (e.g, Shang-Xi, Wicak (pronounced wee-chock), or Permantisari, friends I met as a missionary in SE Asia). A simple way that helps me remember tougher names is to say them in my head several times while I am still in conversation with them, sometimes even double checking my pronunciation of the name before I part ways with my new friend, and then making sure to immediately write down the name after the conversation is over. This allows me the opportunity to rehearse the names of the people I meet, accurately add them to my prayer list, and prevent me from making a fool of myself, or worse, insulting someone, by not getting their name right. If I don’t have a pen and paper handy, I have been known to text the name to myself or my wife so that I have a record of it somewhere.
5. Seek opportunities for fellowship
My neighbors have shown varying levels of interest in spending some time together. For those that are more distant, a little more creativity and persistence is needed. For example, I have a set of neighbors that really had no interest in speaking to me until one day they needed help in their yard. I offered to help them take down a big tree and cut it up. This provided an opportunity for extended conversation and opened the door for a better relationship to follow. Other neighbors have also opened up after I have volunteered to help them in other types of ways. Offering your time and effort to help them in some way is a great way to show that you care without the sometimes awkward invitation to a dinner party that they have no interest in attending.
Each of these is a simple way that I have learned to reach out to those different from myself. I don’t pretend to be a pro at this, and I am always considering ways to increase my effectiveness. But hopefully some of these practical tips will help you as you seek to reach out to those that are different from yourself.
1. I am assuming that every believer has some obligation for personal evangelism. Others might not agree. For a defense of evangelism as a responsibility for all believers, see this article.