By Daniel H. King
In speaking to other people about our faith, all of us stumble at differ- ent times. It is difficult to do it well, but all of us can do it. All it takes is a small amount of effort and a little conscious effort at trying to do it right. Brother Otis Gatewood published his book You Can Do Personal Work in 1945. In his book, he wrote a chapter called, “What We Should Not Do.” He introduced the chapter with this important thought: “If we can learn what not to do and say, half of our battle is won. The idea that the truth offends most people is not true. Our unwise statements and unbearable attitudes offend far more than truth. Most people want the truth and will welcome it if it is presented correctly” (45).
Of course, brother Gatewood wrote in a very different time than our own, but what he says is still mostly correct. No one wants to be wrong. None of our friends or neighbors wants to be lost. Not a single one of them desires to stand before the Judge of all the earth and be told, “Depart from me . . .” (Matt. 7:23). They want to go to heaven. Many of them want to please God and someday be with the Savior. So, why cannot we say the necessary things to help them along their way to that goal?
Sometimes, as brother Gatewood says, our own foolish words and un- healthy attitudes get in the way. We can do better. Let me summarize a few of the points which are made so forcefully in this chapter of Gatewood’s little handbook on soul-saving and personal work:
1. Don’t begin with criticism. If we are not careful, we will become so accustomed to “skinning the sects” that we think the first task in teaching others is in showing our prospect where his religion is all wrong. Christ taught positively at first, then moved on to offer his criticisms at a later time (see Luke 4:21; Matt. 23:1ff). In both of Paul’s most critical letters to churches, Romans and 1 Corinthians, the apostle began with commendation, then worked his way toward condemnation: “First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for you all, that your faith is proclaimed throughout the whole world. For God is my witness, whom I serve in my spirit in the gospel of his Son, how unceasingly I make mention of you, always in my prayers . . .” (Rom. 1:8-9); “I thank my God always concerning you, for the grace of God which was given you in Christ Jesus; that in everything ye were enriched in him, in all utterance and all knowledge; even as the testimony of Christ was confirmed in you: so that ye come behind in no gift; waiting for the revelation of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 1:4-7). The Lord and his apostles seemed always to be able to find some commendable thing to say about people before they began to expose their faults or answer their objections. We ought to do likewise.
2. Don’t act superior. On this point I shall quote brother Gatewood, “I don’t know a more egotistical group of people in all the earth than some of us members of the church of Christ. We think we know more than other people, and anybody who is not a member of the church of Christ is just plain dumb, ignorant, or dishonest. We think we are right and everybody else wrong. Now this may be true, but we do not have to be so haughty and boastful about it” (49). The Bible says that the Christian ought to “esteem others better than himself” (Phil. 2:3); and, “For I say, through the grace that was given me, to every man that is among you, not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think; but to think soberly, according as God hath dealt to each man a measure of faith” (Rom. 12:3). We must be humble in our approach!
3. Don’t be dogmatic. If I am right about a thing, yet act so dogmatic and radical about it, I will kill the effectiveness of what I say. If I have come to be considered a person who is dogmatic about everything, who goes to extremes on most every subject, then most every statement I make will be taken with a grain of salt. Scripture says the Christian should be seen in precisely the opposite way: “Let your speech be always with grace, seasoned with salt, that ye may know how ye ought to answer each one” (Col. 4:6). People should hear our words as generally pleasant, and only on those matters which are critical to the cause of Christ ought we to “lay it on the line” and “take no prison- ers.” Then, folks will be ready to respect this side of our character as evidence of conviction and profound faith, rather than more of the same dogmatism and radicalism.
4. Don’t be ashamed to admit you do not know the answer. Whether about the Bible or religion in general, there are many things which are surrounded by mystery. So, do not make the mistake of giving people the impression that you are a “know-it-all.” No one likes such a person. And, this will take the pressure off you, as well. You should not be afraid to say, “I don’t know the answer to that question. But I am sure that if I spend a little time studying, that the Bible will provide the answer. Let’s talk about that next time.”
5. Don’t always try to answer everything the other person says. It is not compromising to admit that the other fellow is right when he happens to be correct about something. When someone says something that is true, commend him for it, and if possible, offer the scriptural justification for his point. It shows that you are trying to be objective and honest, and willing to admit it when he is right. Concentrate on just a few important things, not every point which the other person brings up. Many matters are not worth arguing about; some, on the other hand, are basic and fundamental to an understanding of many other things. Learn to draw a distinction between the things that matter and the things that do not. Talk about the important ones, and put off the insignificant ones till another time. If you never get around to them, what have you missed?
6. Don’t do all the talking. The Bible warns against this human trait: “Let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath . . .” (Jas. 1:19). Those who monopolize a conversation lose their audience! Don’t be a “motor-mouth”!
7. Don’t use too many passages of Scripture. It is much better to talk about a few Scriptures than a long list. Why? Because the mind can only retain a few things at once. If you only teach one passage, and get the message of that one across, you may prove very successful indeed. Philip concentrated on just two verses of Isaiah’s prophecy about the Messiah in his conversion of the Ethiopian treasurer (Acts 8:32-35; Isa. 53:7-8). Yet, he led him to the Lord and baptized him that same day!
8. Don’t get angry. Anger is the surest confession of defeat for a personal worker. Always remain under control, calm and considerate of others. It is a sure sign of Christian character. Brother Gatewood pointed out: “I have always found that kindness carries as much weight in the heated discussion as logical arguments” (57). The Bible says that “love suffereth long and is kind” (1 Cor. 13:4). Don’t get mad!
Don’t go out and do any of these things. But do go out and try to speak to someone about the Lord.