Over the last few weeks, we have looked at evangelism from the perspective of three key words: celebrate, serve, and ask. This week we look at our fourth and final key word: exit. For all the words that have been written about engaging in evangelism, our last consideration takes up the final question from last week. What happens if you extend an invitation to someone and he or she shoves it back in your face? The answer is you exit the encounter.
Rico Tice, minister at All Souls Church, Langham Place, London, UK, tells the story of an encounter he once had with a neighbor. They were at the neighborhood playground watching their children play. As they were talking, Rico asked his neighbor if he would be interested in reading the Bible. His neighbor politely declined, and their conversation continued on as usual.
When I first heard Rico tell this story, my reaction was negative. “How could you give up so easily?!” But the reality is that Rico’s actions were far more biblical and reasonable than my reaction. For the rest of this reflection, we’ll consider the biblical grounds for exiting evangelistic encounters, the reasonableness of exiting, and some practical steps related to making an exit.
First of all, it is biblical to exit evangelistic encounters. As Jesus sends out the Twelve to proclaim the gospel message, he gives them plain instructions on exiting encounters in which the hearers do not receive the word. “And he said to them, ‘Whenever you enter a house, stay there until you depart from there. And if any place will not receive you and they will not listen to you, when you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them'” (Mark 6:10-11). The disciples were not instructed to strive endlessly with those who rejected the Word of God; rather, they were to proclaim the Word and move on if it was not received.
Paul followed this same procedure, which we see throughout the book of Acts. In the latter half of Acts, we read of Paul’s missionary journeys around the Mediterranean. As he moves from city to city, we read how he exited encounters. For example, on their first missionary journey, Paul and Barnabas traveled to Iconium. The book of Acts succinctly describes Paul’s exit from that evangelistic encounter: “When an attempt was made by both Gentiles and Jews, with their rulers, to mistreat them and to stone them, they learned of it and fled to Lystra and Derbe, cities of Lycaonia, and to the surrounding country, and there they continued to preach the gospel” (14:1-7). Paul and Barnabas remained to preach until their lives were sought. But this wasn’t a suicide mission, so they exited the situation and continued to preach elsewhere.
So, it is biblical to exit evangelistic encounters at whatever point the door closes. And when we consider it more deeply, there is a theological foundation that makes exiting reasonable. In the first place, exiting evangelistic encounters testifies to the fact that when God’s Word goes out from him, it never returns void but always accomplishes God’s purposes for it. How can God’s Word be said to accomplish God’s purposes if it is rejected? Paul answers this question in 2 Corinthians: “For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing, to one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life” (2:15-16). Your evangelistic encounters can be redemptive, or they can be condemnatory. Either way, God’s purpose is accomplished. That’s a sobering truth, indeed.
Second, as I preached last week, nobody has ever been saved by sheer logical reasoning. No amount of revelation apart from the work of the Holy Spirit in a person’s heart will bring that person to saving faith. If we refuse to exit evangelistic encounters, then we’re essentially placing ourselves in a place that is only proper to the Holy Spirit. This is an encouraging theological foundation. It’s not your responsibility to reason so effectively that you “win” someone to Christ. Do what God has asked of you, but leave the conversion to Him.
I’ll conclude with a few practical steps. First, know where the exits are. Be aware enough as you engage with someone to know how to exit the encounter. If you’re being shown the exit, take it. It’s much harder to exit graciously when you’re far along the road of attempting conversion by sheer logical reasoning.
Second, be mindful that what you’re called to do is exit a specific encounter. Paul returned to Iconium even after the town tried to kill him (Acts 14:21). Don’t write somebody off forever. Exit an encounter, but be ready to engage again as God gives you opportunity.
Finally, be gracious as you exit evangelistic encounters. Even in your exiting, you are a witness to the good news of Jesus Christ. If somebody slams the door in your face as you invite them to consider why your savior is so important to you, don’t begrudge the rebuff. “Bless those who persecute you. … Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all” (Rom 12:14, 17).
So, as you celebrate fellow image bearers by serving them, ask them simple questions to engage in evangelistic encounters. But don’t be afraid to exit, for it is a biblical and reasonable thing to do.