In defence of cold-contact evangelism

I was listening to the podcast at the Blazing Centre blog which included a snippet asking the question ‘is cold-contact evangelism a good idea?’ (the segment begins at 27:45). I could empathise with the general conflict the contributors were having. All seemed to agree that, on the one hand, folk who engage in cold-contact evangelism are actually out there doing something. On the other hand, nobody wants to be that person who, without so much as a how do you do, presses random strangers into answering the question ‘if you die tonight, where will you spend eternity?’

Nonetheless, I was left a little cold by the discussion. There were lots of caveats about how the Lord can use any method if it is done prayerfully and with good intentions, how those doing cold-contact evangelism were trying to be faithful and how we should be slow to criticise methodology. Yet, the overall thrust of the conversation seemed to be that cold-contact evangelism was generally ineffective and, frankly, a bit weird. Excepting a few gifted individuals – and even then this was generally in response to questions and interactions in cafes and shops – all the contributors were skeptical.

I was especially disappointed at the closing comments of the segment. A dim view was taken of those who say ‘if we don’t go and tell people the gospel, who will?’ The contributors argued such comments smack of arrogance and a sense in which gospel success depends upon us. Whilst none of us should be arrogant, and of course we must rely on the Lord going before us, it strikes me the ‘if we don’t, who will’ line is precisely the argument of Rom 10:14f. Though it is a work of the Lord, He has appointed the means by which people will hear and graciously includes us in his work of salvation. The context in which the contributors made these comments sounded like the argument of hyper-calvinism and those seeking excuses to avoid evangelism altogether.

Church attendance figures for the UK suggest only 6% of the population attend church regularly. When one considers that not every church included in that 6% will be gospel-centred or bible-believing, we are left with an even lower number of people hearing the gospel inside church buildings. At best, we must conclude that 94% of the population are not coming into church with any regularity nor sitting under the sound of the gospel in church meetings. Inside our own buildings, we are primarily preaching to the converted. Most Christians agree, if we are going reach the world with the gospel, we must go to where the people are and it is evident they are not in church.

There are a variety of ways for us to reach people. We can put on events and services to try and attract people into the church. Though this is becoming increasingly difficult, and it is often hard for the church to attract people with things the world can usually offer without the gospel input, there are still those can be attracted to what the church can offer. It is also worth remembering that godly, gospel-centred community – our love for one another and our unity with one another – are specifically things scripture says will attract the world. Alternatively, we can begin to join clubs and societies in order to build friendships with those we meet. Over shared passions and interests, we can build bridges and share our faith in natural ways with those we meet.

All those things are great and each have a place in the mission of the church. But, if we limit ourselves to these things we essentially only reach those prepared to come into a church (which is, nowadays, very few) or those people like us who share our interests or with whom we are already friends. We are still left asking who will reach the people Romans 10 talks about? Paul isn’t talking about those with whom we’re friends or those we are in contact with already, he asks who will go to those who have nobody to tell them the gospel? In modern UK society, with only 6% of people coming into any sort of church regularly, most people reside in this Romans 10 bracket.

It strikes me that cold-contact evangelism is one of few ways we can meaningfully reach these people. I do not mean accosting people in the street apropos of nothing, I mean pointed and intentional evangelistic activity taking place outside of our church buildings. That may be open airs, doing questionnaires, distributing evangelistic leaflets or any number of things. Whatever it is, it will involve an intentional desire to share the gospel with those who would not otherwise come into church and with whom we would not otherwise come into contact. That is what I mean by cold-contact evangelism.

There are, no doubt, good and bad ways to do cold-contact evangelism. But asking people in town to do a questionnaire on their beliefs or their understanding of the Christian faith doesn’t strike me as any more weird than market researchers or charity fundraisers doing the same. Equally, an open air speaker is no more intrusive and odd than any other street act in a city centre. It is no more unnatural to offer a tract to someone who has listened to part of an open air than it is to offer them a leaflet explaining more about some goods they just looked at in the shop window.

Again, nobody wants to be obnoxious or arrogant. Most people want to avoid becoming a weirdo wearing a sandwich board proclaiming judgment and shouting at people through a loud-hailer. Very few people want to be so crass as to accost people with questions that are not particularly pertinent in the most unnatural way. Even the majority of Christians, who probably think about these things more than most, do not spend every waking moment thinking about where they will spend eternity when they die. To expect a stranger to meaningfully engage with that question as they are caught on the hoof is unlikely to bring them into a relationship with Christ. But, of course, when we talk about cold-contact evangelism these are really not the things we are talking about.

I think the question of how we will reach those people with whom we wouldn’t ordinarily have any contact is one of the most pressing for churches today. Folk are simply not walking into church buildings with any regularity anymore. Christians – like everybody else – have always engaged their passions and interests and shared their faith with whomever asks them about it. So the people in church, and the people in our clubs and societies, are the people we have always been reaching on some level. The question remains: how will we reach those we don’t know? 

I think cold-contact evangelism – that is meeting and talking to people whom we wouldn’t ordinarily engage with the specific intention of sharing the gospel with them – is a means we can credibly do this. The burden of proof is on those who wish to reject cold-contact evangelism to provide a credible alternative for reaching people we wouldn’t otherwise meet. Organisations such as United Beach Missions, Open Air Mission, Campus Crusade for Christ and others would all speak against the idea that cold-contact evangelism is ineffective. Even if we wish to argue that some of these missions are not ‘cold-contact’ per se, seeking to establish relationships for gospel work, they nonetheless aim meet people we wouldn’t ordinarily meet with the expressed purpose of sharing the gospel with them. It is at least ‘cold-contact’ during the time we are beginning to establish relationships and we are building those bridges with a clear sense that we are Christian workers sharing our faith.

It is often the case that we are too timorous with the gospel and we hide behind an ethereal sense of what is, or is not, culturally appropriate in order to shy away from the great commission. We must ask ourselves honestly, are we really avoiding cold-contact evangelism because it’s ineffective or is it because we’re too scared to engage people with their need of Christ? The evidence points to cold-contact evangelism – as with every form of evangelism – being effective when it is done well and with the right people. If the method is effective in winning souls for Christ – the great awakening, the work of C.H. Spurgeon, the work of Billy Graham, multiple mission organisations and my own personal experience of open air evangelism all suggest that it is – we must have a really solid reason to say we’re not going to do it. 

To be honest, ‘it might come across weird’ may not cut it.

3 comments

  1. Thanks Steve. We were at a church in London that did it well. They did door-knocking in their parish by delivering letters the week before to the relevant streets to say they would be coming round to chat. If people definitely didn't want to talk, they could stick the letter in the window and the church would leave them alone – there's no use annpying people who don't want to listen! The vicar also preached in front of Sainsbury's with members of the church being a listening crowd. People came to church and were later converted because of hearing him preach or speaking to someone on their doorstep. I started off unconvinced, but that convinced me that it can work well! It is easier with Anglican churches because people aren't worried you are a cult – they often know you are their local parish church!
    Thanks for the thoughts.
    Alison

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  2. I grew up doing open air work and door-to-door. I don't do the latter anymore as it has rather been ruined by JWs and charity folk but, to be fair, I do know of places that continue with it with decent results.

    Nonetheless, I know of no way to reach as many people, with as many quality conversations, in as short a space of time as in open air work. That is why we've started one in Oldham. Did our first last month and had loads of great conversations.

    If you ever wanted to join us, we'd be glad of the support 🙂

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  3. This is a good reminder that it’s not so much about the methods we are using but about getting out there and sharing the Gospel in the first place….I have heard of stories of conversions through the Judgement Day sandwich board preachers though so I don’t think we should write them off completely….Thanks for the post!

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