People often ask me, “Why can’t we just evangelize the same way Billy Graham did?” What’s wrong with a simple twenty-minute Bible talk? The hidden assumption here is that if it worked for Billy, it should work for us. Perhaps there’s also the feeling that we’re selling out on the gospel by not trusting the power of a twenty-minute Bible talk.

I’m old enough to have been at several of Billy Graham’s talks in 1979. I experienced it all—the twenty-minute Bible talk, the prayer of response, the choir singing “Just as I Am” as Billy made the appeal for people to come to the front. Billy even said his famous signature statement: “Come down . . . the buses will wait.”

The buses will wait.

What does that mean? It means that the non-Christians who came that night came on a church bus. If you were a non-Christian at a Billy Graham talk that night, you didn’t walk in off the street; you came on a church bus. You came with a community of believers. Two-thirds of the people on that bus with you were believers. You adopted the plausibility structures of the believers on the church bus. So when Billy gave his Bible talk, the good news of Jesus was believable.

Rico Tice, a gifted UK evangelist, talks about three cultural phases of evangelism in the West. The first phase was in the late twentieth century, the time when Billy Graham was giving his talks. His audience was Christianized. Even though they weren’t believers, they had Christian friends and had grown up in Sunday school. Billy’s talk only had to be twenty minutes because he was asking them to believe what they already knew to be true.

The second phase was in the early twenty-first century. Here the audience sort of knew the gospel. But they also had “defeater beliefs” that stopped them from believing this gospel. For instance, what about other religions? What about science? What about evil? Here our job was to remove these defeater beliefs and clear the way for them to believe the gospel.

The third phase of evangelism is where we are now. Today, our audience is in a completely different universe. They don’t know of the gospel. They don’t even know why they should care. It’s of no relevance to them. And deep down, they suspect that the gospel is a tool of oppression used by those who used to be in power. They are hermetically shut off from the good news of Jesus.

This is why we need to merge our universes. It’s one of the most powerful ways our friends can come into contact with the gospel.

Flipping the Sequence

It used to be that when Billy Graham came and preached about Jesus, people heard the gospel and believed. Then they would be plugged into a church to find belonging. When they joined the church, they received instruction from the Bible on how to behave. The sequence was BELIEF → BELONGING → BEHAVIOR.

Now that we are in a post-Christian age, the sequence seems to go the other way. People first find belonging with Christians. They make friends with our Christian friends. They play soccer with us on our church team. They come to the playgroup that meets in our church building. Soon they start behaving the same way we do. They sign up for our rosters. They volunteer with us. They join one of our small groups to start reading the Bible. Eventually this leads to belief in Jesus. The sequence now seems to be BELONGING → BEHAVIOR → BELIEF.

We can look for ways to help our non-Christian friends find belonging with us. Then we can try to do things with them. By doing things together, they might see things from our point of view and gradually also want to share our belief.

Chan, Sam, and Ed Stetzer. 2020. How to Talk about Jesus (without Being That Guy): Personal Evangelism in a Skeptical World. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

Check out our Bible Study on Sam Chan’s book How to Talk About Jesus. It is on Amazon as well as part of the Good Questions Have Groups Talking subscription service. Like Netflix for Bible Lessons, one low subscription gives you access to all our lessons–thousands of them. For a medium-sized church, lessons are as little as $10 per teacher per year.