6 Ways to Mess Up Witnessing to Strangers

6 Ways to Mess Up Witnessing to Strangers in Personal EvangelismAt the bus stop where I was wasting time, a friendly evangelist took the time to talk with strangers, a form of evangelism often called contact evangelism.

I watched and observed and wondered — would I like to be talked to in this manner?

How to destroy the moment.

I admire the woman for taking the initiative to talk and share.  In witnessing to strangers,  she did more than most of do.

I also trust the sovereignty of God to use the words and the tracts this evangelist shared.  God is faithful to His word no matter how it is scattered.  God is more sovereign than our ability to mess up a presentation.

My observations are not faulting her efforts, but my reflections on what I’d do differently.

I think there are lessons for all of us in witnessing to strangers and it spurred me to think about how I talk with strangers.

6 Ways to Mess Up Witnessing to Strangers

1.  Interrupt a person’s private thoughts.

The setting was a bus stop.  Most people stay silent while waiting an indeterminable time for the bus.  Or they will use their phone to talk with friends.  While silent, it’s a time for people to think, plan, pray, worry, organize, etc.

She sat next to a gentleman and simply declared: “I’d like to tell you something” and she started into what she wanted to share.

He had to snap out of whatever mental process he was in to engage this stranger who wanted to talk with him.

There are appropriate times to initiate a conversation with a stranger.

Phillip did it with the eunuch.

But a simple declaration is probably not the best way to interrupt somebody’s thoughts.

2.  Slightly aggressive body language.

This may be hard to communicate in words, but as I watched this lady share her faith, I noticed her body language.

  • Leaning into the conversation
  • Eyes slightly squinted with eyebrows furled
  • Rapid and short hand movements for emphasis.
  • Dramatic pauses and emphatic words — almost like some preachers.

While she may have been relaxed in talking with strangers, her body language was not.

It communicated an aggressiveness that likely reflected the urgency she felt to communicate.  It may also have mirrored how her pastor communicates.

She was in charge of the presentation and her body language emphatically said so.

3.  Monologue

I watched her talk with two people that afternoon.

First, she picked another woman waiting for a bus and asked if this woman had kids.  That was one of two questions asked and answered.  The rest of the time, the evangelist was sermonating with her rapid hand movements and emphatic declarations of truth.

In her monologues, she would ask yes / no questions, and then not even wait for an answer.

The second gentleman could only nod.  There was no time to answer any question.

It appeared to me that he wasn’t really paying attention, but watching the traffic and nodding occasionally to her rhetorical questions.   You know how when people multi-task in front of you — they are not fully listening.  So it appeared with this man.

Each of her monologues went 10-15 minutes, with nothing but one “Yes” from the first woman who had kids and a Yes from the gentleman.

She had the bible and used it, but instead of asking the other person to read, she read it to them and kept talking.

4.  Pick a moment when your audience is trapped.

We’re at a bus stop, so it’s not like people are going to leave.

Your audience is trapped.

The first woman broke out of the trap by getting on the next bus that showed up — that was going in the opposite direction!

For this bus route, this would take her nearly 1 hour out of her way.  People only make that kind of sacrifice when they feel trapped and a need to escape.

5.  Answer questions not being asked.

Her tract was entitled “Why you can trust the Bible.”  Her monologues attempted to answer that question and she referred to the tract and to the Bible regularly.

But from the reactions of the two people she spoke to, I couldn’t help but wonder if they were even asking that question while wondering when is the bus finally going to arrive?

Imagine the random thought stream of a person waiting for a bus:

  • I’ve got to stop by the supermarket to pick up a head of lettuce.
  • Do I have my bus fare?
  • Is John coming for dinner?
  • How can I go to the beach this weekend?
  • Is the Bible reliable?
  • I need to get my glasses fixed.
  • Oh, this weekend, I need to get this shoe repaired.
  • What will I do if my husband blows his paycheck on beer?

The evangelist didn’t ask if this was even a question on the minds of the two people she spoke to.  It was an assumption on her part, and I think it was an adventure in missing the point.

6.  Ignore body language that says “I’m not interested.”

As I watched both people she addressed, their defensive body language  indicated to me  little interest in what the evangelist shared.

  • Looking away to see if the grass grew an inch.
  • Looking at other cars and taxis passing by.
  • Waving at people in passing cars.
  • Not looking at the Bible while the evangelist read.
  • Nodding politely, while not looking.
  • Leaning slightly away from the evangelist.
  • Shuffling feet (restlessness?)

The evangelist didn’t see any of this.  She continued with her sermonating anyway.

Let me ask you this?

What are some ways that you have messed up in your conversations in witnessing to strangers?

Would you add any to this list?

(Photo Credit: ClearlyAmbiguous)

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  1. says

    I would have to say that my biggest problem with evangelizing usually involves not doing the two things you’ve already emphasized that this woman neglected to do: ask more questions and really listen to the whole answer. As the saying goes, no one cares how much you know, until they know how much you care. When I fail to ask questions and/or listen carefully to the response, I’m not showing that I care and respect that person and the presence of God already within them.

  2. Jeff Gehbauer says

    Interrupt a person’s private thoughts – She sat next to a gentleman and simply declared: “I’d like to tell you something” and she started into what she wanted to share.
    MY COMMENT: Need to be courteous and respectful. Also, I would say something other than I “need to tell you something.” I like sharing, but I normally feed off someone else saying something that that gives me the opportunity to share … 9 times out of 10, I am not the initiator of the conversation.

    Slightly aggressive body language – you gotta relax and make it a COMFORTABLE CONVERSATION for the person you are talking to. Sounded more like a sermon than a conversation … people do not want to be preached at. They want a relaxed conversation in which the person they are talking with is “real” with what they are saying, not like it is the Sermon on the Mount.

    Ignore body language that says “I’m not interested.” – sounds to me like this evangelist is just “hunting for trophies”. Treat people with respect and show that you value their time and involvement. I see none of that being done here. That is a major turn off and will get people backing away in a big hurry.

  3. Lindsay Van Sickeln says

    I cringe when reading this post as I have vivid memories of being trapped as folk would try to share their faith prior to coming to Christ. On the other side of things, I’d say I’m most guilty of Monologue… part of this is nerves and silence being an enemy not a friend. Not watching a person’s body language that shows distance rather than connection.

  4. says

    This goes together with picking a moment when your audience is trapped…. If you’ve done that, you have also picked a moment when you and your audience are anonymous. You will likely never see them again. Even if they call the smudged number on the back of the tract, it will get them a recording of when your church’s worship services are held.

    We’ve only got one example of something like that in the Bible and it was Phillip and the Ethiopian. God personally told Phillip to go, out of his way, and walk alongside a moving chariot. The person he shared with was already reading the Bible! And Phillip stayed with him long enough to baptize him, meaning this man already saw himself as part of the community of Christ!

    Anonymous “soul winning” just isn’t the way to do it.

  5. Tamara Topping says

    Christ should be our model in witnessing to others. He spent time getting to know them….he knew what to say and when by appealing to their needs and that means…LISTENING! WE are not taught how to do this. We are taught to talk, walk, read, write…but not to listen. Its in listening and praying for the Holy Spirit to guide you in showing the love of Christ. I understand the desire to share quickly when you only have a few minutes, but it’s often portrayed as something needing to be checked off the list. We need to earn the right to share, and that takes time.

  6. Gerry says

    The old expression “two ears, one mouth” is applicable here. Listen twice as much as you talk.
    Ground breakers are very important, whether you comment on the weather, or pass a comment on a news worth item: initiating a conversation and encouraging the person to talk about themselves is the key. We have a wonderful 2″ coloutful pin which is a picture of an incredible stain glass window above the pulpit in our church, which I wear on various jackets from time to time. It is a great ice breaker as people ask what it is or represents. That’s a gotcha!
    A sincere…and I emphasis..sincere compliment helps put people at ease and gets them talking about themselves.

  7. says

    you’ve all made some great observations. There are times where interruptions are appropriate.

    I was with a friend in Atlanta last week that “noticed” a guy slouching against the wall of a local pharmacy. That noticed turned into a burning “You’ve got to go talk to him” urgency.

    They had a conversation about Jesus in a way that very meaningful to the guy leaning against the wall.

    The art is noticing people, and then gracefully engaging in a conversation.


  8. Cynthia says

    A very good example of someone attempting to spread the gospel. This person maynot be aware there is a better way. This reminded me of how Apollos help and how help came along side. Acts Ac 18:26 And he began to speak boldly in the synagogue: whom when Aquila and Priscilla had heard, they took him unto them, and expounded unto him the way of God more perfectly.

    I hope we will all this

  9. Mernell says

    You are so correct. I hate my thoughts to be interrupted. It would have been appropriate to first observe the person’s interests and start the conversation from there. We need to depend more on the Holy Spirit to guide us while evangelizing.

  10. says

    I put up some new thoughts this morning at
    This post on talking with strangers..
    It looks at the number of “stranger” encounters that Jesus had.
    @Cynthia: You’ve hit the right goal of what I hope to accomplish — helping people grow in their skill.
    @Mernell: Let me ask you to tease out your thought a little more. How can you observe a person’s interests if one hasn’t started a conversation?
    @Gerry: Do you have other “conversational openers” that you like to use?


  11. Barbara says

    An elderly friend of mine saw a man at the grocery store who obviously needed a ride home. She offered and he accepted. As soon as he was in her car she began by asking if he knew Jesus and then (from the way she told it) went on much as the woman in your story. When asked what his response was, she said he just kept saying, “You can let me out here and I’ll walk the rest of the way.”
    I don’t think she won him over. But at the same time, she tried, and that’s more than I do. I wish there was a way to always know what to do and say to reach others for Christ. I sometimes remember to pray asking the Holy Spirit to give me the words (and courage) to approach someone and witness to them, but usually I don’t even think of it until later.

  12. says


    Thanks for sharing the story. There are boundaries that we need to respect in our conversations.

    One thing I have learned is that we can learn from every conversation. We might mess up, but God’s sovereignty is greater than our ability to mess it up.

    But we can learn from our mistakes by taking the time to debrief our conversations.

    That’s the kind of coaching I do and those who take the time to interact with me on those conversation learn how to be more prepared the next time. With a growing confidence people learn to think on the fly a little faster and with more appropriate responses.


  13. Maria says

    I had someone (Pastor) tell me that if I didn’t speak in tongues I was going to hell. He also said I wasn’t really saved. Boy the guilt I felt for years (this was back in 1987).

    I had another Christian tell me, (a leader in a non-denominational church) that my finances are headed for a trainwreck and when that happens I will come crying back to the church. I need to pay tithes that is why I am not blessed.
    Boy did I feel like a failure. ( I Just went through a divorce, raising grandchildren and I just got out of the hospital and was off work for 2 and a half months)
    How the pain in my heart went deep.

    I only know that I wanted someone to show me LOVE, GODs LOVE, I was alone and I just wanted someone to say to me , “I love you and MEAN IT” I needed a “hug” not condemnation. I needed someone to show kindness not condemning words. I needed someone who really cared and was concerned for me during this difficult time.
    Where was the christians that told me I was there family???? No phone calls no visits.

    To me action speaks louder then words.

    The foundation for wittnessing is LOVE and if you have LOVE then it will show and sometimes LoVE is never having to say a word.

    LOVE will win the lost into the Kingdom of GOD because LOVE never fails.
    Acts of LOVE is;

    A gentle touch or hug to someone who is hurting, this speaks more to them than words

    When you see someone who has no food and you bring them a bag of groceries and set it on their doorstep, this speaks more to them than words.

    When you jsut sit and listen to someone who has just gone through a tragedy, this speaks more to them than words.

    When your standing in line at the grocery store and the lady in front of you seems stressed out and her children are hyper and this lady didn’t have enough money for the groceries so you hand the cashier $20.00 to cover the bill and just smile at the lady, this speaks more to her than words.

    When you see some children in the neighborhood that are running around with no shoes on and the clothes they are wearing don’t fit anymore, so you go to the store and buy some clothes and shoes and take them over to there house, this speaks more to them than words.

    Love never fails, when people see the true LOVE of GOD being shown to them, then they will want to know more about this LOVE, then you have the mercy and grace to wittness such a great LOVE that was shown to you the day you were born again.

    The world is selfish and self-centered the world does not know LOVE.

    JESUS had compassion for the multitude and healed them all, Jesus raised the dead, Jesus forgave sin, Jesus fed the poor, Jesus ate dinner with the sinners, Jesus washed the disiciples feet, Jesus shed HIS blood, and Jesus hung on a cross all to show HIS LOVE, HIS acts of Kindness. WOW what LOVE HE showed.

    Sincerely, Maria

  14. says


    Thanks for sharing your story. I’ve had similar experiences in my own story so I feel the emotions behind it.

    Let me ask a follow up question:
    When LOVE is demonstrated, how does the other person know our motives? How does the recipient of our act of kindness KNOW that we are motivated by our LOVE for Jesus?

    Thanks again for dropping by and sharing. My question is one of curiosity, not challenge. . .


  15. Maria says

    I wanted to clarify something I said. I do believe we are to wittness and speak to people the Word of GOD, but I believe it should be the HOLY SPIRIT leading us to do so. When the HOLY SPIRIT is speaking through us then you can’t go wrong. When a person tries to witness in the flesh then that is where the attitudes, anger, finger pointing, judgement, pride etc.. manifest and people are turned away. Though I know GODs merch and grace will help us when we mess up.

    LOVE draws people in, maybe not at first but it will eventually. GOD is LOVE and HIS Spirit is in us and if HIS Spirit is in us then HIS LOVE is there so if we practice WALKING in HIS LOVE then we will be better at wittnessing when the time comes.
    Sincerely, Maria

  16. Maria says

    Chris, that is the beauty of it all. They don’t know, they only know that the LOVE or act of kindness shown to them is not the norm. They know that people are only out for themselves and that this act of kindness is different from what they know. WHY? Because this act of kindness never asked for anything in return, this act of kindess was FREE, this act of kindness is from a total stranger, So then the person is drawn to what made this person show them this kindness or LOVE, Then this opens the door to share JESUS in a real way.

    Look at JESUS HE always met the need of other people, HE always GAVE of Himself. He put others before Himself. We are to imitate HIM and what better way to imitate Jesus by being HIS HANDs and FEET.

    Sincerely, Maria

  17. says

    @ Maria,

    You’ve made my point:

    “So then the person is drawn to what made this person show them this kindness or LOVE, Then this opens the door to share JESUS in a real way.”

    What I think many fail to do is take that second step — sharing JESUS. If we only show LOVE but don’t explain our faith at some point, we’ve missed the point and the recipients of our action can draw all sorts of conclusions and make guesses as to what it means.

    Every person has the capacity to show love. My athesist friend, my Hindu friend, my Buddhist friend, my agnostic friend.

    What difference does it make to the recipient of our action unless we can explain why our faith motivates us? How does our action set us apart from anyone who does random acts of kindness?

    Of course my friends can explain their motives just as well, so the recipient still needs to be drawn to the Love of God that is found in Christ.

    Thanks for chiming in.

  18. Maria says

    I wanted to add something. When Jesus first started HIS ministry, HE went around showing the people who HE was by HEALING, Miricles, etc…

    After HE began showing HIS LOVE through HIS ministry then the people were drawn to HIM. When people heard about what HE was doing they wanted to see who this MAN was. Who would want to heal people, who would want to feed the multitudes. who would want to raise the dead, who would want to forgive a prostitute, who would want to give HIS life for other people? Because of HIS LOVE being demonstrated it was drawing the people in.

    SO if we show the same LOVE that JESUS showed, one by one we will draw the people in.

    Sincerely, Maria

  19. Maria says

    Thank-you Chris,

    I didn’t realize that point, about the non-christians friends and there love. I was so blinded by my own hurt that I left out the most important part and that is where this wonderful LOVE came from.

    I wanted to so desperately to show others love that I focused on myself and the acts of LOVE that I ignored the ONE who gave it to me.

    Thank-you for being honest. I will grow from this.

    Sincerely, Maria

  20. Todd says

    I once heard that when I do acts of love without a verbal witness it points to me. People think, “Wow, what a nice guy!” When I do acts of love with a verbal witness it points to Jesus. I think that is what I read you saying, Chris.

  21. says


    Yep, you got it. My atheist friend is a nice guy who loves to fund clean water projects and serve in Habitat for Humanity. He’s a great guy.

    We both do nice things, for different reasons.


  22. Tammy R. Thompson says

    Interesting and True,

    I enjoy evangelism and our church is engaged in what we call “street witnessing”. I do believe we miss Matthew 28 a bit when it says “Go ye therefore”. What this really means is therefore, as you go…tell others about the good news of me…when you are in the store, work, play, game, etc. share the news…be ready when the opportunity arrises.

    I know that others have a set approach, however, I do believe you can not script this too much…you must first know the message and be flexible and adaptive to change the course at any given moment. I ususally change my approach depending on the person I am in contact at the moment. I like to personalize most engagement, unless I am speaking to a group then that would be different, however one on one requires you to deal with just that one. You are right in your article. Jesus does tell us to compell them, however, it is more about the attitude first in which we Evangelize…then the attitude will drive the actions.

    Sometimes, I start the conversation off simply building the relatinship…then I move in depending on the person. When I want them to do more talking, I ask open-ended questions. When I want them to talk less, I ask closed-ended quesitons. Sometimes I simply say, “What are some special prayer needs you may have or that the family may have? or Are there any special prayer needs.” Then, depending on what they say, I proceed from there. I never like to invade people’s private time…this is why we have to be guided by the Holy Spirit and not simply Evangelize because we have a mission to get 10 people to evangelize on the “2nd Saturday in September”, etc.

  23. Vicki says

    Chris, I am a new moderator of an Evangelism Team in a very traditional Presbyterian church. Our team is five (six with Christ) strong. We are currently studying our mission and methods. This conversation is so “right on” for me. Our mission for October is to involve our congregation. Evangelism is the business of the whole church not just the Evangelism team. We sponsored a fellowship time on the “veranda” (on the sidewalk outside of our church space; we meet in a space in a “strip mall”) Our invitation to the congregation was to include Christ in the fellowship after worship, and to take a minute or more to invite Christ home with them. We also wanted the community to see us (helped somewhat by balloons tied to some of the table; we gave them to the children as they were leaving) We will be following up with conversations with Christ through prayer, and we want to put together a sheet of questions to measure the results at our first evangelism team meeting in October on the 7th. We need help with how to look at the event and measure its success. I will be sharing with the team the bus stop example of “what not to do”. Thank you Evangelism Coach.

  24. Tammy R. Thompson says


    What a wonderful analogy. We work for God and he tells us that the only way to him is through his son. SO we have nothing else to do but promote his son. In promoting his son, we do exacly what he did as he did. Love, no greater love than this than a man lay down his life…by this all men know that ye are my disciples if we have love one with the other…we are told to love our enemies and our friends -are they not the same. We were put here to love and when we love we share…what do we share. Jesus, was born of a virgin, lived and taught us how to live, died on a cross, rose from the dead, assended to heaven…before he left, he told us to continue the things be began to do and to teach.

    Coach, I love the analogy of you and your atheiest friend…both do great things, yet there is a major difference.


  25. ErikJon says

    You the man, Coach!

    I am so glad to have stumbled across your website. I have been trying to do in Venezuela exactly what you have already been doing for years in many more places than I. Can I write you to ask for some tips, once in a while?


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