This is my conversion story. Not my salvation story but the testimony of how I arrived at writing a whole book on changing how we view evangelism. Though at first blush this inkling of a thought might not seem significant to you, it landed me a teaching position at a highly prestigious seminary and has garnered an invitation to address U.S. Mennonite Brethren in July 2022.
Though not everyone will see an urgency for change, these ideas hold something pertinent for Christians everywhere. It breathes the air of potential and promise to foster gospel growth in any believer and any church in the land.
I became a Christian while in college. Enthusiasm over my newfound faith was off the charts! Within weeks I was spending my free time sharing my faith on a major university campus. You might say, I epitomized the committed gospel “teller.”
Three days a week we ventured out in pairs to introduce ourselves to fellow students with the goal of explaining the gospel. I loved it—it was my gift after all! But over years of seeing less and less fruit from those cold-call efforts and after more than a decade of planting two churches, something seismic shifted in my thinking. Actually it was a series of tremors that hit simultaneously like falling dominos.
Domino 1: How do we reach those who begin further out?
A major tremor occurred when a desperate Christian wife introduced me to her entrenched atheistic husband. She handed him off to me with a despairing look, saying, “I’ve tried, but I can’t get through to him.” Not knowing what to do, I did something right. I asked my new atheist friend, David, if he would be willing to meet each week to discuss our beliefs, or in his case, the lack thereof.
Then, as if one skeptic was not enough, God brought a second skeptic from a premarital counseling connection into my life. Since the invitation to talk worked once, I gave it a second try. Yes, both were open to meet. The intuition set in motion results I could never have imagined.
After meeting weekly for nine and six months, respectively, both individuals came to faith, and I stepped back to take in what had transpired. On my whiteboard, I diagrammed three progressions each skeptic friend had made. Later, I added a fourth. If it had only been one, I might not have seen it, but since God sent two to my door, these progressions came into focus. I noted how I would not have reached either one if I had not worked through sequential steps, if we had not made a journey through them together.
While studying John 4, the Samaritan woman’s words jumped off the page as a prophetic word to our time: “You have nothing to draw with and the well is deep” (4:11). With numbers rising for those who are irreligious to the point of not being open to attend a church, reaching spiritually distant souls felt like looking down a well without a means to draw. I asked: Do we have an evangelism paradigm that is conducive to reaching people who begin further out? Do we have enough relational tools to enable the journey of processing to unfold? This critique birthed my engagement model, the Relational Evangelism Process.
Domino 2: How do we re-enlist and re-equip our members?
At the time when God was opening my mind to where we might need to go with evangelism, I was on staff at a major church in California. The conviction for a new paradigm was fortified when I saw Christian friends “checking out” from evangelism. I bumped up against negative “roll of the eyes” reactions in outreach and compassion ministries and an overall rejection from church members to the way evangelism was widely taught. Most didn’t want to have anything to do with what I call the one-hit-wonder pitch to a stranger. Christians deemed the “telling” emphasis as unnatural and insensitive to people’s needs—and they didn’t believe it would work, either.
It broke me to hear the visceral dissing of something so close to the heart of the Father. I made one big conclusion: The way people perceive evangelism is our greatest hindrance. We must see evangelism differently—in a way that is authentic and effective, so we can believe in it again. From the blank stares of believers in my trainings, many who had little clue on how to go about reaching unsaved people around them, it was rather obvious that we needed another kind of knowledge as well.
Inspiration to close the “know how” gap came from defining a repertoire of skills. Bereft of mission skills, evangelistic opportunities right before us fall away. We parallel the disciples in John 4 off on a fellowship food run instead of Jesus who has a thrilling conversation with a lost spiritually thirsting woman at a well.
How do we get positioned relationally beside a nonbeliever? How do we connect and deepen relationally so influence has a chance? How do we open up meaningful dialogues? How do we share our faith in a way that is resonant? How do we break through in reaching them? The need to address each of these dimensions with viable skills became super apparent to me.
From one domino to the next, God began illuminating concepts I had never before noticed in Scripture. Providentially, what I had experienced with my skeptic friends became a lens to the dynamic mission pattern of Christ. From hermeneutical interpretation, I titled my book Soul Whisperer. I sought to capture how Jesus spoke pin-pointedly into each person’s life customizing his words to their particular needs and storylines. To make his way of reading others practicable, I named this skill “The Gospel Key,” since it deals with discerning a preceding message—one that opens a deeper dialogue on what Jesus has done for them on the cross. I concluded: There’s a key to the cross. (Wherever we teach this technique, God brings people to faith).
These tiny glimpses may give you a taste for what God was revealing and help to clarify what I mean by “influence.” In our relationship sphere, are we close enough to unsaved people to allow them to see our faith and hear our “good news” message so relevantly that they want to respond and live it? Emphasis is placed not so much on “the telling” but rather “the taking.” I offer a new way to engage evangelistically along with learning what is involved and necessary for the formation of faith, an “influence paradigm.”
The drive for making this change was not just about reenlisting members and increasing gospel efficacy, it ran deeper.
Domino 3: How do we reframe spiritual formation along mission centrality?
Jesus’s words to his disciples, “I have food that you know nothing about” haunted me (John 4:32). Food? In the metaphorical context, fulfilling his mission assignment was what Jesus lived on (v. 34). It nourished him. The notion laid me bare. Is the Father’s mission my food?
I observed how Jesus’ actions flow from his being, not like a tacked-on activity from a discipleship list. It mirrors the intimate relationship between a shadowing Son to a leading Father (John 5:19–20). It reflects closeness to the Father who sent his Son to achieve his work in the world. But it’s not just for him. Jesus conveys transference to us: “As the Father has sent me, I am sending you” (John 20:21), and “Whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing” (John 14:12).
Meditating on this left me asking: Do we have discipleship all wrong? Backwards? If spiritual formation is not about missional formation, then believers’ lives do not emulate the One they follow. Unlike our Master, the most mission-minded person to ever grace this earth, why are so many Christians isolated from nonbelievers? Why are we ill-equipped and ineffective at reaching others? Something is off.
Whereas we define a “disciple” by such criteria as Bible knowledge, righteous behavior and fellowship, Jesus saw it as the embodiment of his heart, actions, skills and fruit. Both Soul Whisperer and ReMission (ReMission is a leadership conversation on raising mission health in the body), delve into the spiritual formation deficiency that exists today, with the aim of restoring truer alignment.
Thus, as strange as this might sound, Soul Whisperer is my attempt to redeem evangelism. I set out to write a popularly styled, compelling and unpredictable script that would recapture Christians, re-enlisting them for the redemptive cause of Christ. In lieu of the traditional “telling” rendition, the revision espouses a relational approach that is respective of the hearer, giving attention to what is necessary to draw the person to faith: a paradigm that is deeper for believers, transformative of their lives and exceedingly more effectual in reaching others.
By addressing these questions, amid a doctorate program that required me to research and write, God has accomplished something I never dreamed—my whole ministry shifted to helping churches in their evangelistic-mission development.
The conversion is complete. I went from being a “teller” to an influencer. From a generalist to a specialist. From developing a conviction to a definitive calling.
From a simple-minded broken, searching student to multi-book author and voice for churches to retool and raise their game.
My name is Gary Comer. I am a recovering “teller.” I will be speaking at your upcoming convention. My heart and passion is for the gospel. I believe with my whole being that we can aspire to something higher in following Jesus. And, that our churches can be far more effective at equipping and raising their people to reach our neighbors, community and world. Join me in Kansas City this July. Till then!
Gary Comer is the founder of Soul Whisperer Ministry, an organization dedicated to helping churches develop missionally. After planting/pastoring two churches, Gary was hired by Sandals Church, a mega-sized younger, postmodern congregation in Southern California, as their outreach director. During that five-year stint, he also served as a church planting coach for the Christian Missionary Alliance and worked as an international mission trainer with Serve U International, while completing his doctorate at Talbot Theological Seminary, where he has served as an adjunct professor. He has written six books. ReMission: Rethinking How Church Leaders Create Movement and his first book, Soul Whisperer: Why the Church Must Change the Way It Views Evangelism, are considered signature works.