The following is an adaptation of the sermon ‘Talk to People!’ preached by Pastor Michael White on Sunday, 1/27/2019, at CityLight Church. To listen to the full podcast please click
We know from Week One that we have a responsibility to share the Gospel with other people. We know from Week Two that God will give you a specific group of people He wants you to reach with the message. Now, for Week Three in our Evangelism Series, I want to give you what I believe is the single most important principle for winning people to Jesus. Are you ready?!
Talk to people. You might laugh out loud at the apparent simplicity. But even though it’s simple, how often do we forget it? If you want to win people to the Lord, you have to start by talking to them first! It’s impossible to tell people about Jesus if you don’t talk to them!
I remember hearing about an Executive Pastor at a large church (20,000+ members) in South Africa. Whenever he hired new staff, he told them there was only one thing they had to do: only one thing that mattered for their job performance. Talk to people. TTP! The health of the church, he said, would depend on it. Whenever the church staff seemed to be forgetting that most important principle, he would threaten to come into the office and write “TTP” in giant letters all over the walls. The staff’s job was not to forget to talk to people; and as evangelists, that is our job too!
Talk to people is an important principle in the business world, too. If you want to be successful, you have to talk to people. Dale Carnegie wrote the first edition of his book, How to Win Friends and Influence People, in 1936. Warren Buffet, one of the richest people on the planet, credits that book with fundamentally changing his life. Carnegie took simple principles and explained their importance for everyday interactions, focusing specifically on lessons that would translate to the business world. Here is one of the most memorable quotes from his book:
“Winning friends begins with friendliness.”
It’s deep, isn’t it? But he included it because so many of us forget it so often! Carnegie wrote from a secular perspective: for him, “winning friends” means enlarging your social circle. But we can read it from an evangelistic perspective: winning friends [for Jesus] begins with friendliness.
Do you like talking to people? When you meet someone you’ve never met before, are you friendly? If the answer to one (or both!) of those questions is no, is it any wonder why you aren’t leading more people to Jesus?
If you want to be successful, you have to talk to people! Every job I’ve ever had has been the result of talking to people: I usually knew someone who could get my foot in the door, and then I secured the job by having an interview (i.e. a formal “talk” with people). When I met my beautiful wife Rachael, do you know how our relationship started? By talking to people. I had to open my mouth and say hello; and over time, our trust deepened and our relationship grew because we talked to each other! Do you know how my relationship with Jesus has blossomed? By talking to Him in prayer! Everything I have ever received that is worth celebrating has come about because I talked to people: TTP!
If you don’t like talking to people, you are missing out. David Burkus wrote the book, Friend of a Friend: Understanding the Hidden Networks That Can Transform Your Life and Your Career. He notes that small talk (i.e. “friendliness” or “talking to people”) is more than just polite. He says it is, “…crucial for your success in different spheres of life. And if you hate small talk and do your best to avoid it, you are just cutting yourself off from lots of meaningful social interactions.” 
If you want to win friends, you have to talk to people. If you want to win friends to Jesus, you should want to talk to people even more!
Becoming an Everyday Evangelist
Evangelism is not just a one-time special event. Contemporary church culture might suggest that evangelism is something we do once per year, with a bunch of other people, just to invite people to church. But evangelism is not just an event; it is a lifestyle. Are you “doing evangelism;” or are you becoming a supernaturally normal evangelist?
Can I tell you a dirty little secret? I am not a natural evangelist. The summer before we launched our Brooklyn church location, we did servant evangelism (our church’s term for street outreach) almost every single Saturday for two months straight. I remember standing on the corner of Manhattan and Montrose Ave’s in East Williamsburg, Brooklyn, handing out granola bars and church invitations. And can I be honest with you? I hated it.
I hated the feeling of putting myself out there and inviting random strangers to church, because many of them said no. I hated watching people laugh and snicker right in my face as I tried to tell them about Jesus. I hated the fact that, because we were in a trendy up-and-coming neighborhood, the most common question I would get was not, “Can you tell me more about Jesus?” It was, “Are the granola bars vegan?” Are you kidding me?!
But several weeks in, I had an epiphany. Why would anyone want to come to a church, if the person who was inviting them was absolutely miserable? If I looked like I was grimacing in pain as I tried to hand someone a granola bar and a church invite, why on earth would they say yes to my invitation: so they could come to church and look just like me?
I realized something that summer. If I was going to be successful at evangelism, I needed to develop a deep, supernatural love for people. I needed to be able to smile and start a conversation with a stranger without looking like I was in physical pain, or letting their response dictate my emotional state. I knew it was time to get good at talking to people.
If we want to get good at reaching people for Jesus, we can’t be afraid of simple conversation. We have to love talking to people!
Tasteful, effective evangelism is not about telling people something they don’t want to hear. It’s not about convincing them Jesus is Lord with a rational, intellectual argument. It’s about meeting them where they are, and inviting the Holy Spirit to move.
Again, I am not naturally good at this. It’s taken years of prayer to get me comfortable talking to people. It’s taken a daily request every morning for God to put me in conversations with at least one person whom I can tell about Jesus.
Do you know what I love about our team at CityLight Church? Our pastors and our staff are all different. We learn from each other in the areas where we’re similar as iron sharpens iron; but we learn even more from each other in the areas in which we’re different.
Pastor Mohamed is our Community Pastor. I count him one of my best friends in the world. And even though I’m not a natural talker, Pastor Mohamed is.
Pastor Mo is a big dude. Years ago, when we took all the men at the church bowling, I was sitting at the back of the bowling alley with Pastor Mo. We were in the middle of a conversation, and someone came up to us and asked him, “Do you know where the bathroom is?” “No,” he answered politely. Five minutes later, someone else approached: “Hey man, what time do you guys close?” Now I realized what was going on, and I started hysterically laughing. Everyone thought Pastor Mo was the bouncer! They assumed he worked at the bowling alley as security, so they were asking him all sorts of questions about hours of operations and where the bathrooms were located!
So now you know just how big Pastor Mo is. But do you know what? Pastor Mo loves talking to people. If you ever ride the New York City subway with Pastor Mo, you will see exactly what I mean. He will lock eyes with random people, just to give them a smile. Why? Because he knows something we should know: a smile can soften someone’s heart. A smile can open the door to a conversation about Jesus. A smile can result in someone giving his or her life to Jesus because of the conversation that follows. Dale Carnegie put it this way: “Actions speak louder than words, and a smile says, ‘I like you. You make me happy. I am glad to see you.”
One of the reasons I love hanging out with Pastor Mo is he makes me better. I do not lock eyes with people on the subway. In fact, I hate it when people lock eyes with me. Growing up, I hated that one kid in class who would always sit at the front of the room, but periodically turn around to scan the rest of the room and lock eyes with people. I don’t like the people in church who turn around and look at other people during the sermon. I’m just not built that way! But Pastor Mo is making me better.
And now it’s your turn! Are you a natural lover of people? When you meet someone new, are you naturally curious about their life? Could you care more? Or could you care less?
Along with being a pastor, I’m a black belt in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. One of the things I love about going to the gym is talking to people. I’ve never walked into the gym with the intention of preaching the Gospel; but I arrive in every day with a mission to talk to people and an invitation for God to move as I start a conversation.
Several months ago, I was talking with a friend on the mat after practice. He told me his older sister had been diagnosed with a rare form of cancer. I had a meeting scheduled right after practice, but I made a decision: right now, the most important thing I can do is sit here and listen.
He started to tell me how unfair this whole situation was. It didn’t make any sense. His sister was young. She was healthy! She ate well, and exercised often. She was a loving, devoted mother to her two kids. So how could it be, all of a sudden, that she was diagnosed with lymphoma?
I sat and talked with him for 15 minutes. He was blown away that I actually cared what was going on in his life. I told him I would be praying for his sister, but I didn’t stop and pray with him right then and there. I left the conversation beating myself up a little bit. Should I have been bolder? Should I have told him about Jesus? Should I have insisted that we pray – right then and there, on the spot?
Know this: God will use whatever you give Him. I left the conversation wondering if I could have done more. What I didn’t know, however, was this: about a dozen other people were listening to us as we had our conversation on the mat. When I got to the locker room, another guy came up to me. “I heard you talking up there,” he said. “What did you think?” I smiled.
As we talked, this guy started telling me his religious history. He grew up going to church; but at a certain age, he left. Why? Because he didn’t feel like anyone really cared about him. He had attended a big church, and he felt lost in the crowd. Leadership wanted him to get on board with their agenda; yet no one seemed to care if he even had personal hopes and desires. We talked for about fifteen minutes, and he promised to come give our church a try. He told me about a desire to get plugged into a men’s ministry, so we made a bro-date to go find one!
What happened there? I wasn’t trying to shove the Gospel down people’s throats. I simply made a decision to demonstrate compassion by talking to people, and listening to what they had to say. And in our culture, that is so different and abnormal that people took notice.
When you make a decision to love people through conversation, God will do the rest. Even if you feel like you missed it in one conversation, God will still use it all for good! Don’t worry about saying the perfect thing at the perfect time! If you just talk to people, God will use it all for His good!
The Woman at the Well
Do you know who loves talking to people more than anyone else in the whole world? Jesus!
In John 4, Jesus is in the middle of a missionary journey. He’s traveling with His disciples; and do you know what His main goal is? To talk to people! To tell them just how good God is!
So He came to a city of Samaria which is called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob gave to his son Joseph. Now Jacob’s well was there. Jesus therefore, being wearied from His journey, sat thus by the well. It was about the sixth hour. – Jn 4:5-6
Jesus is in the middle of a long day. It’s 12 noon, and He is tired. So he sits by a well and takes a rest. And watch what happens:
A woman of Samaria came to draw water. Jesus said to her, “Give Me a drink.” For His disciples had gone away into the city to buy food. Then the woman of Samaria said to Him, “How is it that You, being a Jew, ask a drink from me, a Samaritan woman?” For Jews have no dealings with Samaritans. – Jn 4:7-9
Jesus was exhausted! But even the King of Kings was never too tired to talk to people.
What’s also important here is that Jesus was crossing racial and cultural divides by engaging this Samaritan woman in conversation. Look how surprised she is (v 9)! At that time, Jews and Samaritans didn’t talk! They didn’t respect each other, and they didn’t want anything to do with each other! Yet here is Jesus making a decision to overcome the racism and classism at play by having a simple conversation. Remember that Jesus’ primary mission was to save, “…the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matt 15:24). But He was willing to put that mission on pause to introduce someone to His Father.
Jesus answered and said to her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is who says to you, ‘Give Me a drink,’ you would have asked Him, and He would have given you living water.” The woman said to Him, “Sir, You have nothing to draw with, and the well is deep. Where then do You get that living water? Are You greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well, and drank from it himself, as well as his sons and his livestock?” – Jn 4:10-12
So far, Jesus and this woman were engaged in small talk. Jesus was hinting at something deeper; but this Samaritan woman thought He was talking about a physical well! But all of a sudden, the conversation took a sharp turn. As soon as Jesus had the opportunity to give her the Gospel, He took it:
Jesus answered and said to her, “Whoever drinks of this water will thirst again, but whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him will never thirst. But the water that I shall give him will become in him a fountain of water springing up into everlasting life.” The woman said to Him, “Sir, give me this water, that I may not thirst, nor come here to draw.” – Jn 4:13-15
Wow. Just look at the way Jesus handled that conversation. Our typical Christian approach is to try and tell people what we think they need to hear. We come along with our Christian fire hose and start blasting people in the face with our opinion on everything from abortion to homosexual marriage. The consequence is that, instead of people knowing what Christians stand for, they only know what we stand against.
But Jesus didn’t do that! He didn’t force the woman to choke down something she didn’t want to swallow! He made her thirsty. You see, we (the church) come along with our fire hose; but Jesus reminds us that our job is simply to make people thirsty enough to want a drink. What would our conversations with non-Christians look like if, instead of trying to get them to see our point of view, we met them where they are and just made them thirsty for the things of God?!
Jesus had the invitation He needed. He told her He was the Messiah (v 26). He told her about salvation, and lovingly challenged her to live a life worthy of repentance. And do you know how she responded? She wanted to go and tell everyone about Him! In one conversation, Jesus made this unrepentant, unsaved woman into an evangelist!
And at this point His disciples came, and they marveled that He talked with a woman; yet no one said, “What do You seek?” or, “Why are You talking with her?” The woman then left her waterpot, went her way into the city, and said to the men, “Come, see a Man who told me all things that I ever did. Could this be the Christ?” Then they went out of the city and came to Him. – Jn 4:27-30
All of a sudden, the entire city wanted to meet Jesus. They knew this woman! They knew her story! And now they also knew that after one prophetic encounter with Jesus, she was completely changed!
And many of the Samaritans of that city believed in Him because of the word of the woman who testified, “He told me all that I ever did.” So when the Samaritans had come to Him, they urged Him to stay with them; and He stayed there two days. And many more believed because of His own word. – Jn 4:39-41
Your job is not to convince people to believe in Jesus with an intellectual argument or a theological debate. Your job is simply to talk to them, and invite the Holy Spirit to make them hunger and thirst for Jesus.
My Friend in the Park
Several months ago, I started going out and telling people about Jesus every week in Tompkins Square Park. Our church is in New York City’s East Village. It’s a neighborhood that has rapidly gentrified over the past two decades. Drug use and homelessness are epidemics. One morning in prayer, God showed me a vision of me, walking around Tompkins Square Park, and handing out invitations to church. He showed me a picture of myself, stopping and talking to people in the park, and asking to hear their stories.
Several weeks ago, I was out in the park. I was walking around, smiling, speaking in tongues, and asking God whom He wanted me to talk to. I turned a corner in the park and saw Joe from about 40 years away. Joe was sprawled out across a bench, drinking a beer and smoking a joint. I wasn’t sure Joe would want to hear what I had to say, but I knew the Holy Spirit was pushing me in his direction. I excitedly walked toward him. We locked eyes, and I swear I saw him roll his eyes at me from 40 yards away. But that didn’t bother me. I was ready to hear Joe’s story.
Joe asked me what I had in my hand. “Invitations to church,” I said. “I’m not interested,” Joe quipped. “That’s fine,” I replied. So I asked Joe how his day had been. How long had he been living in the neighborhood? I told him I was a pastor at a local church, and asked if there was any way I could pray for him. I didn’t try to sell him the church; I just tried to love him like Jesus.
Joe was brutally honest. “I hate the church,” he confessed, “But I kinda like you.” That was the only invitation I needed. I sat down on the bench next to Joe, and we talked for the next 25 minutes. He told me he had grown up in church, but had left because he felt like no one really cared about him (just like my friend from the gym)! Joe had been the victim of emotional abuse in the church, and sexual abuse in his home. All of this came out on a forest green bench in Tompkins Square Park, on one of the coldest days in January.
Eventually I noticed that Joe was losing interest in our conversation. I slowly rose to my feet, and placed an invitation to church on the bench next to him. “If you ever want to come to church,” I said, “We can go grab lunch after.” Joe’s response? “Not going to happen.” I smiled, and went on my way.
I left that conversation beating myself up again. Had I said the right things? Did I try to pray too soon? Should I have left the invitation on the bench for him, or was it too much?
I haven’t seen Joe since; but one week after our conversation, I got a surprise. We were having 21 days of prayer and fasting at our church, meeting every night for prayer at 7pm. The Monday after I met Joe, there was a knock on the door. A man I had never seen walked in. “I saw the light on. Are you having service tonight?” I explained to him that, while we weren’t having service, we would spend about an hour praying together. He smiled: “That’s exactly what I need.”
I asked him how he had heard about our church. He dug into his pocket and showed me a blue card. “I found this invitation on one of the green benches in Tompkins Square Park.”
God will use whatever you give Him. You don’t have to have the words for a perfect conversation. Just talk to people, and God will do the rest.
© Michael D. White, 2019. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Michael D. White with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.
 For more on this, listen to Week Four (next week) where we talk all about getting to the “Point of Prayer.”
 Carnegie, D. (1936). How to Win Friends and Influence People.