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The psychology of evangelism

If you consider how Jesus shared good news with people he adopted a tailored, bespoke approach. He did not start at the same place every time. He listened both to the leading of the Spirit of God, and he listened to the needs of the person in front of him. This is good psychology. Jesus addressed different issues each time. He asked the blind man "what can I do for you?" He told the woman caught in the act of adultery "you are forgiven." He asked the rich young man to "sell everything you have and follow me." He told Zacchaeus "come down immediately. I must stay at your house today." These were unique people in unique situations and Jesus addressed the issue of their soul whether it was acceptance, belonging, self reliance, or forgiveness.


The word psychology comes from the greek word psychē which is translated as "breath, spirit, soul" and the greek word logia, meaning "study of" or "research." It is the study of the soul. Rather than it being a purely secular term, it is a much more holistic approach. Some scholars believe the term and practice was introduced into mainstream European thought by Philip Melanchthon, the first systematic theologian of the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century.


In the 20th century one of the best well known psychological theories is Maslows Hierarchy of Needs. Abraham Maslow first developed his famous theory of individual development and motivation in the 1940’s. The chart below explains his theory. There is a progression of needs.

Looking at this diagram you can see how it works. Each person has a presenting need whether it is basic like food, or psychological like belonging. In order to reach deeper and go higher, we often have to address the basics or soul issues. If you consider how Jesus did it, he often connected with people through healing and deliverance (a physical and emotional need addressed), he then spoke of some deeper truth.


A great example of this is the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4. She was physically thirsty. She felt excluded and shunned due to her many "husbands." She was a Samaritan and looked down on by the Jews. These are physical and psychological issues. What did Jesus do. First of all he associated with her rather than adding to her sense of exclusion. John 4:7,9 says:


"When a Samaritan woman came to draw water, Jesus said to her, 'Will you give me a drink?' ... The Samaritan woman said to him, 'You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?' (For Jews do not associate with Samaritans.)"


Making a connection is key. People often accuse the church of preaching at them, condemning them and excluding. Jesus had reason to do this with the Samaritan woman. Culturally he was a Jewish rabbi and as a man would not be seen associating with a person like her. However Jesus breaks down that barrier first before moving onto anything else.


He then begins with an every day topic like water and thirst, using it as an illustration for deeper truth. The story unfolds in John 4:10-12:


"Jesus answered her, 'If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.'

 'Sir,' the woman said, 'you have nothing to draw with and the well is deep. Where can you get this living water? Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did also his sons and his flocks and herds?'"


Jesus treats her with dignity then provokes something deep within her, introducing a theological conversation. He does not feel the need to over explain or uncover her lack of knowledge, he simply taps into her soul need. He tells her in verse 13-15:


'Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, 14  but whoever drinks the water I give him will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.' The woman said to him, 'Sir, give me this water so that I won't get thirsty and have to keep coming here to draw water.'"


Jesus began with physical needs, our thirst for water, then turned the conversation towards living water and eternal life. He first accepted her, breaking conventional rules and societal norms, then addressed her deep needs, beginning with something natural and moving to the spiritual.


I suspect this conversation happened fairly quickly, not more than twenty minutes. And we do not know if Jesus spoke to her again. Yet he listened to both the Spirit (using word of knowledge about her relationships) and listened to her soul (answering deep unanswered needs to belong and know truth). This is good psychology.


If we have a one size fits all approach to evangelism we will lack the ability to reach people at a deeper level. If we try to address spiritual issues without first assessing the physical and psychological we will probably hit a barrier and wonder why we don't go deep.


Become a good listener, to the Spirit and the person. Do what Jesus did, take a tailored approach. The best way to grow in this, is to do it, and get better. And notice that Jesus trusts God to grow the seeds of faith in her (she actually becomes an evangelist in her own right). As we walk and talk with God we learn to walk and talk with people, its simple but complex and that is the beauty of being reliant on God's leading.


If you have real examples of this in your own life, I would love to hear your stories, I am sure they would encourage people, feel free to get in touch.

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