SNEAK UP ON THEM
T. Pierce Brown
Having been involved in doing and teaching personal evangelism for almost half a century, I have discovered that there are basically three philosophies concerning how to approach a person about the salvation that is in Christ Jesus. These philosophies have also carried over into preaching and writing articles.
One philosophy is what we may call “The sneak-up-on-them approach.” It works this way. If you are knocking on doors to set up Bible studies, do not tell anybody that is what you want. Start off with the idea that we are in the neighborhood taking a survey. It does not really make too much difference what kind of a survey, just as long as it opens the door to an opportunity to eventually set up a Bible study. Those who take this approach seem to think, “A little hypocrisy is not too bad, for it is all for a good cause.”
Several things are wrong with that, but among them is the fact that when the prospect finds out that you have really been deceiving him, you could not give him a gold bar. No matter how well meaning you may be, nor how badly he needs the riches of the gospel that you have at your disposal, he does not want it from you. And perhaps even sadder, when he finds you are connected with thechurchofChrist, as far as he is concerned, we are all smeared with the same brush.
No doubt all who read this have heard (and many have preached) sermons like that. No one could tell for sure where you were going when you started, and few could tell for sure where you had been when you finished.
The second kind of approach is the opposite extreme. It is usually not quite as severe as we may here picture it, but basically it is this philosophy: You must let everyone to whom you speak or for whom you write know in the first few seconds that if one is not a member of the body of Christ (otherwise scripturally known as The Church of Christ), he cannot be saved. Also, your purpose is to convince him that he is wrong, and must change his way of thinking to your way of thinking (which simply means to accept the Bible as his guide) very shortly, or he is either dishonest or stupid, or both.
It is a well-known fact that a person who tries to take the middle of the road approach may easily get run over by people going in either direction. The story of the soldier in the war between the states who wore blue pants and gray coat, and got shot by the South in one end and by the North in the other is probably appropriate for one who is unwilling to take a stand, and who is willing to compromise and be on both sides of every issue.
But it should also be pointed out that the peerless and fearless Apostle Paul took neither of the positions mentioned above. If you look at his masterpiece of a sermon on Mar’s Hill in Acts 17:22-31, you will see that although one who is not very perceptive might say he was “sneaking up on them,” for he did not tell his conclusion in his introduction, there was nothing deceptive or hypocritical about his approach, and when he finished two minutes of talking, they knew more about more subjects than most of us cover in two weeks.
What I want to try to make as clear as I can is that it is not improper to try to gain attention by starting with a point with which a person is interested. If a piece of literature comes in the mail to a person who is prejudiced against anything connected with religion, it will not matter what is inside, if the outside immediately tells him it is religious in nature, he will not open it. So, without being hypocritical (or sneaking up on him in any bad sense), it is appropriate, yea, desirable, to gain his attention with some short message that may appeal to his needs, desires, or interest. Paul did this in Acts 27. Peter did it in Acts 2, and we have no doubt every inspired writer or speaker did it in all their messages. The principle is basic in teaching. You start where a man is to teach him to get to where he is not. You teach from the known to the unknown. You start with a man’s present need or interest to get him to see a need he has not seen and be interested in something in which he now has no interest, or to which he may be actively hostile. This is entirely different than trying to “sneak up on him” with some strategy which he will discover as you continue. It is also different than merely “speaking to his known needs.” If you are like Jesus, Peter and Paul, you help him to see needs that he did not know he had.
By some kind of reasoning Paul could have been called a “middle-of-the-roader” or compromiser of vital principles. Such is not the case. When he had Timothy circumcised (Acts 16:3), it could be called a compromise. But we desperately need to know the difference between compromising on some insignificant action and one that is crucial to the gospel. The circumcision of Titus would have been a compromise with the teachers of false doctrine of Judiazing teachers (Galatians 2:3). Paul did not run with the fox and bay with the hounds. Peter may have been guilty of that sort of thing, for though he always taught the right thing (being controlled by the Holy Spirit), he did not always practice what he preached.
Those who almost always want to preach and teach in such a loving gentle way that no sin is condemned, and the vilest of sinners is left feeling no guilt, can find in the life of Jesus things that they think will justify their action. The story of the woman caught in the act of adultery is a case in point. But it gives no such license.
On the other hand, those who wish to almost always preach in a critical, denouncing, harsh fashion can point to Jesus in many situations, such as Matthew 23 and make it appear that the only right kind of preaching is harsh and derogatory. The truth of the matter is that Jesus knew exactly the time and place to do either one or both, and always did it exactly right. He had the proper balance.
So, we need to realize that the “sneak-up” approach is bad and dangerous if we mean by it that a person may practice some kind of hypocrisy or is afraid to reveal the whole truth to a person. However, Jesus and the Apostles did not always reveal the whole truth to a person in the first few minutes of the conversation, but interested them in listening to that in which they already had an interest. The method and message of the Master Teacher and his inspired followers should be ours.