We’ve all experienced it. That person who awkwardly tries to share their faith and ends up being obnoxious in the process. Too many earnest words. Not enough space for their captive listener to ask questions. When we view faith sharing as an argument to be won and not a relationship to be built, we risk getting in the way of how Holy Spirit may be moving. Sharing faith without being that guy requires we examine why and how we speak about Jesus with those who don’t know him.

The account of Paul sharing the gospel in Athens as recorded in Acts 17 sheds some valuable insight into how we might, in a post-Christian world, approach sharing the gospel today. The first thing we notice is that Paul was provoked, agitated, moved by the flagrant idolatry of the Athenians. In popular language we might say that his heart broke for the things that break God’s heart.

Passing idol after idol in the public square, he didn’t walk blithely by, dismissing the idol worship as simply the way people are in the current culture. The Message version says the more he saw, the angrier he got. When was the last time we got angry over the abundance of idols that so easily sway our friends and neighbors today?

Our spirits must be provoked and moved by the love of God if we hope to launch effective evangelism strategies in our churches today.

Move at the pace of your listener

Often when sharing faith with our neighbor, we make the mistake of downloading onto them as much information as we can, demonstrating our expertise in the gospel. We eagerly carry on without taking into consideration how little our friend knows. How easy it is to leave them confused and opposed to speaking about faith with us again. We also often run at a pace that reflects our desire to get them across the finish line of faith before the conversation is over.

Not so with Paul. Paul shared the gospel with anyone he met. Some dismissed him, others wanted to know more. Not offering someone more theology before they were ready, Paul waited to hear their “tell me more” before diving into deeper waters of the gospel. Like Paul, we too need to wait for an opening, an invitation to press in deeper. Pressing in without an invitation shuts down conversation.

Paul paid attention to his listeners and practiced sharing faith without being that guy. Because of this, these receptive listeners invited him to make a public presentation of the gospel. Conversation invites proclamation.

Pay attention to your audience

Because Paul had spent time in conversation with the Athenians, he knew what was important to them. He observed their culture. Their beliefs. He came to understand what motivated them specifically, as opposed to what resonated with the Berean community where he had recently ministered.

And then, surprisingly, he complimented them on how seriously they took their religion. Without arguing for the high ground, he comes to them on their terms, crediting them for their faith, creating common ground. His generous overture to them creates space for them to listen to him.

Conversation must precede proclamation of the gospel. When we allow genuine conversation to create space for people to share their beliefs, we earn the right to share our own.

Connect Jesus to their personal need

Paul was moved when he saw the altar with the inscription To the God Nobody Knows. We need to understand someone’s personal need before we can hope to meet that need in Jesus. Paul’s desire was to introduce his new friends to the God none of them yet knew.

After acknowledging their great interest in religion—confirming he saw their great need—he earned the right to share at length about our great Savior. And then, he does the most amazing thing. He quotes their pagan poets, not once, but twice. In saying, “In him we live and move and have our being” and “We are God’s offspring,” Paul becomes eminently relatable to those with whom he’s sharing the gospel.

When we take the time to relate to our listeners by connecting them to Jesus, some will respond to him then and there. Others will rebuff us and leave. And some will say, “Let’s continue the conversation. I want to hear more.”

Sharing faith without being that guy is possible. It requires a willingness to engage in conversation, to hone our listening skills, and to understand the deeply felt needs of our listeners.