How to Be Inviting Through Body Language

When it comes to a recommended method for doing evangelism, my proposal is somewhat different from what has normally been regarded as good evangelistic style. I call mine "evangelism through body language."

"Body language," of course, is one of the great psychological discoveries (or fads) of our day. As with others of its kind, my own guess is that it is about ten percent discovery and ninety percent fad. Nevertheless, proponents of body language claim that, in our conversations with others, subconsciously our physical postures are more expressive of what is actually going on between us than are our words of deliberate communication. For example, if, when speaking to someone, I stand with my arms folded in front of me, in reality I am indicating that I want to hold myself in rather than open myself out to be shared with the other person.

The analytic experts of body language claim to be able to read a whole glossary of such signals and thus come to a deep, relational knowledge of what any particular conversation means. Although what we have here may be a grain of truth swimming in a bucket of hogwash, the theory of bod language can provide us entree for profound insight into the most truly biblical method of evangelism.

The particular body whose language constitutes evangelism is, of course, the one Paul calls "the body of Christ." And this immediately points us toward a root distinction to which we will return with emphasis: rather than being a responsibility that can be delegated, evangelism is a function of the church itself, of the faith community as community, of the body as body. Accordingly, it was precisely while establishing the church as "body," Paul was the one who best made the point:

Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers; then deeds of power, then gifts of healing, forms of assistance, forms of leadership, various kinds of tongues.... Pursue love and strive for the spiritual gifts, and especially that you may prophesy. For those who speak in a tongue do not speak to other people but to God; for nobody understands them, since they are speaking mysteries in the Spirit. On the other hand, those who prophesy speak to other people for their upbuilding and encouragement and consolation. Those who speak in a tongue build up themselves, but those who prophesy build up the church…. If, therefore, the whole church comes together and all speak in tongues, and outsiders or unbelievers enter, will they not say that you are out of your mind? But if all prophesy, an unbeliever or outsider who enters is reproved by all and called to account by all. After the secrets of the unbeliever’s heart are disclosed, that person will bow down before God and worship him, declaring, "God is really among you." (1 Cor. 12:27-28, 14:1-4, 23-25)

The path of Paul's thought--and the outline for our consideration of it--is as follows: The calling of the church is that it function as "the body of Christ." Thus, within the body, the members are to operate, not for their own enjoyment or enhancement, but to the end that the body as a whole is built up. When the group is functioning so, its body language is such that a chance observer can read it and be moved to fall down and worship, crying, "God is certainly among you!" And what is going on here is nothing more nor less than evangelism.

It is the body language of the church that is our best means of helping Christ win people to himself. And we need to take special note in this regard. Paul never calls the church "the torso of Christ" with the head as something different, presumably distinguishable, and even separable. No, "the body" is an inclusive term designating the totality of torso, head, and all members whatever. So, following Paul, we ought never think of the church as something different or apart from Christ himself; the church is his body only when, as head, he is present and included.

And it is this body (head and members) that is to be the evangelist. The idea runs somewhat counter to the accepted pattern of evangelism which, as often as not, understands evangelization as taking place outside of and apart from the congregational life of the church. In many cases, it is only after the prospect has been evangelized that (if ever) he is handed over to the care of a congregation. Now I am not saying that true evangelism absolutely cannot happen this way; but it clearly is not the New Testament's normal and preferred mode.

So the evangelist is not some traveling celebrity preacher. The evangelist is not the pastor in the pulpit. The evangelist is not the congregation's evangelism committee. The evangelist is not selected laity making house calls. Any of these may be, can be, and should be members of that body which is itself the evangelist; yet ultimately, it is the community--Christ performing in and through his body--that is meant to accomplish the evangelizing.

After all, the purpose and goal of evangelism is to help people see Jesus, meet Jesus, know Jesus. And if he actually is its "head," where else would one stand a better chance of seeing, meeting, and knowing him than in his "body"? It stands to reason.

Presumably, then, the truest and best evangelistic approach would be for you to invite the prospect to come with you to church. I know this is contrary to a great deal of evangelistic counsel. Indeed, some instructors insist that, until you push the prospect to make a personal decision for Christ, you aren't even doing Christian evangelism.

My guess is that you would not have to seek far to find testimony as to how, as much as instinctively, lay visitors resist the idea of flat-out asking a stranger to accept Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. And the more I think about it, the more I think the instinct to be a true one. This, in effect, is to ask the customer to buy a product sight unseen (a ploy customarily used only with cheap, gimcrack merchandise). Or, to put it even more truly and tellingly, it is to ask someone to marry a "head" before he has even seen the "body" of which it is a part. It is asking him to become a "member" (a hand, an ear, or an eye) of a body he hasn't even met. And that can't quite be right, can it?

Yet simply talking about Jesus (even if that talk be good and true) will hardly qualify as "body language." No, disembodied "talk" is just too superficial--in the same sense some psychologists claim that only hearing what is said in a conversation is superficial in comparison to the deep knowledge revealed through body language. For one thing, the words of evangelistic invitation tend to be confined to great promises regarding what Christ will do for you once you accept him. Conversely, body language allows a person to see what Christ has done and is doing for the members of his body. Further, it also lets one see how members perform and what, under Christ's headship, is expected of them. To put it otherwise, an evangelism of sheer words is quite likely to communicate a false gospel of "cheap grace"--whereas an evangelism of body language is in much better position to communicate the true, biblical gospel of discipleship's "costly grace."

Of course, the evangelism of "immediate confrontation" is strengthened if the prospect happens already to be familiar with the Christian who approaches him. In such case, the prospect already has observed a certain amount of body language in having seen who that Christian is and how he conducts himself. Yet even then, the prospect will have a better chance of truly observing Christ in his body if he can witness the members together, involved in the full-fledged motions of their body language. So, in any case, the best evangelism is still the invitation, "Wouldn't you like to come with me to church?"

Yet--we must be quick to admit--there is a difficulty with this approach. Body language will be of no value at all if it is communicating the wrong message, if the church to which the prospect is invited is functioning as something other than the true body of Christ. If the body is not actually performing under the direction of its head, the visitor is going to be hard put in sensing that it even has a head.

And just here we must pick up a caution. The mere fact that a church's body language seems to be working, that people are indeed coming in and joining - this does not necessarily indicate that everything is as it should be. "Body language is, of course, a medium, a means, a method. However, evangelism itself has essentially to do with a message, that particular message commonly identified as "the gospel of Jesus Christ." Obviously, then, the medium is legitimate only insofar as it subserves its message. So, the goal of evangelistic body language is not simply that people join a church but that, out of a true desire to join the body of Christ, they join a congregation which truly means to function as the body of Christ. "Body language" in and of itself is an entirely neutral device and may very well prove of greatest effectiveness in the service of "cheap grace"--a church whose gospel of "worldly ]success" successfully attracts seekers of worldly success by affirming them in what they seek. Yet, of course, simply the successful use of the "medium" of churchly body-language does not amount to Christian evangelism unless the "message" itself be gospel truth.

Thus, a congregation's growth rate indicates nothing one way or another about the authenticity of its evangelism. Authentic evangelism consists in just two factors:

  1. that the congregation project the truth of its existence in its performance as the body of Christ; and
  2. that it actively be inviting people to come, see, and join with Christ in this body of his.

Yet, how many people actually do accept the invitation is a matter entirely out of the church's control or responsibility. God no more guarantees success to "smart evangelistic operations" than he does to any other sort of smart operators. It is quite possible that some congregation not growing at all may be doing a better and more faithful job of evangelization than one growing by leaps and bounds. The very word "evangelism" connotes a spread of the gospel rather than the growth of the institutional church--and those two are by no means the same thing.

Let us consider, then, some of the common postures, or gestures, that do not qualify as true evangelistic body language. First, we do not invite a prospect to church merely to expose him to the evangelistic words of the preacher. Paul specifically told us that, "if all are uttering prophecies," then the visitor will hear something "from everyone" and so be moved to confess God's presence. But otherwise, to center simply on the preacher is only to substitute pulpit words for visit words--and such is not true body language. So, in this regard, clergy and laity together need to take care not to behave in any way suggesting that the minister is the actual head of this body. Being won to an attractive pastor or to attractive preaching is not the same thing as being won to Christ. If our body language says, "Look at our fine pastor," it can only be a detriment to our helping people look to Jesus.

Second, if the church's body language says, "See what a fine program we have, how attractive our facilities are, how beautiful our music is, how many activities we offer, or how socially relevant we are"--any of this obscures rather than clarifies the visitor's view of Jesus.

Finally, we do not invite people to church simply in the hope they will enjoy the fellowship as a social occasion. This one, we will come to see, does get closer to true body language; yet, unless the socializing points beyond itself, it cannot be claimed as making Jesus visible. After all, the world itself is pretty good at providing opportunities for mere socializing. The church's must be sociability with a difference.

So, none of these postures qualifies as evangelistic body language--no matter how effective they may prove in bringing new members to the church. No, as Paul implied, the only language qualifying as that of the body of Christ is whatever communicative actions might convince a visitor that God is certainly present. Words alone, I think, seldom can do that; our simply "telling" the visitor that God is present doesn't quite cut it. No, verbalized actions and actualized words are much more likely to be convincing. So, specifically now, what are the things we should most want our visitors to see? What body-language signals will he find most inviting? Will winking at him do the trick?

First and foremost, I suggest, our visitor should see the same thing that first impressed observers of the early church, leading them to exclaim, "See how these Christians love one another!" And this "loving one another" has to be something much more than just hearty sociability. In order for it to have any chance of making Jesus himself visible in his body, it will have to be a love of the quality of Jesus' own as I have loved you." It must be something extraordinary enough that the visitor will sense the difference and get curious: "Where are they getting that? For sure, that isn't what I saw at Kiwanis last week or in the tavern last night."

This love must go beyond simply our feelings about one another to demonstrate how we care about one another, how we share with one another, what we are ready to do for one another. Further, the visitor should be impressed that our "one another" is not at all confined to our own circle of friends but includes the totality of our brothers and sisters in Christ--and for that matter, whatever neighbor is in need or we are in position to serve. Recall that it was precisely when Peter and John directed body language toward a poor beggar (presumably not a Christian) by loving, caring, serving him--it was just then observers "saw the boldness of Peter and John and realized that they were uneducated and ordinary men--and recognized them as companions of Jesus. " (Acts 4:13). That's the one sort of love where Jesus really shines through.

However, with his once having seen our love for one another, it should perhaps be our hope that the visitor next catch on that the body got that way because of its biblical orientation. Now the body language at this point surely dare not consist sheerly in how many people carry Bibles or how often scripture is quoted. That may not indicate anything more than pious habit. No, the visitor must be led to understand that the love these Christians display comes from the fact they have studied God's word and allowed it to mold them. A biblical church is not so much one that uses the Bible as it is one that lets the Bible use it. It is a body that studies, loves, and lives the Bible.

Finally, through all this body language, the visitor must come to realize that the entirety of the congregation's "life together" is in fact a following of the Lord Jesus and a giving him the praise for that high privilege. It must consciously and deliberately be made evident that this body includes a head and that this head is the sole source and center of the congregation's being and activity--the message behind all its body language. This is his body (not ours); the body language is that of his communicating himself (not us communicating ourselves). Only thus will the visitor be enabled to see him; and only such body language will qualify as "evangelism."

Now it is nothing of our desire here to deny that other forms and methods may have a proper place in "evangelism." We contend, however, that that place has to be within the context of a Christian congregation doing its body language. Those other evangelistic methods are true only insofar as they subserve this one. As we saw in a previous chapter, a major aspect of Christianity's good news is that Jesus Christ provides his people a body (gathers them into a body) they can call "home." So certainly nothing can truly be called evangelism" ("good news"-ism) that chooses to Operate outside, or in disregard of, the body language of homecoming.

Copyright (c) 1987