Selective Evangelism (Charles Arn)

If your church could reach more people for Christ by focusing on one “people group” in your community, would you do so?

Certain people around your church are more receptive to the Gospel than others.  I suggest that good stewardship of your church’s human and fiscal resources calls you to find and focus on these receptive people.  They are the “fertile soil” (see Mt. 13:1-23) who are “ripe unto harvest” (Jn. 4:35).  And your successful evangelistic results will be praised by the Master with the same words heard by those who returned more talents than they had been given: “Well done, good and faithful servant” (see Mt. 25:14-30).

The “Receptivity-Resistance Axis” below illustrates a person’s openness to becoming a new creation in Christ.  Every non-Christian is somewhere on this Axis.


Some people are open and responsive to the Good News—the “good soil,” as Christ described them in the Parable of the Sower.  Others are resistant to the Gospel—the rocky soil.  When Jesus concluded this parable with, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear,” I believe he was suggesting that the Good News we proclaim will not be received with equal receptivity.  And we are called to identify those who will hear, listen, and respond.

It is also important to note that people are always moving on this Receptivity-Resistance Axis; some are moving toward greater receptivity, others toward greater resistance.

A key question I hope you’re asking is: “How do we identify the receptive people in our community?”

One proven way is through life events.  Or, more specifically, transitional life events.  Here is the principle: The more disruptive a life event is to a person’s psychological equilibrium, the more it will cause him/her to be spiritually receptive.

Robert Pierson rightly observes: “People most often make decisions for Christ when they are going through transitions. Most do not make decisions about new commitments and directions in their life when everything is going well. We make those decisions when we are in the midst of stress and difficulty. When the church is there to help and share the gospel at the point of their greatest need, people respond, because those are the times people are the most open” (Needs-Based Evangelism, Abingdon Press, 2006, p. 28).

The “Social Readjustment Scale” below was originally developed by two cardiology researchers at the University of Washington Medical Center.  The events were identified as precipitators of a heart attack.  (The numbers to the right are the relative severity of the event, from 1-100.)  I, and other researchers, have found that these same events are also excellent indicators of a person’s openness (receptivity) to Christian conversion.

Put simply, people who rate high on this Scale will be more receptive to repentance and conversion than those who rate lower.  And, when multiple events occur, in relative proximity, receptivity increases even more.


As you think and pray about responding to Christ’s command to “…go and make disciples,” use this “Stress Scale” as one way to begin identifying the people in your community whom the Holy Spirit may be preparing to invite into the Kingdom—through you and your church.  Creative, caring, genuine, need-meeting Christian love—at these times when people are most receptive—will bring great fruit.  Watch… listen…be sensitive to these windows of opportunity… and then be ready to “give witness to the hope that is within you” 
(I Pe. 3:15).

 (For more on applying the principle of receptivity in your church, see “The Receptivity Rule” in What Every Pastor Should Know, by Gary McIntosh & Charles Arn, Baker Books, 2013.)

[i] T. Holmes and R. Rahe, “The Social Readjustment Scale,” The Journal of Psychosomatic Research 2, 213-218.  Copyright by Elsevier Science, Inc.

  • I liked what you have written. It is so true. We need to reach out to those around us who are hurting, or troubled. They may not fit our ideal of ‘a beautiful person’ ( i.e. they may be dressed funny or smell strange), but they need to know that there is an answer to life’s problems and it is Jesus. We may be the only contact that person has at a time when they need The Lord.

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  • Charles, the approach of Jesus in Luke 10 gives us a model for doing this. Thanks for the post.

  • cybersaint2k

    I believe this strategy has flatly unbiblical presuppositions behind it and thus promotes something that is not biblical conversion.

    1) Going through the article by Dr. Arn, you may (and many have) substituted a decision for Christ with a decision for root beer, or insurance, or gold. This simply a sales technique, a strategy, used in sales around the world. It is not biblical.

    2) This ignores the fact that God and his choice, not (in this case weakened by trauma and stress) human choice is behind our conversion. Election, calling and regeneration, all God-centered events preceding conversion, are critical to an authentic choice to believe all Christ’s promises and follow him. Evangelism that does not embrace the sovereignty of God is bound to go amiss.

    3) It is not even wise to sell people Jesus as something to make your trauma better–that’s setting them up to reject a false promise of a false gospel. This is creating people who are bitter, people who grabbed on to Jesus in their darkest hour, upon the promise that he would make it better, when in fact, Jesus does not always make it better. Emotionally, existentially, sometimes he makes it worse. He will bring a sword to your family, a division in your church, and a burden for the lost.

    4) It glorifies manipulative, emotion-based evangelism. To choose someone who is weak, faltering, and unsteady, and pressure them to make a decision for Christ is what a manipulator does–whatever they are offering. There’s a reason why when I was a hospital chaplain I did not press people to conversion. It’s manipulative to take someone in a hospital bed, oxygen deprived, high on drugs, waiting for what may be the final surgery of their life, and command them to trust Jesus or else. At that point, they would trust Larry Boy as their Lord and Savior, especially if I’m good at manipulation. See

    This is brief, but I hope you see my point. I pray that we will share the gospel in a variety of ways, to a variety of people, and not decide with human social sciences who gets the gospel and who does not. This is a travesty.

  • Pastor Dawson

    This is great food for thought! This blog penetrates y heart as I am looking to move a traditional congregation beyond the walls and to a hurting people! As we are moving this summer these profound thoughts of Dr. Arn have ignited a flame that is deep in my heart and pushes me to desire to Go even the more. We are going out in the community on tomorrow and this just reminds me why we do what we do!

    God Bless you and your call Dr. Arn, thanks for the reminder! Will get the book