On a sidewalk in Detroit, Mark Coppenger sits on the curb, lunch sack in hand, talking with a young man. This image capturing a spur-of-the-moment conversation with a stranger — on a sidewalk, on an airplane, on the bus — is not an uncommon one of Coppenger. It’s likely you’ll find him riding the bus to Southern Seminary’s campus in Louisville from his home in Nashville, Tennessee, choosing public transit over his car, favoring the stories in the seats on the Megabus over the company of his car radio.
Coppenger, professor of Christian philosophy and ethics at Southern, has filled a variety of roles in his career. He is a pastor, church planter, professor, and writer. He is also a long-time leader, having served as executive director of the State Convention of Baptists in Indiana and president of Midwestern Seminary in the past. But he is known by friends and peers for his passion for evangelism, for engaging others in gospel conversation, and for doing so in unlikely and unexpected places.
His work in evangelism began when he was in college as he volunteered for student-led revivals, leading music, where he was first brought out of his comfort zone. Years later, after earning a Ph.D. in philosophy at Vanderbilt University and teaching, he attended seminary at Southwestern Seminary in Texas, where he was pushed even further out of his comfort zone. “They taught us evangelism through a number of programs, including the popular Continuing Witness Training,” he said. “They pressed us to get out and do it.”
The Continuing Witness Training program encouraged two questions: First, have you come to the place in your life that you know for sure that you have eternal life, that you’ll go to heaven when you die?
And second, suppose you’re standing before God, and he asks you, “Why should I let you into my heaven?” What would you say?
“I didn’t want to do it,” he admitted. “I thought, ‘What if I’m rejected? What if they don’t want to hear from me? What if they turn me down and treat me mean?’”
But he was surprised to find that people were more receptive to conversation than he expected. “Over the course of probably five years, I guess I asked that question a thousand times, and only twice were people rude.”
“It was exhilarating,” he continued. “I rarely felt as alive as a Christian as when I was sharing my faith.”
This training in evangelism served as a foundation to the approach that Coppenger has taken to professional and personal ministry.
Evangelism training encouraged Coppenger to visit people in their own homes. And as a church planter in Evanston, Illinois, he led his team to introduce themselves to residents of the neighborhood by going door to door. Visiting residents one by one, the church introduced itself offering resources and community.
“I need all the grace I can get. I need salvation as a sinner, and if I’ve got any of the mind of Christ for the world, then I want to share the gospel,” he explained.
Learn a gospel presentation
Coppenger suggests starting with having a gospel presentation in mind. Memorize a couple dozen verses of Scripture and give structure to them. What those verses are and what structure is given to them can look different, but ultimately the goal is to be able to present God’s purpose, man’s problem, God’s answer, and man’s response.
But preparation for evangelism isn’t only memorizing a presentation of the gospel. It’s also prayer, that the opportunity to bring the gospel into conversation would present itself. And “you should pray for those openings,” he advised. “Pray for a gospel conversation.”
Remember formulas don’t always work
Coppenger is clear that evangelism doesn’t always look like a formal presentation, and Christians should speak the gospel so often that they “gossip the gospel.” As easily as gossip can come from our lips, so should the gospel.
Don’t be discouraged
Many new believers have had a number of “touches of the gospel” before fully accepting it, he said, so don’t be discouraged.
“We were in Metairie, Louisiana, once,” he remembered, “and there was a guy using a weed eater in his yard, shorts on, cigarette in his mouth, and he received the gospel in ten minutes. And he said, ‘I’ve been praying that somebody would come by and talk.’”
In Metairie, he wasn’t the first touch of the gospel: “I may have been number three. I may have been number six. But every once in a while, you’re the last and you can’t believe it.”
Coppenger’s evangelism extends further than his professional ministry. He doesn’t have to be knocking on doors or teaching to feel the need to present the gospel. Whether a chat with the butcher in the grocery store or his neighbor at the Motel 6, he is always looking for an opportunity for gospel conversation.
For many people, starting the conversation can be the most difficult part. Coppenger offered advice here as well. Not everyone is outgoing — nor do they need to be.
Coppenger’s experience with evangelism has led him to meet thousands of people in a number of cultures, and people react to friendliness, to warmth and conversation. He called friendliness a Christian virtue. “Be friendly,” he said, “and you just end up talking to people.”
Be inquisitive too, he said. He has often asked about the book the person next to him on the bus is reading, complimented a hat or a t-shirt, asked about a haircut. Conversation is easy with a “naive curiosity” and a willingness to ask questions.
Coppenger brings a depth of conversation to the people he meets outside of the classroom — by asking questions that prompt self-examination and framing that with the gospel.
“I teach dialogically,” he explained, “by asking questions. You get people talking and have people talk about themselves.”
Take any opportunity to ask a question and make a connection, he said, “and you’re off to the races.”
Ultimately, he explained, when it comes to evangelism, “The gospel is the power. God’s spirit uses the gospel to do his saving work.”
Sarah Haywood is a writer for Southern Seminary.