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The One Minute Gospel: Helpful Tool or Tragic Mistake? (part 1)

I’ve been sitting on a plane next to some guy for a couple of hours. And I’ve sent all my usual “Don’t talk to me” signals: book, headphones, minimal eye contact. The usual tools of the traveling introvert. But this time it hasn’t worked. This guy really likes to talk.

Just as the plane is about to land, the conversation turns toward spiritual things. Now I feel a bit guilty for having tried to duck the conversation the whole trip. But still, I recognize the opportunity. A gospel opportunity. I only have about one minute before the plane touches down and everyone starts pulling their stuff together. One minute.

Almost every evangelism training I’ve ever been through has emphasized the importance of being able to share the gospel in one minute or less. The assumption seems to be that this is something every mature Christian should be able to do. And, to be honest, I agree. But with some significant reservations. From the right perspective, the One Minute Gospel can be very helpful. But far too often the One Minute Gospel leads us into a number of critical errors.

Is the One Minute Gospel a helpful tool or a tragic mistake? I think it’s a little of both. But in this post, I’ll focus on the former.

The One Minute Gospel as a Helpful Tool

1. The One Minute Gospel Forces Priorities

Think of someone who is very important to you. Now, how would you describe them in one minute? What would you focus? Are you going to tell me what they look like, where they went to school, what they eat for breakfast, or their favorite TV show? Possibly. Or will you dive into their personality, character, beliefs, commitments, and passions? That would certainly tell me a lot. Or you could take a different approach, focusing on their various relationships: family, co-workers, friends, and others. And that’s just for starters. But you only have one minute. So you have to make some choices.

Unless you want to give me a random list of observations, some important and others trivial, you’ll have to prioritize. What is most important for someone to know about this amazing person? What would leave them with a distorted picture if I left it out? What is an interesting part of who they are, but not as essential for grasping the basic picture?

Engaged seriously, these kinds of questions force you to reflect on what’s most important, either for understanding a person or the gospel. And I think we should recognize that some things have a higher priority when we’re sharing the gospel than others. If I only have one minute, I’m going to talk a lot about Jesus. He’s pretty important. And I’ll necessarily spend less time talking about the church. That’s tragic because I think God’s people are an incredibly important part of the good news about what Jesus accomplished. But I have to prioritize.

The thing to keep in mind here is that it’s easy to prioritize on accident. The one minute gospel only helps in this area if we’ve thought intentionally about what we’re doing. Are we sure that we’re prioritizing the right things? Is it possible that we’ve shuffled something off to the periphery that is actually quite important? (Stay tuned, in my next post, we’ll take a quick look at some of the Bible’s own gospel summaries to see how people like Peter and Paul prioritized.)

2. The One Minute Gospel Aids Comprehension

The degree program that I direct (Western’s Th.M. program) culminates with a thesis and an oral examination. And, as every student approaches that final exam, I tell them all the same thing: be prepared to summarize your thesis quickly and clearly. If you can’t tell me in just a few minutes what you’ve written and why it’s important, it raises some serious questions about how well you understood it in the first place. Of course, you could say more. You can always say more. But one critical test of both clarity and comprehension is whether you can offer some kind of meaningful summary in a relatively brief period of time.

And most of my students comment on how valuable it was to try and distill everything down to just a few sentences. When you do that, you actually come to understand your subject better. You’re forced to consider how the various pieces all fit together, so you can address multiple pieces in one or two quick thoughts. Good summaries lead to good understanding.

I think the same holds true with our gospel summaries. Get me rolling, and I can talk about the gospel for an entire trans-Atlantic flight. And even that wouldn’t say everything that could be said. But there is value is coming up with a good summary. And the value is for me as much as it is for the person I’m talking to. I will understand the gospel better if I’ve really thought through how I would share it quickly.

3. The One Minute Gospel Enables Brevity

And, of course, we can’t leave out the most obvious benefit. There are times when we need to say something about the gospel in a highly compressed way. That guy in the seat next to me probably won’t want to hang out in the terminal after we’ve disembarked. So, if I’m going to say anything, it will have to be quick. A good gospel summary helps me be prepared for quick gospel encounters.

What I find interesting here is the fact that we often talk about the gospel as though this were the normal way that people share the gospel. I don’t know about you, but I rarely find myself sharing the gospel like this. Most of the time I’m giving a one minute gospel summary, it’s to someone who already knows quite a bit about the gospel – either a Christian or a non-Christian that I’ve already talked to quite a bit. For both of them, the summary helps put all the various pieces in place.

But maybe that’s just me. And there have been times when I’ve needed to share the gospel quickly and concisely with someone who may not know much about the gospel at all. And, on those occasions, I’ve been very glad that I had a One Minute Gospel at hand.

So I do think that the One Minute Gospel can be very handy. It’s good for me, and it’s good for the people around me. But next week, we’ll flip the coin and see that the One Minute Gospel has a dark side. I don’t think it’s dark enough to make us stop using it entirely. But it does mean that we’ll need to use it very carefully.

About Marc Cortez

Theology Prof and Dean at Western Seminary, husband, father, & blogger, who loves theology, church history, ministry, pop culture, books, and life in general.

17 thoughts on “The One Minute Gospel: Helpful Tool or Tragic Mistake? (part 1)

  1. Nothing that you have to say will make much difference until you recognize what his issues are. Random feeding of bits and pieces of the Gospel aren’t really much help are they? We’re far better off in our evangelism if we can find one single issue that he has believed in error and attempt to show him how the Bible clarifies that issue. Spend your one minute correcting that one error.

    Unfortunately, we’ve come to think it’s more important to share some condensed, peanut-sized, dumb-downed version of the gospel at the simplest, most juvenile, least thought-provoking level with our culture, in a minute or less, rather than let people wrestle with the theological absurdities they’ve come to accept in their thinking, rather than illuminate for them where their errors are from a Biblical perspective.

    The problem is exacerbated because many Christians, including seminary graduates, who have read their Bibles for decades are incapable of thinking any deeper about God than that He’s our Daddy and nothing He wrote to us is more important than this: what He most intensely wants us to do is to climb up in His lap and hold His hand and listen to Him tell us He loves us. Don’t think about the tough theological concepts; don’t wrestle with the seeming ambiguities; don’t try to put it together logically or, God forbid, intellectually. All that stuff just bogs you down. Just climb up in His lap and stop thinking altogether. Just feel the love. Such are the evangelical encouragements from the eminent theologians and seminarians who put together our most trusted Bible study notes. Indeed, the problem is immense — but we make it even worse.

    1. Rick, I appreciate the comment, but it’s hard to see how it has much to do with what I actually wrote. I never suggested that a one-minute Gospel by itself was adequate. It’s not. Indeed, I made it pretty clear in the post that I think there are some real concerns that I’ll address in my next post, and one of those concerns has to do with mistaking our gospel summaries for the entirety of the gospel message. But that’s for next time. In this post, I was simply pointing out that despite those concerns, there is value in thinking through how you would try to summarize the gospel quickly.

      1. I apologize Mark if I gave you the impression I was ‘criticizing’ your post, because I don’t think that was my intention; having said that, I tend to naturally balk at the idea of a “one minute gospel” in general, because your post suggests that it is possible to actually say the Gospel in one minute. And it isn’t, if the Gospel is the whole counsel of God. If people think they can say it in one minute, they probably will (i.e. The Four Spiritual Flaws, which I would submit is not the Gospel, and certainly not the whole counsel of God!).

        My concern was to say that they would be better off finding one issue the person is struggling with and dealing with that issue, in their one minute, rather than trying to tell them the whole counsel of God in one minute.

        If the Gospel could be summarized in one minute, I think God ought to have made the Gospel a lot simpler than it is.

        1. I’ll draw a big distinction in the next post between trying to “say the gospel in one minute” and trying to summarize the gospel in one minute. I think there’s a big difference between those two. This post was about summarizing the gospel in one minute, which is all the one minute gospel can do. And if you think we shouldn’t even try to summarize the gospel briefly, then you’ll have a problem with the NT itself, which offers several different summaries of the gospel. But I agree that confusing a summary with the gospel itself is a key problem that we need to be aware of.

          1. I’ll be looking forward to that post then because right now I can’t see a distinction between summarizing the gospel in one minute and saying the gospel in one minute. But apparently you still think it can be done. I see that in your last post you indicated that it might be able to be done ‘briefly.’ We both know that the gospel seems to be summarized ‘briefly’ particularly in 1 Cor. 15:3-4 (I haven’t thought at all about the other possible locations that you may have in mind Marc), where Paul essentially narrows it down to four words: “died, buried, raised, appeared.” I might add that Paul seems to be more concerned here with the witness to the gospel than he is of defending it, even if briefly stating it (15:5-8).

            I would maintain though that this notion of brevity is more difficult than appears to be the case even here, and a surface understanding might not be of much value, especially when we consider that: (1) The gospel is declared in preaching [15:1], which may have been over the entire 18 month visit Paul had in Corinth, and probably did not refer to one particular gospel sermon he may have made, but rather to his on-going conversation with the Corinthians during that time; (2) there is no immediate discussion on what it means for them to receive it or to stand in it, or in what way that relates to the declaring of it [15:1]; (3) there is no discussion as to what it means that it is saving them (present tense), or how they are to hold fast to the preached word; or (4) how one can ‘believe the gospel’ in vain, especially since ‘believing’ is the what is required for salvation [15:2] … all of which are worthy of mention within the context of the brevity of the gospel, yet seem to beg for further clarification, a seeming impossibility in one minute, or even briefly.

            I do appreciate the way in which the post has made me reflect on this issue most of today Marc.

          2. You seem to be agreeing that it’s possible to summarize the gospel briefly, which is exactly what Paul says he is doing (and what others do in Acts), but you are noting that there is always more to be said. Any summary highlights key truths but necessarily leaves out things as well (just as Paul’s does). That what I mean when I say that a summary isn’t the same as what it’s trying to summarize.

  2. What’s a “traveling introvert?” ( Just kidding, Marc) Just be yourself, if they like what they see they will want to know more.

  3. I heard about an evangelist years ago who was leaving town by train. A young man ran up to him as he was about to board. and basicaly asked, “what must I do to be saved?”

    The hastened reply was, “Isaiah 53:6; go in at the first “all”and come out at the second “all”! :)

    1. “But sir, what is Isaiah 53:6?”

      “Well …. It’s from the most famous Old Testament passage that refers to Jesus Christ our Lord and His salvation of sinners!”

      “But sir, I’m not educated enough to understand all that that implies.”

      “What is confusing you?”

      “Well … is everyone everywhere aware of their guiltiness and need?”

      No. Men do not universally acknowledge their guiltiness and need.”

      “So is the plea to come then only for the guilty, or is it for everyone?”

      “Yes. The call to come is for ‘all’ the guilty.”

      Then the ‘all’ of verse six is a qualified ‘all’? It is NOT for the ‘each and every’ all? I’m getting confused sir.”

      “Oh son …. I’m so sorry …. your minute is up.”

      1. It’s been my experience that a person interested enough to ask what he needs to do in order to be saved will not need a lot of instruction since his question indicates the conviction of personal sin. Such is an indication that the Holy Spirit has been and is working with him. As one fellow put it, “It doesn’t take long for a seeking sinner to find a seeking Savior.”

        It’s not difficult to find a bible reference is it? And remember, such a person is not a trained theologian so he probably won’t ask a lot of irrelevant questions, but simply accept God’s Word.. And do remember that the setting of one minute is not ideal but presumably unavoidable.

        All we like sheep have gone astray;
        We have turned, every one, to his own way;
        And the Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all.


        1. It’s hard to argue with a person’s experience. I’ve never been that fortunate to experience someone asking me what he needs to do to be saved. Simply responding “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved, you and your household” is apparently not enough though is it? In Acts 16 we have a person supposedly not trained in theology who receives the simplest of responses to his simple question. We don’t know if he asked any irrelevant questions (who would actually say, “Well… that question is irrelevant?”). Verse 32 seems to suggest that, regardless of whether or not he asked any irrelevant questions, Paul was not satisfied with the brevity.

          1. I think everyone is agreed that the more time and scripture involved in leading and establishing a person, first of all to faith in Christ and then assurance of same is important. But the original article limited that time and asked if a brief presentation could be effective.

            I believe it can be. After all, Christ has been seeking the sinner since he/she was born. The fact of death stares everyone in the face. The fact of personal failure in many areas burdens every person.

            Some have co9njectured that it takes 8 presentations of the Gospel before a sinner yeilds; I don’t know. Assuming there is some truth to that, you or I might be #8 and wonder why ore witness was so powerful and compelling THIS time compared to numerous failures in the past.
            Bringing the prepared witness to the prepared heart was all a work of the Spirit using the Word of God. Dennis
            Phillip had no prior or post relationship with the Etheopian who was converted and baptised under his ministry.

    1. Sorry, the last part of my reply should have read in this order:

      Some have conjectured that it takes 8 presentations of the Gospel before a sinner yeilds; I don’t know. Assuming there is some truth to that, you or I might be #8 and wonder why our witness was so powerful and compelling THIS time compared to numerous failures in the past.

      In Acts 8, Phillip had no prior or post relationship with the Etheopian who was converted and baptised under his ministry. Bringing the prepared witness to the prepared heart was all a work of the Spirit using the Word of God. Dennis

  4. Marc, my biggest concern about the one minute gospel approach with strangers is that it doesn’t have an emphasis on relationship. I actually believe its far better to formulate your testimony short, succinct, and go from there.

  5. Marc,
    Your point about brevity requiring and promoting comprehension is well-taken. I know I’ve got a concept when I can explain it in writing or tell it to my students in just a few sentences. My concern, when it comes to gospel summaries, is that the ones we use are too often borrowed. Rather than distilling our own study of the NT teaching in our own words, we merely re-expres someone else summary. In this case, even though we can explain the gospel quickly, we have may still lack understanding. I truly understand when I can not only boil it down but also flesh out the summary with “the rest of the story.”
    Thanks for your post.

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