Why evangelicals have a lot to learn from Pope Francis about evangelism

Pope Francis has said he likes to give interviews and speak freely in press conferences. In a politician, this would be unremarkable; for a Pope, however, it's pretty unusual – though Pope John Paul II could also be affable and accessible.

Francis has become well known for unbuttoning during flights home from foreign trips, when his off-the-cuff comments are frequently newsworthy. It's this informal style that has led traditionalists to despair, accusing him of making up doctrine on the hoof and of confusing the faithful.

ReutersPope Francis has made a point of being open to question.

Needless to say, it's nothing of the kind. When Francis speaks or writes as the Vicar of Christ, he is appropriately careful. But in the preface to a new collection of interviews and dialogues, he refers to 'the church of Emmaus, in which the Lord "interviews" the disciples who are walking discouraged'.

'I desire a church that knows how to insert itself into the conversations of people, that knows how to dialogue,' he says. And he adds: 'One thing I like is speaking with small newspapers. I feel even more at ease. In fact, in those cases I truly hear the questions and the worries of the common people. I seek to respond in a spontaneous way, in a conversation that I want to be comprehensible, not [made up of] rigid formulas.'

When it comes to communicating the gospel, Pope Francis is in an immensely privileged and responsible position. But his philosophy is a very thought-prokoving one, even for those from a completely different tradition.

What he's saying is that for there to be a real encounter between people that leads to spiritual transformation, there needs to be honesty and vulnerability. He admits he's scared of being misrepresented, and that is a justified fear – journalists, even those who understand the subtleties of what he says, are always under pressure to come up with a headline, and it might not be one Francis particularly intended. But this willingness to take risks is inseparable from effective evangelism.

There's a school of evangelicalism that sees preaching the gospel as simply informing people of what its practitioners believe the Bible says, through a rigidly structured teaching course or the recitation of a few evangelistic bullet points. It's about conveying information from one mind to another.

At one level, something of this has to take place if a person is going to become a Christian. There are objective facts that have to be learnt. But the process of engaging someone's heart and soul is more than just telling them things you know and they don't. It involves openness to questions, an admission of ignorance and a willingness to learn as well as teach.

One of the things that makes Pope Francis such an attractive figure is that his confidence in the gospel of Jesus has not closed his mind to the experiences and the questions of people who don't share it. He doesn't believe in slick marketing or in overwhelming people by force of argument, but in walking with them and answering their questions, like Jesus on that road to Emmaus.

Evangelicals could learn a lot from him.

Follow Mark Woods on Twitter: @RevMarkWoods