You’ve been praying for a chance to talk to your neighbor about the Lord. His self-made approach to life hasn’t made it easy. Lately, though, his life has taken a twist. Marital conflict, a rebellious teenager, and now a malignant tumor. You know his answer, the Lord—both for the now and the hereafter.

As you pick up a chamois cloth and help him wash his car, you inject, “Cheryl and I are praying for you. How are you feeling?” “Pretty good, I’ll be fine,” he responds. You tread a little further and share your own testimony of the adversity that brought you to Christ. Suddenly he becomes defensive, making it clear that his view of Jesus Christ and yours are not the same. The conversation escalates to an uncomfortable level. There is no question that he doesn’t want you “preaching at him.”

What do you do when a conversation turns hostile in evangelism? Here are five suggestions:

1. Attitude check. Nothing is more convicting than refusing to respond in the same way that we are treated. Respond with a soft answer (see Prov. 15:1). God uses our attitudes in evangelism as well as our words. In contrast to their harshness, our gentleness can communicate more about the compassion of our Savior than a defensive posture.

2. Recognize the real problem. A spiritual battle rages inside the minds of unbelievers. Some of the fiercest conflicts can occur in people's lives right before they decide to trust Christ. Unbelievers are slaves of Satan and dead in their trespasses and sins (see Eph. 2:1–3). Looking beyond the person to the problem helps us be caring rather than critical. Think back on your own pre-conversion days, and you might notice some similarities.

3. Back off—for a limited time. People do not usually stay angry. Let the situation cool and next time communicate about less threatening things. We should only back off in talking, however, not in praying. Ask God to cause them to think about the truth of the message and their own need. Pray for another opportunity and then get ready. Someone not open to the gospel this month may be more open next month.

4. Model forgiveness. Few enjoy being ridiculed or scolded. When it comes to forgiveness, a picture is better than a book. Follow the example of Christ who forgave those who crucified Him (see Luke 23:34). Remember Stephen, who as he was being stoned, asked the Lord not to charge them for their sin (see Acts 7:60). Rather than responding the way the old nature might, respond as someone who has been freed through grace. Lending a hand, extending a friendly hello, or offering a thoughtful gift might make them wonder, “Don’t they remember how I treated them?”

5. Don’t take on God’s responsibility. The Holy Spirit has to convict people before they will see the need for the Savior. People cannot come to Christ unless God draws them (see John 6:44).The fact that unbelievers are hostile may mean they are closer to trusting Christ than we might think and that the Holy Spirit is working. Honor God through godly words and attitudes. A Christlike response might ultimately turn a hostile church persecutor into a fervent church planter, as in the case of Paul (see Acts 9:1–9).