Counting the God Encounters


If you’re a geezer, too, then then you remember the old Tootsie Pop commercial that first ran in the ’70s. Can't someone answer the poor kid's question?You know, “How many licks does it take to get the center of a Tootsie Pop?”

Believe it or not, I saw that commercial on TV just a couple years back, so Tootsie is still running it. I guess the question goes unanswered.

For the Christian, the question might be transmogrified into “How many encounters with God does it take until someone is born again?”

My former pastor, Steve Sjogren, says the number is between 15 and 25. I can’t quote you Steve’s source, but some have mentioned the Engel Scale as a starting point for this number. Given how much Steve has invested over the years in this issue of evangelizing the lost, I don’t doubt his numbers.

That said, without a context, the numbers don’t mean much. You can toss a hundred questions at them, such as

1. What constitutes an encounter with God?

2. Do these numbers represent just the West? Or do they account for other parts of the world?

3. Do the numbers take into account the kind of Christian these “prebelievers” may be encountering?

I’m sure you can add to the list.

Buried in that #3 question is the most interesting question of them all:

How can we Christians reduce the number of those encounters before someone is born again?

I ask that because my personal belief is that it only takes one deep encounter with God for someone to repent and come to salvation. That’s the best case scenario.

I also believe that each encounter that doesn’t lead to being born again only runs the risk of inoculating someone against God. Everything else that follows after “a miss” represents the possibility that someone will never be born again.

Before we go any further, I want to talk about a rathole.

You and I don’t know who will be saved and who won’t be. That’s God’s territory. He knows who is predestined for glory and who is not. What He asks of us is that we do the work of evangelism and discipling and let Him bring the results.

With that out of the way, I want to ask:

Do you believe such a reduction in the number of encounters someone needs before they are justified is possible? How might we reduce the number of encounters it takes for a lost person to come to Christ?

I think that 15-25 encounters is too high. What do you think?

38 thoughts on “Counting the God Encounters

  1. John Burns

    Hi Dan,

    I believe, like you, that just one “encounter” with God is necessary to be born again. However, God has not, and will not, tell us how many times we are to “witness” to a lost soul before that person “encounters” God.


    • John,

      The number of times is of less importance to me than whether or not we are making the best use of each encounter.

      We can’t control those encounters that happen apart from us. But we DO have some control over what happens when that person encounters us. In that case, how do you and I make best use of that encounter?

      That’s what I am most concerned about.

      • John Burns

        Hi Dan,

        You ask, “How do you and I make the best use of that encounter?” Excellent question. But, I would like to change the term “encounter” to “witness”. You see, all throughout Scripture it takes just one “encounter” with the living God to be born again. I’m somewhat of a Calvinist, and I believe in monogistic regeneration. God is solely responsible for our regeneration. And when he regenerates a dead, lifeless spirit that is the “encounter” with God that I am referring to.

        But, I believe that God expects us to be his “witness” in all the world. Since we do not know when God will choose to regenerate a person, I believe he expects us to witness to unbelievers “as often as necessary”. I believe that this witnessing is the sowing of seeds, and sometimes the watering. But God saves the the soul. That can happen the first time we witness or the 100th time. But, when God chooses to initiate that wonderful and amazing “encounter”, there will be an irresistible drawing like an oasis of water in a dried up and parched dessert. That’s the “ENCOUNTER” with the living God of the Universe.


        • John,

          I put my qualifier about monergism and our call to witness in my original post, so I hope I did cover it to some extent.

          My point in this post is to ask questions of equipping for the work and our willingness to do it. God uses people with ten talents and with five. I think we can get some of those five talent people to ten. I believe God wants us to as well. So why are we not doing this?

  2. Bob Aarhus


    Not sure I see it that way. I’m convinced that my introduction to God was through an environment that my parents, especially my dad, espoused when I was growing up (Mass every week, Holy Days of Obligation, etc.) that, while it had its theological issues, exposed me to Him; followed by the shocking revelation (via Godspell — hey, this Jesus guy is something else!); followed by living with people like our friends Cornell and Mark D.

    How many is that? Hundreds, if not thousands, of encounters. OK, so I’m thick headed. But it was at least 14 years, and I’m sure lots of prayers on the part of others.

    And if my salvation isn’t dependent on me (I’m not a Calvinist at all, but for the sake of argument…), then neither is the timing of the salvation or the efficacy of the “number of encounters”, it’s according to when God wants.

    Yea, God crunches the Tootsie Pop when He’s done licking it enough…

    • Bob,

      No doubt that your own experience is similar to many people’s.

      I guess what I am thinking about here is not so much those encounters that happen apart from your involvement and mine in someone else’s life, but those that DO involve us.

      Say someone has five “God encounters” by interacting with five different Christians. If four of those Christians blithely mumble something about God, aren’t those encounters really “misses”? And what if that fifth Christian really listens to the Holy Spirit and lays out the Gospel in a clear way and ministers to that person just as Jesus would have? Doesn’t that maximize the potential of that encounter to lead to salvation?

  3. If Jesus’ words to Nicodemus are any help, I don’t if it’s possible to understand how someone gets saved, let alone reduce it to an objective number of encounters with the Spirit. I think, like you said, it’s just one of those things we have to humble ourselves under and leave in God’s hands. In the meantime, we should take every opportunity we have to scatter some more seed along the way.

    What that might mean in regard to casting pearls into pigsties, well…

  4. David

    I personally am of the opinion of turtle…”I never even made it without biting”, or in the words of Dorothy: “You had me at ‘Hello'”

    We tend to try to manage outcomes. It can’t be done. We do the possible, God does the impossible. The only changes we can make are in our relationship with God. If we get out of the way, we are less of a hindrance.

    • David,

      Outcomes are clearly up to God. But doesn’t better prep lead to better outcomes? What kinds of better prep can we Christians do to maximize the possibility that an encounter with you or with me will “improve” the possible outcome and reduce the number of times that person has encounters before taking the plunge?

      • David

        Prep for what? It’s like the education issue, do you prep for exams, or prep for learning how to learn? In our case, our preparation should be knowing everything there is to know about God, which is means being a disciple of the Word, and being ready to stand aside so God can speak through us, whether in deed or occasional word.

        I think we try too hard to be perfect, and just trip ourselves up with silly rules and conventions that ultimately turn others away.

        • David,

          One of my growing concerns is that I believe most professing Christians in the West cannot articulate the Gospel to another person, in large part due to ignorance of what the Gospel is and what the most basic passages in the Scriptures are that address it.

          • David

            Which tells me they aren’t interested in their God, but rather themselves. If someone doesn’t know the Gospel, is unable to articulate the hope that lives within them, then I wonder what kind of relationship they have with their Savior. It also points to the woeful state of the Body; undiscipled, undisciplined. If the vine is not being trimmed, then is it still attached?

  5. TC

    Hi Dan, personally, I’m not a great evangelist; I’m a pretty good seed planter and waterer.

    I try to be faithful in all my encounters to either plan seeds or water the seeds already planted. When the time is right, God will bring the right person in to help with the harvest.

    So, for the average person, I think your former pastor’s numbers are pretty accurate; as long as we are faithful to plant, water and harvest appropriately.

    BTW, it really bothers me that I used a lot of christianese in my reponse.

  6. Who you callin’ a geezer!! I remember that commercial vividly and it comes to mind often. That’s some effective advertising – or, well, it would be if I actually liked those candies.

    As to your point, I think it takes as many times as it takes, however some gospel presentations likely put the teeth to it more quickly. I think of the parable of the seeds and the sower often, because I was raised in church and was in and out of a variety of churches before I was converted at the age of 40. It was ultimately the condition of my heart that made the difference and a lot went into readying that soil.

    All that said, I had never really heard much in the way of “Repent and be saved”. It took a lot to get me to the point where I knew I was helpless apart from Christ – that I wasn’t just a nice but troubled person who needed a helping hand. Rather I was a dead person who needed life.

    There is a sense in which the “soft gospel” messages I heard over the years inoculated me. Shortly before my conversion I remember a conversation in which I told someone, another professing Christian, that I did not think I really was a Christian. I couldn’t put my finger on why, but I’d seen those people who really love Jesus and knew I wasn’t one of them, but for the life of me I couldn’t figure out why. I’d affirmed all the truths, studied the Bible, been to church, you name it. So in my mind there were three kinds of people: rank heathens, those Jesus lovers, and there were me and the people I hung around with.

    So to sum up, I don’t know if we can regulate the number of encounters required, or dictate the work of the Holy Spirit in hearts, but we are responsible to present a clear and accurate gospel with all it’s teeth. If I’d heard such a gospel sooner, I can’t say whether I’d have been saved sooner, but at the very least I’d have understood my condition, and why I was the way I was.

  7. Don Costello

    Hey Dan,
    I was raised in a Catholic home but certainly not Christian. What I saw of the Catholic church, coupled with the draw of the drug and music culture of the mid to late sixties moved me to turn my back completely on God. There were more than a few times when people would witness to me the gospel. Each of them I can say had a spiritual effect on me. When the 70’s started, I actually began to feel the Spirit of God drawing me, but I resisted until the mid 70’s when I could resist no longer. How many encounters? I have no idea. There also was an instances when I was younger, in my early teens when my best friend’s family were Pentecostal Christians. The mother loved me like her own and I know she prayed for me. There was also a couple of Christians that I worked with at Nutone for short periods of time. I have to say it was probably the mother of my best friend and at least one of the gentlemen I worked with at Nutone, coupled with the seemingly random people who would witness to me every once in a while. There was one thing I knew, I would not go back to the Catholic Church. I wanted a faith where I would be involved, especially telling others about Jesus.

    • Don,

      In a lot of ways, it’s almost impossible to quantify God encounters. Honestly, every day is a God encounter of some kind or other; it’s just that people who can’t connect with God can’t see that encounter for what it is (Romans 1).

      Thank God that you had those professing Christians in your life who were actually able to profess their faith!

  8. Diane R

    There is a book that is getting play since the author is high up in Intervarsity. The book says that the “seeker” (as non-Christians are called today) goes through 5 stages and each stage needs Christians to get them through to the next stage. What I didn’t find in this book, and I don’t find it in the “It takes 12-15 encounters” crowd, is the role of the Holy Spirit. It’s the old “God is totally dependent on us and our programs for Him to get anything done” crowd.

    • Diane,

      You’re right. Reading Acts only highlights the need for the Holy Spirit to make it all come together. In fact, in Acts, people seemed to only get one shot at conversion—but then again, that was usually because they either accepted or denied the power of the Spirit operating in a miraculous way.

  9. Dan: I think that 15-25 encounters is too high. What do you think?

    Given my propensity for extreme sarcasm, I try my best to keep it on a short leash, but sometimes you write up such stuffy, precisionist, blather (e.g., questions such as the above) that what you say ends up coming within a hair’s breadth of being funny. The question looks so ridiculous to me that I wonder if maybe it’s actually intentionally meant to be a parody of the kind of issues that xtian bloggers obsess about. But I am always not sure you’re trying to be funny.

    (I apologize that my leash broke last time because currently I am reading up on the life of John Wimber, who I guess could be called the originator of the term “power evangelism.” Despite his stumbles, he impressed me as someone who had a lot more credibility on the subject precisely because of all the hard knocks he went through trying to get it right. So if one boils away my frothiness, what I was asking was simply a climb down from the ivory tower of lofty theoreticals and a more existential account of what you’ve actually been through in the “power evangelism” cage fighting arena.)

    • Oengus,

      When I read Acts, I don’t see that people got repeated opportunities for salvation. In fact, Jesus had said that if the disciples were not accepted, wipe the dust of their feet as a testament against that town and move on.

      Again, it only takes one genuine experience with the Holy Spirit to be saved. I believe the model is a Christian filled with the Holy Spirit and steeped in the Bible encounters a lost person and shares the faith in a Holy Spirit-led way. If that includes the elements of what is deemed “power evangelism,” then great. God does what He wants for that encounter.

      The element that concerns me is that we live in a “Christian” nation packed with estimates of as many as 300,000 churches. Why then are so few lost people in our country getting saved? I used to have Christians come up to me and try to “cold-call” witness to me. It’s been a decade—and probably closer to two—since someone did that. Say what you will about the tactic, it’s still telling, especially in this age of “the way of the Master.”

      If Christians were way more serious about evangelism than we are, then that encounter number would naturally go down. The fact that it is as high as it is says (at least to me) that we’re not equipping people to be witnesses, or our witnesses are equipped but not serious about doing the job. If that’s blather, I’m sorry. But something is broken with the way we do evangelism in the States, and we need to fix it.

      As to your apology, I accept it.

      To my left, just three feet away in my personal library, sit well-worn copies of Power Healing by Wimber & Springer and Power Encounters by Springer. I don’t have a copy of Power Evangelism, but I read it long ago. I first came to the Vineyard in 1986. I ended up staying for 16 years. I was in one of the most cutting-edge Vineyards in the entire world, a church which was at one time bigger than the mother church. I know the stories. I drank the Kool Aid. I have a lot of respect for Wimber. I’m not happy about everything he did (Kansas City Prophets, Toronto), but he mostly got it right. And when he got it wrong, he didn’t try to make excuses for himself. That alone gains him major points from me. Some of these New Apostolic Reformation guys could learn a thing or two about humility by looking back to Wimber.

      My personal experiences of power evangelism have been middling. I have not been involved personally in many of those encounters in which the charismata were directly part of someone’s conversion experience. I have seen more from afar or talked with others who have had more of these encounters than I have. What I have experienced doesn’t seem to set power evangelism above “regular” evangelism. Maybe I run with the wrong crowd. 😉

      So in that way, much of it IS theoretical to me. On the other hand, I have been in countless non-evangelism ministry situations where I have seen the charismata function as they should. That is far more my experience, and I have considerable experience there, having run one of the prayer teams at that large Vineyard I just mentioned.

      Regardless of my pedigree, I am connected enough to all sorts of charismatic streams to know what is going on out there. And many, many charismatics who are doing wacky things, largely because their grounding in Scripture is so woefully inadequate and their tools for discernment almost nonexistent. And that troubles me greatly, because these folks end up doing enormous harm, and they do it self-labeling as Christians.

      I don’t think my alarm at this constitutes “froth.” More charismatics should be alarmed. If I had a dollar for every “anointed” charismatic teen who five years after youth group has vanished from the Church, I’d have a good start on my retirement savings. “Teaching” kids to do power evangelism when they have no understanding of the Gospel (and potentially are not genuinely saved) is going to “whack up” a lot of people on Judgment Day. And that hacks me off because it doesn’t have to be that way.

      • Thanks, Dan, for the response although it covers a huge number of side issues. Actually, by “frothiness” I was refering to my frothiness not yours, although I still think the question involving numbers is ridiculous, but the answer is “as many as it takes”. We as outside observers should not be so presumptuous that we can immediately know all the lowdown on when the “catastrophic” experience (if you want to call it that) comes or what it looks like in the visible realm for any specific person. For a lot of people, it’s barely visible at first. God has a lot of freedom on how He does things, and he is extremely patient. (I know, He listens to me complain all the time.) We should not be so cocksure we’ve got everything figured out. Even the Lord had been poking Saul (aka St. Paul) with a cattle prod for quite a while before knocking him off the horse. The Twelve all differed in their response times, and we are simply not given all the details. Ciao.

  10. I don’t think quantitative analysis lends itself to matters of the Spirit. There is only one kind of encounter which can make a difference in a person’s life, and that is an encounter with the Holy Spirit which can take place through any means which He chooses. The input which precipitated my decision for Christ was listening to a cheesy radio evangelist who went straight from a gospel message into a money pitch.

    Do I want to be more effective? Yes I do, and I try to achieve that by listening to the direction of the Spirit and by cultivating a habit of praying for the people I run into during the day.

    • Phil,

      Poorly equipped Christians who end up fleeing from their responsibility to evangelize DO have an impact, but in the wrong direction. We stink at evangelism in this country. Poor teaching, poor equipping, poor ministering, poor connection to God through the Holy Spirit—whatever the case, we can do something about that. So why aren’t we?

      • So is the problem really poor evangelism or is it poor discipleship and a low state of Body life? I remember struggling with the issue of inviting someone who was open to my church of the time, knowing that there was very little going on there which would lead them to return or to build them in the faith, even if they were to make a decision.

  11. Sometimes 3,000 are overwhelmed with the presence of the Holy Spirit and the simple truth of the gospel and their own guilt and complicity.

    Sometimes Paul plants, Apollos waters and God gives the growth. And it takes His entire season.

    Sometimes you can roll south in a chariot and explain Isaiah in terms of Jesus, and it’s enough.

    Sometimes you can find a God-fearing lady worshiping by the river or a jailer scared out of his wits by earthquake and honesty and then you can go and bring their whole household to the Lord.

    Sometimes you can just mention resurrection to a group of polytheistic philosophers and most of them want to put you off but a few will listen and believe.

    Everybody’s different. God’s timing takes that into account.

    I got no better answer than that.

    • Keith,

      Everyone is different. Yes. But isn’t there also a difference between “Hey man, this Jesus life is cool” and “Sir, this is how you can know Jesus Christ personally”?

      Why are we so stuck on the former and so ill-equipped to do the latter?

      • Keith Brenton

        I’m willing enough to talk about Jesus … but not exceptionally eager to live Him. I think it would take fewer encounters to persuade folks of Jesus’ love if I lived it.

        Jesus sent the twelve and the seventy(-two?) to help people as well as to share good news and encourage them to repent and be subject to God’s kingdom. I know they came back excited about the miraculous ways they could help, but I can’t imagine that’s the only way they helped others.

        And, of course, as you blogged a few weeks ago, Jesus. reminded them that the priority was to be thankful that their names were written in heaven. So staying on message about the kingdom and showing as well as telling Who it’s about might increase our effectiveness – and our efficiency!

  12. merry

    I believe the Scriptures say “All who call upton the name of the Lord will be saved.”

    I’ve never heard of anyone counting the number of encounters one has to have before they are saved. That’s a very strange concept to me and isn’t exactly biblical. Maybe I’m completely misunderstanding what this article is getting at but the belief of your formal pastor just serves to solidify my belief that Christians like to make things way way way too complicated. There are hundreds of denominations and thousands upon thousands of books of systematic theology and an entire vocabulary for that theology and numbers and graphs and flowcharts when just the plain gospel and the love of Christ would suffice.

    Perhaps I’m overreacting, but usually when Christians start counting numbers and overanalyzing I stop listening. I’ve had many encounters with God that continually lead me to repent for various things, but like any relationship, “working out my salvation” is a long process with many twists and turns. You know, I’m not sure I even had a noticable encounter with God when I prayed the sinner’s prayer at the age of four. I just followed what my mom was saying and the encounters with God all came later. It’s different for everyone.

    But really, the idea of counting the encounters of God that leads to salvation makes me want to compare it to counting up the number of times I talked a person before they became a good friend or how many times someone encounters another person before they propose. It happens differently everytime, and is really complicated to think about. So I guess my honest question is “is this really a practical way to look at/analyze salvation?”

    • Merry,

      I think if you read Don Costello’s previous post, you can see how little encounters along the timeline of his life led to his conversion. I think that’s true in most people’s lives. Mine was like that, too.

      I’m just wondering if encounters with Christians who were more direct and better equipped would have reduced that number of encounters. I think it would. And I also think it might form a better start for someone’s eventual discipleship, too. But that’s another post!

  13. Sulan

    I was raised baptist and so the word ‘repent’ has great meaning in my life.

    I noticed in church a few weeks ago, when the ‘altar call’ was extended, no one has to step out in faith and go forward anymore to make a declaration for Christ. Everyone has their eyes closed, and the person coming to Christ lifts his or her hands, and sees someone after church.

    To me, they are missing the awesomeness of going forward to declare Jesus, and have the body come up to welcome you into the family!

    I reckon I said all that to say I miss what the church had and gave out when I was a child.

  14. connie

    The person who is most responsible for leading me to the Lord-the last link in the chain so to speak-did almost everything wrong.

    It didn’t matter. God used them and here I am!

  15. Jeff Brown

    Connie, Save your breath…dozens of folks have tried to tell Dan exactly what you have said so simply. Dan’s whats known as a “closer”, which is great in a sales environment but not great when trying to be an effective witness for Christ. Despite his admission that it’s not us who deal with peoples hearts and his own story about his own “time line” of salvation he doesn’t seem to “get it”. Dan, I apologize for my attitude but I feel as though this is the only way I know of to get you to see that you’re out of touch with what evangelistic ministry is about…


    I’m an effective evangelist when I listen to people talk about the effects of sin in their lives. I’m a witness of Christ when I act out His love for others, not just talk about it!


    because people don’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care!
    I know that you’re sincere and I also sense that you care, can you not see that “Hey man,this Jesus life is cool” may be exactly what a teen needs to hear? And would you stand on ceremony while preventing him from having a “God encounter” ? that’s above my pay grade to criticize or analyze how the Holy Spirit does what He does.

    • Jeff,

      I hate to say this, but your comments reveal that you haven’t been reading my blog for any length of time. Worse, you could not be more wrong about me. If anything, I am more on the love side and not strong enough on apologetics side.

      I’ve been advocating servant evangelism for years. I’ve been writing how we need to know our neighbors names, be there when their lives fall apart, and on and on. If anything, that’s been the PRIMARY theme of this blog for years when it comes to evangelism.

      So I mention that perhaps we need to add to that a better knowledge of the Gospel and the Scriptures. I ask if we are perhaps a bit too underequipped, and suddenly I’m Alec Baldwin in Glengarry Glen Ross?

      And if all I pitch to a teen every is “Hey man, this Jesus life is cool” and I don’t talk about dying to self and laying down one’s desires to pick up the desires of Jesus, am I not misrepresenting the Gospel? Aren’t I telling just part of the story? When that teen learns years down the road that Christianity isn’t always cool and that in many places on the planet it will get you killed, should we be surprised when he joins the increasing number of our “Jesus is cool” teens who apostasize in college?

      Please, Jeff. Honestly.

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