Jason Willoughby became a follower of Jesus when he was 17, and this decision completely changed the trajectory of his life. He has served as a pastor of evangelism, mobilized several large-scale evangelism events, and, most recently, given much thought to evangelism for quiet people. He is eager to encourage quieter doers of good deeds to add gospel words to their gospel actions.
Jason calls McMinnville, Oregon home, and leads the ministry Reach the City.
Can you Tell us about yourself and where you grew up?
At 12 years old, both my parents were working, so I was a “latchkey kid” going around the city on my own.
I grew up in Los Altos, California in the Bay Area. We were a middle-class family, and my dad sold computers (that’s why we lived in the Silicon Valley). My sister and I were on our own most of the time. One day, I was riding my bike, and I ran into a predatory pedophile who kidnapped and raped me. This was right before middle school. I was utterly wounded. It shattered me. There is something science cannot help you with through with damage like this. I realized I was so concerned about returning my dad’s bike which I borrowed that I literally could have gotten away, but didn’t because he had my bike. Later, I understood that the material value system did not help me at all and does not have the answer to our problems.
Three months later, I was starting middle school. It’s the 70’s. It’s California. It’s sex and drugs, and rock and roll time. I was lonely growing up a latchkey kid, and it was the next phase of my life. I began to wonder what I had to do to just fit in and ease the pain of being odd. If my friends were into rock, then I was going to be a musician and just be really cool. If my friends were into marijuana, then I was going to be a cool stoner guy.
I remember consciously thinking that the “good kid” thing wasn’t working, so I made a decision to get into whatever to just to fit in. For about 3-4 years I was fitting in and was a wannabe musician, trying to be important for that. Then, the band I was in kicked me out, and that annoyed me. My response was like, “I’ll show you guys.” I started playing my bass guitar for hours and hours a day, and I got really good. I joined a new band. I was writing original music, and we were playing in a studio in Los Altos Hills because Tommy, our keyboardist’s dad, was in a band like Journey and Santana.
I’m seventeen, and I am thinking, “I am going to be a rock star!” I had a beautiful girlfriend and just remember thinking, “What more could there be to life?” Then, the band broke up over the stupidest personality conflict. I was so angry, because this was my golden ticket and I felt like they messed it up.
To add to the pain, my girlfriend dumped me in the same week, and my life collapsed. What I didn’t realize at the time was that my grandma, back in Pennsylvania, was upping the prayer at the time. She knew I was in spiritual moral trouble, and she was just banging on heaven’s door. God’s answer to her prayer was, “Let’s destroy these idols in Jason’s life. Let’s overthrow this self-constructed life.” My first response though was to go even darker.
I began to use a lot of substances to escape the pain of losing my dreams and being lonely. My friend was starting to get into some sorcery books, so we started down this path and kept getting into these harder substances that really messed with you. I was still using marijuana about every day of the week, and I was really upping it in addiction. I began to heavily use alcohol. After about 6 months, I looked in the mirror and saw this vacant person staring back at me. I had this question: “Why am I destroying myself?”
“Is there anything in life that can last? That can’t be taken away?,” I asked myself.
About 2-4 weeks later, I was going through books in my library and opened that red RSV mainline denomination Bible I got in fourth grade that I had never opened. I was just opening books and shutting them, grabbed the Bible, opened it directly to Matthew 5, Sermon on the Mount, I started reading, and I was thunderstruck. Everything this guy said was truth. I was looking everywhere, and your life goes from bad to worse. The Enemy is a liar. After reading the Sermon on the Mount, I thought, “I need to be religious.”
Sadly, the dots weren’t connecting. I felt like I had to stop doing these bad things and just start doing the right things. If you read only the Sermon on the Mount, it’s your righteousness needs to be greater than the scribes and the Pharisees, and you have to be perfect as your Heavenly Father is perfect and righteous at the very core of your person.
The harder I tried to live this self-good life, the worse I performed. I relapsed; I did the things I said I wouldn’t do. I would be utterly ashamed and frustrated. Looking back my hesitation to surrendering to Christ was, “I’ll lose a couple of my party buddy, longtime friends. I will have nobody and be utterly alone.”
I had that classic, private, American, barricaded, suburban life thing and a hard shell of self-protection and survival all around me. I remember I came home from a party in December 17, 1981. I know the date. I did it again. I did all the things I knew I shouldn’t do and what God was doing was trying to destroy my faith in myself, my control, my friends, and open me up. I pulled the Bible off the shelf again, and God in His mercy revealed Matthew 11: “Come to me all who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you. Learn from me, for I am gently and lowly in heart, and you shall find rest for your soul.”
I remember pounding my finger on the Bible, “That’s it! That’s what I don’t have. Take it, God. I give up‒I quit.”
I put my life in Jesus’ hands and went to bed. I didn’t expect anything to happen. I had nobody telling me, “Oh, here’s what being born again is like.”
I woke up the next morning; my eyes fluttered open, and I was clean. I was clean on the inside. I felt totally cleansed, forgiven, and that I was going to heaven. I opened the Bible and, “Hey, I know the Author, and He’s living inside of me.”
I got up and got one of those 50 pound garbage bags. I got all my bongs, roach clips, and contraband. I literally cleansed my room, and I had the power to live a new kind of life. It was such a joyous thing. Now, I have a lot of changes that God started to work on in these 30-40 something years ever since.
My verse at that point was, “You are a new creation, the old has passed..” and this began my evangelistic heart. I just wanted other people to have what I had.
As I have ministered to college students, I have found that my story is actually getting more relevant to people, as they are battling all these private demons. God in His mercy now is allowing me to speak life to younger adults. We tend to react to these ideologies and expressions of self, but the truth is that the underbelly of it is as dark as it was for me. Underneath our self-supremacy is a profound brokenness. It’s been this way since we got kicked out of the garden.
So, now What are you doing? Take us to how you got started with your ministry?
I did 20 years doing ‘turn around pastoring’ where you take toxic churches and minister grace and break the power of those cycles. I got into it because I was an evangelism pastor at a church with chronic conflict, and I kept thinking, “Why would God trust souls to us?”
If you are going to have effective evangelism, you must bring them into a grace-oriented family that is different from what they have experienced, a family where there is redemption, mercy, and hope and where ministering to one another can happen.
God broke the cycle of conflict at this church I was at, and then I went to a rural church. I never saw myself as a rural person, but there was such profound brokenness. In this rural setting, things got so extreme before they would come out into the open because they all lived so far apart. Then on Sundays they would come together for church. It was a laboratory of how deep grace can really go. After 12 years, the cycle at the church was broken and I left. I went to McMinnville, and as I was working at a much larger church, both my parents got chronically sick. I couldn’t focus on the church’s growing crisis with my parents being ill. The “honor your father and mother” verse just kept ringing in my mind.
I took multiple trips to California, and when I was done with that phase, I knew I was going to do something different and positive. One of my friends, Ken Ramey (who’s also a Next Generation Alliance member), coached me in the Bringing the World to Jesus Christ training. I found it a little generic but was going to try to use it. I was scheduled to train at a camp, and they gave me the slot during the nicest part of the day, which means nobody would be coming. I don’t blame them; I wouldn’t go if the sun was out either!
While preparing for the training, I just had this idea pop into my head: “Evangelism for quiet guys.”
I tweaked my material, changed the name of the training to this, and I had 60 guys show up. It was unbelievable. When you are talking with and encouraging people in who God made them to be, it changes people. I saw tears in peoples eyes! So many of them felt discouraged because they hadn’t been taught how to share their faith, and it oftentimes becomes an extrovert-only gift. I thought, “Lord, there is something here that you are opening my eyes to.”
I started wondering, “Why don’t I just focus on training the 80% of introverts in the church?” These were the people who find talking to someone else extremely difficult. In love, mercy, and great compassion we could teach them one skill and one step at a time to help them learn some things to share their faith.
I love when we get in these workshops, and you can’t get these highly introverted people to shut up. They go over the time, and I am telling them, “I thought you were quiet people!” It is really cool to see the Lord get them to realize they really can do this.
We teach a process definition of evangelism: “Evangelism is cooperating with the Holy Spirit and other people to help one pre-Christian take a step closer to Jesus Christ.” We can all do that much more than we realize, no matter what side of the spectrum you fall on.
You don’t strike me as an introvert…Are You?
I’m a double sided person. It was never going to be one-sided with me. There are layers here; I have a quieter, artistic side, like my deep thinker songwriter side. That’s where I generate most of my creative materials. I enjoy being around people, but I need recovery afterwards.
I’ve heard it said before that majority of the world are introverts, but the world was made for extroverts. Do you find this to be true?
Exactly, even in the Christian world, you look at who gets the majority of the training! We assume people don’t need training in social skills, but the reality is that more people do. I often say that when I was growing up, we had one screen: the television. In my family, we really didn’t learn how to talk to people. The only difference between myself and a young college person is that we stared at the same screen, and they all stare at separate screens in the same room.
I was with a bunch of engineering major college students (these are not the social butterfly guys), and they said, “Would you come and train us?” We only focused on one skill: having a conversational plan, just a road map in the mind.
When you are talking to someone, maybe start by talking about family or how that person got to this college. They are just gently interviewing them, and most people will enjoy talking about themselves so it’s not too tough.
They just start talking to people who are in their classes, and they get to know people’s names. This is basic evangelism stuff. We’re not inventing the wheel here! By the end of the term you might have a study group and have gotten to know these people. That’s the prime place to share the gospel because trust has been built, they’ve experienced goodness and kindness, and you’re actually helping them. You are a fellow student in that class, and you’re safe to them.
Is that where you start with your coaching oR evangelism training? is It just beginning to have a conversation?
That alone is life-changing for introverts. I have these engineering guys at the end of the week saying, “We did that! It worked.”
They were so grateful and encouraged because now they can do something that has previously been awkward or something they with which they were frustrated. Now they know how to start conversations with people, and if they do it right, they will start to do less talking and more listening. You can go introvert on people and just listen!
The people in citywide gospel movements who love to do quiet deeds of verbal caring and actions of service are not usually the people who like to be up front blabbing‒that’s just the way it is. A lot of times that person is basically told, “You’re not a harvester,” or they feel like a failure inside because they aren’t taking the right opportunity. With introverts, I first encourage them because they’ve been very discouraged because they feel like they are benched and out of the game.
I start telling them that, “This is who God made you. He made you thoughtful so that you think before you speak. Isn’t that wonderful?” They notice things and pick up on stuff. People who are blabbing don’t pick up on whether a person might be struggling or not. People will come up and tell an introvert things and they wonder, “Why are they telling me this?”
I’ll say, “It’s because you’re listening and that’s who God made you to be.”
One day a long time ago, the adults of our community and city gave us their kids, whether it was through VBS or 5 day clubs. Parents would drop their kids off even if they didn’t attend church. We were able to plant lots of seeds in childhood with the majority of the kids in our society. When they hit a crisis in adulthood, they came back to church. That was the gospel opportunity where they came forward, and it was harvest time.
Now, I often ask, “How many of your city kids are in VBS or anything similar?”
The answer is usually, “1%, maybe.”
What about those people? The truth is we’re going to have to plant seeds with our fellow adults because now those seeds are not being planted in childhood and haven’t been for generations. Guess who is most equipped to plant those seeds? Who has the native gifts to just start being a presence, being kind and getting to know people gently? It’s the introverts! This is their hour. Not with strangers, but with people they are already next to.
How do you help people move through the process from a conversation to engaging in relationship?
I tell people to not do this all at once, but rather little by little. If you are trying to open a spiritual conversation door and it slams shut, just go back and do the other everyday life things because what you’re really trying to do is earn trust. When people are at the top of their game, they are bragging and they believe they know best, but I tell them, “Just wait, the day of trouble comes to all of us.”
If you are lovingly patient, take some flack, and are kind in return, then when that time comes, those people will come with their anger or hostility, and we can listen. I train on how to disarm hostility because introverts avoid conflict, so what if we turned hostility into “Tell me that story. How did you become so angry at Christians?” Then, we shut up and just listen to them.
If things happened to them, we agree with that and have compassion. We should ask, “Could you forgive us as a group for the things that we have done wrong to you?”
Even if people are closed off, we can always just invite them to talk to us any time they want and remind them we will always be here. We don’t have to perform. The pressure we put on ourselves to perform is often one that gets us into terrible trouble.
Where did that pressure come from? did it come from the church?
Well first of all, our sinful nature puts pressure on ourselves to perform and produce. We have an inner Pharisee living within all of us. It’s the same thing that judges us for evil while tempting us at the same time to do evil. There’s that inner thing, but also within church circles, we need to move away from a performance-based system and into a visitation of the grace of God. Because here is the shocking message: God loves failures.
That is almost more shocking than God loves sinners. The truth is, we are all incompetent, failing, and broken. Weirdly enough, when we bring that stuff to the Lord, He loves us there in it. Now we have His grace to speak to a fellow person who might be struggling in the very same area. We might even be able to talk to people outside the church about the areas of depression, failure, and feeling like life is out of control. We have to ask ourselves, “Are we seeking to be right or seeking to be honest?”
I think a lot of churches have the holiness code: what’s most important is having the right thinking and behavior. When I go to a church, I’ll ask people to raise their hand if they think they are right. People will raise their hands, and I tell them, “When I make a self pattern of thinking I am right, that is self-righteousness.”
They respond, “You got us.”
With Pharisees, people were hating them, and I think that’s the trap. We, who love the Word of God and know the standards of God and ways of God, in our passion to be close to Him and right before Him, can sometimes slip into that subtle “need to be right” trap. Instead we should come with all the ways we are wrong. Let’s lead with our worst foot and confess. Confession is attractive; it draws people to us, unlike the, “Look at me, I’m doing just awesome.”
My experience has been that a lot of pastors are introverts. Do You Think this is true?
It is the irony of ironies. If you are a deep thinker, if you care about theology, if you are someone who is wired to be sensitive and pick up on people’s needs, then you are great for shepherding. Don’t we want someone to do that? This means they are going to struggle with how to go outward. A lot of churches follow their pastors in a little self-protective facade where everyone needs to have their act together. Churches don’t mean to go there, but some end up there. I have ministered to churches and trained them as well.
How do you help pastors elevate the conversation oF evangelism in their communities?
I try to build trust with repeated interactions because you’re going to need to go deeper with introverts, and it’s going to be slower, but once they give their heart to you, they are like a Golden Retriever. They will never let you go once you have that loyalty, and they will let you into their circle. Then you can start speaking gently and start getting them to think about evangelism.
Letting it take a little longer and being okay with that process is an important step. Televangelists are always kind of in a hurry, and typically that classic extroverted evangelist is going from person to person to person. That’s what makes following up with new believers really tough for a lot of them because they’re on to the next thing. However, with introverts, they are bringing people in and are more focused on loyalty.
What I tell pastors is the first time you try to ride a bike without training wheels it doesn’t go well, and there’s likely a crash. The 5th time you can stand up a little bit better, and by the 10th time, you’re riding your bicycle without training wheels! It’s happening and the 100th time you’re not thinking about whether or not you are staying up on the bicycle. The 1000th time you aren’t even thinking of the bicycle‒you are just going somewhere.
That is the approach to training; it isn’t just a head knowledge, one-and-done skill. It is just practicing the skills, one at a time. Take one skill and work on it, then do it over and over. It’s nice for introverts because if you break it down into micro skills that they can work on, they think they can do it.
They realize that asking questions is powerful, and by asking them, they can get to know someone who they’ve known for 30 years even better. Maybe it’s someone who has a heartbreak and we get to ask them that story and how we can pray for them. My approach is gentle and very practical working on one skill, then moving on to the next one. Otherwise, instead of doing everything at once, they end up doing nothing.
Before you even think about sharing your faith you have to learn to have a relationship with someone.
Yes, accosting people with the gospel does happen. I remember going to a Dodger game and a man with a microphone yelling, “You’re going to hell!”
I just thought to myself, “Brother, you are not doing the cause any good. Please go home.”
We put pressure on ourselves for something to happen and then it does not go well and actually we end up building walls instead of bridges. The pressure is on God because we are God’s problem to solve. We all need a miracle, and we need miracles for God to open hearts. The pressure is on him, and He alone can pull that off . We’re just making ourselves available and doing our little thing. He’s the one opening doors.
The other thing is we aren’t alone. We have people in the body of Christ who are better than us at some things, and when we work as a team, the whole gospel movement is working as a whole Church in the city. I love that because you really can be who you are in Jesus Christ, and it’s not all riding on you! God has other servants who can do other things quite well. What a relief!
Some people are just harvesters. In a farming scenario, you do need the picking crew, so don’t hear me at all denigrating or saying we don’t need the eye; we need the whole body of Christ. If you have 5% of your church who are extroverts, put them to work. Don’t involve them in meaningless ministry, but make them an evangelistic outreach team. I learned in local church ministry that instead of trying to fit people into our program church stuff, find out what they’re strong at in Christ and release them to go do that.
We’re not very good at celebrating each other. We almost get back to enduring and putting up with each other and that’s not an impressive witness. In our culture, we have this individualism where it’s just Jesus and us. This means you have isolated people in a church who think, “As long as I have my quiet time, and I’m good with the Lord, then I don’t need anything else.”
When in reality they are not good because they are cut off from a channel of grace. God gives us direct grace the most, but He wants to give you grace through other people too. He’s going to give you ideas, words, and love for them and when you exchange that, then whoa! You have grace splashing back and forth in that room and people are speaking and doing things that are catalytic and grace-filled.
What do you hope and dream as you look to the Future? what really gets you fired up and motivated for the next 10 years?
One of my passions is revival. I want to see the Church of Jesus Christ revived and the gospel overflowing. I want to see restored, revived individuals and until that happens we really aren’t going to have the footprint in society and catalytic transformation history we want. There was the Great Awakening where things just spilled out from the church and transformed an entire nation. Last time that happened in the United States was around 1905 when the noon prayer movement from Coast to Coast happened.
It’s been over a hundred years! None of us alive have seen that, and we don’t know what it’s like. I’m an evangelist, but I’m also a revivalist. For me personally, I’m 55 years old and I’d like to think I have half my life ahead of me. No! Who am I kidding? I want to give this away and I want to multiply myself. If I partner with organizations, like the Luis Palau Association, then maybe when a city isn’t ready for a festival, I can get people ready to get ready. At least get them thinking or preparing the ground. They really need to get more of their people deployed and I can start training the introverts and give them skills to start laying the ground in their everyday life. They start to realize once they have the skills and confidence that they are hooked and can do this sharing their faith thing!
tell us a story about someone who might have been wondering, “what am I doing here?” at One of YOur TRAINING’S?
Here is an individual example and then I will give you a group one. I had a mechanical engineer and you could tell this guy was like, “Oh evangelism training, no thank you.” Every time I teach, I set them up in circular tables and test the skills right on the spot. It’s not just piling head knowledge, but we actually practice it. Then we go outside. This day we went out to a park in San Diego to talk to homeless people. When we regrouped and debriefed, this guy was saying, “Wow! That actually worked, and I want to do it again.”
He realized how he could start using this training in his classroom and in other places of his life.
I was invited to a local, rural, church with 60 people and I started working with them about four years ago. I’ve been back three times so a lot of times I’m just building partnerships and the pastor reports back to me. He tells me one day, “Our people are talking to people. We’re getting people baptized and people are coming to Jesus.”
It’s a little church and if you have six people come to Jesus, that’s 10% of the congregation! It’s not the size or the prominence of the church that matters because God does unlikely works in unlikely places with unlikely groups of people, and that’s probably the thing I highlight in my interesting, odd, outside-the-box ministry. I get to work with the unlikely people who are doing unlikely things for the Lord.
It’s a slow process, but don’t give up! Most of our fellow adults have nothing but what they see on the media, so they don’t have those childhood seeds. We have to remember we’re in a place of patience, persistence, and planting. A season to touch hearts, meet needs, and care for people. If we’re faithful, there’s going to be one day or critical mass when it just booms!
There is such thing as a collective witness. How do we collectively imprint and see our reputation and response in society? A lot of people think that as long as I’m good or as long as my local church is doing well, then we’re done. The reality is that we’re not done because people are not just looking at you; they’re looking at you in relationship to the other churches. If you are speaking evil of the other or in rivalry and not affirming them, it doesn’t look good.
When you love people for a long, long time who were previously unloved, there is a tipping point where they thank God that you are in their life. “I’m so glad I have a friend like you,” they tell me, “How can I have what you have?”
Remember, we have different styles of evangelism. Some people have the quiet, doing good deeds, some people have the, “God told me who to go to talk to,” and some are testimonial. Get close to the Lord, get filled with the Lord, and look at how he leads you to help others and see what your gifts are. Link up with those who have the other things!
Right now the Church needs each other more than ever. We have to think collectively, but it is so foreign to our culture. If we work together we can truly help society.