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Going back to believable evangelism
“Evangelism” has become a byword. It has fallen to the wayside in Christian vocabulary. Some see it sitting in the gutter; others walk by without noticing at all. Some have replaced it with “missional” and others have replaced it with “social justice.” Still more are aware it is there, but deliberately avoid it.
Why is the gospel good news?
Why do we avoid evangelism? After witnessing across the globe for 30 years, being trained with all kinds of evangelistic tools, and making disciples in the local church, I have discovered a fundamental question is often overlooked: “How is the gospel good news to those we evangelize?” Evangelicals are proficient at rehearsing the information of the gospel but we often lack the ability to situate the gospel in the lives of others. We need to get into their skin, to understand how the gospel could transform the self-righteous do-gooder, the skeptical urbanite, the abused mother, the successful professional, and the strung-out addict. It is true that, in the end, the Holy Spirit has the final say in convincing others that the gospel is good news. But it is also true that the Holy Spirit chooses to use what we say along the way.
The gospel is good news whether someone perceives it to be good to them or not. But the only reason we know is because we experience its grace-saturated goodness in our everyday lives. We know the gospel is good, not just in theory, but in the experience of suffering, parenting, dating, working, and so on.
People need to know what the gospel is but also what it does.
For instance, we know the gospel is good because it frees us from being a slave to others’ opinions, when through faith in Christ, we have obtained the opinion that matters most: God the Father saying, “This is my son. I am pleased with you!” This deep, undying love and approval of God the Father frees us from people-pleasing, over-working, spouse-impressing, self-adoring living. The gospel sets us free! The trouble, of course, is that there are so many people who don’t know the power of the gospel like you and me. They don’t know how the gospel is good news for them.
If Jesus did die and rise for the world, then it is incumbent upon his followers to tell them how and why his gospel is good. Reciting the memorized fact that Jesus died on the cross for sins to coworkers doesn’t tell them why this important or how it can change their life. Reciting this information dispassionately is even less convincing. What people need to know is not only what the gospel is but also what the gospel does. Asking people to believe in the death and resurrection of a first-century Jewish messiah, for no apparent reason, is quite unbelievable. The problem we face, then, is not simply an issue of bad press, but also an issue of how to share the gospel in a way that is worth believing. But in order to do that, we ourselves have to find the gospel something worth believing.
Recovering from evangelism
Evangelism is something many 21st-century Christians are trying to recover from. It often stirs up memories of rehearsed presentations, awkward door-to-door witnessing, or even forced conversions in revival-like settings. To be certain, God has used these efforts, but not as much as is often claimed. Regardless, those results were based on a modernist worldview in culture familiar with Christianity. The evangelism of the 20th century was based on common assumptions, such as: the brute fact of absolute truth, the existence of heaven and hell (or God for that matter), and a widely held notion that sin keeps us from God. Those assumptions can no longer be assumed.
Today, many Christian teachings and assumptions are fuzzy, even questionable, for society at large. Calling people to “repent and believe in Jesus” could be easily construed as “stop doing bad things, start doing good things (as Jesus did), and God will save you.”
In order for our evangelism to be believable, it must be biblical.
This, of course, is nowhere close to the aim of biblical evangelism. Biblical evangelism focuses on communicating our need to respond to Jesus Christ as Lord of all, not on how we can get God to respond to our moral performance. The gospel is bigger and smaller than most people think, as big as the cosmos and as small as you and me. It is the good and true news that Jesus has defeated sin, death, and evil through his own death and resurrection and is making all things new—even us!
The challenge before the church is to put that epic definition of the gospel into the “even us” in a way that is personal, meaningful, coherent, and believable. To show people how Jesus is better.
2 steps to a believable gospel
In order to recover a believable evangelism, we must do two things.
First, we must consider why evangelism is so often avoided. This question occupies half of my book. Along the way, I consider five types of unbelievable evangelism that lead many to avoid sharing their faith, i.e. evangelism that is preachy, impersonal, intolerant, know-it-all, and shallow.
Second, we must understand how the gospel is worth believing for those around us. This question fills the other half of the book. Taking up five major gospel metaphors—justification, union with Christ, redemption, adoption, and new creation—I try to show how these different gospel images or doctrines can be applied to different people in different circumstances.
In order for our evangelism to be believable, it must be biblical. When communicating the gospel of grace, we must draw on biblical truths, stories, and images. Stop there, however, and we fail to communicate how the gospel is good news to others. Like good counselors, we must listen to others well in order to know how to effectively communicate the unsearchable riches of Christ in a way that makes sense to them. By addressing genuine evangelistic concerns and charting a practical way forward, I hope the Lord will use this book to stoke fresh fires of belief in Christ’s gospel for both Christians and not yet Christians and perhaps assist in moving evangelism from a byword to a believable word.
This article is posted courtesy of Jonathan’s blog, Gospel-Centered Discipleship, and adapted from his latest book, Unbelievable Gospel: Sharing a Gospel Worth Believing (also available in eBook format).