Reaching the unchurched in a post-Christendom society
David Gustafson is only half joking when he says he can come at the gospel about 18 different ways. Having spent decades practicing evangelism (he still does) and preaching its importance, Gustafson has amassed a wealth of understanding about what’s effective and what’s not, and how the American church can improve its ability to reach, convert and spiritually grow unbelievers in relationship with Christ.
Currently chair of the mission and evangelism department at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Chicago, Gustafson has focused on ministry, mission, evangelism and discipleship over his entire career. With a background teaching Christianity and the Bible in Western culture at the University of Houston, and courses in practical ministries at Houston Graduate School of Theology, Gustafson also served as campus director with Cru at Fresno State University in California before going on to lead two local churches as a pastor of evangelism and discipleship.
Earlier this year, Gustafson released Gospel Witness: Evangelism in Word and Deed (Eerdmans), a textbook of sorts full of practical wisdom he’s gleaned. The goal? To help church leaders (and seminarians) better understand evangelism in a Western, post-Christendom context, so they can better equip the people they’re pastoring to go out and witness to the world.
In Part 1 of our interview with Gustafson, he shares why such a book—and this particular conversation—matters right now for the church and the unchurched people it is trying to reach.
You’re coming at the topic of evangelism from three perspectives: You’ve practiced it, preached it and taught it. So you’re examining it experientially, scripturally and theoretically, right?
I have both the parachurch and local church evangelism and discipleship experience, so a lot of what I’ve written has gone through the filters of Cru and the local church. But I’m not unique in this. There are a lot of people who have been in both worlds. I am committed to equipping Christians to share the gospel, but the book is also highly ecclesio-based. It’s very much tied to life in the local congregation. And now I’m teaching it, so I have to model and set the pace of evangelism as well. My teaching is connected to real life experience and demonstrating the gospel witness.
This is who I am; this is what I know. Two years from now that might change, but right now, this is the best I’ve got in terms of what I’ve learned in my last 35 years of ministry. The advantage of being an academic with sabbaticals is that you’re able to stay up with current literature, and I think my book interacts with current literature. It’s written for the pastor, the church elder, the Bible college junior or senior, the seminarian. I’ve tried to make it well-documented and really based on what a lot of people have said, plus surveys and quantitative and qualitative research.
Many books are available on evangelism. Why did you feel it was important to write this particular one at this point in church history? How does your examination of evangelism differ from others?
I can compare it to William J. Abraham’s The Logic of Evangelism; my book is replacing it in the Eerdmans lineup. Abraham’s missiology was really shaped a lot by Donald McGavran, so it had a lot of discussion about church growth. My doctor of ministry degree was from Fuller in church growth, so I understand that world and the missiology driving that. But I’ve converted to more of a Lesslie Newbigin understanding of missiology in terms of mission in Western context. I’ve written this book with an understanding of our contemporary setting in America, which, I would say, is more late-Christendom or post-Christendom.
Fifty years ago you could start out a gospel conversation with sin and go straight to Jesus. That worked in a cultural Christendom world where a lot of the people you talked to had gone to Sunday school and were catechized. They had some framework and knew who Jesus was. They just needed to be prompted to act in faith on what they knew.
Today, you start with somebody who is far from God, is unchurched and hasn’t had that experience. It takes longer to share the gospel. You have to give some information and cannot assume things. If you start with sin and go straight to Jesus, then you’re making a lot of assumptions that they understand who Jesus is. I see gospel presentations still doing that, but it doesn’t work anymore.
And you offer an alternative.
Yes. I’ve developed an evangelistic tool called “God’s Human Drama,” which is a longer narrative of Scripture. There’s a video on YouTube where you can see me do the whole thing. It explains the whole of Scripture, but it’s a simple way to share the gospel. I frame who Jesus is in light of creation, human betrayal and Abraham’s clan: Abraham, to whom there was given a promise, a blessing to the whole world; Moses, who was a redeemer of the people of Israel from under slavery in Egypt; and David, who was promised a kingdom and a son who would reign forever.
But things weren’t fully realized. There continued to be human betrayal until God had to become the solution. That’s when I introduce that God became human. This person fulfilled the promise to Abraham, redeemed people from slavery to sin, and was a king even greater than David and fulfilled the promise given to him. This person is Jesus of Nazareth.
When you’re talking to a nonbeliever, you’ve given them quite a bit of framework for who Jesus is. That’s one way I’ve adjusted my evangelism. And my book, I think, is framed within an understanding of an increasingly post-Christendom context, where Christianity no longer has homefield advantage.
In Part 2 of the interview, David Gustafson explores how to avoid a cookie-cutter approach to evangelism, why Christians should regard their neighborhoods like mission fields and what pastors can do to develop a culture of evangelism.