In our post-Christian society, preliminary groundwork often must be laid before a full gospel presentation is made.
By Randy Newman
Don’t you just love stories? We sit on the edge of our seats to hear them. We download podcasts that feature them. We pay money to hear comedians tell funny ones. We wake up when a longwinded speaker breaks from explanations, elaborations and emendations and says, “This reminds me of a story.” Stories form the backbone of this book. I retell how individuals’ narratives intersect with the grandest story of all—the gospel.
Allow me to begin with one of my favorites. It’s about Lawrence and the pigs. If I were a betting man, I wouldn’t have put a lot of money on Lawrence’s ever attending a Bible study. In fact, I would have wagered against his ever going to anything connected with faith or God or the Bible. Like all the people I write about in this book, Lawrence was an unlikely candidate for a Christian convert. But in his freshman year in college, Lawrence did go to an event where students could ask “some Bible expert” any question they wanted. Lawrence went because he heard there’d be pizza. And the girl who invited him gave out cookies to anyone who said they’d come.
He had virtually no church background to speak of. When he filled out the part of his college application that asked for his religion, he had to ask his mother what he should write. She told him, “Methodist,” and that’s what he wrote, although he had no idea what that meant. His mother had taken him to church a few times, but he doubted whether God existed. When I asked him how he would describe himself as he began college, he offered the words “lonely, angry and apathetic.” So he went to the ask-the-expert event to be “obnoxious” and “have fun” and to try to show the speaker that the Christian faith had “obvious issues.” What he remembers most was that the speaker and the Christians were nice to him even though he “was being really mean.” He asked the speaker, “What about aliens? What does that mean for Christianity?” The speaker responded brilliantly, admitting he didn’t know much about aliens, that he didn’t think their existence would affect Christianity all that much, and that if Lawrence wanted to know about Christianity, he should attend the eight-week study on the gospel of Mark that would start the next week.
So Lawrence went, with an attitude of “whatever” (a word he used a lot during the first 15 minutes of our conversation). He asked many questions during those eight weeks and was impressed that the leader answered thoughtfully and respectfully. He learned a lot about God’s righteousness and his own sinfulness. For a few weeks, he was baffled about how “unfair” it was for Jesus to pay for his sins. But he found himself believing more and more as the weeks passed. At one point in our conversation, I asked him if there were any major objections or questions that needed resolution. Was there a significant roadblock, I wondered, that, once removed, would pave the way for belief? He paused and shook his head no. But then he remembered and said, “Well … the thing that stands out in my head mostly … was about the pigs and Jesus casting the demons into the lake.”
I must confess. At that point, I wanted to say, “Really? That tripped you up? Even if I wasn’t Jewish with my innate disdain for pork, I’m not sure that’s what would hold me back from God’s offer of eternal life.” I tried to clarify by asking, “What was your question about the pigs?” His answer didn’t help me much. “What the heck was that? Jesus just killed all those pigs? They didn’t do anything.” But then he just started laughing and made a face that seemed to say, “That story makes no sense.”
So I asked him how the leader answered his question, and Lawrence’s laughter came to a sudden stop. He told me the Bible study leader took his question seriously and started by admitting that he wasn’t sure. That impressed Lawrence as humble and sincere. And then he suggested there really must be some things that are evil, that we shouldn’t mess around with demons, and there must be a big difference between being a pig and being a person. I asked him if that satisfied him and he said it did.
“I was amazed that he had an answer,” he said and added, “people I had dealt with before in churches that I had been to didn’t know how to handle the Bible.” They just told him to believe in Jesus and stop asking all his questions. That didn’t sit well with a fairly intelligent guy, and so he dismissed Christianity as a stupid person’s religion. However, a thoughtful answer about pigs persuaded Lawrence that there probably were good answers for his other questions. There’s much more to his story, a beautiful and gradual one that included a lot more Bible studies, a major conference for Christian students, attending a good church where people did know how to handle the Bible, and a lot of conversations where he learned more and more about Jesus’ “unfair” sacrifice for sinful people like Lawrence. His experience highlights at least four important lessons:
1. The process of coming to Christ takes time. While God certainly can work instantaneously, most often he does not. People tend to come to faith gradually.
2. God uses a large and diverse cast of ordinary people to accomplish his extraordinary purposes. People tend to come to faith communally.
3. Layers of dramas lie beneath the surface. People’s stories reveal a tapestry of experiences, struggles, realizations and transformations. People tend to come to faith variously.
4. Nothing is too difficult for God. He can and does draw people to himself miraculously. People always come to faith supernaturally.
My conversation with Lawrence was part of the dissertation research I conducted toward my doctorate. Hearing his story was just one of 40 deeply moving and exciting experiences I had along the way. I know: We don’t usually expect the words “dissertation” and “exciting” to appear within a thousand paragraphs of each other. But as I heard from recent converts about how God worked to transfer them from the domain of darkness to the realm of saving light, I went through a lot of tissues. I have since listened to several other conversion stories that weave their way into this book.
WE NEED HELP TELLING OUR STORY
I’m convinced that hearing people’s stories can help us proclaim the gospel more fruitfully. Through this book, I hope to encourage you in that task. But let’s be realistic: Evangelism has never been easy, and that’s not likely to change.
Consider this scenario: You’ve got new neighbors. And your pastor has convinced you to invite them to church. What could be a kinder gesture of “Welcome to the neighborhood” than an invitation to worship together? But you don’t know if they’re Christians. In fact, you’d almost bet they’re not. You remember attending a training seminar years ago about how to present the gospel concisely, clearly, boldly and sooner rather than later. Even though you cling firmly to the truth that people are lost apart from Christ, somehow, that all seems unhelpful at this moment. You wonder what to say after “Hello” and before “Are you ready to become a Christian?” Most of us might think, “Oh, there’s so much you can say.” But we quickly admit we’re not sure where to begin.
This book aims to help with that task. Some refer to this as “pre-evangelism.” I love that term, but to be honest, it’s too vague because that can be a huge continuum. I hope this book clears up that vagueness, explores the many varieties of pre-evangelism, and offers specific strategies for knowing what to say, how to say it, when to build plausibility, which obstacles to overcome, and why a gradual approach may be better than saying everything at once.
OUR WORLD NEEDS OUR STORY
Our world has shifted dramatically in the past decade. Our old strategies for evangelism need significant retooling. Even in the few years since I wrote Questioning Evangelism (2004), our audience has moved farther away from what used to be valid starting points of conversation. Here’s how I envision our current situation. Not long ago I was watching a hockey game and found myself equally enjoying the athletic skills of the players and the verbal dexterity of the announcer. He crafted sentences as brilliantly and spontaneously as the athletes passed and shot that tiny black disc while skating close to breakneck speed.
At one point the contest was horribly lopsided, with one team unable to clear the puck out of their zone for more than two minutes, an eternity in the world of hockey. The announcer screamed, “Here’s another shot turned away by the goalie. But they can’t clear. And now a slap shot from the point. Save. But they can’t control the rebound. Here’s another scorcher that goes wide. I can’t believe it. They get a fifth shot in as many seconds. Finally the goalie hangs on and we get a break.” And then he added, “It seems that the ice is tilted!”
Can you picture that? Tilted ice for a hockey game? Play with that image for just a moment. The two hockey teams come out of their respective locker rooms to skate around and warm up on the ice before the game. They notice however, before stepping onto the playing surface, that one team is going to have a mammoth advantage over the other. The rink slants downhill in their favor. The other team will have to skate, pass and shoot uphill. If you can go with this bizarre illustration, I think you’ll agree the teams (both of them since they switch sides after each period) should not even begin to play until the ice gets untilted.
In our world today, evangelistically speaking, the ice is tilted. And Christians are on the downhill side of the playing surface. Non-Christians feel like they have the upper hand—both intellectually and morally. We have work to do to untilt the ice before we start the “game” of evangelism. Pre-evangelism untilts the ice. We’ve been moving in this post-Christian direction for quite some time. In fact, I believe the shift is woven into the very foundation of American history. We’re all familiar with this line in the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident.” But did you know that Thomas Jefferson’s earlier draft of that phrase read, “We hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable”? It was Benjamin Franklin who bristled at the obviously religious flavor of that phrase. “Using heavy backslashes, he crossed out the last three words of Jefferson’s phrase and changed it to read: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident.’”
The very trajectory of America’s national identity pointed toward self-autonomy and away from submission to God. We need to realize that time deepens the problem. I believe we can see cultural, spiritual parallels to physicist Max Planck’s observations about science: “A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.”
Please don’t get bogged down in the historical roots or precedents for our current cultural malaise. It has not been a steady slide without major explosions along the way. The 1960s, for instance, provided a cultural earthquake with aftershocks, counterreactions and reverberations that continue to shake us. However we got here, as proclaimers of the good news, we need to “understand the times” (cf. 1 Chron. 12:32) and know how to “become all things to all people so that by all possible means [we] might save some” (1 Cor. 9:22). Most people today are not predisposed positively toward the gospel. They’re not “ready to receive Christ.” Many do not feel all that positive about God. As I heard a comedian put it, “I believe in God, but I’m not a fan.” Or, as The Atlantic monthly journalist Jonathan Rausch confessed, “I used to call myself an atheist, and I still don’t believe in God, but the larger truth is that it has been years since I really cared one way or another. I’m … an apatheist.”
PRE-EVANGELISM: THE HELP WE NEED
Fifty years ago, Francis Schaeffer, the one-of-a-kind preacher and evangelist in postmodern Europe (before most people ever heard the term postmodern) told us “Pre-evangelism is no soft option.” More recently, Russell Moore awakened us to the reality that “we can stop counting on the culture to do pre-evangelism” for us. The fact that Tim Keller felt the need to write a prequel to his book The Reason for God illustrates my point. This earlier book answered questions some non-Christians ask. But Keller found that many outsiders weren’t asking any questions. In his preface to Making Sense of God, Keller says the former book “does not begin far back enough for many people. Some will not even begin the journey of exploration, because, frankly, Christianity does not seem relevant enough to be worth their while.”
We need to back up and start our evangelistic efforts with more fundamental discussions. I’ve heard people say the difference between Keller’s first book and his more recent Making Sense of God is that the first one provides answers for people who have questions. The second one poses questions for people who think they already have answers. The first is for someone already wondering if there are good reasons to become a Christian. My prayer is that Unlikely Converts will help you know what to say to people, whether they’re asking questions or not.
I’ve lived in the realm of pre-evangelism for quite some time. I came to faith in the Messiah from a secularized Jewish background after more than four years of gradually moving from “Are you crazy? Jews don’t believe in Jesus,” to “Hmmmm. Maybe I need to consider who that Jewish carpenter was,” to “Don’t tell anyone I’m reading the New Testament,” to “My Lord and my God!” I benefitted greatly from patient Christian friends who trusted our sovereign God to move me incrementally at his pace. I also benefitted from reading C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity, perhaps the greatest model of pre-evangelism ever. When Lewis was asked to put together a series of radio broadcasts to explain the Christian faith to BBC listeners during World War II, he opted to spend the first several episodes on how we know what we know. Long before ever saying a word about God or Jesus or sin or the cross, he camped out on “right and wrong as a clue to the meaning of the universe.” These brief weekly broadcasts eventually became the written book Mere Christianity, which many have called the most influential Christian book of the 20th century. We now read four or five short chapters one after the other in just a few minutes, but their original presentation allowed for a week’s worth of rumination after suggestive, pre-evangelistic, partial messages such as:
• “Human beings … have this curious idea that they ought to behave in a certain way.”
• “They do not in fact behave in that way.”
• “We have cause to be uneasy.”
• “God is our only comfort. He is also the supreme terror: The thing we most need, and the thing we most want to hide from.”
In a letter to the BBC producers, Lewis explained:
“It seems to me that the New Testament, by preaching repentance and forgiveness, always assumes an audience who already believe in the law of nature and know they have disobeyed it. In modern England we cannot at present assume this, and therefore most apologetics begins a stage too far on. The first step is to create, or recover, the sense of guilt. Hence if I gave a series of talks, I shd [sic] mention Christianity only at the end, and would prefer not to unmask my battery till then.”
I came to appreciate Lewis’ approach even more when I began evangelistic ministry on the staff of Campus Crusade for Christ (Cru). I served for more than three decades on East Coast urban campuses where the typical evangelistic strategies that worked so well in Midwestern and Southern America didn’t even cause people to blink. I had to learn pre-evangelistic strategies because my audiences didn’t seem to care one whit about having a personal relationship with God.
THE BIBLICAL CASE FOR PRE-EVANGELISM
I’m convinced that pre-evangelism is essential for reaching people with the gospel in postmodern settings today. But perhaps I need to make my case a bit more persuasively. After all, isn’t the gospel self-authenticating and powerful enough on its own? Do we really need to appeal to fallen people’s inadequate reasoning in proclaiming a message about rebirth? Perhaps my quoting of Schaeffer, Moore and Keller still leave you wanting input from a higher authority. To be sure, proclaiming the gospel is powerful. We trust in the Holy Spirit, who “will prove the world to be in the wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment” (John 16:8) as we do so. But we must notice that the Scriptures offer a variety of preparations for the gospel before stating the message outright.
At this point, I must offer a few definitions. What exactly is evangelism, and how is pre-evangelism distinct from or related to evangelism? We need to be very clear about this. I hear a lot of fuzzy thinking about evangelism, and I’d hate to contribute to that fog. Here’s how I am using these terms in this book. Evangelism is the verbal proclamation of a very specific message: that Jesus died to atone for sins, that he rose from the dead, and that people must respond with repentance and faith. Pre-evangelism refers to the many different things that can pave the way for that proclamation. Evangelism and pre-evangelism are related, but we must remember their distinctions.
Sharing your testimony is a great pre-evangelistic strategy—but it’s not evangelism. Discussing philosophical arguments for the existence of God may be exactly what you need to do with some skeptics—but it’s not evangelism. Admiring beauty in nature or order in the physical universe and asking why our world seems so tailor-made for people is a very good preevangelistic tactic (one that I particularly love!)—but it’s not evangelism. And digging wells or building houses or feeding hungry people might serve in pre-evangelistic ways—but that’s not evangelism either.
I get nervous when people tell me they helped their neighbor with a chore around their house and then declare, “That’s the gospel!” No it’s not. It was probably a really great thing to do, and it may have even communicated sacrificial love to the neighbor. It might have even made them wonder why you’re so nice. But until you use words that articulate some very important facts about the cross, you’ve only paved the way for evangelism. You haven’t yet evangelized.
We need to maintain the difference. The distinction between evangelism and pre-evangelism has similarities with the distinction between conversion and the path that leads to that defining experience. Conversion is “our willing response to the gospel call, in which we sincerely repent of sins and place our trust in Christ for salvation.” A long process often precedes conversion. In this book, I will use the phrases “coming to faith” and “faith stories” to include both the specific event of conversion and the many things that lead up to that point.
Here is one significant argument in favor of the value of pre-evangelism: The entire Old Testament is pre-evangelistic. It paves the way for a message that, when finally presented, prompts a response of, “Ohhhh. So that’s what we’ve been waiting for!” (I have to wonder if that wasn’t Simeon’s feeling when he saw the infant Jesus in the temple (Luke 2:25–32).
The first hint at a gospel of a suffering Messiah in Genesis 3:15 is remarkably cryptic and incomplete. God declares, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel.” Who’s crushing whose head? And how does the striking of a heel compare? The text urges the reader to keep reading with the skills of a detective to see how that puzzling prediction will come to fulfillment. The drama of the Old Testament brings a dazzling array of characters onto the stage, prompting us to wonder which one could be the head crusher promised in the garden. The way Eve describes her newborn son makes us think that, just perhaps, he’s the one (Gen. 4:1). But it doesn’t take long for us to see he’s no leading character for us to follow. The same can be said about Noah, who “found favor in the eyes of the LORD” (6:8). But he lets us down when he gets drunk (9:21). Might it be Abraham? We doubt it when he lies and says his wife is his sister—twice! (12:10–20; 20:1–12). And on and on it goes with disappointing non-Messiahs, one after another. And so we long for one who won’t let us down.
Can we not see this pattern of hope and disappointment as a form of pre-evangelism? The Old Testament does far more to prepare our hearts for the Messiah than simply hint at his suffering; it moves us toward solving the mystery of who he will be. It features characters who act out intriguing dramas that seem to point forward to a main character who will make all the minidramas make more sense. Abraham offers up a son as a sacrifice but has the process halted by a God who provides his own substitute. The text itself lets us know this drama is not finished because it identifies the location as “The LORD Will Provide” (Gen. 22:14). You would have thought it should be called, “The LORD Did Provide.” Apparently this drama pointed to a future provision that will be better.
So many examples could be given. One man, David, fights a battle against an enemy, Goliath, so that all who identify with him will be saved. While we could zoom our lens in on David’s courage, the story is crafted in such a way that we see God’s supernatural miracle as a way of saving his people through an unlikely representative. The Old Testament is filled with types, foreshadowings, predictions and unfinished stories to prepare us for a message yet to come.
Fair enough, you say. The Old Testament is pre-evangelistic. But we live after the cross. Now that the Messiah has come, we simply need to point to his finished cross-work and reap where the Old Testament has sown. Right? Not quite. The New Testament recounts instances of partial gospel proclamations. It gives us models and templates for pre-evangelism. I’ll offer a few here, but I’ll elaborate more throughout this book. Consider Jesus’ tantalizing offer of “living water” while saving an explanation about atonement, the cross and forgiveness for later (see John 4:1–39). Or think about Jesus’ questions to the rich man that led to a list of commandments (a rather select list at that!) but no discussion of salvation by faith alone (see Mark 10:17–22). Or examine Paul’s sermon in Athens, which went for quite a while, meandering into quotes of pagan poets, before saying anything about a resurrection (see Acts 17:16–34). Sometimes people need to consider ideas that pave the way for the core truths of the gospel before hearing those propositions, and the Bible gives us models of what that can look and sound like.
THIS BOOK’S APPROACH
You may be surprised to know that I’m not one of those bold evangelists who always shares the gospel with people on airplanes. In fact, as I’m boarding, I often pray for God to provide an empty seat next to me so I can just read or take a nap. When I began serving with The C.S. Lewis Institute, they offered to provide me with business cards with my title as senior teaching fellow for apologetics and evangelism. I requested something more C.S. Lewisian: The most reluctant evangelist. They printed their option.
I struggle with evangelism. I’ve learned a lot from Campus Crusade’s founder and president Bill Bright’s book Witnessing Without Fear. But in my library, because of its title, I shelve that book under fiction. I can’t remember ever witnessing without fear. And for that reason, I believe God uses me in encouraging fellow reluctant evangelists with the task of proclaiming good news when we’d all rather put in ear buds and listen to podcasts.
If I may adapt C.S. Lewis’ words from his Reflections on the Psalms, I believe I can help nonevangelists because, like them, I am not an expert. Lewis wrote: “I write for the unlearned about things in which I am unlearned myself. … It often happens that two schoolboys can solve difficulties in their work for one another better than the master can. When you took the problem to a master, as we all remember, he was very likely to explain what you understood already, to add a great deal of information which you didn’t want, and say nothing at all about the thing that was puzzling you. … The fellow-pupil can help more than the master because he knows less.” I’m hoping my status as “fellow-pupil” can help you reach out to the non-Christians God has sovereignly placed around you. Thankfully, I have found that those of us who are nonevangelists find the components of pre-evangelism more suited to our natures. Some will say we’re simply chickening out. And in many instances, perhaps we are. But, putting the matter in the best light, I have seen that in some cases God uses timid nonevangelists in the pre-evangelistic portion of the process, in ways uniquely suited to their gifts and callings.
Christians often wonder, “What should I say to someone who says …” and then they offer a difficult scenario to respond to. They want to know the right thing to say that will be impossible to refute. But most of us can’t think that quickly or dazzle that powerfully. In fact, I’m not sure that’s the best tactic. We want to engage more than amaze.
Brainstorming, I think, is a better way to prepare ourselves for evangelistic and preevangelistic conversations. When we try to come up with just one response, it paralyzes us. When we try to come up with a dozen, we end up with two or three good things to say that can work in a variety of situations. Besides, no two questioners are alike. What would make us think that one statement would fit every situation? Coming up with several possible responses prepares us for several possible situations. Thus, I have suggested some brainstorms at the end of each chapter of this book, to stimulate your thinking. Don’t think of these brainstorms as “the right way” or “magic bullets.” I’m simply trying to spark your own brainstorming to help you prepare for a variety of different opportunities.
Excerpt used by permission from Kregel Publishers 2019.