Insights for fellow evangelists.

The well-known german theologian rudolf bultmann has asked the right question for our age: “How do we communicate the gospel in a secularistic and technological age?” This question might be put differently in different cultures, but all of us are concerned with effectively communicating the gospel. In many circumstances, it means what missiologists have called “contextualization”—adapting our methods to the culture and society in which we are called to proclaim the gospel. But let us make it clear: we have no authority from Scripture to alter the message. The message can never be contextualized.

So how do we communicate the gospel with power and effect in this materialistic, scientific, rebellious, secular, immoral, humanistic age?

The Key

The key that unlocks the door to effective gospel communication is found in 1 Corinthians 2:2. Look at the context of this verse. When Paul went to Corinth, it was one of the most idolatrous, pagan, intellectual, and immoral cities in the Roman world. If you wanted to condemn someone as an immoral person, you called him a “Corinthian.” When Paul looked at this city and felt God’s leading to start a church there, what did he do? Don’t forget, there was not a single other Christian in town. How would he “preach the gospel” in an atmosphere alien to its very nature?

If we could personally ask Paul those searching questions, perhaps he would say, “My intelligence alone will not be able to handle it. I do not have the logic or the arguments to compel the Corinthians to accept the truth of the gospel.” What then did he do? He said, with positive faith, “For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.”

Why such a statement? Paul knew that there was a “built-in” power in the Cross. He knew that the Holy Spirit takes the simple message of the Cross, with its redemptive love and grace, and infuses it into lives with authority and power.

Furthermore, the Spirit’s work is vital. Proclaimers of the gospel must always realize, as Paul stressed, that the natural man simply cannot accept the truth of Christ unless the veil is lifted by the Holy Spirit. But the glorious fact is that the Holy Spirit takes the message and communicates it to the heart and mind, with power, and breaks down every barrier. It is a supernatural act of the Spirit of God. No evangelist can have God’s touch on his ministry until he realizes these realities and preaches in the power of the Holy Spirit. In the final analysis, the Holy Spirit is the communicator.

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Some Safe Assumptions

When I go out and proclaim the gospel, in every congregation, and in any group—whether on a street corner in Nairobi, at a meeting in Seoul, Korea, a tribal gathering in Zaïre, or in a large stadium in New York City—I know there are certain psychological and spiritual factors that exist in everyone. As I begin to communicate, I can trust the Holy Spirit to strike certain chords in the heart of every human who hears:

1. I know that my hearers’ basic needs will never be totally met by social improvement or material affluence. This is true around the world and in every culture. Jesus said, “A man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions” (Luke 12:15).

2. I know there is an essential “emptiness” in every life without Christ. All humanity keeps crying for something, something they cannot identify. Give a person a million dollars—it does not satisfy. Or give him sex and every form of sensuality; that too never satisfies the deep longing inside that keeps crying for satisfaction. People are empty without God.

I recently talked to Derek Bok, the president of Harvard University. I asked him what was the greatest need among the students. He thought for a moment and then answered, “Commitment.” Tolstoi put it right when he said, “There is a God-shaped vacuum in every life that only God can fill.” When we proclaim the gospel we are talking directly to that emptiness. The person that you are communicating to, whether in personal witnessing or before a group, has a “built-in” receptivity to the message of the Cross, because Christ alone fills the void.

3. I know that my hearers experience loneliness. Some have called it “cosmic loneliness.” I have a friend at an American university who is a psychiatrist and a theologian. I asked him on one occasion, “What is the greatest problem of the patients who come to you for help?” He thought a moment and said, “Loneliness.” He went on, “When you get right down to it, it is a loneliness for God. “We all sense something of that. For example, you can be in a crowd of people, even at a party, and suddenly, with all the people around laughing, a sudden, momentary loneliness will sweep over you. That is “cosmic loneliness,” and it is everywhere: loneliness in the suburbs, loneliness in Latin America, loneliness in Japan—a loneliness that only God can fill. You can assume this exists for the people to whom you are preaching.

4. I know my hearers are people who have a sense of guilt. This is perhaps the most universal of all human experiences, and it is devastating. The head of a mental institution in London said, “I could release half of my patients if I could but find a way they could be rid of their sense of guilt.” This is what the Cross is all about. When we preach Christ we are speaking directly to the nagging, depressing problem of guilt. We don’t have to make people feel guilty, they already sense it. Tell them what the guilt is: tell them it is rebellion against God, and tell them the Cross is the answer!

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5. I know that my hearers share a common fear of death. We do not like to talk about death in our generation. But death is real. In many parts of the world you can turn on television and see famous people who have been dead for some years; they look alive, but they are dead. Somehow television, especially in Western society, has cushioned death. Yet the specter is always there. The subtle fear cannot be silenced. But here is the glorious news: our Lord came to nullify death. In his own death and resurrection he made three things inoperative: sin, death, and hell. That is the message of the Cross.

Principles Of Communicating The Gospel

All these assumptions can be realized as we preach Christ. The Holy Spirit will apply the message to those deep-seated needs. But in the midst of all these assumptions, how are we to communicate the gospel?

We communicate the gospel with authority. Preach it with assurance, knowing that, “Faith comes from hearing the message and the message is heard through the word of Christ” (Rom. 10:17). If I have one criticism of modern theological education, especially in Europe and America, it is this: I do not think we are putting the emphasis on authoritative preaching.

In my early days, when I started to prepare a sermon, I got a book of sermons by a famous Texan preacher. I took two of his sermons, along with a couple of his outlines, and I would preach them out loud 10 to 20 times. In my very first sermon, in Bostic, Florida, at the Baptist church, I was trembling. I had prepared four sermons. I practiced as I described until I knew that each one of them would last 40 minutes. I got up and preached all four in eight minutes!

So do not get discouraged; just keep going. It takes hard work to prepare effective messages. Saturate yourself in the Word of God.

Sid Bunnell said to his class at Princeton, “If you are preaching under the anointing of the Holy Spirit, the hearers will hear another ‘Voice’.” Are people conscious of that other “Voice” when you preach? Are you Spirit filled? Do you preach with his authority? That is absolutely essential to the communication of the gospel. One reason the people listened to Jesus was that he spoke as one having authority.

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Preach with authority. When you quote God’s Word, he will use it. He will never allow it to return void.

One day my wife was in the famous London bookstore, Foyles. A fellow came out, very discouraged and despondent. He said to my wife, “You look like a real Christian. My family’s torn up.” He said, “I’m on the verge of suicide.” She said, “Well, why not go out to the Harringay Arena tonight and hear Billy Graham?” “Oh,” he said, “I don’t think he could help me. I’m beyond help.” But she gave him some tickets, and he came. She did not see him for a year.

The next year we were back at Wembley Stadium and she went to Foyles. That same little man came running out. He said, “Oh, Mrs. Graham, that night I went and I was converted to Christ. And I’m the happiest person in Britain!” He went on, “The verse your husband preached on that night that God saved me was a verse from the Psalms: I am like a pelican of the wilderness: I am like an owl of the desert’ (102:6).” My wife scratched her head and said. “I never thought of that as a gospel verse.” But he said, “That verse described me completely and I was saved.” You see, God uses his Word; his power is in the Word.

Preach the gospel with simplicity. In our Berlin Congress on Evangelism in 1965, one of the papers read by an American theologian was very deep and involved. Many of the Christians really did not understand what he was talking about. But there was a tribal man there, dressed in his native dress, who had been unable to make out a thing that the “learned” professor said. But he went right up and hugged the speaker and kissed him in front of everybody. And he said, “You know, I don’t understand a thing you say, but I’m so glad that a man that knows as much as you know is on our side.” The sentiment was great! But we must communicate so people understand. Preach it with simplicity.

I have a friend in a Methodist church on the west coast of America. He decided he was going to present some visual education for the children on Sunday before the worship hour. He would preach his children’s sermon with slides he had made during the week. This, he thought, would illustrate his simple sermon and help the children to understand. To his amazement, the older people began to come early until the church was packed to hear his children’s sermons, while attendance at his 11:00 worship service was going down. People want simplicity.

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I am sure that was one of the secrets of the ministry of our Lord. The Bible says, “The common people heard him gladly” (Mark 12:37). Why? For one central reason. They understood him. He spoke their language.

Preach with repetition. Prof. James Denney of Scotland once said that Jesus probably repeated himself more than 500 times. That is an encouragement to every evangelist. The gospel may at times seem “old” to us. But repeat and repeat and repeat it. It is “news” to multitudes. Never tire or be embarrassed to share the news over and over again.

Preach it with urgency: preach for a decision. People are dying. You may be speaking to some who will hear the gospel for the last time. Preach with the urgency of Christ. Preach it to bring your hearers to Christ. Preach, as Jesus did, for a verdict. The call to repentance and faith is part of the message too.

Communicating What We Are

Never forget we are to communicate the gospel by a holy life. This is essential. Our world today is looking primarily for men and women of integrity, communicators who back up their ministry with their lives. Your preaching emerges out of what you are. We must be a holy people. Those who have affected me most profoundly have not been the great orators. It is those who have been holy men. Robert Murray M’Cheyne said, “A holy man is an awful weapon in God’s hand.” Paul said, “I keep under my body, and bring it into subjection” (1 Corinthians 9:27).

We must take that seriously. There are three avenues through which the devil attacks young evangelists (and older preachers too): money, morals, and pride. You evangelists will battle with all three all your lives. Be ready, the devil will set traps for you constantly.

Cliff Barrows and I determined when we first started in evangelism that we were going to incorporate, have a board, and pay ourselves a set salary. It caused a furor. Some said, “You’re going to ruin evangelism.” But I believe God has honored the way we have handled finances. We must never bring reproach on evangelism over money. Evangelists are vulnerable right there.

Nor is a holy life merely negative. It is positive. You must immerse yourself in the Word of God. You must be a person of prayer. A disciplined devotional life is vital to holy living.

Then, we communicate the gospel by our love of our fellow man. “All men will know that you are my disciples if you love one another” (John 13:35). A layman in Boston went boldly into a hotel, walked up to a woman, and said, “Do you know Christ?” She told her husband about it. Her husband said, “Didn’t you tell him to mind his own business?” She replied, “But, my dear, if you’d seen the expression on his face and heard the earnestness with which he spoke, you would have thought it was his business.”

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When you speak to people about Christ, personally or in preaching, do they think that it is your business? Do you really love people? Does it show? Do they sense your compassion?

One of our associate evangelists was preaching in Central America at a university on one occasion. He tried to win the students to Christ, but they gave him a hostile reception. One was especially hostile. After the service, this girl came up to him (she was working on her doctoral degree) and she said, “I don’t believe any of that hogwash.” He said. “Well, I’m sorry you don’t agree, but do you mind if I pray for you?” She said, “Well, no one ever prayed for me before. I guess it won’t do any harm.” He bowed his head, but she looked straight ahead and defiant as he prayed. As he prayed for the conversion of that girl, the tears began to come down his cheeks. When he opened his eyes, she was broken up in tears and said. “No one in my whole life has loved me enough to shed a tear for me.” They sat down on a bench, and that girl accepted the Lord as her Savior. How many of us have loved so much we have shed tears?

We also communicate the gospel by a compassionate social concern. This is implied in the love we are to show to others. I believe that there is a social involvement commanded in the Scripture. Look at our Lord. He touched the leper; can you imagine what it meant to that leper to be touched when he had to cry constantly, “Unclean! Unclean!” Yet Jesus touched him. Jesus was teaching by example as well as precept that we have a responsibility to the oppressed, the sick, the poor (Luke 4:18–19). When I think of the starving millions, I can hardly eat my food. One hundred thousand people this year will die of thirst in Ethiopia alone—not hunger, just thirst. They cannot even get water, let alone food. And that is only one part of the world.

But never forget, the church goes into the world with an extra dimension to its social concern. We go in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. We reach out to meet needs and give, but we must always say, “Given in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Therefore, it never becomes mere humanitarianism. We give because God gave.

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Keir Hardie was an evangelist all his life, as well as deeply involved in helping and organizing the working poor. He founded the British Labour party because of his social concern, out of love for Christ.

When Martin Luther King, Jr., was awarded his Nobel Peace Prize in Stockholm, they asked him, “Where do you get your motivation?” He said, “From my father’s evangelical preaching.”

Finally, we communicate the gospel by our unity in the Spirit. How vital it is to realize that if we can stay unified on these suggestions, yet also realize that there is diversity in unity, we can turn the world upside-down for Christ as those early Christians were accused of doing in their generation. We have the instruments in our hands right now to evangelize the world before the end of this century. For the first time in the history of the Christian church the possibility of fulfilling the Great Commission is in our grasp. What an hour!

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