I spent most of the 1980s attending secular colleges where tolerance and diversity trumped truth, especially Christian truth, every time. Needless to say, if I was to stay centered in my faith, I would need to find fellowship with other students who believed the gospel and desired to share it with others. But which group to choose? The best candidates were InterVarsity Christian Fellowship (IVCF) and Campus Crusade for Christ (now Cru).
Though I respected, and continue to respect, both groups equally, I eventually chose IVCF because it put more focus on friendship evangelism and less on door-to-door evangelism. Whereas the door-to-door method follows a sales model, with the evangelist approaching a stranger and then taking him through a carefully scripted gospel presentation (the booklet of choice in my day was “The Four Spiritual Laws”), the friendship model attempts first to cultivate a relationship with a nonbeliever (who might live in your dorm or attend classes with you) and then introduce the gospel in a more casual and natural way.
At the time, I did not possess any theories about the most effective or most biblical method of evangelism. I gravitated toward friendship evangelism because it better suited my personality and because, well, it “felt” right. Like many other Americans, I’ve always hated the “hard sell” and have quickly (if politely) closed the door or hung up the phone whenever a solicitor has tried to sell me something. If I was going to share the message of grace with my fellow students, I did not want it to sound like a sales pitch. I wanted it to rise up organically from our friendship, or at least from a sense of shared interests and passions.
Jonathan Dodson, founding pastor of City Life church in Austin, Texas, has practiced, and clearly respects, both forms of evangelism. However, in his new book, The Unbelievable Gospel: Say Something Worth Believing (a 2015 CT Book Awards winner), he argues that our current social-cultural moment has made the door-to-door model not only less effective, but potentially counterproductive. “Wave after wave of rationalistic, rehearsed (and at times coerced and confrontational) evangelism,” he writes in his preface, “has inoculated, if not antagonized, the broader culture.”
Pushy and Mechanical
In trying to assess why this is the case, Dodson considers several possible reasons: Americans are far less biblically literate than they were a generation ago; we no longer share central beliefs, like the existence of God or the authority of Scripture; the hard sell makes people feel like they are projects, means to an end. All of these reasons possess some truth, but Dodson suggests an additional reason that provides the thesis for his book: People do not respond well to gospel presentations because they don’t recognize our good news as good news.
According to Dodson, our gospel is often “unbelievable” to nonbelievers—and not in the too-good-to-be-true sense. Our “pressure to perform, to make the sale . . . distorts our message” and causes us to “act and speak in unnatural ways. Often, we sound as if we don’t really believe what we are saying.” Fearing that we will lose God’s favor if we don’t present the full gospel in a rigid formula every time we speak with an unbeliever, we become pushy and mechanical and thus lose the joy and intimacy of the gospel.
We need a fuller, more nuanced vision, both of what the gospel is and of how to share it in such a way that hearers will receive it as good news. The best way to begin is to avoid pouncing on an unbeliever the second we notice an opening. Rather, like Jesus in the Gospels, we need to ask questions and to listen: to slow down. We need to be quicker to affirm than to condemn. Our job is not to increase guilt but to relieve it through the message of grace. Jesus calls us to be ambassadors, not soldiers; proclaimers of the gospel, not recruiters.
Of course, all of this, Dodson admits, is easier said than done. Pressures from without and within make it difficult for the would-be evangelist to make the gospel believable and appealing. The external force (or “defeater,” to use Dodson’s word) proceeds from a significant change in the meaning of the word tolerance. “Old or ‘classical’ tolerance holds the belief that other opinions have a right to exist.” Christian evangelism naturally thrives in such an environment, and it is vital that we as evangelists respect the right of all people to believe and practice their faith. Sadly, this old tolerance has given way to a new tolerance, which Dodson defines as “the belief that all opinions are equally valid or true.”This ethos, particularly strong in urban and university settings, makes it difficult for Christians to proclaim beliefs and doctrines that stand in opposition to other creeds, both secular and religious.
As if this external defeater were not enough, it is amplified by an internal one: namely, our own desperate need to construct a public persona making us look “kind, thoughtful, tolerant, and knowledgeable” rather than “mean, ignorant, bigoted, and daft.” We seek man’s approval over God’s and thus fall prey to the “idolatry of reputation.” Only when we surrender this false persona and embrace fully the “gospel of adoption,” when we trade in public non-acceptance and disapproval for Christ’s acceptance and approval, will we be able to share the gospel in all of its dimensions.
That gospel, Dodson explains, will appeal to a dark hurting world, for it is three-dimensional, taking in the historical, the personal, and the cosmic. The gospel is not just an abstract idea; it is “rooted in time and space,” in the death and resurrection of Christ. Those events altered history forever and thus constitute real news that demands to be proclaimed. But that news, if it is to touch the hearts of individuals, must be personalized. What God did in human history has the power to transform lives today, and our presentation of the good news must make that clear.
But even here we must not stop. Christ changed history even as he changes our hearts, but he would also change the world. “Jesus was anointed to preach the gospel,” writes Dodson, referring to Luke 4:18 and Isaiah 61, “to share the announcement that his reign will bring transformation for the poor, for the city, and for the spiritually captive.” Only when this third dimension is brought into alignment with the other two will the “eternal and unchanging” nature of the gospel be made manifest to a world that is tolerant of all ideas, except those that claim to be true.
Speak to People Where They Are
If this were all Dodson had for us, his book would be well worth reading, but he concludes with a more practical, anecdotal section that should prove helpful to beleaguered 21-st century evangelists. After identifying and defining five different metaphors that embody distinct aspects (or facets) of the three-dimensional gospel, Dodson provides guidance on what types of people need to hear, and will likely respond to, each of the metaphors. Those metaphors speak to the various ways in which Christ’s death and resurrection 1) justified us before a righteous God, 2) redeemed us from slavery to sin, 3) enabled us to be adopted into his family, 4) infused us with new life, and 5) brought us into eternal union with Jesus.
If we build a friendship with someone and come to realize that his central spiritual struggle is to find acceptance, we might consider sharing the first dimension. Alternately, if our friend’s most pressing need is for intimacy, we would do well to emphasize the fifth. Yet again, if he yearns for approval from a harsh or distant father, metaphor three would likely be the most effective.
Dodson’s point is not that we need to construct a checklist—that would only lead us back to the kind of canned gospel presentation he seeks to avoid. Rather, our proclamation of the good news needs to speak to people where they are. It needs to open their hearts to facets of the gospel that will convince them that the good news really is good news.
Louis Markos teaches English at Houston Baptist University. His books include Apologetics for the 21st Century (Crossway), On the Shoulders of Hobbits: The Road to Virtue with Tolkien and Lewis (Moody), and Restoring Beauty: The Good, the True, and the Beautiful in the Writings of C. S. Lewis (InterVarsity Press).