I asked Mike about his tattoo partly out of curiosity but primarily from an instinct of self-preservation. He was helping his cousin jumpstart a car in the middle of our street in Long Beach, California, where I was involved in planting a church. As he worked, I observed a tattoo of a large knife that covered his entire forearm. I don’t remember how I formed the question, but my relief was palpable when he uttered the words, “It’s a chef’s knife. I’m the Urban Chef!” A simple question about a tattoo opened the door to a conversation about training urban youth, which led to a Bible study, which led, eventually, to Chef Mike choosing to follow Jesus, the one who prepared a meal for a crowd with five loaves and two fish.
I recalled this story while reading an example from Good News for Change: How to Talk to Anyone about Jesus, by Matt Mikalatos. At the end of chapter 11, Mikalatos writes, “Every time you see a tattoo this week, ask the person, ‘Why is that significant to you?’ It’s one of the greatest entrances to deep conversation that I know.” In two short sentences, Mikalatos offers a key insight that I had intuited but never fully articulated: If we want to reach people with the gospel, we need to figure out what matters to them most.
Mikalatos argues that our ability to communicate the gospel has been clouded by Christian jargon unintelligible to the non-religious world, a desire to win arguments, and an overwhelming fear that we won’t get the “facts” right. He reminds us, instead, that “evangelism is, first and foremost, us participating with the Holy Spirit to tell people about God and his love for them and to invite them into deeper relationship with God.” We don’t need seminary training or expertise to be witnesses. “It requires only that you share what you have seen and heard and experienced with Jesus.”
A Treasure Trove of Stories
The greatest strength of Good News for a Change lies in its numerous engaging stories, amplified by the author’s sense of humor. Mikalatos’s years of experience as a missionary and Cru leader in Portland, Oregon, have resulted in a treasure trove of great anecdotes. Throughout the book, readers will meet Chelsea (an atheist), a college student advertising himself as “most Buddhist person I know,” Percival the Satanist, and even Mikalatos’s alter ego, “Dr. Love.”
There are provocative chapter titles like “The Gospel According to Buddha” and “The Gospel According to Twilight Sparkle.” How can the gospel have anything to do with the Buddha, much less Twilight Sparkle and “Bronies” (adult men who enjoy the cartoon My Little Pony)? The goal in these chapters is showing the need for “translating” the gospel message in ways that resonate with the hearer. Most importantly, people must hear the good news in their “heart language.” As Mikalatos observes, “One of the most beautiful things about people coming to know Jesus is watching new believers internalize the good news in their own cultural context.”
At one point, Mikalatos bemoans the fact that he was unable to include charts on communication theory. Nonetheless, he describes the ways in which cultural assumptions, insider jargon, mistranslation, and other forms of “noise” distort the message we hope to deliver. Yet he reassures us that the Holy Spirit can bring clarity even when we falter.
Mikalatos also includes an important chapter on dealing with “haters.” Rather than engaging in direct assault against falsehoods and defamations, he suggests relying on five key words: “Tell me more about that.” These words can help us listen to people and understand their issues with the church and Christians, which paves the way for deeper conversations. Rather than preparing for arguments, we can be loving friends who speak biblical truth once we have become genuine listeners.
Emphasis on Scripture
Good News for a Change explores familiar biblical territory for evangelists, such as the story of Nicodemus (John 3), the woman at the well (John 4), and Peter and John in Jerusalem (Acts 3:1–10). This is important ground to cover because sharing the Good News is less a matter of skill in communication than of cultivating a mindset that God is already at work. For believers who lack obvious gifts of evangelism, there must be a deeper emphasis on theology. If we do not see God clearly—if we miss the work of the Holy Spirit in the pages of Scripture—we will be unable to recognize his presence in our daily lives.
I can think of no better contrast in the Scripture than the conversions of Nicodemus and the woman at the well. Nicodemus was an educated male and a member of the Jewish ruling council. Jesus himself called Nicodemus “Israel’s teacher” (John 3:10). This man had everything in the world to lose but heaven to gain.
The woman at the well was the opposite of Nicodemus in every way. While he was perched atop his vocational ladder, she was uneducated. While he lived in Jerusalem, the great city of King David, she stayed in an obscure village. He was revered and admired, but she was cast out by society for living an immoral lifestyle. He came to Jesus in the night; Jesus went to her during the day. Nicodemus’s conversion was slow and gradual. The woman embraced Jesus immediately, beginning her effective evangelism ministry that very day.
John’s gospel deliberately places these two stories side by side so that we can see the full range of Jesus’ evangelistic vision. From the story of Nicodemus, we receive encouragement to address respected members of society, who are successful, morally upstanding (at least outwardly), and often intimidating. And from the story of the woman at the well, we’re reminded not to neglect those on society’s fringes, no matter their moral baggage or thin résumés.
I also appreciated Mikalatos’s focus on Peter and John in Acts 3, as they meet the lame man at “the temple gate called Beautiful” (v. 2.). The Book of Acts revolves around church planting and evangelism in “Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (1:8). Mikalatos distills the work of the Holy Spirit into three principles that you and I could easily apply in our daily lives. I would argue that these three principles are evident not merely in Acts 3 but in the broader apostolic ministry that spreads the gospel all the way to Rome.
The first principle Mikalatos highlights is availability. Peter and John stopped what they were doing when they saw the beggar lying at the gate, even though they were heading toward the temple to pray (v. 1). So often we grind through our day, remaining so closely attached to our agenda that we miss what God wants to do. Making ourselves available for God’s work in evangelism not only frees us from our calendars but helps us see situations with expectant eyes.
Second, we should focus on meeting practical needs. Peter and John did not have silver or gold (v. 6). Like all the other early disciples, they had given their money away to meet the tremendous housing needs of the new converts. Yet even though they couldn’t give this man what he desired, they still helped him onto his feet, commanding him to walk in Jesus’ name, after which the man “went with them into the temple courts, walking and jumping, and praising God” (v. 8). Evangelism may not depend on money and budgets, but that doesn’t excuse us from attending to the material needs of those we meet, confident that the Holy Spirit will bless our work.
And third, we need a willingness to teach. After the apostles stopped for the man and helped lift him from the ground, they opened their mouths. As onlookers gathered, astonished by the sudden transformation of the beggar from the temple gate, Peter delivered a clear, direct, and passionate proclamation of the gospel. “By faith in the name of Jesus,” he announced, “this man whom you see and know was made strong. It is Jesus’ name and the faith that comes through him that has completely healed him, as you can all see” (v. 16).
Ask About the Tattoo
Not long ago, I was at a local Boba (or bubble tea) shop in Long Beach with my two daughters, ages 12 and 9. A teenage boy and girl were kissing right in front us. Observing this display of affection, Kara (age 9) said, “Daddy, wow, they are really getting along.” We all shared a laugh. Then we saw another young man who had a tattoo on his forearm that read, “NLMB.”
Remembering Mikalatos’s advice, I asked him, “What’s the story of your tattoo?” He replied, “It stands for Never Leave My Brother.” I told him that was really cool, and then I asked him where his brother was. He pointed to the teen boy who was “really getting along” with his girlfriend. I spoke to him about Genesis 4, the story of Cain and Abel, where the crucial question is, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” (v. 9). He was intrigued. We swapped numbers and agreed to meet for a Bible study.
John Teter is senior pastor of Fountain of Life Covenant Church in Long Beach, California. He is the author of The Power of the 72: Ordinary Disciples in Extraordinary Evangelism (InterVarsity Press).
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