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Preoccupied with Love: One-on-One with Colin Smith on Nominal Christianity

“I have found the story of the thief on the cross profoundly helpful in challenging this assumption...that entrance into everlasting joy depends on living a good enough life.”
Preoccupied with Love: One-on-One with Colin Smith on Nominal Christianity
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Ed: It’s hard to deny that we are living in challenging times culturally. The church’s influence is fading, and we are struggling to find answers to some hard questions. What’s your take on the health of the church today, especially as it relates to our witness?”

Colin: Church health is not the same as church size. I come from the U.K., where secularism has made deeper inroads into the culture than here in the U.S. Church attendance has dropped dramatically but, in my opinion, church health in the U.K. is better than it was 20 years ago.

One reason for this is that as nominal Christians abandon the faith and leave the church, those who remain realize their dependence on God in new ways. When numbers go down, spiritual temperature can go up, and I have seen new resilience, new cooperation, new faith and new venture in many U.K. churches.

If that happens here in the U.S., we may be in a better position than before and, like Gideon’s army, more useful to the Lord than when our numbers were larger.

Ed: Evangelism has especially fallen on hard times. It seems that everything else—even good things like discipleship—has overwhelmed our passion for sharing the love of Jesus with others. What does evangelism look like today, and how can we begin to develop a passion for showing and sharing the love of Jesus on a daily basis?

Colin: I really appreciate the focus of Amplify on evangelism. Discipling goats is an impossible task. The first priority is always that a person becomes one of Christ’s sheep.

Evangelism today needs to begin further back. For much of the 20thcentury, Christians were able to assume a basic understanding of who God is, what sin is, and why we need a Savior.

When people rebelled, they usually had some knowledge of the God they were rejecting, and when they chose not to believe, it was the God of the Bible they chose not to believe in. So when Christians shared the gospel we could assume a basic understanding its categories. But today, many of the people we are called to reach do not understand the basic categories of the gospel—hence the need to begin further back.

Some years ago, I met Tony Howarth, a pioneer missionary, sent by his church in the U.K. to an unreached people group in northern Thailand. He described the long process of gaining the trust of the tribe he served, and then of learning to read and write their language.

When I asked him where he began in sharing the gospel with these people, he said, “We tell them the Bible story.”

This answer made immediate sense to me. The Bible begins with God introducing himself, and the Old Testament builds a framework for understanding who we are, why we need saving, and what a Savior would need to accomplish.

God has given us all that we need for explaining the Gospel to any person, at any time, in any culture, and I am convinced that we need to rediscover the longstanding practice of pioneer missionaries, and learn how to evangelize by sharing the storyline of the Bible.

Our team at Unlocking the Bible is working on a practical tool for doing this using 50 chapters of the Bible that lay out the main themes of the Bible story. Our major project for the coming year is to challenge people to open the Bible with a friend, relative, neighbor, or colleague.

This may be slower than other approaches to evangelism, but I am convinced that it will continue to bear fruit that lasts.

My other thought with regard to evangelism today is that what we win people with we win people to. If we win people with celebrity, we win them to celebrity. If we win them with entertainment, we win them to entertainment.

But if we win people with the Bible, we will win people to the Bible, and the same Word that begets faith will also sustain faith (1 Peter 1:23, Matt. 4:4).

Ed: At Amplify next summer, and you are talking about “A Gospel for the Nominal.” Tell me about what a gospel for nominal Christians looks like and why it matters.

Colin: I mentioned earlier that the number of nominal Christians in the U.S. is falling, but we may still be talking about as many as 100 million people, and we must do all in our power to reach them with the gospel.

Nominal Christians typically believe in heaven and assume that entrance into everlasting joy depends on living a good enough life. I have found the story of the thief on the cross profoundly helpful in challenging this assumption.

Everyone loves a good story, and the story of the thief is easy to tell. Clearly, this man had not lived a good life. By his own confession, he was getting what his deeds deserved, but Jesus said to him, ‘Today you will be with me in Paradise.’

I have found that telling this story opens up conversations that often lead to a new understanding of the gospel. Jesus saves sinners. This is why he was hanging on the cross. The thief turned to Jesus, asked of Jesus and trusted the word of Jesus. We must do the same.

After using this approach over many years, I wrote Heaven How I Got Here in which the thief tells his story. The book was then adapted into a one-man play presented by Stephen Baldwin. We have seen many people come to faith in Christ through this story, which I think is especially useful in reaching nominal Christians.

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