I wrote the following essay to a friend while I was traveling to a friend’s funeral two years ago. It covers several points around what is evangelism.
Is evangelism more than four points and a prayer?
I’ve edited it slightly for time references and removed some personal matters, but thought I’d share this here. I invite your comments.
Letter to a friend:
This morning, I’m in Cincinnati to attend the funeral of a friend who died of cancer.
Eighteen months ago, a cancerous tumor was found during pregnancy, and my friend had the choice – who’s life to save.
She chose her daughter’s.
Her daughter was born 18 months ago, and Tuesday, the mom died.
35 years old.
No insurance, no money for treatment, they simply let the cancer run its course. The funeral is in about 3 hours from now . . . .
Last night, I also caught up with a friend from Middle School who lives here in Cincinnati with her husband and 6 year old daughter.
It’s because of her that I became a Christian.
Twenty years ago, she got sick with mono and I found faith in Christ because she wasn’t around to distract me.
She and her husband have recently returned to the kingdom of God about 1 year ago through the Alpha course at the Cincinnati Vineyard, where they have joined and are actively involved in servant evangelism.
We had dinner together with her family and had a few moments to thank God for bringing each of us faith in his son Jesus.
My friend has a storied history of [only] God knows what else, but she has found healing in Christ. She has been made whole, and new. Has a loving husband and a miracle baby who died during delivery but was resuscitated after the emergency C-Section.
Moving Towards Redemption
God has woven these individual stories together (my middle school friend, my dead friend). Our stories have intersected over the years, but have all been moving in the direction of redemption.
My friend’s husband will grow in his “fatherness” for his 3 daughters under the age of 5. He’ll have to rely on the Lord and will become a great reflection of the Father’s love. The community that surrounds him will demonstrate the power of Christian community – the way it’s supposed to be – loving one another as a demonstration of God’s love.
My middle school friend is continuing to find joy in serving the kingdom. Her marriage was threatened last year, but now with a bedrock of faith, they came thru it. She told me last night, that had it not been for God and the community of faith, she would have been divorced by now, likely drunk, and drugged, and unemployed.
They have come thru it – husband stuck by her side — and will become a source of faith for their 6 year old daughter. Husband and wife come from broken households, yet they will not pass that along for their daughter. God is redeeming them and breaking the cycle for a new generation.
“Life is pain, your highness. Anyone who tells you differently is selling something” – Princess Bride.
Hope in Suffering
I’m more convinced than ever that life apart from faith in God’s grace would be an unbearable way to endure suffering.
Yet I am also convinced that God is not a spiritual placebo. He’s not the tooth fairy or Peter Pan, or just an imaginary friend we create to endure. I am convinced of this because I can point to my relationship with Him. It’s 20 years of mystery (march of ‘85), but rock solid certainty. My experiences develop my trust so that in the midst of suffering, I can still trust him.
This mysterious trust is as strong as the covenant of my marriage.
There is no doubt that I will cling to him, and He to me. God is real – there is no doubt in my mind. I can’t explain it. I feel it. I can’t defend God’s existence other than “I just know.” There is a witness in me that declares “Abba Father.” This is the mystery of Christianity – the security of knowing that I belong to Him, even in my struggles, and today, my grief.
My dead friend, lying in the casket this day, knew Him, and is indeed rejoicing in the presence of angels.
God is relevant
Defending or explaining Christianity in this culture is not a matter of bullet point proposition.
It’s a matter of mystery, relevance, and personal story.
While it’s true that we need propositions to explain our belief, the propositions describe reality that we discover and find the bible describes reality.
Witness is more than just proclaiming four points out of a tract. Our storytelling has to demonstrate our own personal discovery.
Evangelism today has to tell the current story – what is God doing today that makes the gospel good news.
What is God doing in my life right now that helps me through my friend’s death, my friends new life in Christ, and when I walk thru the weight loosing anxiety of a bad real estate decision? These are current stories – new stories of God at work in my life. This makes the gospel good news.
Current stories hit at the issue of relevant. Is God relevant today? A band called Live once sang “I heard about this man Jesus, but what a man who lived 2000 years ago means to me today, I don’t know” Not an exact quote, but close enough.
Is God Relevant?
What I see as I engage people in spiritual conversation is the buried question – Is God relevant. The church has been so marginalized by our culture, that we truly live with an unchurched generation.
“The church is not relevant, so God must not be.”
Yet, upon further examination, people play with crystals and stare at the stars and listen to rivers and read tea leaves because they are so alone – alone in the cosmic sense – a speck of microscopic dust in the universe, as insignificant as a water molecule rushing through the Grand Canyon.
There is still a longing for God deep in the heart. The heart knows that God is relevant, the heart yearns to be in touch with God, the heart knows there is a brokenness between itself and God that needs to be reconciled.
Yet God doesn’t have call-in radio show nor is he Dr. Phil. But the message from the church has not been clear.
The proclaimers of the message that have made it cloudy with confusion, cliché driven trendy spirituality, and the absurdity of the prosperity gospel on TV – get rich with God. Most recently, pronouncements by people like Dobson, Falwell, and Robertson about evangelical power and influence have only smothered people’s spiritual quest as a reaction to not be like them.
They don’t want to be Republican, just be in touch with God, yet God’s messengers create frothy cloudiness.
Is a four point Gospel script enough?
I wonder if we need to wrestle with the question: “What is evangelism?”
The “modern” way is to lay out four points – to make a logical bullet point presentation and ask for a rational decision.
The “post modern way” is to help people along in the next step of their spiritual journey, recognizing that belief is discovered.
There are other twists to the question, but I think it’s one that is worth asking.
There are times for four points and a prayer. There are many times when its not.
Is the goal of evangelism
- conversion (a rational agreement to a set of statements), or
- discipleship (following the way of Jesus – whether beginning, discovering, or continuing).
I probably even make these contrasts too cut and dry.
The Way of the Master
Evangelism as has been taught over the years has been four points and a decision.
Yet Jesus never seemed to lay out four points. He didn’t give four points to the fisherman and his partners – just a radical command to come and follow.
As I look in the gospels, I seem Jesus telling stories that leave people thinking. “What happened to the older son who was jealous about the younger son’s return” (Luke 15)? The story begs self-examination, leaves the hearer with a tension – “Who am I like?” The self-examination leads a person to spiritual discovery.
I see him asking questions of the heart as in the story of the Good Samaritan, or talking with the woman at the well.
I see him forgiving people.
A prostitute who hears “come unto me all ye who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest” finds forgiveness and anoints the feet of Jesus with perfume and her tears. She was forgiven much, she loves much. So much that she breaks all sorts of social protocol and wrecks someone’s dinner.
To a woman caught in adultery – Who condemns you, neither do I. To a teenager broken over sex outside of marriage – there is hope in that story that she can be restored to God.
I see him seeking after people, Zacchaeus in a tree. With a little sanctified imagination, I can imagine that Matthew was at that dinner as well, a life transformed as a witness to Zacchaeus.
The four points we typically outline are not recorded in any whole outline in the teachings of Jesus. He invites people to come and see, come and follow.
Peter struggled with his faith all thru the gospel of Mark and didn’t seem to fully comprehend it till Paul rebuked him (Galatians). In Acts, he comprehends some of it, but even with his visit to Cornelius, he still had discovered all the implications of following Jesus.
This seems to me to be the language of storytelling, discovery, self-examination, and following without fully understanding.
I wonder how we as Christians can recapture that sense of invitation: “come and see this man” (Samaritan), “Come and see” (Nathaniel), “Come unto Me” (Jesus). How as a church can we create that place where people can investigate, explore, and discover?
What is evangelism?
I come back to the central question – do we need to wrestle with “what is evangelism?”
Some methodologies try to convince someone they are a sinner, convince someone they need forgiveness, and convince them thru proof-texts that Jesus can forgive them if they pray to him. Sometimes it seems like we are a talking infomercial for God. “All this, not for 19.95, but for free, but wait, there’s more . .. “
Is evangelism conversations or conversion?
Do we count conversions, or count conversations – for those who need to count something?
What is evangelism, more particularly, in the power of the Holy Spirit – to re-anchor the question.
What form does listening evangelism take in my life, in yours, in the people we will have the privilege of being with next month?
For me, it is clearly listening to the Holy Spirit, for the right question or the right story that will lead to self-examination. As you heard me say before, it’s the question that creates spiritual dry mouth – and a self-propelled quest to answer that thirst. It’s engaging people in spiritual conversation and listening to the Holy Spirit for the right question. Some may consider this similar to counseling – asking questions.
One man told me that I was acting like a pastor to prodigals by doing evangelism this way. Perhaps.
Maybe this is why God has enabled me to engage in the culture so much. I see the eternal questions being asked in music, in film. Using such visual parables enables me to ask questions of the heart.
Two different stories
Just this week, the dental assistant told me that it feels good to help people.
I asked her “Why?” No immediate answer, but enough to have her reflect. She’s unchurched, and so unchurched, she didn’t know why people had black spots on their heads last Wednesday [for Ash Wednesday].
The woman who cut my hair yesterday told me that she follows a principle that she discovered in a book, a true-crime novel about a deranged preacher who murdered his family (or something like that). She think that “something good always comes back to you from the bizarrest of circumstances. You’ll find the right way if you are true.” I asked here where she got that belief and she told me it came from such a book. She’s looking for guidance in her life and she’s seeking after a true-crime novel for guidance.
Evangelism is . . .
I bet that if we had 100 people, we’d have one hundred definitions of evangelism. I recently heard one say to me
“Evangelism is finding the Presbyterians in my neighborhood.”
Well meaning perhaps, but that’s only an egg hunt for the right colored egg.
Evangelism is more than telling your testimony of faith.
It’s more than proclaiming a set of propositions.
But how do we say it’s more than proclaiming and persuading?
End of story
Let me ask you this
How do you describe evangelism?
Is it more than proposition, is it more than persuading and or proclaiming?