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When the Method of Evangelism Obscures the Message, by Shane Rosenthal

21 December, 2009

Shane Rosenthal is executive producer of the White Horse Inn radio show. Find this article and more from Shane WHI logo(along with many others) at ReformationINK.

I can still remember the failed evangelistic attempts my friends attempted on me during my high school years. I was Jewish (although non-practicing), and they were “born again” Christians. During a skiing trip, one of my friends kept trying to get me to listen to his “Christian” rock music, arguing that the quality was just as good. Well, the quality wasn’t “just as good,” and frankly, I wasn’t interested in religious music to begin with.

But a funny thing happened a few years later. I had just started my first semester at a nearby community college and was reading sections of the Old Testament (I hadn’t picked it up since before my Bar Mizpah at age 13). In my readings I came across a passage that really shocked me: “But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are of old, from ancient times” (Micah 5:2). I had seen all of the animated Christmas specials year after year, so I knew what the implications of “Bethlehem” were, but no one had ever shared with me the connection between the Jewish messiah and the person of Christ. In short, I became an over-night convert — in fact, the very next day I went out and purchased a copy of the New Testament and began reading it with a believing heart.

After this extraordinary event in my life, I hooked up with my Christian friends who were always trying to get me to come to their Bible studies. This time, however, I actually wanted to study the Bible. My friends were very excited about my conversion and invited me to their “Friday Night Study.” Unfortunately for me, it was not primarily a study of anything. There was a lot of guitar singing and fellowship, but very little study of the Bible. And wouldn’t you know it, before I had a chance to dive into the punch and cookies, I was whisked off to go street witnessing. I was given a stack of tracts and was told to hand them out to people walking along the pier. I felt quite awkward about this, wondered to myself, “Have I become one of those religious weirdos you see in the airports?” But in my evangelistic zeal to share the transforming message about Jesus, I followed along.

That was ten years ago. Looking back on those days often makes me cringe. There I was, brand new to the faith, and within a year I had street witnessed, gone door to door, answered phones for the Billy Graham Crusade hotline, helped out teaching Sunday School to children in juvenile hall, and even considered becoming an overseas missionary. The only problem was, I didn’t really know what the Gospel was. My experience is not unique. I have met a number of folks with similar stories to tell, some who are no longer Christians. This problem occurs when we push evangelism from our pulpits rather than the Evangel. I can honestly say that during the first two years of my Christian walk I had never heard of the doctrine of justification by grace alone through faith alone, but I sure had it drilled into my head that I needed to be a witness for Jesus. The problem was, I knew that I was to be a witness, but I didn’t quite understand what it was I was to witness about.

The Pursuit of the Practical

In just one of his epistles, Paul could have guided us all through the “Four Spiritual Steps Toward Effective Evangelism,” but he didn’t. The apostles seemed to think that their time was best spent in defense of the Gospel message and in clarifying doctrinal questions. How boring! Today, we want to know how to reach the busters, how to “grow” churches, how to plan crusades, how to witness on a plane, how to, how to, how to…, but of these questions there is no end. The Bible, however, is simply not a “how-to” manual (which is fine because how-to manuals are outdated before any other kind of book–you’ve probably seen them on sale for a quarter each at your neighbor’s garage sale). The Bible gives us information that will not be outdated through the passage of time, and it does this by convincing arguments and by appealing to objective truth. Truth does not go out of style, and it does not become irrelevant. It may get ignored every once-in-a-while, but it never loses its relevance.

Unfortunately for me, most of the folks I met both before and after my conversion seemed to think that techniques and practical matters were more relevant than the truth which they neglected to teach me. It is at this point that I find a sharp contrast between today’s evangelistic appeals and the content of apostolic preaching.

Theological Training
What good is a message without content? As I related in the beginning of this article, I was sent out street witnessing the first day I went to a Bible study. But our Lord’s admonition is not like the shampoo commercial where, “You tell two friends, and they’ll tell two friends, and so on, and so on…” Rather, our Lord’s command was that we “go and make disciples of all nations…” Part of the problem in America is that we view evangelism as if it were simply getting folks to make a decision. We have been so influenced by Arminianism and anti-intellectualism that we have almost completely ignored discipleship. But doesn’t it make sense that you would first train a person in the basics of the faith before you send him out to the mission field? But we don’t do this. We must, therefore, recover the lost art of catechism and theological training. If we did, there would be less emphasis on the “stuff of evangelism” and more emphasis on the “stuff of the Evangel.” Christians would cease trying to “sell” their religion by manipulative techniques and would begin sharing their faith in convincing, thoughtful, and articulate ways. Look for example at some of the Apostles’ prayers and instructions in regards to equipping the saints:

And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight (Phil 1:9).

Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly (Col 3:16).

Grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ (2 Pt 3:18).

Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth (2 Tm 2:15).

Once a person has been thoroughly equipped so that he can “correctly handle the word of truth,” then he can do the work of an evangelist. But not until then. Until a person can, for example, rightly distinguish the Law from the Gospel, he should not consider evangelistic enterprises. For how can one preach effectively, unless he first shows a person the demands of God’s Law? And how can one comfort those terrorized by the Law, unless he preaches the Gospel in all of its sweetness?

Another point that needs to be made here is the fact that witnessing to others about Christ must be theologically based or it will wind up being testimonial. In other words, if I don’t have a solid understanding of the doctrines of the Christianity, I will inevitably end up talking about the effects of religion on my life, rather than the objective message of the Gospel itself. J. Gresham Machen is helpful at this point:

From the beginning Christianity was a campaign of witnessing. And the witnessing did not concern merely what Jesus was doing within the recesses of the individual life. To take the words of Acts in that way is to do violence to the context and to all the evidence. On the contrary, the Epistles of Paul and all the sources make it abundantly plain that the testimony was primarily not to inner spiritual facts but to what Jesus had done once for all in his death and resurrection. Christianity is based, then, upon an account of something that happened, and the Christian worker is primarily a witness. But if so, it is rather important that the Christian worker should tell the truth. When a man takes his seat upon the witness stand, it makes little difference what the cut of his coat is, or whether his sentences are nicely turned. The important thing is that he tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.1

Effective, Christ-centered, evangelism must therefore be based on the “facts” of Christianity, not the “effects.” When you think about this, it makes perfect sense. Just about any religion or ideology can make a difference in a person’s life, and yet, all of these different belief systems cannot be simultaneously true. But if a religion is presented first of all as being true, then it has implications on everyone, not just those for whom it is helpful. This brings me to my next point.

Whatever Happened to Apologetics?
Why was I so surprised to see the passage I found in Micah 5:2? Because no one ever showed it to me. In their zeal to convert me, my friends spent all their energy thinking of techniques by which I could be saved, rather than approaching me with sound arguments in support of Christianity. What they didn’t realize is that I thought all religion was absurd, so all of their attempts to get me to read Christian books or to listen to Christian tapes were equally absurd. But in my case, a simple discussion of fulfilled messianic prophecy could have been an open door to sharing the Gospel with me. All they had to do was to give me reasons for their faith.

Apologetics is a crucial ingredient missing in much of contemporary evangelism. The Apostle Peter gives us the clear and familiar admonition to: “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have” (1 Pt 3:15). But we do the exact opposite. We don’t give reasons for the hope that we have; we simply force our faith on others in the form of tracts, booklets, and cassettes. And very few of us take the time to prepare ourselves for the tough questions of the faith that non-believer might ask us. There is, however, much wisdom in Peter’s command. Just look at the example of Peter himself in his famous Sermon at Pentecost:

“Men of Israel, listen to this: Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know…God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of the fact” (Acts 2:22, 32).

Notice that Peter did not simply demand blind faith. Whereas in evangelical circles you might see a shirt or bumper sticker with the slogan, “God said it, I believe it, that settles it,” Peter here appeals to commonly known evidence “as you yourselves know,” and eyewitness accounts for the authority of his claims. Peter just didn’t have time for evangelistic techniques. He was convinced that the message he was preaching was true, and that is why he gave solid and convincing reasons for his faith, as he explained the meaning of the cross and resurrection. And we must not forget the success of Peter’s sermon either, for Luke records that “about three thousand were added to their number that day.”

Another good example of the importance of apologetics in evangelism is given to us by Stephen. In Acts 6:9-10, Luke records that as men were arguing with Stephen about the strange new teachings of Christianity, “they could not stand up against his wisdom or the Spirit by whom he spoke.” We can take a few things from this passage. First of all, it is okay to argue. By this I am referring to the exchange of propositions, not hostile confrontation. Many American Christians think that arguing is a negative thing, but we are called to argue for the truth of Christianity in the same way an attorney would argue for his client’s innocence. Another thing we can take from Stephen’s example is the fact that no one could stand up to his wisdom, or the Spirit by whom he spoke. The Holy Spirit likes sound arguments and sanctifies them for his own use. Is it any wonder that he is called the “Spirit of Truth?”

Then there is the example of Paul. This apostle’s message was simple. In the words of Festus, Paul was obsessed with “a dead man named Jesus who Paul claimed was alive” (Acts 25:19). He was not like many of these religious mystics who constantly speculate on spiritual and religious matters. This man was convinced that the whole issue of religion was wrapped up in one thing, and in one thing only; “If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith” (1Cor. 15). Paul was comfortable with this type evangelism because, as he explained to Festus and King Agrippa, “What I am saying is true and reasonable. The king is familiar with these things, and I can speak freely to him. I am convinced that none of this has escaped his notice, because it was not done in a corner” (Acts 26:26).

Apologetics then is a way to give credibility to the Gospel message. It prevents your listeners from thinking, “Oh, this is one of those religious messages.” If Jesus really did rise again from the dead in time-and-space history, then his claims about himself are vindicated. This is why, for Paul, everything hinged on the resurrection. But you know, in all my years as a non-Christian, I never once heard this type of message. Sure, I saw the bumper stickers that said, “Try God,” or “Give Jesus a Chance.” But those appeals only made me feel pity for the Christian deity. I had simply never heard of a God who had “given proof [of his coming judgement] to all men by raising [Jesus] from the dead” (Acts 17:31). Christianity is not afraid of the truth, it is upheld by the truth. Therefore we must make every effort to remove every obstacle from the eyes of an unbelieving world.

It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that the person who has done a little work in basic theology and apologetics will probably not have to spend much time with various evangelistic techniques. Those who confidently know what they believe, and why they believe it, are ready at all times to “give a reason for the hope that [they] have.” They know both how to articulate the hope that they have (the Gospel), and to give convincing reasons for it (apologetics). This type of evangelism isn’t done only on Friday nights down by the pier, and it isn’t something that has to be scripted. It springs forth naturally from a confident heart standing firm in a reasonable faith, well-saturated in the Gospel of grace.

There are a lot of people in this world who are still at the place I was ten years ago. They think religion is an absurd, trivial and meaningless pursuit, and the fish on your car simply won’t convince them otherwise. Please, for their sake, do the work of a well seasoned evangelist, giving them reasons for the hope that is within you. New evangelistic ideas and techniques will come and go, but don’t settle for them. Follow, rather, the Apostle’s instructions when he encouraged Timothy to “Preach the Word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage–with great patience and careful instruction” (2 Tim. 4:2).

1. J. Gresham Machen, Christianity & Liberalism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1923), p. 53.

  1. Grace permalink
    24 February, 2010 12:32 am

    Thanks so much for this. There’s nowhere near enough emphasis on knowing why we believe why we believe and how to defend it. I wish more people would read this article, or even have the common sense to figure the concept out for themselves. 🙂

  2. Brian Orr permalink
    24 March, 2010 11:51 pm

    I really enjoyed your post and are very true in what you said. I am currently taking an apologetics for that very reason. Ultimately going for the conscience of somone with the Law is perfect in coverting the soul. (Psalms 19:7) But there are so many questions people have and being prepared to answer is so crucial. Take care and God Bless

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