Tag Archives: Evangelism
Editors’ Note: Christians didn’t discover the need for missions in the Muslim world on September 11, 2001. The Middle East is the homeland of our faith, too, the site of many great acts of God’s miraculous redemption. Long before the Twin Towers fell in Manhattan that clear fall day, Christians debated why the church has struggled to gain a hearing for the gospel where the call once sounded freely. Yet in the last decade, debate has intensified as we agonized over the depth of many Muslims’ hostility toward Christianity. Missionaries and academics have wondered aloud whether the problem extends beyond Western politics, military intervention, and spiritual bondage to the very way we present the gospel. Could our methods be to blame? Could more sophisticated contextualization unlock many more hearts for Christ?
These are the questions we asked experienced pastors and missionaries to answer this week. Whether you’re planning to take the gospel overseas yourself or supporting those who do, we hope these articles will help you make wise, informed decisions about this great missionary challenge of our generation.
“How do you pray?”
Ahmed and I had been sitting at a little teashop talking about various things when he asked this question. Like many other Muslims, he was curious about how Christians pray. I began to explain how our hearts need to be purified in order for us to approach God in prayer. He agreed and wanted to know more. “What do you say when you pray?” he asked. I told him that we can speak to God as a loving father. I then went on to show him the Lord’s Prayer from Matthew 6.
“Is that from the Bible?” he asked. “Yes it is,” I answered. He responded, “That’s beautiful! Can I get one?” From the beginning, it was obvious that God was working in Ahmed’s life to draw him to Jesus. It was a blessing to introduce him to Jesus the savior—whom he had only known as Jesus the prophet.
As we talk about Insider Movements and how we should or shouldn’t be sharing Christ with Muslims, two dangers can emerge. First, people can become a leery of Muslim evangelism out of fear of doing so incorrectly. We should have no fear in sharing the gospel with Muslims. It is the gospel that we are sharing, after all. It is powerful to save!
Second, we must remember that Muslim evangelism should not be merely talked about and debated on blogs or in academic circles. It is something that should be done wherever we find Muslims. In that endeavor let me offer some words of counsel to all who seek to make Christ supreme among Muslims.
Ground yourself in the fact that God is sovereign in salvation.
Muslims come to faith by a supernatural work of God, by which the Holy Spirit opens their hearts (Acts 16:14) and grants them the gift of repentance (2 Tim. 2:25). We believe that a Muslim coming to faith is not intrinsically connected to our form of contextualization, but rests solely on God’s divine intervention (Dan. 4:35; Ps. 115:3; John 6:64-65) and our humble obedience to proclaim the gospel (Acts 1:8; Matt. 9:38, 28:19-20). God is not concerned with glorifying a method; he is concerned with glorifying his Son. Strategies are useful and necessary, but none of them offers the “key” to Muslim evangelism.
Be diligent in working to understand the local culture and determine the best way to present the gospel.
God’s sovereignty is not meant to make us lazy, careless, or vague in our evangelism. It gives us hope, because our finite attempts to share the gospel are backed by an infinitely powerful Savior who has “ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation” (Rev. 5:9). Wanting to present the gospel clearly and knowing that God’s grace is irresistible are not mutually exclusive.
When it comes to understanding the local culture, we should seek to do two things:
(1) Know Islam. We need to ask ourselves, What are Muslims longing for? What keeps Muslims from attaining this? Don’t be afraid to read the Qur’an or other religious sources. These things will give you great insight into Muslims hearts and minds.
(2) Use their language. When I say “language” I’m referring to two things. First, speak their actual language. If you want to see a church planted among Arabic-speaking Muslims, learn Arabic. If you’re working among Pakistanis, learn Urdu. If among Bengalis, learn Bengali. Second, speak the language (figuratively) that communicates to them. My wife and I lived and worked among Arabic speakers. We learned early on that we could not get people to listen by presenting a beautiful apologetic syllogism proving Jesus is God. We had to use stories, parables, and passages from their religious books.
Center your gospel presentation on Jesus and the Bible.
The degree to which Muslim-background believers seek to retain their previous religion correlates with how we present the gospel to them. In other words, if we use the Qur’an extensively in our evangelism, we risk encouraging a sentimental attachment to it. Muslim-background believers may see the Qur’an as the means by which they understood the gospel and therefore have a harder time letting it go. If we present the gospel as fulfilling their previous religion, we open ourselves up to future problems.
I am not against the proper use of the Qur’an in evangelism. I am concerned with how much we use it. We should not give it center place in our gospel presentation. Jesus is the only way to the Father. Muslims must believe Jesus is their savior, and this belief can only come from the Scriptures. The story of redemption cannot be told from the Qur’an.
Don’t force your ideas on them.
Muslim evangelism can be messy; discipleship can be even worse. Each convert I worked with was different. I made it a point to preach the gospel and let it linger, giving them the time and freedom to think through the implications and determine how they should be applied in that particular culture. We should not attempt to impose our ideas or forms on Muslim-background believers. This means we shouldn’t impose either Western or Islamic expressions of Christianity on them. This is where much of the tension comes from.
We all have an idea of what we hope to see, and how we do Muslim ministry will be determined by our desired outcome. Insider Movement advocates envision implanting the gospel in a Muslim culture with the hopes that it will grow like yeast and lead to transformation from the inside out. In order to do this, they believe, the message must take on Islamic form. Anything less will be viewed as foreign and suspect. Others argue that Muslims need to be called out of Islam and gathered into a separate body with a clear Christ-centered identity. Anything less, they claim, would be viewed as syncretistic.
I would argue that both are correct. The gospel will take on a form of the culture that it is speaking to; if it doesn’t, it will not be understood. But the gospel will also speak with a prophetic voice within the culture that calls for transformation. It goes in and calls out. Our goal is to preach the gospel of Christ from the Scriptures and let the Spirit transform lives and communities.
In the end, expressions of the church or faith communities among Muslims may challenge all our views at some point. However, if these expressions are orthodox in their beliefs, Christ-centered in their view of the gospel, and not deceptive in their practices, we have cause for rejoicing. May God give us wisdom, grace, patience, and boldness as we seek to share the gospel with Muslims.
J.T. Smith and his wife have been ministering to Muslims for the past ten years. They have spent the last four and a half years in the Arabian Peninsula seeking to plant churches among Arabs. This article originally appeared on http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/tgc/2012/05/15/how-to-share-the-gospel-with-muslims/
At the conclusion of T4G, a dear brother approached me to give me a copy of Spurgeon’s classic, The Soul Winner: Advice on Effective Evangelism. Perhaps he felt sorry for me because I didn’t have any Spurgeon quotes for my sermon. But I suspect, having gotten to know him and his wife a little, it was one of those loving gestures that so often occur in the brief exchanges God blesses us with at our churches and at conferences. Praise the Lord.
I’ve been reading the book slowly, enjoying Spurgeon’s unique gift and praying the Lord would make me a better evangelist. In God’s grace, I’m feeling fresh stirring and I’m praying the Lord would not stop until He gives me real fire.
From time to time, I’m hoping to reflect a little on The Soul Winner and I hope you’ll join me. We begin today with chapter 1, “What Is It to Win a Soul?”
That’s a foundational question, isn’t it? We have to be clear about the “it” before we can do “it.” And it’s important that we maintain a sense of the priority of evangelism. Spurgeon writes, “Soul-winning is the chief business of the Christian minister; indeed, it should be the main pursuit of every true believer” (p. 5). Amen. But what is soul winning?
What Soul-Winning Is Not
Spurgeon identifies three things soul-winning is not:
(1) “We do not regard it to be soul-sinning to steal members out of churches already established, and train them to utter our peculiar Shibboleth: we aim rather at bringing souls to Christ than at making converts to our synagogue.”
He continues, “We count it utter meanness to build up our own house with the ruins of our neighbors’ mansions” (p. 5). How often do we hear boasts of swelling numbers added to the ranks of the converted (or more often baptism and church membership) at the expense of neighboring fellowships? I agree with Mr. Spurgeon; that’s not soul-winning as much as its plain ol’ competition. I love Spurgeon’s charge:
There is such a thing as selfishness in our eagerness for the aggrandizement of our own party; and from this evil spirit may grace deliver us! The increase of the kingdom is more to be desired than the growth of a clan. We would do a great deal to make a Paedo-baptist brother into a Baptist, for we value our Lord’s ordinances; we should labor earnestly to raise a believer in salvation by free-will into a believer in salvation by grace, for we long to see all religious teaching built upon the solid rock of truth, and not upon the sand of imagination; but, at the same time, our grand object is not the revision of opinions, but the regeneration of our natures. We would bring men to Christ and not to our own peculiar views of Christianity. Our first care must be that the sheep should be gathered to the great Shepherd; there will be time enough afterwards to secure them for our various folds. To make proselytes is a suitable labor for Pharisees: to beget men unto God is the honorable aim of ministers of Christ. (p. 6)
(2) “We do not consider soul-winning to be accomplished by hurriedly inscribing more names upon our church-roll, in order to show a good increase at the end of the year” (p. 6). Here! Here!
(3) “Nor is it soul-winning, dear friends, merely to create excitement” (p. 9).
What Soul-Winning Is
Having dispelled the imitation acts, Spurgeon then turns to positively defining “soul-winning” as he sees it. He brings his students’ attention to three positive aspects of evangelism:
(1) ”I take it that one of its main operations consists in instructing a man that he may know the truth of God“ (p. 10).
To try to win a soul for Christ by keeping that soul in ignorance of any truth, is contrary to the mind of the Spirit; and to endeavor to save men by mere claptrap, or excitement, or oratorical display, is as foolish as to hope to hold an angel with a bird-lime, or lure a star with music. The best attraction is the gospel in its purity. The weapon with which the Lord conquers men is the truth as it is in Jesus. The gospel will be found equal to every emergency; an arrow, which can pierce the hardest heart, a balm which can heal the deadliest wound. Preach it, and preach nothing else. Rely implicitly upon the old, old gospel. You need no other nets when you fish for men; those your Master has given you are strong enough for the great fishes, and have meshes fine enough to hold the little ones. Spread these nets and no others, and you need not fear the fulfillment of His Word, “I will make you fishers of men.” (p. 13)
(2) “Secondly, to win a soul, it is necessary, not only to instruct our hearer, and make him know the truth, but to impress him so that he may feel it“ (p. 13).
A sinner has a heart as well as a head; a sinner has emotions as well as thoughts; and we must appeal to both. A sinner will never be converted until his emotions are stirred. Unless he feels sorrow for sin, and unless he has some measure of joy in the reception of the Word, you cannot have much hope of him. The Word must be like a strong wind sweeping through the whole heart, and swaying the whole man, even as a field of ripening corn waves in the summer breeze. Religion without emotion is religion without life. (p. 14)
You and I must continue to drive at men’s hearts till they are broken; and then we must keep on preaching Christ crucified till their hearts are bound up; and when this is accomplished, we must continue to proclaim the gospel till their whole nature is brought into subjection to the gospel of Christ. Even in these preliminaries you will be made to feel the need of the Holy Ghost to work with you, and by you; but this need will be still more evident when we advance a step further, and speak of the new birth itself in which the Holy Spirit works in a style and manner most divine. (p. 16)
(3) “Of all whom we would fain win for Jesus it is true, ‘Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.’ The Holy Spirit must work regeneration in the objects of our love, or they never can become possessors of eternal happiness” (p. 16).
According to Spurgeon, regeneration will be shown in:
(1) conviction of sin,
(2) the exhibition of a simple faith in Jesus Christ,
(3) unfeigned repentance of sin,
(4) a real change of life,
(5) true prayer, and
(6) a willingness to obey the Lord in all His commandments.
It’s funny, but many today would regard anything more than “a simple faith in Jesus Christ” as a telltale sign of legalism. But Mr. Spurgeon was no legalist. It’s more likely that our own day has so low a view of conversion–equating it only with “a public profession of faith”–that we’ve grown squeamish and downright afraid of insisting that regeneration must entail newness of life, a radical change, a friendly disposition toward God rather than a stubborn refusal (enmity). If we have any hesitancy at affirming the bulk of this list, might we be unaware of our slippery grip on the magnificence of the new birth? Might we be in danger of rushing to affirm “professions” while overlooking the fruit of conversion?
It hardly seems necessary to say that the problems Spurgeon identified are with us today, and were with the church during the apostolic era. The evidence of false converts–biblical, historical, and contemporary–is plentiful. And one could become discouraged, judgmental, contentious, or indifferent. But when the Lord of the harvest commands we pray the Lord of the harvest to send laborers, we’re meant to understand that the Lord of the harvest plans on reaping and there’s no need for fainting! We should be encouraged because the problem of false converts simply means the unsaved have been brought near! We should be encouraged that the cotton has grown so high that by God’s grace we may pick without stooping! Brother, be encouraged to win souls!
So much more could be said, but Mr. Spurgeon should have the final word of exhortation:
You may say to yourself, at the close of a service, “Here is a splendid haul of fish!” Wait a bit. Remember our Savior’s words, “The kingdom of heaven is like unto a net, that was cast into the sea, and gathered of every kind; which, when it was fully, they drew to shore, and sat down, and gathered the good into vessels, but cast the bad away.” Do not number your fishes before they are broiled; not count your converts before you have tested and tried them. This process may make your work somehow slow; but then, brethren, it will be sure.
Do your work steadily and well, so that those who come after you may not have to say that it was far more trouble to them to clear the church of those who ought never to have been admitted than it was to you to admit them. If God enables you to build three thousand bricks into His spiritual temple in one day, you may do it; but Peter has been the only bricklayer who has accomplished that feat up to the present.
“Do not go and paint the wooden wall as if it were solid stone; but let all you building be real, substantial, and true, for only this kind of work is worth the doing. Let all your building for God be like that of the apostle Paul According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building upon it. Let each one take care how he builds upon it. For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw—each one’s work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire” (1 Corinthians 3:10-15; pp. 27-28).
Preach, Mr. Spurgeon! Preach!
About the Author: Thabiti Anyabwile is the Senior Pastor of First Baptist Church of Grand Cayman in the Grand Cayman Islands and a Council member with The Gospel Coalition. In his own words, “I love the Lord because He first loved me. I love His people because He has given me a new heart. I have received God’s favor in the form of my wife, Kristie. And together we know His blessing through three children. I was once a Muslim, and by God’s grace I have been saved through faith in Jesus Christ. By God’s unfathomable grace I am a preacher of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, in which I hope to serve Him until He returns or calls me home!”
He earned his B. A. and M. S. degrees in psychology from North Carolina State University in Raleigh, NC. Before moving to minister in the Caribbean, he served with Dr. Mark Dever at Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, D.C. He is married to Kristie and they have three children: Afiya, Eden, and Titus. As a native of Lexington, North Carolina, he has an affinity for Western-NC-BBQ. Thabiti writes regularly at Pure Church as part of The Gospel Coalition blog crew. He has also authored several books, The Gospel for Muslims: An Encouragement to Share Christ with Confidence (Thabiti converted to Christianity from Islam); Finding Faithful Elders and Deacons; Ephesians: God’s Big Plan for Christ’s New People; May We Meet in the Heavenly World: The Piety of Lemuel Haynes; What Is A Healthy Church Member?; The Decline of African American Theology: From Biblical Faith to Cultural Captivity; The Faithful Preacher: Recapturing the Vision of Three Pioneering African American Pastors. He has also contributing chapters to the following books: For the Fame of God’s Name: Essays in Honor of John Piper; Holy, Holy, Holy: Proclaiming the Perfections of God; Proclaiming a Cross-Centered Theology; Glory Road: The Journeys of 10 African-Americans into Reformed Christianity; and John Calvin: A Heart for Devotion, Doctrine & Doxology.
The article above is adapted from http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/thabitianyabwile/2012/05/03/winning-souls-with-charles-spurgeon
VIEW OF GOD:
|Point of contact with Christians is love (God loves you). Therefore, God’s authority is secondary.||Point of contact with non-Christians is creation (God made you). Therefore, God has authority over your destiny (Romans 1:18-21).|
|Love is God’s chief attribute.||Holiness and love are equally important attributes of God (Romans 2:1-5).|
|God is impotent before the sinner’s will.||God is able to empower the sinner’s will (John 1:12-13).|
|The persons of the Trinity have different goals in accomplishing and applying salvation.||The persons of the Trinity work in harmony—salvation accomplished for and applied to the same people (Ephesians 1:3-14).|
|God is a friend who will help you.||God is a king who will save you (Zechariah 9:9; 1 Timothy 1:15-17).|
Fallen, yet has the ability (or potential to choose the good.
|Fallen, and will not come to God by own will power (John 6:44).|
Seeks truth but lacks correct facts.
|Mind at enmity with God, none seek God (Romans 3:10-12).|
Needs love, help, and friendship.
|Needs new nature (mind, heart, will) regeneration (Jn. 3:3; 2 Corinthians 5:17).|
Makes mistakes, is imperfect, needs forgiveness
|Rebels against God, has a sinful nature, needs reconciliation (2 Cor. 5:18-19).|
Needs salvation from the consequences of sin—unhappiness, hell
|Needs salvation from guilt and the power of sin.|
Humanity is sick and ignorant
|Humanity is dead and lost (Eph. 2:1-6).|
Savior from selfishness, mistakes, hell.
|Savior from sin and sinful nature.|
He exists for our benefit.
|He exists to gather a kingdom and receive honor and glory (Revelation).|
His death was more important than his life.
|His death and his life of obedience are equally important (2 Cor. 5:21).|
Emphasize his priestly office.
|Emphasizes his priestly, kingly, and prophetic offices (Hebrews).|
An attitude of submission to Christ’s lordship is optional for salvation.
|An attitude of submission to Christ’s lordship is necessary for salvation (Rom. 10:9-13).|
|RESPONSE TO CHRIST|
Invitation waiting to be accepted now.
|Loving command to be obeyed now.|
Our choice is the basis for salvation—God responds to our decision.
|God’s choice is the basis for salvation—we respond to God’s initiative.|
We give mental assent to truths of the gospel—decision.
|We respond with our whole person (mind, heart, will)—conversion.|
Appeal is made to the desires of the sinner.
|Truths are driven home into the conscience of the sinner.|
Saved by faith alone—repentance omitted for it is thought of as “works”
|Saved by faith alone—saving faith is always accompanied by repentance.|
Assurance of salvation comes from a counselor using the promises of God and pronouncing the new believer saved.
|Assurance of salvation comes from the Holy Spirit applying biblical promises to the conscience and effecting a changed life.|
“Delight yourself in the Lord and he will give you the desires of your heart.” (Psalm 37:4)
1) God created us for his glory
“Bring my sons from afar and my daughters from the ends of the earth,… whom I created for my glory.” (Isaiah 43:6-7)
God made us to magnify his greatness – the way telescopes magnify stars. He created us to put his goodness and truth and beauty and wisdom and justice on display. The greatest display of God’s glory comes from deep delight in all that he is. This means that God gets the praise and we get the pleasure. God created us so that he is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him.
2) Every human should live for God’s glory
“So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.” (1 Corinthians 10:31)
If God made us for his glory, it is clear that we should live for his glory. Our duty comes from his design. So our first obligation is to show God’s value by being satisfied with all that he is for us. This is the essence of loving God (Matthew 22:37) and trusting him (1 John 5:3-4) and being thankful to him (Psalm 100:2-4) It is the root of all true obedience, especially loving others (Colossians 1:4-5).
3) All of us have failed to glorify God as we should
“All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23)
What does it mean to “fall short of the glory of God?” It means that none of us has trusted and treasured God the way we should. We have not been satisfied with his greatness and walked in his ways. We have sought our satisfaction in other things, and treated them as more valuable than God, which is the essence of idolatry (Romans 1:21-23). Since sin came into the world we have all been deeply resistant to having God as our all-satisfying treasure (Ephesians 2:3). This is an appalling offense to the greatness of God (Jeremiah 2:12-13).
4) All of us are subject to God’s just condemnation
“The wages of sin is death…” (Romans 6:23)
We have all belittled the glory of God. How? By preferring other things above him. By our ingratitude, distrust and disobedience. So God is just in shutting us out from the enjoyment of his glory forever. “They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction and exclusion from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might” (2 Thessalonians 1:9).
The word “hell” is used in the New Testament fourteen times1—twelve times by Jesus himself. It is not a myth created by dismal and angry preachers. It is a solemn warning from the Son of God who died to deliver sinners from its curse. We ignore it at great risk.
If the Bible stopped here in its analysis of the human condition, we would be doomed to a hopeless future. However, this is not where it stops…
5) God sent his only son Jesus to provide eternal life and joy
“Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners…” (1 Timothy 1:15)
The good news is that Christ died for sinners like us. And he rose physically from the dead to validate the saving power of his death and to open the gates of eternal life and joy (1 Corinthians 15:20). This means God can acquit guilty sinners and still be just (Romans 3:25-26). “For Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring us to God” (1 Peter 3:18). Coming home to God is where all deep and lasting satisfaction is found.
6) The benefits purchased by the death of Christ belong to those who repent and trust him
“Repent” means to turn from all the deceitful promises of sin. “Faith” means being satisfied with all that God promises to be for us in Jesus. “He who believes in me,” Jesus says, “shall never thirst” (John 6:35). We do not earn our salvation. We cannot merit it (Romans 4:4-5). It is by grace through faith (Ephesians 2:8-9). It is a free gift (Romans 3:24). We will have it if we cherish it above all things (Matthew 13:44). When we do that, God’s aim in creation is accomplished: He is glorified in us and we are satisfied in him – forever.
Does this make sense to you?
Do you desire the kind of gladness that comes from being satisfied with all that God is for you in Jesus? If so, then God is at work in your life.
What should you do?
Turn from the deceitful promises of sin. Call upon Jesus to save you from the guilt and punishment and bondage. “All who call upon the name of the Lord will be saved” (Romans 10:13). Start banking your hope on all that God is for you in Jesus. Break the power of sin’s promises by faith in the superior satisfaction of God’s promises. Begin reading the Bible to find his precious and very great promises, which can set you free (2 Peter 1:3-4). Find a Bible-believing church and begin to worship and grow together with other people who treasure Christ above all things (Philippians 3:7).
The best news in the world is that there is no necessary conflict between our happiness and God’s holiness. Being satisfied with all that God is for us in Jesus magnifies him as a great Treasure.
“You have made known to me the path of life; you will fill me with joy in your presence, with eternal pleasures at your right hand.” (Psalm 16:11)
*John Piper is the Pastor for Preaching at Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, Minnesota. He grew up in Greenville, South Carolina, and studied at Wheaton College, where he first sensed God’s call to enter the ministry. He went on to earn degrees from Fuller Theological Seminary (B.D.) and the University of Munich (D.theol.). For six years he taught Biblical Studies at Bethel College in St. Paul, Minnesota, and in 1980 accepted the call to serve as pastor at Bethlehem. John is the author of more than 30 books, including Desiring God, The Pleasures of God, Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, What Jesus Demands from the World, and Don’t Waste Your Life. DesiringGod.org provides a huge selection of God-centered resources from the prolific ministry of John Piper with free audio and video sermons, books, conference teachings, and articles like this one.
Defeater beliefs – Every culture hostile to Christianity holds to a set of ‘common-sense’ consensus beliefs that automatically make Christianity seem implausible to people. These are what philosophers call “defeater beliefs”. A defeater belief is a Belief-A that, if true, means Belief-B can’t be true.
Christianity is disbelieved in one culture for totally opposite reasons it is disbelieved in another. So for example, in the West it is widely assumed that Christianity can’t be true because of the cultural belief there can’t be just one “true” religion. That doesn’t seem implausible at all. Rather there it is widely assumed that Christianity can’t be true because of the cultural belief that American culture, based on Christianity, is unjust and corrupt. (Skeptics ought to realize, then, that the objections they have to the Christian faith are culturally relative!) So each culture has its own set of culturally based doubt-generators which people call ‘objections’ or ‘problems’ with Christianity.
When a culture develops a combination of many, widely held defeater beliefs it becomes a cultural ‘implausibility-structure.’ In these societies, most people don’t feel they have to give Christianity a good hearing – they don’t feel that kind of energy is warranted. They know it just can’t be true. That is what makes evangelism in hostile cultures so much more difficult and complex than it was under ‘Christendom.’ In our Western culture (and in place like Japan, India, and Muslim countries) the reigning implausibility-structure against Christianity is very strong. Christianity simply looks ludicrous. In places like Africa, Latin America, and China, however, the implausibility structures are eroding fast. The widely held assumptions in the culture make Christianity look credible there.
Dealing With the Implausibility Structure Today
Many books on reaching post-moderns today give the impression that people now need virtually no arguments at all. The ‘apologetic’ is a loving community, or the embodiment of social concern. I couldn’t agree more that post-modern people come to Christ through process, through relationships, through mini-decisions, through ‘trying Christianity on.’ They are pragmatic rather than abstract in their reasoning, etc. But the books that are against any arguments at all seem to miss the fact that the extreme pragmatism of non-Christians today is part of a non-Christian world-view. Our post-enlightenment culture believes what has been called expressive individualism. That is – ‘it is true if it works for me.’ This obviously is based on the view that truth and right-or-wrong is something I discover within my own self and consciousness.
What then of the claim that “post-modern people don’t want arguments – they just want to see if it works for them”? All right – as with any form of contextualization, let us as evangelists enter – adapt partially – to the culture of expressive individualism. Let us show them the reality of changed lives. Let us use narratives rather than long strings of logic. But at some point, the idea that “it is true if and only if it works for me” must be challenged. We have to say: “Ultimately that is correct – in the very, very long run, obeying the truth will ‘work’ and bring you to glory and disobeying the truth might lead to ostracism, persecution, or other suffering.
There have been many times in New York City that I have seen people make professions of faith that seemed quite heart-felt, but when faced with serious consequences if they maintained their identification with Christ (e.g. missing the opportunity for a new sexual partner or some major professional setback) they bailed on their Christian commitment. The probable reason was that they had not undergone deeper ‘world-view change’. They had fitted Christ to their individualistic world-view rather than fitting their world-view to Christ. They professed faith simply because Christianity worked for them, and not because they grasped it as true whether it is ‘working’ for them this year or not! They had not experienced a “power-encounter’ between the gospel and their individualistic world-view. I think apologetics does need to be ‘post-modern.’ It does need to adapt to post-modern sensibilities. But it must challenge those sensibilities too. There do need to be ‘arguments.’ Christianity must be perceived to be true, even though less rationalistic cultures will not demand watertight proofs like the older high-modern society did.
A ‘Sandwich’ Approach to Sharing the Gospel
There are two parts to sharing the gospel. What this means now is that there are two parts to sharing the gospel in a particular culture – a more ‘negative’ and a more ‘positive’ aspect.
The more negative aspect has to do with ‘apologetics’ – it consists in deconstructing the culture’s implausibility structure. In short, this means you have to show on the cultures terms (that is, by its own definitions of justice, rationality, meaning) that its objections to Christianity don’t hold up.
The more positive aspect of sharing the gospel is to connect the story of Jesus to the base-line cultural narratives. In short, you have to show in line with culture’s own (best) aspirations, hopes, and convictions that its own cultural story won’t be resolved or have ‘a happy ending’ outside of Christ.
A sandwich of three layers — I think the overall best way to ‘present the gospel’ is a kind of ‘sandwich’ approach to these two parts. The following assumes there is a process and a series of conversations between you and the person who doesn’t believe.
Brief gospel summary. First, the gospel must be presented briefly but so vividly and attractively (and so hooked into the culture’s base-line narratives) that the listener is virtually compelled to say “It would be wonderful if that was true, but it can’t be!” Until he or she comes to that position, you can’t work on the implausibility structure! The listener must have motivation to hear you out. That is what defeaters do – they make people super-impatient with any case for Christianity. Unless they find a presentation of Christ surprisingly attractive and compelling (and stereo-type breaking) their eyes will simply glaze over when you try to talk to them.
Dismantle plausibility structure. Alvin Plantinga wisely asserts that people avoid Christianity not because they have really examined its teachings and found them wanting, but because their culture gives huge plausibility (by the media, through art, through the expertise and impressive credentials of is spokespersons) to believe a series of defeater beliefs that they know are true, and since they are true, Christianity can’t be. The leading defeaters must be dealt with clearly and quickly but convincingly. Defeaters are dealt with when the person feels you have presented the objection to Christianity in a clearer and stronger way than they could have done it.
Longer explanation of the person and work of Christ. Now, if people find you have at least undermined the defeaters in a listener’s mind, you can now return to talking at greater length about creation, fall, redemption, and restoration. If you try to do apologetics before you pull off a quick, attractive presentation of Christ, people’s eyes will glaze over and they will become bored. But if you try to do a very lengthy explanation of the meaning of Christ’s cross and resurrection before you convincingly deal with the defeaters, they won’t listen to you either.
Summary of the approach:
The attractive gospel – Brief gospel connected to baseline narratives
Why Christianity can be true – Dismantling doubts and defeaters
The Biblical story of the gospel – A more thorough telling
The gospel connected to baseline cultural narratives
The doctrines of creation, sin, grace, and faith must be presented in connection with ‘baseline cultural narratives’ – Jesus must be the answer to the questions the culture is asking. Don’t forget – every gospel presentation presents Jesus as the answer to some set of human-cultural questions, like ‘how can I be forgiven?’ (Western moral individualism) or ‘how can I be free?’ (Post-modern expressive individualism) or ‘how can we over come evil forces in the world?’ (Contemporary Africans) etc. Every gospel presentation has to be culturally incarnated, it must assume some over-riding cultural concern, so we may as well be engaged with the ones that we face! Christianity must be presented as answers to the main questions and aspirations of our culture. Two of the over-riding concerns are:
Cultural concerns. First, a concern for personal freedom and identity. Contemporary people ask: Who am I? I’m not completely sure – but I do know I have to be free to create my own identity and sense of self. Whatever spirituality I have, it must leave me free to experiment and seek and not be a ‘one size fits all.’
Second, a concern for unity in diversity. Contemporary people ask: How can we get past exclusion and exclusivism? How can we live at peace in a pluralistic world? How can we share power rather than using power to dominate one another? How can we embrace the ‘Other’ – the person of a sharply different viewpoint and culture?
Gospel resources. Gospel resources for personal freedom. Kierkegaard depicts sin in The Sickness unto Death – as ‘building your identity on anything but God’ which leads to internal slavery and narrowness of spirit. This is a gospel presentation that connects well today. (Kierkegaard, like Nietzsche and other great thinkers, was a good century ‘ahead of his time.’) Kierkegaard also deconstructed mere religion and moralism and contrasted them with the gospel. (See his Three ways of life: the aesthetic, the ethical, and the spiritual.) Building your identity on any finite created thing besides God leads to the idolization of that factor and the demonization of anyone who lacks it.
Gospel resources for living at peace. If you build your identity mainly on your class, or race, or culture, or performance you will necessarily vilify and disdain anyone who lacks what you consider the cornerstone of your own significance. Therefore, building your identity on God leads to hatred of the other, to social conflict and oppression. Jonathan Edwards (again, a man ahead of his time) recognized that if your highest love is based on your nation, your family, your career, even your religious performance, then you will disdain other nations, families, classes of people, and other religions. If anything but God is our “highest good” (i.e. if make anything an idol) then we have to demonize or at least exclude some part of creation. But if God is our ultimate good, then we are free to develop deep love for (what Edwards calls) “Being in general.” If we truly made the Lord our ultimate beauty and Savior and good – we would have an equal love and joy equally in all creation, all individuals, all people groups, even in all nature and created things.
In any case, there is no religion with a more powerful ground-motif for accepting enemies and the ‘Other’ than Christianity. We are the only faith that has at its heart a man dying for his enemies, forgiving them rather than destroying them. This must be presented to our culture as an unparalleled resource for living in peace in a pluralistic society.
As we said above, people’s eyes will ‘glaze over’ if you start your presentation with ‘reasons Christianity is true’. Christianity must be attractive to people before they will sit still for a presentation of intellectual credibility. A person must come to the point where he or she says, “that would be great if it were true – but is it?” Then and only then will they sit still for a discussion on why Christianity is true. So Christianity has to first be presented attractively and compellingly. We must show post-modern western culture – with its aspirations for personal freedom and unity in diversity – that its ‘Story’ can have a ‘happy ending’ in Jesus Christ. Then we can deal with the main objections (the ‘defeaters’) in our cultures that make it hard it hard to believe that Christianity is true.
Here is an example of a brief gospel presentation:
Why we are here. The one God is community – a Trinity of three persons who each perfectly know and defer to one another and love one another and therefore have infinite joy and glory and peace. God made a good, beautiful world filled with beings who share in this life of joy and peace by knowing, serving, and loving God and one another.
What went wrong. Instead, we chose to center our lives on ourselves and on the pursuit of things rather than on God and others. This has led to the disintegration of creation and the loss of peace – within ourselves, between ourselves, and in the nature itself. War, hunger, poverty, injustice, racism, bitterness, meaninglessness, despair, sickness, and death all are symptoms.
What puts the world right. But though God lost us he determined to win us back. He entered history in the person of Jesus in order to deal with all the causes and results of our broken relationship with him. By his sacrificial life and death he both exemplifies the life we must live and rescues us from the life we have lived. By his resurrection he proved who he was and showed us the future – new bodies and a completely renewed and restored new heavens and new earth in which the world is restored to full joy, justice, peace, and glory.
How we can be part of putting the world right. Between his first coming to win us and his last coming to restore us we live by faith in him. When we believe and rely on Jesus’ work and record (rather than ours) for our relationship to God, his healing kingdom power comes upon us and begins to work through us. Christ gives us a radically new identity, freeing us from both self-righteousness and self-condemnation. This liberates us to accept people we once excluded, and to break the bondage of things (even good things) that once drove us. He puts us into a new community of people which gives a partial, but real, foretaste of the healing of the world that God will accomplish when Jesus returns.
Deconstructing the Implausibility Structure
What are the dominant defeaters in contemporary Western civilization? These are the dominant defeaters discovered in a recent survey I did of young under 25 year olds NYC who are not Christian. Below six ‘defeaters’ are stated and answered in a nutshell. Why Christianity can’t be true because of:
The other religions. Christians seem to greatly over-play the difference between their faith and all the other ones. Though millions of people in other religions say they have encountered God, have built marvelous civilizations and cultures, and have had their lives and characters changed by their experience and of faith, Christian insist that only they go to heaven – that their religion is the only one that is ‘right’ and true. The exclusivity of this is breath taking. It also appears to many to be a threat to international peace.
Brief response: Inclusivism is really covert exclusivism. It is common to hear people say: “No one should insist their view of God is better than all the rest. Every religion is equally valid.” But what you just said could only be true if: First, there is no God at all, or second, God is an impersonal force that doesn’t care what your doctrinal beliefs about him are. So as you speak you are assuming (by faith!) a very particular view of God and you are pushing it as better than the rest! That is at best inconsistent and at worst hypocritical, since you are doing the very thing you are forbidding. To say “all religions are equally valid” is itself a very white, Western view based in the European enlightenment’s idea of knowledge and values. Why should that view be privileged over anyone else’s?
Evil and suffering. Christianity teaches the existence of an all-powerful, all-good and loving God. But how can that belief be reconciled with the horrors that occur daily? If there is a God, he must be either all-powerful but not good enough to want an end to evil and suffering, or he’s all-good but not powerful enough to bring an end to evil and suffering. Either way the God of the Bible couldn’t exist. For many people, this is not only an intellectual conundrum but also an intensely personal problem. Their own lives are marred by tragedy, abuse, and injustice.
Brief response: If God himself has suffered our suffering isn’t senseless. First, if you have a God great and transcendent enough to be mad at because he hasn’t stopped evil and suffering in the world, then you have to (at the same moment) have a God great and transcendent enough to have good reasons for allowing it to continue that you can’t know. (You can’t have it both ways.) Second, though we don’t know the reasons why he allows it to continue, he can’t be indifferent or un-caring, because the Christian God (unlike the gods of all the other religions) takes our misery and suffering so seriously that he is willing to get involved with it himself. On the cross, Jesus suffered with us.
The ethical strait jacket. In Christianity the Bible and the church dictate everything that a Christian must believe, feel, and do. Christians are not encouraged to make their own moral decisions, or to think out their beliefs or patterns of life for themselves. In a fiercely pluralistic society there are too many options, too many cultures, too many personality differences for this approach. We must be free to choose for ourselves how to live – this is the only truly authentic life. We should only feel guilty if we are not being true to ourselves – to our own chosen beliefs and practices and values and vision for life.
Brief response. Individual creation of truth removes the right to moral outrage. First, aren’t there any people in the world who are doing things you believe are wrong that they should stop doing no matter what they believe inside about right and wrong? Then you do believe that there is some kind of moral obligation that people should abide by and which stands in judgment over their internal choices and convictions. So what is wrong with Christians doing that? Second, no one is really free anyway. We all have to live for something, and whatever our ultimate meaning in life is (whether approval, achievement, a love relationship, our work) it is basically our ‘lord’ and master. Everyone is ultimately in a spiritual straightjacket. Even the most independent people are dependent on their independence and so can’t commit. Christianity gives you a lord and master who forgives and dies for you.
The record of Christians. Every religion will have its hypocrites of course. But it seems that the most fervent Christians are the most condemning, exclusive, and intolerant. The church has a history of supporting injustices, of destroying culture, or oppression. And there are so many people who are not Christian (or not religious at all) who appear to be much more kind, caring, and indeed moral than so many Christians. If Christianity is the true religion – then why can this be? Why would so much oppression have been carried out over the centuries in the name of Christ and with the support of the church?
Brief response. The solution to injustices is not less but deeper Christianity. First, there have been terrible abuses. Second, in the prophets and the gospels we are given tools for a devastating critique of moralistic religion. Scholars have shown that Marx and Nietzsche’s critique of religion relied on the ideas of the prophets. So despite its abuses, Christianity provides perhaps greater tools than the other religions do for its own critique. Third, when Martin Luther King Jr. confronted terrible abuses by the white church he did not call them to loosen their Christian commitments. He used the Bible’s provision for church self-critique and called them to truer, firmer, deeper Christianity.
The angry God. Christianity seems to be built around the concept of a condemning, judgmental deity. For example, there’s the cross – the teaching that the murder of one man (Jesus) leads to the forgiveness of others. But why can’t God just forgive us? The God of Christianity seems a leftover from primitive religions where peevish gods demanded blood in order to assuage their wrath.
Brief response. On the cross God does not demand our blood but offers his own. First, all forgiveness of any deep wrong and injustice entails suffering on the forgiver’s part. If someone truly wrongs you, because of our deep sense of justice, we can’t just shrug it off. We sense there’s a ‘debt.’ We can either (a) make the perpetrator pay down the debt you feel (as you take it out of his hide in vengeance!) in which case evil spreads into us and hardens us or (b) you can forgive – but that is enormously difficult. But that is the only way to stop evil from hardening as well. Second, if we can’t forgive without suffering (because of our sense of justice) its not surprising to learn that God couldn’t forgive us without suffering – coming in the person of Christ and dying on the cross.
The unreliable Bible. It seems impossible any longer to take the Bible as completely authoritative in the light of modern science, history, and culture. Also we can’t be sure what in the Bible’s accounts of events is legendary and what really happened. Finally, much of the Bible’s social teaching (for example, about women) is socially regressive. So how can we trust it scientifically, historically, and socially?
Brief response: The gospels’ form precludes their being legends. The Biblical gospels are not legends but historically reliable accounts about Jesus’ life. Why? First, their timing is far too early for them to be legends. The gospels, however, were written 30-60 years after Jesus’ death – and Paul’s letters, which support all the accounts, came just 20 years after the events. Second, their content is far too counter-productive to be legends. The accounts of Jesus crying out that God had abandoned him, or the resurrection where all the witnesses were women – did not help Christianity in the eyes of first century readers. The only historically plausible reason that these incidents are recorded is that they happened. The ‘offensiveness’ of the Bible is culturally relative. Texts you find difficult and offensive are ‘common sense’ to people in other cultures. And many of the things you find offensive because of your beliefs and convictions, many will seem silly to your grandchildren just as many of your grandparents’ beliefs offend you. Therefore, to simply reject any Scripture is to assume your culture (and worse yet, your time in history) is superior to all others. It is narrow-minded in the extreme.
Two Final Notes on Dealing with ‘Doubts’ and ‘Defeaters’
First, it is critical to state these defeaters in the strongest possible way. If a non-Christian hears you express them and says, “that’s better than I could have put it” then they feel that they are being respected and will take your answer more seriously. You will need to have good answers to these defeaters woven in redundantly to everything you say and teach in the church.
Second, our purpose with these defeaters and doubts is not to ‘answer’ them or ‘refute’ them but to deconstruct them. That is, to “show that they are not as solid or as natural as they appear” (Kevin Vanhoozer). It is important to show that all doubts and objections to Christianity are really alternate beliefs and faith-acts about the world. (If you say, “I just can’t believe that there is only one true religion” – that is a faith-act. You can’t prove that.) And when you see your doubts are really beliefs, and when you require the same amount of evidence for them that you are asking of Christian beliefs, then it becomes evident many of them are very weak and largely adopted because of cultural pressure.
Steps Into Faith
What about the positive? If you are ready to move toward the exploration of faith in Christianity, you must be:
Deconstructing doubt. Your doubts are really beliefs, and you can’t avoid betting your life and destiny on some kind of belief in God and the universe. Non-commitment is impossible. Faith-acts are inevitable.
Knowing there’s God. You actually already believe in God at the deep level, whatever you tell yourself intellectually. Our outrage against injustice despite how natural it is (in a world based on natural selection) shows that we already do believe in God means the world is not the product of violence or random disorder (as in both the ancient and modern accounts of creation) but was created by a Triune God to be a place of peace and community. So at the root of all reality is not power and individual self-assertion (as in the pagan and post-modern view of things) but love and sacrificial service for the common good.
Recognizing your biggest problem. You aren’t spiritually free. No one is. Everyone is spiritually enthralled to something. ‘Sin’ is not simply breaking rules but is building your identity on things other than God, which leads internally to emptiness, craving, and spiritual slavery and externally to exclusion, conflict, and social injustice.
Discerning the difference between religion and the gospel. There is a radical difference between religion – in which we believe our morality secures for us a place of favor in God and in the world – and gospel Christianity – in which our standing with God is strictly a gift of grace. These two different core understandings produce very different communities and character. The former produces both superiority and inferiority complexes, self-righteousness, religiously warranted strife, wars, and violence. The latter creates a mixture of humility and enormous inner confidence, a respect for ‘the other’, and a new freedom to defer our needs for the common good.
Understanding the Cross. All forgiveness entails suffering and that the only way for God to forgive us and restore justice in the world without destroying us was to come into history and give himself and suffer and die on the Cross in the person of Jesus Christ. Both the results of the Cross (freedom from shame and guilt; awareness of our significance and value) and the pattern of the Cross (power through service, wealth through giving, joy through suffering) radically changes the way we relate to God, the world, and ourselves.
Embracing the resurrection. Because there is no historically possible alternative of the rise of the Christian church than the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ. And if Jesus was raised from the dead as a forerunner of the renewal of all the material and physical world, then this gives Christians both incentive to work to restore creation (fighting poverty, hunger, and injustice) as well as infinite hope that our labors will not be in vain. And finally, it eliminates the fear of death.
*TIMOTHY KELLER was born and raised in Pennsylvania, and educated at Bucknell University, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, and Westminster Theological Seminary. He was first a pastor in Hopewell, Virginia. In 1989 he started Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan with his wife, Kathy, and their three sons. Today, Redeemer has more than five thousand regular attendees at five services, a host of daughter churches, and is planting churches in large cities throughout the world. He is the author of KING’S CROSS, COUNTERFEIT GODS, THE PRODIGAL GOD, and the New York Times bestseller THE REASON FOR GOD & the forthcoming CENTER CHURCH (August 2012).
“In our church in Washington, I always ask our prospective members to tell me the gospel in one minute or less. How would you do that? What would you say the message is?
Here’s what I understand the good news to be: the good news is that the one and only God, who is holy, made us in his image to know him. But we sinned and cut ourselves off from him. In his great love, God became a man in Jesus, lived a perfect life, and died on the cross, thus fulfilling the law himself and taking on himself the punishment for the sins of all those who would ever turn and trust in him. He rose again from the dead, showing that God accepted Christ’s sacrifice and that God’s wrath against us had been exhausted. He now calls us to repent of our sins and to trust in Christ alone for our forgiveness. If we repent of our sins and trust in Christ, we are born again into a new life, an eternal life with God.”
*Adapted from Mark Dever’s book The Gospel and Personal Evangelism published by Crossway Books, p. 42.
Mark Dever (PhD, Cambridge), author of several books and articles, serves as the senior pastor of Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington DC. Along with his pastoral responsibilities, Dever is also the president of 9Marks. He is coauthor, with J. I. Packer, of In My Place Condemned He Stood: Celebrating the Glory of the Atonement.
Veteran British church planters Steve Timmis and Tim Chester have put together a very helpful workbook for churches that desire to be more intentionally & strategically gospel driven. In three loaded sections this guide (suited ideally for discipleship, leadership teams, or small group’s of various kinds) covers six sessions on the Priority of Mission; six sessions on the Priority of People; and another six sessions on the Priority of Community and the last chapter which is on why “It’s all about the gospel.” This book is ideal as a workbook for church planting core groups, or churches that want to be more missional and multiplicational in their process of making and maturing disciples of Christ.
Each chapter stands alone and contains the following five sections:
Consider this – A scenario—often based on a real-life situation—which raises some kind of dilemma or frustration in gospel ministry.
Biblical background – A relevant Bible passage together with some questions to help you think it through.
Read all about it – A discussion of the principle, both in terms of its theological underpinning and its contemporary application.
Questions for reflection – Questions that can be used for group discussion or personal reflection.
Ideas for action – Some ideas or an exercise to help people think through the application of the principle to their own situation.
I think this is a phenomenal resource that helps a church think through how to contextualize the gospel message in its own unique setting. It is concise, deep, Christ exalting, biblical, gospel oriented, God-glorifying and extremely practical. I can’t recommend this resource highly enough.
The Power of Multiplication
(adapted from Keith Philips, The Making of a Disciple, p. 23)
Year Evangelist Discipler
1 365 2
2 730 4
3 1095 8
4 1460 16
5 1825 32
6 2190 64
7 2555 128
8 2920 256
9 3285 512
10 3650 1,024
11 4015 2,048
12 4380 4,096
13 4745 8,192
14 5110 16,384
15 5475 32,768
16 5840 65,536
*Keith’s chart compares the numeric difference between one person coming to Christ a day and one person a year being discipled to maturity. Catch the vision and start making disciples now!