When I was looking for a good book about sharing the Gospel in a way that’s relevant for today’s world and culture, my pastor pointed me to this book called The Unbelievable Gospelby Jonathan K. Dodson.
Dodson starts by addressing what I try to avoid when I think about evangelism, the “pressure sale.” He tells a story of his wife working in sales for Yellow Book going door-to-door. Dodson says she hated it because the person on the other side of the door immediately felt like it was a pressure sale, that they were a means to an end. I’ve felt this uneasiness myself. I used to work in sales for UPS and I knew when people just didn’t want to take the time to hear me out and were just waiting for me to finish my schpiel. Many times this is what evangelism looks like to unbelievers. Now, I’m not going to say that God does not move through door-to-door Christian evangelism. Some Christians, like good, genuine, people in sales, have the ability to make this “pressure sale” feeling more subtle and come across very natural. But it’s exactly that natural attitude that should be the goal. Dodson notes very quickly in his book that a lot of times in our evangelism our delivery is, “coming across as a pressure sale, and people feel like a means to an end, a project. Even when what we say is true and we have good intentions, the way we say it can make people wish we weren’t talking.”1He’s not talking about the message of truth, but rather the delivery of that truth to people.
A couple pages later Dodson, relates a story of when he was on a beach evangelism trip with Campus Crusade for Christ (now Cru) and he had to go out and share the Gospel from a tract called the Four Spiritual Laws. He and a friend started talking with a guy and the conversation eventually turned to spiritual things. “I kept the tract in my back pocket and just tried to relate Christ to what this guy was facing in life.”2Apparently, through that conversation, the man they met ended up praying for repentance right then. No tract. Dodson says, “Listening to people’s stories, we can discern how to best share the gospel with them in a natural, relatable way. We don’t have to fit an evangelistic mold.”3Again, I don’t want to bash on tracts and neither does Dodson. I grew up in church and some of my first perspectives of God and Christ were through Chic tract comic booklets. If any piece of literature shares a message about the true Gospel then it is not worthless. But that doesn’t mean every person is going to share the Gospel the same way.
Much of this natural, “overflow of the heart” (Luke 6:45) method of evangelism will be determined by our motivations. If our motivations, for example, are strictly to grow numbers in our church then we are performing to gain some sort of favor from God or other Christians rather than loving people and wanting to see them saved. Sometimes we feel compelled to share the Gospel with our coworkers out of some begrudging obligation because we “haven’t done it in a while” or our church just did a series on sharing Christ with others so we feel obligated to do it. As Dodson puts it, “When our evangelism is motivated by approval, ‘moments’ of evangelistic opportunity devolve into something like this: ‘If I don’t do this, I’m gonna regret it’ (performance), instead of thinking, ‘I can see this person needs the hope of the gospel, and I can’t wait to extend it’ (love).”4I have to confess, I don’t open myself up to people enough to allow for these moments of loving evangelism to blossom. Half the task is getting to know people well enough to recognize who they are and how they are hurting without God. We have to realize that God does not need us to accomplish his work. We’re instruments to be used for his purposes but we’re instruments that have felt a deep love from the Father. No matter what happens to us, we know we are secure in Christ. This should be our motivation in sharing Jesus with others.
Keeping in mind the idea that we should not treat people as projects in sharing the Gospel, Dodson explains why we should moderate our pace in evangelism. “If evangelism is just a project or a program, we aren’t likely to get close enough to people to apply the good news to their heart, the place they truly believe.”5What struck me about this section is how he talks about being close to people. That should be a goal in our evangelism. Walk with people, talk with people. Get to know them. Invest in their lives in a meaningful way. That’s not to say we mustbe close to someone before sharing Christ with them. That’s not a requirement. God can use an acquaintance of ten minutes just as well as he could use a friendship of ten years to draw people to Himself. When I think of moderating my pace, I think of an analogy I heard Pastor Jeff Durbin use one time. I don’t have an exact quote but essentially he said something along the lines of, you should approach people at whatever pace the situation allows. If you have a friend at work that you know you will be in contact with for an extended period of time then you can work to gain trust and take your time pouring into his life and constantly being a good example of Christ. Invite him to church, speak in a way that’s edifying. On the other hand, if you meet someone on the bus and God has allowed the conversation to turn to Him, then speak with much more urgency. Share the Gospel of Christ in its most explicit form. Speak bluntly, and quickly. Durbin likens it to the sidewalk versus the street. If you’re on the sidewalk you’ll be taking your time, walking at a leisurely pace, able to take in the moment and enjoy the scenery along the way. If you’re in a car in the street you’re going 50 miles per hour. You have to be more intentional with your direction and alert to the most import things such as traffic lights and safety. If you have the time, take it and use every second to learn as much as you can about people and constantly be pouring Christ out back to them. When Francis Schaeffer was asked what he would do if he had an hour with someone who was not a Christian, he said he’d listen for fifty-five minutes and with the last 5 minutes he would finally have something to say. This is not to suggest, as St. Francis of Assisi is often misquoted, “Preach the Gospel at all times. Use words if necessary.” This pithy little quote gets knocked around a lot by Christians and I can understand why. It’s implying that we should constantly be living a life representative of Christ and that’s true but it also downplays the actual speakingof the Gospel to people. We should not deploy the false dichotomy of actions versus speech as if speaking is a last resort to our visible Christian conduct. I don’t think Dodson suggests that in his book but I feel I should note the difference here. Romans 10:17 says “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.”
The next point that stood out to me in Dodson’s book was when he quotes from 1 Peter 3:14, “Peter’s exhortation to the early church…’Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy.’ He reassures early Christian believers facing mockery and hatred to sink their security deep into their hearts and not just their intellect.”6This hits home for me. I feel like I find security in the intellectual truth of the Gospel rather than letting it capture my heart at a gut level. To be fair, that’s how I approach most relationships in my life but I know they are sincere. But especially when it comes to my relationship with Christ and sharing the Gospel with others, I’d do well to remember what Dodson says. “A persecuted Christian fearing for their life isn’t rescued by fine apologetics.”7
I love that Dodson explicitly defines what the Gospel actually is. “What is the Gospel? The gospel is the good and true story that Jesus has defeated sin, death, and evil through his own death and resurrection and is making all things new, even us.”8He further breaks the gospel down into three dimensions—historical, personal and cosmic.
– Historical — Jesus’ true story of “death and resurrection”
– Personal — Jesus’ defeating of sin and death for “even us”
– Cosmic — Jesus’ overthrow of evil
This changes how we preach the Gospel. It causes us to make doctrinal, personal and missional changes. “Our doctrines change based on beliefs about history, our lives change based on beliefs about the person of Christ and what he has done for us, and our mission changes as we seek to renew our surroundings.”9
Historical gospel —> Changes doctrine
Personal gospel —> Changes people
Cosmic gospel —> Changes mission
In the buckle of the bible belt it’s common for Christians to lose sight of what exactly we’re inviting people to in our evangelism. There’s a danger of letting the gospel become a counter culture movement. Dodson sheds light on this. “Many Texas youths, when they hear the word, ‘repent,’ associate it with things like: stop listening to secular music, stop sleeping with your girlfriend, and start going to church. This kind of repentance does not involve turning away from trusting in yourself to trust the Savior. It is simply a switch in lifestyles, secular to Christian.”10I grew up in Texas and this is exactly right. I don’t know how many times I’ve seen the same kids “get saved” at church camp. Of course there’s nothing wrong with listening to Christian music and it is imperative to commit to sexual purity before marriage, but we can do all that without actually being Christians. As Dodson says, “You can alter your behavior without altering your savior.”11What’s worse is we’re calling this Christian lifestyle the gospel and it’s not. “But this cultural repentance is not a true turning to Christ; it is a turning to Christianity, to a religious subculture.”12I believe this will inevitably happen but only as a result of a transformation of the heart. The bible says, if your hand causes you to sin then cut it off, or if your eye, then pluck it out. (Matt. 5:29-30). But our hand and eye don’t cause us to sin, the heart does. The heart is what must be transformed from stone to flesh. We have to keep in mind what we’re inviting people to, a Christian subculture or total dependence on and a real transformation through Christ.
God is a God of community. There is community in his very nature he is a triune God, three persons in one being. Likewise, we are called to a community of the church body. The last thing I took away from The Unbelievable Gospelis the idea that our conversion to Christianity is threefold; “to Christ, to the church and to mission.”13As we get to know people in our evangelism it should be an attempt to build community.
When lost people become Christians, we gain something in common with them, the most important thing two human beings can have in common, life in Christ. People are not projects. We should treat them like family because our goal is that they will become that close.
The people we encounter will require different speeds or pacing with which we share the gospel. Some communication will be a quick sprint and others a cross-country trek. And as we share, we must remember to reach out with our hearts as well as our heads. Don’t bombard people with the intellectual dominance that Christianity holds. Again, the problem is not with their brains but with their hearts. It’s their unrighteousness that’s suppressing the truth of God in their lives. And we must be mindful that in our conversations, we’re trying to win the person, not the argument. It should always be our motivation that we bring people to Christ, but not stop there. The message of the gospel is not a change in lifestyle, but in true repentance and total reliance on Christ.
1.) The Unbelievable Gospelby Jonathan K. Dodson p.21