This morning I read a post on another blog about the diverse ways God reaches man and it got me thinking about my writing and how it’s changed over the past year. Hyper-calvinism tells us all we need to do is share the gospel, share the gospel, share the gospel and zap, the Holy Spirit reaches down and brings man to salvation. Now don’t get me wrong, there’s some truth to that in that apart from the working of the Holy Spirit, man cannot come to salvation. However, this approach–what I like to term, gospel tract saturation–fails to take into account human reasoning, and a great deal of the Bible.
I believe the Holy Spirit works in conjunction with the intellect, penetrating through the darkness that keeps man in rebellion against God while illuminating truth. Belief is assent at a heart and intellectual level. Taking both aspects into account strengthens our message.
Effective evangelism occurs in relationship.
Dropping a gospel tract at countless doorsteps won’t cut it. Oh, sure, perhaps five percent of those visited will probably make a confession of faith, but likely becaue someone else already laid the groundwork and you just happened to be there to reap the harvest.
Notice Jesus’ instructions to the disciples when He sent them out in Luke 9:1-6
1 When Jesus had called the Twelve together, he gave them power and authority to drive out all demons and to cure diseases, 2 and he sent them out to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal the sick. 3 He told them: “Take nothing for the journey—no staff, no bag, no bread, no money, no extra shirt. 4 Whatever house you enter, stay there until you leave that town. 5 If people do not welcome you, leave their town and shake the dust off your feet as a testimony against them.” 6 So they set out and went from village to village, proclaiming the good news and healing people everywhere.
When they reached a new village, they were to stay in one house. I believe this was to establish community. The age old saying is so true–people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. Perhaps we need to spend as much time relationship building as we do proclaiming.
Effective evangelism adapts their approach to the listener
One of my favorite examples of this is in Acts 17. When speaking to the Romans, Paul reasoned with them, displaying the coherency of God.
16 While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols. 17 So he reasoned in the synagogue with both Jews and God-fearing Greeks, as well as in the marketplace day by day with those who happened to be there. 18 A group of Epicurean and Stoic philosophers began to debate with him. Some of them asked, “What is this babbler trying to say?” Others remarked, “He seems to be advocating foreign gods.” They said this because Paul was preaching the good news about Jesus and the resurrection.
And notice what God says in Isaiah 1:18 “Come now, let us reason together,” says the LORD. “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool.”
Throughout Scripture their appears to be a pattern of the Holy Spirit working through human logic. This is not to say the gospel message is adapted, but instead, how we present it. The person sharing the message takes time to learn the unique barriers to faith held by each individual.
Effective Evangelism Takes the Time to Understand Their Audience
Notice the passage in Acts. When Paul entered the city, he observed the culture of the people around Him. He noticed their idols–their barriers to faith–then addressed those barriers in his message, demonstrating the superiority of the gospel message.
Have you ever talked with someone and felt like they didn’t hear a word you said? Or asked a question only to have them provide an irrelevant answer? A few nights ago, as I gathered among other believers, we talked of this very thing–how people came to Christ, and one man in our group asked an interesting question. The leader began to address the question, but never did, because he was too focused on 1) the information he wanted to convey and 2) how he interpreted the question based on number 1. The problem with this was, although the speaker reached his goal, he failed to reach his audience.
Effective Evangelism Addresses the Barriers to Faith
Why is it so hard to reach this generation for Christ? Because they have years of contradicting information filling their brains. Some may not even know Creator God. That sounds ironic to us and I have heard countless sermons on how every American understands Christianity. Do they really? And if so, what version? The tidbits they see on billboards? The Christianity presented through universities, which devote texts upon texts attempting to demonstrate why the Bible is a myth and the resurrection a fable? Unless someone clearly laid out the truth to them, there is a good chance they may not know it. And in absence of a clear presentation of truth, they likely have formed an explanation of their own making.
“Let’s say we approach a twenty-four-year-old person with the intent of proclaiming the gospel to him. He has spent twenty-four-years doing what he wanted to do, establishing habits, and developing his own value system. Almost everything fed to him is contrary to the words of God. Let’s say we spend an hour with him, during which we clearly explain the Christian faith. Now what do we expect to happen? We expect him to conclude that the direction he is taking in life is wrong…Getting substantial results from proclamation presupposes some advance preparation of the hearers (planting and watering).” (pg. 72, Petersen, Living Proof.)
What about the examples in Scripture–those who heard the gospel and instantly converted? According to Petersen, they’d already been prepared. Time and time again, as you read the conversion accounts provided in Scripture, you’ll notice these people were often called, “God-fearing Jews from every nation” (Acts 2:5), or they were “a worshiper of God.” (Acts 16:14) Most often, those who made instant conversions already had a foundation upon which to build. When Paul spoke to Gentiles, who didn’t have a foundation for Creator God, he took the time to build it.
Effective evangelism speaks with humility
No one wants to feel stupid. No one wants to be cajoled into faith. Truly, most people want to feel as if they’ve arrived at the conclusion themselves. Our goal then is to gently guide our listener or reader into discovery, asking thought provoking questions and pointing them to the truth of Scripture.
So how does this apply to writers? As we write, we must always be alert to our reader, praying for wisdom, anticipating possible objections to faith, and addressing those barriers with God’s truth, found in His Word.
Let me give an example. Joanne Sher and I are working on a biblical fiction tween devo. As we write each story, we think of the unique challenges and obstacles our readers, students between the ages of 9-13, likely face, and make sure our main characters encounter the same struggles. For example, if I’m writing a story on obedience, it won’t help my reader if my main character instantly obeys. To truly be effective, my character must struggle with obedience as my reader would, then reach a catalyst that moves them from disobedience to obedience. In doing so, my goal is to help my reader reach the same catalyst.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on this. Do you agree or disagree? What are some effective ways you believe to reach others for Christ?
Great post and very timely.
The comment I want to respond to directly is this:
“I have heard countless sermons on how every American understands Christianity. Do they really?”
It has been my observation that to assume every American understands Christianity is incorrect. Worse, it’s a fallacy.
Prior to the late 1800s, it would have been true to say that most Americans accepted the existence of God. Even non Christians accepted the existence of God and knew they were in trouble if they didn’t obey God. They simply chose to disobey and accept the consequences.
In today’s culture, the number of people who acknowledge the God of the Bible is a minority. Most people will tell you they believe in god, but if you really listen to people talk about it, you’ll hear several things.
I believe in A god, but not the God of the Bible.
I don’t believe in any god.
I believe in whatever god works for you.
We have come to the point at which everyone is a skeptic to one form or another, even in the church. My husband works with people who have told him to his face that God is true for him but not for them.
We need to recognize the fact that not only do most Americans not understand Christianity: They don’t believe in an omniscient, omnipotent God who is personally involved in their lives; they don’t believe there is Truth; they don’t believe that Christianity is anything special; and they don’t care to understand all that, because they see no reason to make a choice. All faiths are equal, so what does it matter?
It’s at this point that most evangelical Christians (myself included) realize that we’re living in The Good Old Days and have lost touch with the realities of living in a Post Modern World in which the common theme is the innate Goodness of Man and man’s ability to improve himself by himself. Dangerous waters, to be sure!
As writers writing from a Christian worldview, we get into a lot of difficulties when we fail to recognize that.
Wow, Carrie, lots of truth to chew on in your comment! I agree, failing to truly understand our audience hinders our effectiveness. Presuming upon our audience is not only disrespectful, but dangerous! And I can’t help but wonder if perhaps it reveals appathetic or lazy tendencies in the presenter? It is much easier to “do things as we’ve always done them” than to take the time to evaluate our times, our audience and our method.
For what it’s worth, from someone who has only published scientific books, reports, and journal articles in the past, here’s what I’m trying to do in my works of fiction. It follows closely Ravi Zacharias’ approach to evangelism and it’s one that seems useful in a postmodern society.
About 12 years ago I started seriously studying Christian Apologetics with the goal of writing the definitive work on the subject. In the meantime, the real experts (Ravi Zacharias, J P Moreland, Norm Geisler and others) wrote many wonderful books illustrating how to share the gospel with people from other faiths as well as with agnostics and atheists.
When I began writing fiction in 2010, it became apparent that God had another use in mind for my years of study. So far I’m unpublished as a novelist, but I’ve embedded a redemption story in the plot of my first two novels.
Here’s the formula I’m using. When the subject of faith first comes up, the unbeliever throws out one or two intellectual objections to Christianity–these are mostly smokescreens. The believing protagonist tries to answer the intellectual questions, but looks for the real, underlying objection, usually an existential problem, a cry of the human heart emanating from the unbeliever’s life experiences. A relationship forms between the believer and the unbeliever. Over time, both the believer’s life and words answer the existential question. In addition, I illustrate that God has already been at work in the heart of the unbeliever for some time. Somewhere in the latter half of the book, the unbeliever realizes the objections have evaporated in the light of truth. They see God at work in their life and they come to faith in Christ.
There are still a whole host of objections to Christianity and existential issues to weave into characters’ lives in future novels. Who knows, after publishing several books, maybe I will have written that definitive guide to Christian Apologetics that I planned several years ago.
The questions we pose in our Christian-worldview novels have to be organic to the story. An entire sermon embedded in the story and resulting in a character’s instant conversion will not reach the reader, in my opinion.
In The Art and Craft of Writing Christian Fiction, Jeff Gerke emphasizes not to include an entire sermon or to end the novel with a character being saved. Parts of a sermon are fine, and conversions are fine, but don’t write the novel with an agenda to preach.
An excellent example of doing this effectively is Frank Perretti, especially in his ya novels. He posed numerous questions in Hangman’s Curse, and provided sound answers, yet my daughter said it was “the best Christian fiction book she ever read.” His writing was so authentic and dynamic, he was able to provide deep truth without intruding on the reader. A brilliant mind, for sure.
great reminder that Petersen also points out in his book, Living Proof, the best book on evangelism I’ve read.
Often the questions posed are smokescreens. He gives a great way to deal with this.
He writes the question down, alerting his listener that he takes the question seriously, and most importantly, the questioner seriously, then continues.
If the question is valid, he addresses it. If he deems it to be a smoke screen, he might never address it, hence avoiding hours of pointless arguing, and found often by the time their series of meetings were done, the questioner no longer found the question important.
This was excellent, Jennifer! So well-written and very thought provoking. Great thoughts, and some things I’ll remember!
Harry’s right – as fiction writers we are to hide the definitive guide to Christianity in our stories. Jesus told parables and reached people outside of the religious world.
I’ve sought to grow deeper in Christ for 38 years and until a few years ago avoided Christian literature because it was so unrealistic and preachy. Praise God that that is no longer true.
This was a thought-provoking and emotion-stirring topic, Jennifer.
Thanks, Mary Allen! And great illustration in pointing out Jesus’ use of parables! And you do raise a second great point. If we are truly wanting to reach non-Christians, we will use characters that struggle with real, perhaps even intense, issues. And I agree, Christian fiction is stepping out of the pew, so to speak, and as a result, it’s audience is increasing. We certainly don’t want to drag our reader into the gutter, but using the Bible as our guide, we’ll notice the Bible reveals accounts of many characters–most of which were flawed. And yet, it is when we see the continual flaws of man that grace shines brightest! As I like to say, we love the story of the adulterous woman pardoned and murderous Paul turned to the world’s greatest evangelist not because we murder people but because seeing God’s love for the worst of the worst reminds us of His extravagant love for us. It reminds us that no sin is beyond His forgiveness and no life is beyond grace.