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Thoughts on Evangelism: A Review of a Lecture and a Book Part 1

We as God’s people are called to make disciples of all nations.  Introducing people to Christ and guiding them to trust in Christ are important parts of this mandate.  Unfortunately, it seems our desire or our technique in evangelism is not effective.  We are not planting churches like we used to in the 50’s.  We’re not seeing people get saved as often as we used to. The culture has gotten worse.  Now some may chalk that up to God’s sovereignty and an understanding of end times, but at the same time can we not always seek to do an effective work for God? The problem, Tim Keller & Jim Peterson believe, is that our typical methods of evangelism aren’t working and that’s often because our ways of thinking about evangelism aren’t correct.  Are they correct? Is there a problem?

Tim Keller presents the problem in an allegory using a story from the gospels.  He says the demon is too deep.  The “demon” is that people are inoculated to Christianity and the culture has “common” beliefs that defeat traditional presentations of the gospel. 

The old ways of “waking” people up to personalize what they already knew to be true, he says, don’t work—including campaigns, door-to-door evangelism especially using canned presentations, and even maybe your typical Easter cantata.  There are too many barriers for any easy acceptance of the Gospel.  Now some may point here to Romans 1 and ask “doesn’t everyone know God exists in reality?”  I don’t think Tim is challenging that idea as much as challenging that it is more deeply buried than it once was.  I think he is challenging the belief that we just have to do more of what we’re already doing to be effective – do it more often, make it more professional, throw more advertising dollars at it.

Jim Peterson in his book Living Proof has a different approach and a slightly different but related problem. He says the problem is that we don’t demonstrate the gospel as much as we “preach” it and therefore we don’t really engage people.  He uses an illustration from his first time going out as a missionary on a boat to Brazil.  He started engaging some of the unbelieving passengers in conversation and realized there was real opportunity with “trapped” passengers on the ship to present the gospel clearly.  He approached the other missionaries on the voyage and their solution was to start a chapel service for people to come to where they were then presented the gospel after a “hymn sing”. After the first service the unbelievers avoided it.  Some may challenge this point and say, “Well, isn’t the preaching of the gospel foolishness to unbelievers?”  Definitely, but preaching in the New Testament doesn’t just mean getting together and listening to the “preacher.”  It is a proclamation of the gospel in word and deed.  Sometimes our preaching, Jim Peterson asserts, gets in the way of our proclamation. Tim Keller identifies the problem as a shift in the belief system of the culture(s) around us.  Jim Peterson identifies it somewhat similarly but more as a shift in the communication needs of this generation of people.  Both end up amazingly with a very similar solution.

My first question, however is, “is their assessment correct?”  Is there a problem with our evangelism technique and belief?   To qualify the discussion somewhat, Tim Keller, points out there are pockets remaining of the old cultural beliefs and values where the old techniques still work.  But he asserts they are shrinking.  Being from Iowa I would think this would be a pocket where the old techniques still work.  Is this true? A consideration of our specific context here in Ames is important.  We live in a busy, university town where older “small town” values still mix it up with new “culturally elite” values sometimes combining in weird ways.  For instance, we have a portion of town where the city is trying to get people to live with porches on the front of their house and where they can walk to any store for things to buy.  They’re trying to force people to adjust to a “better” way to live.  It hasn’t gone very well.  The question in reality, though, is, “Do people readily accept the underlying truths that make an acceptance of Christ possible?”  In this area, I think we live in a town divided.  We have a lot of liberal churches in town that preach a version of Christ.  We also have a lot of evangelical churches in town that truly preach Christ.  One could then argue that this is still a pocket where the old techniques still work (at least if you accept their premise).  But we also I think have an age division between those above 40 and those below.   Those over 40 still remember the values of Christianity and think about God.  Those under 40, even if they technically believe God exists, rarely think about him in any realistic way. What’s the answer?

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