Sunday, February 26, 2006

Book Review: Questioning Evangelism

Author Randy Newman says that being an ambassador of Christ in the twenty-first century requires three skills. Obviously, one must be able to declare the gospel, concisely and accurately articulating the message of salvation through Christ. The second necessary skill is the ability to defend the gospel in obedience to the Bible's call that we be ready to give an answer (i.e., an apologia or defense) to everyone who asks us the reason for our hope. A third and frequently neglected skill is that of dialoguing the gospel (I really like that phrase). Newman describes it as "giving and taking-asking questions and bouncing ideas back and forth." This way of interacting with those we're seeking to persuade of the good news is, as the book's subtitle indicates, "engaging people's hearts the way Jesus did." Newman notes that it was characteristic of Jesus to answer questions with questions and that this style of teaching was commonly employed by Jewish rabbis. For this reason he calls the kind of evangelistic style he's proposing "rabbinic evangelism."

Asking questions in response to the questions and objections raised by unbelievers can lead them to reconsider their ideas of what is plausible and probable, thereby paving the way for them to be more willing to listen to Christian answers. It can also help us to clarify what is really behind the questions and objections people raise so that we can respond most appropriately. For instance, the question of why the church is so filled with hypocrites may be motivated more by pain than by a desire to justify one's unbelief. Through asking questions we can stir the curiosity of those who have read very little of the Bible, inviting them to search its pages. Because people's familiarity with Scripture has declined so drastically, Newman says that "today's apologetics should encourage literacy before defending historicity. We must challenge people by asking, 'Why don't you read it?' more than, 'Why don't you believe it?'"

After making a case for asking questions being both biblical and beneficial, Newman devotes the second part of the book to seven questions Christians are bound to encounter in various forms:

  1. Why are Christians so intolerant?
  2. Why does a good God allow evil and suffering such as Columbine and AIDS?
  3. Why should anyone worship a God who allowed 9/11?
  4. Why should we believe an ancient book written by dead Jewish males?
  5. Why are Christians so homophobic?
  6. What's so good about marriage?
  7. If Jesus is so great, why are some of his followers such jerks?
Drawing on more than twenty years of working as a campus minister and lecturer with Campus Crusade, Newman uses actual conversations to illustrate how questions can be effectively used to help us better understand our audience and prepare them to take the gospel message more seriously. However, Newman warns against viewing these conversations as scripts to be committed to memory and repeated rotely at the next witnessing opportunity. Rather, he hopes that his examples will help readers
"...develop a different way of thinking about people, their questions, and our message. And because of that difference, our evangelistic conversations will sound less content/persuasion driven and more relationship/understanding driven. They'll sound more like rabbinic dialogues than professorial monologues. They'll be an exchange of ideas that lead both participants to the truth of the gospel. For one participant, it will be the first arrival at that point; for the other participant, it will be a rediscovery and a new appreciation of the message of the Cross."
In the third and final part of the book, Newman addresses two questions that Christians should ask themselves. A chapter titled "The Question of Compassion: 'What If I Don't Care That My Neighbor Is Going to Hell?'" addresses the sad reality that we are often apathetic about the lost condition of those around us. What's worse, our attitude is frequently contemptuous. Our emotional response (or lack thereof) to the sin-ravaged lives that confront us daily has more in common with Stoicism than with Jesus who was moved with compassion as he observed the aimless crowd.
"...some followers of Jesus have mistaken Stoicism for Christian maturity. They think that the healthy Christian is unflappable. They read the newspaper, listen to their neighbors, or watch television and remain emotionally unmoved. Their trust in God's sovereignty and their confidence in Christ's return put everything neatly in place for them. They don't get upset or angry (at least, not in a righteous way). They just 'praise the Lord,' knowing that they won't get left behind."
Confession and petition for God to transform our hearts are the first steps toward our being "de-Jonahized," followed by our beginning to intercede for the unsaved. Newman also suggests trying to see things from the perspective of non-Christians as another means of fostering compassion.

The following chapter deals with our anger toward non-Christians, the subtle ways it expresses itself in our witness, and what to do about it. The concluding chapter discusses the importance of listening, why we don't do more of it, and how to do it more effectively. Newman is quick to note that while there are practices we can adopt to become better listeners, listening is not primarily a technique but an expression of Christlike character: "...gracious listening flows from a heart that has been humbled, stilled, and transformed by the power of grace. Listening is simply a form of serving, of putting the other person first, as Philippians 2 implores us." Jazz fans will appreciate the author's suggestion that we need to be "cool" listeners (along the lines of Miles Davis) rather than "be-bop" listeners (along the lines of Dizzy Gillespie).

The book includes a study guide with questions designed for group discussion and application making this an excellent choice for evangelism training in the context of small groups or Sunday School classes.

One of the ingredients I especially appreciated about this book was the author's sensitivity to the Bible's literary diversity and the communicative significance of such. In a beautiful and honest response to the problem of evil, Newman draws out the implications of God's giving us poetry such as the book of Job instead of philosophical abstractions. Concerning what he refers to as the Bible's "messiness," (its complexity and diversity of locations, languages, genres, and literary styles), Newman suggests:
"Maybe the Bible's messiness corresponds to our messiness, making it the perfect revelation to get us out of our mess. Perhaps its use of various genres corresponds to our complex nature - the intellectual, emotional, volitional, social, and physical components of our personhood. Maybe God inspired the Bible to suit our total being."
Newman notes that what unifies this assortment of literary diversity is the biblical story which Newman outlines under the headings of Creation, Rebellion, Redemption, and Consummation. Like many others, Newman espouses a story approach to evangelism. "Rather than listing disconnected propositions, we should show that the Bible's story connects with our story at our point of deepest need." His reason for advocating this narratival approach is not, however, to simply cater to postmodern tastes. Rather, he believes that stories connect so well because they fit our "narrative nature": "Having a chronological beginning (birth) and end (death), we respond better to stories - which have a beginning and an end - than to ahistorical proclamations of dogma." Lest anyone fear that Newman has an aversion to propositional truth, rest assured. He doesn't.
"Proclamations do have their place. The Bible's inclusion of epistles and prophecies validates their importance. But we should read Romans and other didactic material in the context of the larger story line of God's divine narrative. In evangelism, we should declare the doctrine of Romans - the gospel - as narrative so that our message appeals to the whole person. We want to convert, not merely convince. Narrative evangelism does both."
Using the analogy of a musical with its recurring themes, Newman says there are propositional melodies imbedded in redemptive drama. I like that!

I hope that something of my enthusiasm about this volume is evident. Randy Newman has produced a book that not only aids Christians in better understanding the times in which we live and how to converse with our unbelieving contemporaries but also helps us better understand the gospel and its implications. I heartily recommend that you read this one.


Matt Jones said...

As a student, I was extremely active in Campus Crusade and frankly this book surprises me. I graduated two years ago, and though they did train me to share the gospel through the four spiritual laws tract, (for which I am grateful) this approach would have been much more receptive as opposed to the proprosition only approach which Campus Crusade it known for taking. As I attempted to share my faith with more people outside of a college campus, I saw the values in the story approach because it lends itself to longer more indepth conversation. It would certainly behoove Campus Crusade to take this approach more seriously and integrate it into their evangelism training. Can't wait to read it!

pastorshaun said...

I'm teaching a series right now on "Recovering the Joy of Telling the Truth". I thought I didn't want anymore books on evangelism. You've got my interest piqued about this book, though.

KP said...

Matt, it's clear from reading Newman's book that he's aware of the limitations of CC's standard approach while, like you, expressing appreciation for it.

In the first chapter he tells of an encounter he had at the American University with a student from Ukraine. In response to his reading through the first point in Knowing God Personally, an adaptation of The Four Spiritual Laws, the young man asked, "What do you mean when you say the word God? And what do you mean when you say the word love? And, most importantly, how do you know all this is true?"

Newman credits the 90-minute discussion that ensued withi helping him rethink the task of evangelism.

Like you, I hope that Campus Crusade and other campus ministries will take what Newman has to say to heart. Please let me know what you think of the book after you've read it.

KP said...

Shaun, I hate to add one more book to your plate but this one is worth it!

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H K Flynn said...

I'm reading it now, KP. It's a cool book.

I agree with everything your say.

It is wise!

Evangeilical evangelim isn't as wise as it should be sometimes.

I'm trying to figure out if I could sell my evangelism Pastor on a trial project geared to the DaVinci Code release, where we could quickly get upp to speed on this book.

Nice Post.