Engaging the World

Beyond the Fringe

This three-part series is adapted from chapters by Tony Watkins in Beyond the Fringe: Reaching People Outside the Church (Leicester: IVP, 1999), by Nick Pollard, Paul Harris, Phil Wall and Tony Watkins.

The church is facing a crisis

It’s a crisis in evangelism. The problem isn’t the amount of evangelism – there’s plenty going on (though there’s scope for a great deal more). The problem is with how effective it is.

The crisis is in our methods – we are simply not being heard. In the UK, we sometimes see a solitary Christian with a big black Bible standing in the town centre bellowing his message at passers-by. The passers-by studiously ignore him, but he continues, apparently unaware that he’s not getting through to anyone.

I occasionally see one man standing on his milk crate shouting into thin air and even I don’t understand what he’s saying, never mind the average person in the street. We like to think we’re doing a better job than that. We may be, but we may be deceiving ourselves. It is possible that the difference between us and the brave Bible basher may appear much greater to us than to an outsider.

Few models of evangelism

It surprises many Christians to realise that the Bible does not spell out for us many models of evangelism. Paul tells us that we are Christ’s ambassadors (2 Corinthians 5:20). But what does that mean in practice? What does effective evangelism look like? The first examples that come to mind are the scary ones: Peter on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:14–41), Paul at the Areopagus in Athens (Acts 17:22–34) and other evangelistic sermons in Acts (3:12–26; 13:14–43; 21:40 – 22:22).

But look a little further and you’ll find Andrew going to find his brother Simon Peter so he could tell him, “We have found the Messiah” and taking him to Jesus. Or Philip inviting Nathaniel to meet Jesus (John 1:35–51). There is the Samaritan woman sharing her own experience of meeting Christ (John 4:1–42). In a similar way, one blind man didn’t have much theology but still testified to the transformation in his life (John 9:1–41, especially v. 25).

The apostle Paul wrote to the church in Philippi that their lifestyle should mark them out:

Do everything without complaining or arguing so that you may become blameless and pure, children of God without fault in a crooked and depraved generation, in which you shine like stars in the universe as you hold out the word of life – in order that I may boast on the day of Christ that I did not run or labour for nothing.   We – like them – are to shine like stars in the universe but notice that Paul says this is as we hold out the word of life. (Philippians 2:14–16)

Bible by Chris Yarzab (used under a CC-2.0-BY licence)

© Chris Yarzab. Used under a Creative Commons licence.

We are to hold out the good news of Jesus Christ for others to grasp. Lifestyle and words go together. People hopefully notice that there is something different about us. But they may just put that down to us being nice people – and Christians don’t have a monopoly on being nice. Without the witness of what we say, how will someone be able to make the connection? When people become Christians, they are not merely buying into a lifestyle. The church is not a club for nice, well-meaning people.

When people become Christians they accept Jesus Christ as Lord. They recognise their own rebellion against him. They accept his sacrifice on their behalf as all that they need to be put right with God. And they accept his rule and authority in their lives. How can they do any of this if we do not hold the word of life out to them? We have God’s word, the Bible, for two reasons. It tells us how we can know God and how we should respond to God. So what are we to communicate through our words?

Communicate the gospel

We are to communicate the gospel of course – the good news of Jesus Christ. But what is it? Do we really know? Do we know it well enough to express it naturally? People resent us sounding like we’re giving a standard patter like the telesales people who try to sell me double glazing in the middle of dinner. This is not the place to go into the details of this. There are other very helpful books around that do. The best one is the Bible. We must get into it to the extent that it gets into us. It should get under our skin and shape all our thinking.

We should know its central message inside out and be able to express it without using Christian jargon. Read it and re-read it and re-read it! When I was a student I developed a habit of reading a complete book of the Bible every Sunday afternoon. My priority was the Gospels. It was brilliant for getting to know the good news better and I’m sorry I didn’t keep on with it.

Knowing our Bibles is the means to the end of knowing God better; it is not an end in itself. If we are to communicate the good news of Jesus Christ effectively, we need to know him personally.  But even so, we still face the challenge of communicating this good news clearly and relevantly to a lost world. How do we do it? Why does it feel so much harder now than it once did? Why is the street preacher generally so ineffective these days?

Huge Changes

Tokyo by Just One Way Ticket. Used under a CC-BY-NC-ND-2.0 licence

© Just One Way Ticket.
Used under a Creative Commons licence

Huge changes are taking place at every level of society (in the western world, at least). Some of the biggest changes are under the surface. They are changes to the worldviews – the basic beliefs, values and attitudes – of the people around us. These are beliefs and attitudes to do with God, life, death, the problem with the world, and what’s right or wrong, etc. We all have a worldview – it affects our whole outlook on life and almost every decision we ever make. But most people aren’t aware of it.

Most western people these days don’t believe or value the things their parents or grandparents did – they have a new worldview. For the last two hundred years, one has dominated western culture above all others: the worldview known as modernism. But over the last couple of decades everything has changed. Modernism hasn’t lived up to its promises, but has landed us with massive problems. People are more aware again of a spiritual side to life – though stopping well short of interest in Jesus Christ.

Our world is now profoundly multicultural and many voices compete to offer spiritual insights. A new worldview has taken centre stage over the last two or three decades: postmodernism. It rejects modernism and strongly influences almost everyone under the age of about 50 (and many over 50). It’s negative and cynical. It doesn’t accept anything as true for everyone. All that matters is what is true for me and how it makes me feel. This is not a minor change; it’s the biggest shift in outlook for over two hundred years. It is a completely new way of looking at life, the universe and everything. And the result is that, very often, our evangelism doesn’t hit the mark.

Connecting in a post-Christian society

We now face an enormous challenge. In the UK at least, more and more people are growing up without even a basic knowledge of Christianity, and many people no longer have broadly Christian values. It feels as if Christians come from a different world because we have such different beliefs and values. It is a sad fact that most people who aren’t Christians aren’t interested in ‘straight gospel preaching’.

A few people are interested in Jesus Christ; they want to know more about him or have their questions answered. But most couldn’t care less. Getting them interested enough to listen to the Gospel is a major job and we don’t know how to begin. Now, more than ever, we need to understand others’ beliefs. It means that we need to be able to help them see the weaknesses in their worldviews. If they can see the problems, they will be far more likely to see the relevance of Jesus Christ.

It is no longer only overseas missionaries who need skills and understanding for cross-cultural mission. Those who stay at home now need them just as much. If we are to be effective in evangelism, we must be serious about engaging the world. That means we need to understand what makes people tick and how to communicate the gospel relevantly. Yes, ultimately we rely on God’s Spirit to convict people. But that is no excuse for us failing to do a better job of communicating the good news of Jesus Christ.

It is not just a culture of ignorance about Christian things; it’s a culture of apathy. Most people have no interest in the Christian message whatsoever. Many people just don’t seem to care about our good news. They’re happy as they are and can’t be bothered to think about an alternative. There was a time not so long ago where you could fairly easily get into a vigorous discussion about competing claims to truth. People had views on questions like, ‘Is there evidence for the resurrection or not?’ and ‘Can we believe the Bible or not?

Two traps

Balancing act by Quinn Dombrowski. Used under a CC-BY-SA-2.0 licence

© Quinn Dombrowski, used under a Creative Commons licence

We meet indifference as much as, if not more than, hostility. ‘It’s nice that you’re a Christian but it’s not really my thing.’ How do we even begin to get people like this interested in hearing the good news? How do we get a hearing? Again and again, the church has fallen into one of two traps. We either become submerged in the surrounding culture or we cut ourselves off from it. Somehow we have to walk a tightrope between these two traps.

The conformist trap

The trap of conforming to the culture in which we live is obvious. We know that the world is an ungodly place. We know that those around us are rebels against God and express that rebellion in all kinds of ways. We know how we feel when we fall yet again in our walk with God. And yet for many Christians the world around us still has such a pull. Others may sideline us or give us a hard time because of our faith. At times like that it’s tempting just to keep our heads down and blend in with everyone around us.

The gospel has such a challenging dimension too. Wouldn’t life be easier for us if we played down that aspect since it offends people? We want others to approve of us so we try to make ourselves likeable. We want them to see that we’re relevant, in touch, and cool. We don’t want to put them off Jesus, after all!  All of this adds up to a strong pressure to conform to the pattern of this world. Jesus recognised that we would face such pressure. Otherwise he wouldn’t have needed to warn us so strongly:

“You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot” (Matthew 5:13).

“Those who would come after me must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For those who want to save their lives will lose them, but those who lose themselves for me will save them. What good is it for you to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit your very self? All who are ashamed of me and my words, the Son of Man will be ashamed of them when he comes in his glory and in the glory of the father and of the holy angels.” (Luke 9:23–26)

There is a pressure on us to conform. But Jesus insists that the stakes are high and that we must maintain our distinctiveness. “Don’t live any longer the way this world lives,” said Paul, “Let your way of thinking be completely changed” (Romans 12:2, NIrV).

As soon as we lose our distinctiveness as Christians, our evangelism is wrecked. All we’ll have to offer people is a watered-down version of the good news, sanitised by our internal spin-doctors. Even if we still feel we have something to say, who will listen when words and lifestyle don’t match up? Our message is a challenging one. We must stick with it and be faithful to it; we must maintain our convictions in its truth.

The escapist trap

We must also live by the gospel, letting it shape our thinking and behaviour so that we are radically different from those around us. But if we’re not careful we can fall into the opposite trap: isolation.

One of the famous Greek myths is the story of Odysseus who had to sail past the island of the Sirens. They sang so sweetly that they enticed all passing sailors to land on the island. There they would sit, listening to the song in a field of flowers, but surrounded by the bones of those who had arrived before them and never been able to leave. Odysseus’s solution was to plug the ears of his men with wax and have himself tied to the mast. When he heard the Sirens’ song he pleaded with his men to cut him free. But they couldn’t hear and just kept rowing on past, oblivious to the alluring voices. It sounds like a good strategy for us too: plug our ears and just keep on rowing.

Isolation by David Ingram. Used under a CC-BY-NC-2.0 licence

© David Ingram. Used under a Creative Commons licence.

Once we start cutting ourselves off from the world around us, we stop hearing what people are saying. If we can’t hear what they’re saying, we won’t know what they most need to hear at a particular moment. We isolate ourselves because we fear contamination. The result is that, while we may be extremely holy, it doesn’t impact on anyone outside the kingdom of God. We become self-righteous. In the end, we become hypocrites, claiming that God longs for lost people to come to him, yet refusing to do anything about it. Again, our evangelism is wrecked.

The Pharisees of Jesus’s time fell into the same trap. We always think of them as the baddies – the men in black hats. People at the time did not think about them in that way at all; they thought the Pharisees were the goodies. The Pharisees were the most orthodox in their belief, the most faithful in their duty, the ones who knew their Bible best. Just like today’s evangelicals. But they despised Jesus for mixing with “sinners”. They maintained their purity only to discover that the Son of God had saved his most stinging criticism for them.

Again and again, Jesus used images for himself that had a strong missionary dimension. These had their roots in the Old Testament. When Jesus said, “I am the true vine” (John 15:1) those listening knew that he was deliberately taking a metaphor for Israel (Psalm 80:8; Isaiah 5:1–7) and applying it to himself. The vine was a missionary metaphor. The whole point of a vine is to produce grapes. Without fruit, the whole plant is not only dull, but also useless. God always intended Israel to be a blessing to the surrounding nations. They were to see Israel’s fruitfulness in their relationship with God and come to know him for themselves as a result.

When Jesus applied the metaphor to himself, he was announcing that Israel had failed and that he had taken on the same function to fulfil it perfectly. The Pharisees were part of the failure. Their agenda was to maintain their purity (and their standing in the public’s eyes) and avoid contamination. When they criticised Jesus for going to a party thrown by Levi, the former tax collector, for his friends and former colleagues, Jesus retorted, “It’s not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick” (Luke 5:27–31).

Those who become part of the true vine look outward, not inward. The family of God is a missionary family, but we’ll never manage to do a thing if we keep ourselves shut away for fear of something tainting us. So we have to walk our tightrope between conforming on the one side and isolation on the other. Somehow we have to balance maintaining our holiness with genuinely engaging the world and its lost people. But it’s not the kind of balance achieved by compromising a bit on each side. These are not mutually exclusive options. If they were, Jesus could not have done what he did. We keep the balance by working 100% in both directions.

Maximum impact

There’s a real tension involved in keeping the balance. But neither aspect is negotiable. We have to must be uncompromising about our distinctiveness as Christians and about understanding a world that needs Christ. This is being “in the world but not of it.” Bill Hybels has an equation for this which I find very helpful:

MI = HP + CP + CC

MI stands for Maximum Impact. Our maximum evangelistic impact depends on three factors. The first is High Potency (HP). We must nurture our relationship with God so that we become highly potent Christians. Second, we need Close Proximity (CP). Our potency as Christians can’t impact on others if we don’t get close to them. On the other hand being close is no use unless we are growing in God. Finally, our witness needs some content. We need Clear Communication (CC) .

We must work at our holiness. We must work at engaging the world. That means we should be engaging with individuals and with society in general. It also means we should engage with the worldviews that shape those individuals and the society. We must think through how the gospel applies to every area of life. And we must work at communicating Christ clearly and relevantly. All this brings both practical and intellectual challenges. My focus here is on how we engage with the worldviews around us.

Not just for intellectuals

Some people think that this is only for intellectuals – for bookworms and deep thinkers. It’s not. Anyone can do it. The people who do it best are the people who know God best and who immerse themselves in his word. There is a certain kind of spiritual insight that comes to people who have hidden God’s word in their hearts all their lives, however educated (or not) they are. Such people put many of us bookish types to shame. Spiritual truth is spiritually discerned, so much of it comes down to our appetite for knowing God.

On the other hand, if you have a good brain you must use it; otherwise you’re being a poor steward of what God has entrusted to you. It is all too easy to strip the good news of its content and leave only our spiritual experience in its place. We have not thought hard enough about our faith and how it relates to our culture. But it is vital that we do so.  As I noted above, there are too many people in our culture who not only do not know Christ, they see no reason why they should even think about it. How do we begin to get through to people like this? How do we shape what we need to say? How do we avoid compromise or isolation and keep our evangelism effective? Before we can answer that question practically we need to look at how the Bible keeps on the tightrope.

Read part two of this series

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About the Author

Tony Watkins

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Tony is the Network Co-ordinator for the Lausanne Media Engagement Network. He helps Christian leaders in relating media and the Bible (especially the prophets) through his work as a speaker and writer. Tony works partly in association with Damaris Norway, but lives in the UK. See all Tony’s articles on EngagingMedia.info. 

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  1. Pingback: Evangelism: A Task of Importance | Share the Savior

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