I corresponded with Dodson, pastor of Austin City Life in Austin, Texas, about this new project and the perennially challenging privilege of sharing our faith.
Why is our evangelism so unbelievable?
Think about the last time you tried to "share the gospel." What was going through your head? Were you angling to find an opening to mention Jesus (only to later congratulate yourself for mentioning his name)? Or perhaps you were more intentional, looking for an opportunity to lay out the gospel over lunch or coffee? In these instances, we often look to speak before waiting to listen.
Francis Schaeffer was asked what he'd do if he had an hour to share the gospel with someone. He responded by saying he'd listen for 55 minutes and then, in the last 5 minutes, have something meaningful to say. In other words, he listened in order to speak the gospel.
Our evangelism is often unbelievable because we don't listen at all. All too often the gospel we share is an information download, not a loving articulation of how the good news fits into the needs, fears, hopes, and dreams of others' lives. We content ourselves with "name dropping" Jesus, which gets us a √ in performance-based Christianity---unless, of course, we mention the cross, which bumps us up to a √+. This kind of evangelism, however, is more about clearing our evangelical conscience than compassionately sharing the good news with fellow sinners. Very often our gospel is unbelievable because we are motivated by unbelief in the gospel.
What concerns keep people from sharing the gospel? Are these valid?
The reasons our gospel is unbelievable go even deeper. The gospel is easily dismissed, not only because of our misdirected motives, but also because of the self-righteous manner of our communication---preachy, dogmatic, intolerant, impersonal, and shallow. Indeed, sharing the righteousness of Christ (justification by faith) in a self-righteous manner (justification by self) contradicts the gospel itself. It is simply self-defeating. People interpret the gospel by how we say things, not just what we say. So, yes, these concerns are valid. They create gospel interference that must be cleared away through repentance and recovery of a better, more believable evangelism.
It isn't enough to critique self-righteous evangelism, however. We must reconstruct a biblically faithful, culturally sensitive, and personally meaningful way of sharing the gospel. In Unbelievable Gospel, I propose we use Gospel Metaphors.
What are Gospel Metaphors, and how do they aid us in evangelism?
Gospel Metaphors stretch across the breadth of the Bible and communicate God's saving grace. They collect in the epistles as justification, redemption, adoption, new creation, and union with Christ. These graces aren't metaphors in the sense that they're symbolic of some deeper reality; rather, each gospel metaphor actually represents a facet of the gospel. For example, justification presents how a righteous God relates to unrighteous people by declaring them righteous. But this precious doctrine doesn't address the longing of every person in every situation. The socially connected, successful professional who has a good family may not be looking for acceptance. However, he may be looking for an identity that brings deeper satisfaction and joy, like being the son of the heavenly Father sent on forever-meaningful mission. We need all the Gospel Metaphors to communicate a host of relevant graces to real people facing real predicaments. Left alone, justification doesn't explain how we become part of God's family (adoption), receive forgiveness (redemption), escape his wrath (reconciliation/propitiation), or gain a new identity (new creation/ regeneration). Each gospel metaphor, then, conveys a unique blessing from the Father.
In order to share a believable gospel, we need to listen to others so well that we can discern which Gospel Metaphor to bring into their lives. If we know their hopes, fears, dreams, and concerns, we can lovingly demonstrate how the good news is better than their best and worst news. To the beat-up, worn-out drug addict, we can share the hope of new creation. To the guilt-ridden, shame-carrying mother, we can share the hope of sin-forgiving, shame-absorbing redemption. To the skeptical urbanite, we can communicate an authentic apologetic that resonates with personal union with Christ. In the book, I share five stories of how I listened to different people and attempted to share an appropriate, liberating gospel metaphor that addressed their deepest longings. I'm recommending that we share the gospel in a way that is, first, centered on the gospel, and, second, embodies the gospel.
How can a church move from treating evangelism as an event to cultivating evangelism as a lifestyle?
When moving from event to lifestyle, love is essential. Love is also awfully inefficient. When the event is done, everyone can go home. But love never tires. It's easier to describe a first-century event than to listen closely enough to tell someone how Jesus' accomplishment is personally meaningful to them. Evangelicals are known for busyness and efficiency, both of which tend to grind against the supreme value of love. So repentance is the first thing we must do to move away from event-driven evangelism.
Second, we have to rethink our approach to evangelism. If we understand evangelism as an event, we'll pour inordinate resources into training people how to preach and evangelize. A major problem with this, however, is that the persons we're seeking to evangelize often aren't interested in events and can even parrot our answers. On Judgment Day, many will say: "I believe Jesus died on the cross for my sins." In fact, they likely heard this right answer at an event. But Jesus will respond: "Depart from me; I never knew you" (Matt. 7:23). Faithful evangelism, then, gets beyond events and information into the longings of the heart. It slows down long enough to love someone into Christ. The heart, the seat of our longings and thoughts, is where gospel seed must be sown.
Third, evangelism must be situated in a bigger subset of gospel-centered discipleship. The gospel is what motivates authentic evangelism. When we taste the goodness of Christ, enjoy his rich promises, and rest in our union with him, we're more likely to communicate a convincing gospel. We talk about what we're taken with. And this doesn't happen by implementing programs; it happens by preaching, teaching, counseling, and modeling the gospel of grace in everything a church does.
If our discipleship is motivated by the gospel in all of life, we'll also be more inclined to slow down, listen to others, and bring a meaningful explanation of the good news into the lives of others. Having the attitude that was in Christ Jesus, we will put others' needs, stories, hopes, and dreams before our own, listening with wisdom and patience, ready to bring a Gospel Metaphor into their lives that can change everything. And when we fail to love, as I do every day, we have the renewing love of God, wooing us to repentance and fresh faith in his ever-relevant gospel. In fact, when we share how we struggle to believe the gospel with others, the gospel actually becomes more believable. When humble confidence produces genuine confession, the gospel rings with authenticity. We must not only tell but also show how we have found a gospel worth believing and re-believing each day. When we do, we lift up Christ above any methodology, so that men and women can be drawn to him.