Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this book for the purpose of review, and I know the author so mostly just refer to him as ‘Sam’; I’m sure this breaks all sorts of conventions, if I didn’t like it, I wouldn’t have reviewed it (and I would’ve told him).
Sam Chan is a sharp thinker, so when he set out to write a textbook on evangelism (literally a textbook, not metaphorically), it was always going to be a must read. Here’s the short review: if you’re interested in helping people understand Jesus get hold of this book and read it; the chapters on ‘Everyday Evangelism’, Evangelism to Postmoderns, and Gospel-Cultural Hermeneutics are particularly useful summaries of game changing ways to think about how we do the task of evangelism (which isn’t to say you should bother with the rest)
Like many people who write textbooks, Sam is an exceptional thinker — what makes this book particularly useful is that he’s also both an exceptional practitioner and an exceptional teacher. While lots of textbooks deal with abstractions and theory and even feel beyond the grasp of us mere mortals, Sam practices what he preaches — in that evangelism is ultimately about connecting with people and helping them change what they believe and how they live. The book is written in a way that manages to bridge the ‘technical world’ of the theologian with the practical world of the layperson who is keen to share their belief better with friends. There are some technical parts of the book (perhaps especially chapter 1, A Theology Of Evangelism and the last chapter on Religious Epistemology, Apologetics and Defeater Beliefs), but the technical bits are essential to the very practical and relatable technique-applying chapters. It’s packed with practical advice that’ll work for anybody interested in sharing their faith, and those of us who may be asked to speak publicly at different events. It draws strongly on his (previously reviewed) doctoral work on speech-act theory and preaching as the word of God (and the Word of God being the proclamation of the Gospel).
I want to acknowledge certain beliefs that I have up front, so that you’re aware of my biases… I think the way the church in Australia (and particularly my Reformed Evangelical scene) approach evangelism is largely fundamentally broken; not just because we are living in a ‘skeptical world’, but because our theological emphases, developed through internal conflicts with other Christians, are limiting our ability to speak the Gospel in its fullness to our Aussie neighbours in ways that resonate with their hearts; plus I use hearts because I think we’ve bought holus bolus into modernity and a propositional way of arguing from rational evidence because we think people are rational creatures who are predominantly convinced by ‘thinking things’ (the ‘brain on a stick’ model of the human discussed at length by James K.A Smith in his ‘Cultural Liturgies’ series). I think our attempts to persuade people about the truth, beauty, and goodness of Jesus are limited by our western individualism. So, as a result, people in my tradition have tended to emphasise evangelism based on reason, rationality and evidence (particularly history), on trying to establish a certain set of categories that help people ‘know’ the truth, and with a particular (almost exclusive) emphasis on penal substitutionary atonement and its individual implications as the ‘entire’ Gospel. If you ask the average Joe to summarise the Gospel I suspect you get something like ‘you are a sinner and Jesus came to save you by dying in your place’. I don’t think this is wrong, but I do think it is limited in its scope (in terms of what the Gospel is, and even what the word ‘Gospel’ meant to its first users whether Jewish or Graeco-Roman), and I think as a result it is limited in its ability to engage with actual people who aren’t fully bought in to all the categories we’ve assumed.
Our approach to evangelism is broken. Last year the Presbyterian Church of Queensland — my denomination — buried more people than it baptised; and we baptise babies; our death rate is outpacing our birth rate and the rate of non-Christians joining our churches; while we’ve grown numerically it seems to me that growth is mostly ‘transfer growth’… and we need a bit of a shake up in terms of how we evangelise.
This book is important because I think it points out several examples of where the ’emperor’ we’ve created of this particular system of thinking about the Gospel, and thus, evangelism, actually has no clothes on, or perhaps is in a state of undress where not everything that should be covered is. It invites us to think afresh about how topical presentations of the Gospel might still be the ‘word of God’ (continuing on from Sam’s speech-act treatment of preaching as the word of God); it invites us to embrace multiple ways of presenting the Gospel as good news (beyond just guilt and forgiveness, it gives us different pictures of sin to use (from the Bible) and their antidote — like ‘idolatry and true worship, ‘ or ‘brokenness and reconciliation (or restoration). It gives a bunch of different examples of proclaiming Jesus as good news and reminds us that all of these are faithful and pictured in the life of Jesus. It’s also a whip smart reading not just of Christian culture and where we might have miss-fired by buying in to the worldview we swim in, but of the culture around us and where it has changed so that these old clothes no longer cover what we need to cover.I found his embrace of some of the positive aspects of the death of modernity and swing to post-modernity — especially his wholehearted embrace of narrative in the place of dry propositions — refreshing (especially when we hear so much negativity from people looking back to the halcyon days of modernity that ends up being hopeless for us young’uns, and people like us).
I reckon one test of an evangelistic textbook is how comfortable you’d be for your non Christian mates to read it over your shoulder — how much it feels like a handbook for the Christian equivalent of ‘pick up artistry’ or a manual for manipulation; this is a book I’m quite happy to very publicly recommend and discuss because it so charitably engages with and depicts the thoughts of those who don’t yet know Jesus, and it doesn’t recommend anything underhanded or tricky; it’s, in some ways, a rebuke for Christians in that we tend to place our confidence in the wrong things (sometimes methodology, sometimes particular aspects of our theology) rather than doing the not so hard work of listening to and connecting with those people in our lives such that we understand what part of the good news of Jesus might resonate with them.
Another test for me, as a pastor, is to imagine how I might use a book in the context of church life; can I just hand this book to anybody confident they’ll find it helpful without interpretation? Could I use this as the basis for training at church for key leaders? Is there stuff I feel like I need to qualify as I hand it to someone, the ‘just skip that chapter because it’s the opposite of what we taught on Sunday’ disclaimer… I’m happy to think about how to use this book almost without reservation — in fact, my only reservations are that I’d like Sam to write whole books on some of his chapters (or just to come up and run the seminars he’s been running or his old lectures on evangelism in the flesh) because one of the weaknesses of the brevity and breadth of the text book genre is some gaps aren’t filled and you’re left to make certain connections yourself.
I want to be really clear that I heartily recommend this book; I’ll be both handing out copies to people at church and running training based on a few of the chapters (both training people to preach, and in terms of thinking about how we participate in the mission of God to make Jesus known together as a community).
What follows is a slightly longer review teasing out some of how to apply the textbook to life as an average Christian (rather than a ‘professional’), and connecting it to some broader conversations about what evangelism is and who should do it (and how we should do it).
Evangelism as team sport
Sam defines evangelism as:
“The essence of evangelism is the message that Jesus Christ is Lord. Evangelism is our human effort in proclaiming this message — which necessarily involves using our human communication, language, idioms, metaphors, stories, experiences, personality, emotions, context, culture, locatedness — and trusting and praying that God in his sovereign will, will supernaturally use our human and natural means to effect his divine purposes.
In a general sense evangelism refers to our human efforts of proclaiming this message to any audience of believers and nonbelievers. In a narrower sense, evangelism refers to our human efforts of proclaiming this message to nonbelievers. But in both senses, we proclaim the gospel with the hope that our audience responds by trusting, repenting, and following and obeying Jesus.”
Also, because to proclaim the Gospel is to preach — following Sam’s book on preaching — evangelism is to speak (or communicate) the word of God; so when we do this as his people according to what he commands, it is God speaking. I want to make the case that this means that evangelism is a speech-act not simply of an individual, but of the whole body of Christ. It’s not an individual act, though individuals might do particular tasks of evangelism, but the product of a ‘team’… and I think Sam’s book gives us certain building blocks to solve a dilemma or debate that operates around the question of who is meant to do evangelism. And the answer is ‘everybody… differently and together’… like any good team.
Sam spent some time in the US, and refers to that context throughout the book, so I’m going to use a sporting metaphor from that scene — from American Football. Teams playing ‘gridiron’ live and die by the playbook; they have to imbibe it (there were great stories about our own Jarryd Hayne trying to cram his team’s playbook into his head in his short lived career with the 49ers), but nobody more than the quarterback, the guy who does the work of calling and implementing the plays on the field. In some ways this feels like a playbook for evangelism. It feels like the sort of thing a coach works up from his experience as both player and coach, and the sort of thing that is useful for a whole team, but especially necessary for the quarterback; and then each person filling the other slots in the team needs to know the plays they’re involved in. It’s clear from different parts of the book that evangelism in a skeptical world is basically a team game, but it’s also clear that not all of us are going to have to decide between giving an expository evangelistic talk and a topical one.
There’s been a longstanding debate about whether evangelism is a thing that all Christians, as individuals are called to participate in as individuals, or whether it is a particular gift for particular individuals; Sam’s book goes some way towards providing a helpful corrective to both positions in that debate. It’s clear that not all Christian individuals are called to stand up and preach an evangelistic talk, but perhaps all of us are called to think about how we present our testimony or use our houses in ways that promote the Gospel (to borrow the title of John Dickson’s book (reviewed), that advances the idea that ‘evangelism’ itself is a technical function of particular, gifted, individuals, though we all have a role to play in ‘promoting the Gospel’). The debate is alive and well, a recent multi-hundred comment discussion in the Christian ‘deep web’ (Facebook), confirmed it… But I’ve long suspected this ‘figuring out what ‘evangelism’ is’ debate — whether it’s for some individuals or all individuals — seems to miss something fundamental about what Paul says about how gifts work; that they’re functions of the body, the church. What does seem clear is that evangelism is a necessary function of the church; a thing that all of us are invested in, and that all our lives support. If we particularise that function too much we fail to see how truly integrated any action within the context of the body of Christ, using gifts given by God for the building up of that body, is, if we generalise a function too much we end up with everybody doing the same thing, when we might actually all have slightly different and complementary roles to play. A team can’t function if everybody wants to play quarterback; but a quarterback also can’t function without the team (and isn’t actually more important than the players on the field around him). It’s perhaps unhelpful to suggest the person carrying out the function of an evangelist is more like the quarterback than a running back who receives passes and tries to get things over the line… but I had to pick a position.
Lots of Sam’s book is exceptionally useful for those with the particular gift or calling to ‘do the work of an evangelist’ (2 Timothy 4:5), there’s great and useful gear in there for the individual, let’s call them the quarterback in this team effort, but it isn’t just a book for these individuals, but it’s real strength is in starting to stretch our categories a bit, to understand that maybe part of us buying into a western model revolving around individual brilliance and focused on intellectual arguments or logos doesn’t actually mesh well with how humans really tick (let alone how the church is meant to understand our shared task in the world). Sam challenges several elements of our assumed anthropology in order to provide some alternative solutions for how we evangelise together; with some people playing particular roles.
First off, if we adopt an individualistic anthropology we’re likely to have certain assumptions about how individuals shift in their beliefs that particularly emphasise the individual will, and our reason. If we assume people are simply rational beings, then that will shape our content and methodology… but this picture of being human seems wrong, or as Sam puts it in his chapter on Religious Epistemology, Apologetics, and Defeater Beliefs:
“The way we choose to communicate reveals our anthropology (our understanding of what it means to be a human being). If we reduce human beings only to rational minds, then we will think that we only need to transfer ideas and cognitive information. But if we believe that human beings are holistically bodies, minds, and emotions, then we will try to communicate the gospel at the level of information (logos), body (ethos), and emotions (pathos). This is what James is getting at in his New Testament letter. He points out that it’s no good only telling someone the idea — “God loves you” — without also feeding their bodies (James 2:14-17).” — Page 244
For Sam, this has obvious implications for our emphasis on the skills needed for evangelism.
“I’m emphasising the need to include the pathos and ethos because in the Western church, we’ve traditionally encouraged smart and gifted people — doctors and lawyers — into full time paid Christian ministry. But cultural changes suggest that maybe we should also encourage emotionally smart people — those in the creative arts — into full-time paid Christian ministry. Conversely, rather than encouraging people into seminary, where we learn the cognitive aspects of Christianity, we may want to encourage some people to pursue the creative arts, where we learn to express ourselves through body and emotions.”— Page 244
Some of this gear on ethos and the focus on plausibility coming from communities of belief and practice dips back into an earlier chapter. One of the things I’d most been looking forward to in the book is the chapter everyday evangelism works, I’d seem this material presented in evangelistic training sessions Sam ran, and I’ve been encouraging people to take up his concept of ‘merging universes’ — creating overlaps where your friends are hanging out together so that you aren’t a lone wolf — the only weird Christian your non-Christian friends, family, and colleagues know — since hearing him speak on it (McCrindle’s last faith and belief in Australia survey showed most Aussies still know a few Christians, but a staggering (and growing) percentage (8%) no longer know any Christians let alone many Christians, 38% know less than 5 (NOTE: the first version of this piece wrongly suggested ‘a majority don’t know any’ — a misremembering of the data, and I should’ve checked it before publishing).
“Here is the key idea you need to grasp: people will find a story more believable if more people in their community, their trusted friends and family, also believe the story.” — Page 43
There’s a weighty amount of sociology of knowledge stuff under the hood of his gear on Plausibility Structures — especially Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann’s The Sociology of Knowledge which makes the case that none of us arrive at positions through purely rational thought, our beliefs are made possible (plausible) because of our thought categories but also our environments (especially the people who teach us things) — we believe more than we think we do because of the people around us. Berger and Luckmann weren’t writing particularly about religious belief (or to help people ‘trick people’ into belief), but were rather giving an account of how and why people come to believe anything (and for anyone reading trying to figure out if this is a playbook for manipulation — it’s worth pondering what plausibility structures any of us are part of and how they might account for beliefs we think we’ve come up with on our own):
“The most important social condition is the availability of an effective plausibility structure, that is, a social base serving as the “laboratory” of transformation. This plausibility structure will be mediated to the individual by means of significant others, with whom he must establish strongly affective identification.” — Berger and Luckmann, Sociology of Knowledge
Or, in other words, if you want to help someone ponder their beliefs, and maybe make a shift, get your friends to become friends with each other. The thing that I reckon keeps Sam’s stuff particularly above board is the vital first step of making sure you’re getting out of your own plausibility structures and entering the world of the people around you first (‘go to their stuff first’). That being open to having your own view shifted, and showing an openness to not exist in some sort of cultic bubble is important for more than just understanding other people. Merging universes is wise advice because we are social animals, and it’s one way that evangelism is quite clearly a team thing, but it is wise not just because of plausibility increasing in a rational sense where other people believe, but belief becoming more plausible when you’re around people who do. This comes up more as Sam focuses on ethos or the place of the Christian life in evangelism throughout the book, in the chapter Evangelism to Postmoderns, in his section on authenticity (the “buzzword for postmoderns”) he says:
“Unlike moderns, the first question is not ‘is it true?’ but ‘is it real in our lives?’ Are we living consistently — or better, coherently — with our beliefs? Are we being true to ourselves? Do we walk the walk as well as we talk the talk? This should lead us to think about how we evangelise to our postmodern friends in a way that communicates authenticity.” — Page 116
Note: there’s an irony in talking about the ‘strategy’ of being authentic — it doesn’t work it if’s put on for show… he goes on:
“While the gospel is something we speak, words that communicate God’s truth, there is also a sense in which we ourselves are a component of how the message is communicated. We speak the words of truth, but we speak the truth in love (Eph 4:15). Our message is embodied. It doesn’t come in a vacuum. It comes in the context of shared lives and trusted friendships. This is the model of evangelism that Paul himself uses with the Thessalonians. “Our gospel came to you not simply with words but also with power, with the Holy Spirit and deep conviction. You know how we lived among you for your sake (1 Thess 1:5). The Thessalonians don’t just believe the gospel to be true; they also see that it is real by Paul’s authentic living.” — Page 116
Now. I want to very gently point out the plural in that italicised bit (emphasis Sam’s), and suggest that it wasn’t just Paul’s authentic living that was convincing, but the authentic lives of the Pauline circle on mission in Thessalonica that made the Gospel plausible. Evangelism was a team game for Paul — even as he ‘did the work of an evangelist’ — and his evangelism was very much a product of his embodying the Gospel (so he appeals lots to his example and his suffering for the crucified king), and in the next chapter he says:
“Because we loved you so much, we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well. Surely you remember, brothers and sisters, our toil and hardship; we worked night and day in order not to be a burden to anyone while we preached the gospel of God to you. You are witnesses, and so is God, of how holy, righteous and blameless we were among you who believed.” — 1 Thessalonians 2:8-10
The ‘we’ isn’t just a quaint referring to one’s self in a third person plural — a ‘royal we’, but Paul appealing to the lives of his team.
The real challenge from the insights throughout Sam’s book aren’t just for the individual (even if there are great tips for individuals in how to put the theory into practice), but for our Christian culture — for our communities — our churches. One of the things I’d love to have seen more of in the book is the implications beyond how we think of evangelism to how evangelism drives and shapes the way we live as the church — the body of Christ — in the world; how it impacts the typical Sunday and the typical sermon (if to evangelise is to speak the word of God — why would we want to speak anything else? Why wouldn’t Sam’s suggestions about talk structures — whether expository or topical — shape how we preach every week if one of our shared tasks is to evangelise?). There are small challenges to recalibrate this way dotted through the book… but here’s a clear call to re-think moving from the training paddock to game day in our mentality.
“Our usual approach to evangelism is to add some activity to our lives: maybe I’m going to try to tell someone about Jesus at lunch, or I’m going to join a book club. Churches do the same thing by adding an event such as an outreach night to their calendar. But we need to change our lives so that we live an evangelistic lifestyle, not a life with add-on bits of evangelism. Churches need to do the same thing.”
It’s a worthwhile challenge; and this playbook is a great asset that I’m hoping will help our church community do just this; I’m thankful for Sam and look forward to reading the ten extra books this one commits him to writing…