Review: How to Talk About Jesus (Without Being That Guy) by Sam Chan

Disclaimer: The review copy of this book was provided to me by Zondervan, the publisher, at the author’s request. There was no obligation for a positive review. You can read my reviews of other works by Sam Chan, on preaching, and evangelism, to see that my review of this work was always likely to be slightly biased.

Sam Chan wrote Evangelism in a Skeptical World back in 2018. It was a hefty tome, that dug deep into some of the challenges for making the good news about Jesus more plausible for a post-Christian, post-everything, world. As a practitioner, a preacher with a bent towards evangelism, I found it profoundly useful.

I worked hard to roll it out in our church community; we spent 2019 working through his book in weekly staff meetings at church, we presented sections of the book in 5 minute highlight spots in our Sunday services, we flew Sam to Brisbane to run a public training night in partnership with another Presbyterian Church up here, and I gave away 30 copies to families in my congregation, and to friends. I am an enthusiastic supporter of Sam’s material. Evangelism in a Skeptical World is a textbook. How To Talk About Jesus (Without Being That Guy): Personal Evangelism In A Skeptical World is a popular level repackaging of some of the material in the textbook, especially geared at everyday Christians — not just professional practitioners like me.

Sam says:

“One shortcoming of that book was that it served as a textbook that addressed any of the concerns of professional evangelism — evangelism done by those in professional Christian ministry. That’s why I’m writing this follow up book. This book is for everyday Christians, not just those in Christian ministry.”

The goal is to equip such Christians with ‘fresh insights’ so they become more confident and competent in evangelism, and walk away “thinking not just, “I can do that,” but also “I want to do that.”” This is a lofty and noble goal. I’d love just 10% of my community — or the church at large — to be driven to evangelism — to adopting an evangelistic lifestyle — the way this book depicts it. Were that to happen, there’d be plenty for the other 90% to do just in hanging around as part of the ‘plausibility structure’ of the Gospel.

There’s an age old debate in evangelical circles about whether the work of evangelism is reserved for particularly gifted individuals, or whether it is the task of all believers; the beauty of Sam’s approach is that it has space for both views, because it places the task of evangelism in the hands of the community, and helps us see how we might each play a part in the body, and its task of evangelism, but it’s also the work of a professional evangelist who has written, previously, a textbook for the professional evangelist. The question is whether this book makes the jump from ‘professional’ to everyday enthusiast. And I’m not sure; partly because I’m ill equipped to make that judgment from where I stand.

How To Talk About Jesus unpacks key principles in the Everyday Evangelism chapter of the first book, and adds a few insights and ideas that represent developments in Sam’s thinking since its publication. It’s a much more accessible read, coming in at 130 pages, and boasts a stunning line up of endorsements from around the globe including Ed Stetzer (who wrote the Foreword), Mark Sayers, Rebecca Manley Pippert, and Glen Scrivener.

People familiar with the textbook will find a package that’s much easier to dig into and discuss with others — partly because it is a much less intimidating form than a book that spends a significant volume of ink justifying its existence by anticipating objections, and working at establishing a model. Those who, like me, see Evangelism In A Skeptical World establishing a theological coherent and sociologically engaged methodology will have confidence to roll this book out in our own lives, and as a resource in the lives of others. The previous theological justification for this methodology is reduced to a couple of pages.

All your (my) favourite ideas from the first book are there (sometimes a little repackaged) — merging universes, go to their things first, coffee-dinner-gospel, listen before you speak, tell a better story, tell a story about Jesus — these were the six strategies in the Everyday Evangelism chapter in his first book; each is unpacked in a chapter, simultaneously tightened up, and expanded to include updated cultural analysis. Lots of Sam’s strengths lie in his whip-smart (though always humble) ability to integrate ideas from a variety of realms, his theology, his personal experience in relationships, his listening to others and their observations, and a reasonable grasp of other disciplines related to persuasion (from speech act theory to sociology). So, for example, his chapter on merging universes includes a section on friendship in the modern world that digs into loneliness that expands on the earlier book:

“Sociologists say that human beings need friendships at three different levels. First, they need a tribe of 150 people for belonging, status, and identity. Second, they need a network of thirty friends. And third, they need an inner circle of five trusted friends — the sort of friends you can call on for a favour, to help you move to a new house, or to babysit your kids in an emergency. Studies are now showing that most people in the West lack this tribe, network, and inner circle… It’s harder now than ever before to make friends because of our fractured, isolated, and transient lifestyles. Studies show that loneliness is the new health epidemic in the West. Sixty percent of Australians report themselves as lonely, and 80 percent say it’s a problem in their world.”

That sort of analysis of the opportunities for Christians to provide the sort of community that the command of Jesus to ‘love our neighbours as we love ourselves’ ought to generate is helpful, so to is how, in a later chapter, he explores the balance between friendship as an ends in itself, and friendship as a means to an ends in a way that stops this being a sort of ‘dark arts of Christian persuasion’ manual. The pub test for an evangelism hand book is, I think, would I be happy for a non-Christian friend to read this to see how Christians think about the purpose and nature of evangelism (and so the nature of those we seek to reach). This book, from where I sit, passes that pub test. Sam’s work incorporating family systems theory into our friendships and where evangelism sits is really helpful, he uses the dilemma of ‘overfunctioning and underfunctioning’ to unpack how we might approach relationships with integrity as people who genuinely believe the Gospel is good news and the source of truth, and life, and hope.

“God has blessed us with great friends We should enjoy our friends just for who they are — a good gift from God to enjoy — regardless of whether we get to tell them about Jesus. But at the same time, we should make the most of every opportunity God has given us to tell our friends about Jesus. If I only see the friendship as a means to tell them about Jesus, them I’m overfunctioning. I’m trying to make something happen that might not be there. And I am using them as a means toward an end… On the other hand, if I don’t try to tell them about Jesus I’m underfunctioning. There will be times when I could have and should have tried to tell them about Jesus.”

The new tips (chapters 7 and 8) are useful additions to the six strategies from his first book; they are ‘Become Their Unofficial Defacto Chaplain’ and ‘Lean In To Disagreement,’ there are elements in both these chapters in the previous book, but the disagreement chapter perhaps represents some reflections on the ongoing changes happening in the west since the publication of Evangelism In A Skeptical World, which had a significant section devoted to defeater beliefs and apologetics framed on the defensive, this chapter suggests the time has come to adopt more positive apologetics; this observation perhaps owes a debt to Mark Sayers, whose analysis mirrors the analysis Sam provides in the front of the book for a time such as this; namely that the nature of the post-Christian west is that we’ve not moved back to a pre-Christian era, but a world profoundly shaped by Christianity where people now want the fruits of the Gospel without the Gospel, or as Sayers puts it ‘the kingdom without the king.’ There are, then,  actually positive aspects of Christianity that create the sorts of objections people now bring to Christianity (Sam works this through, for example, with the idea that a God should be assessed using criteria like ‘goodness’ or ‘love’). One of the beautiful things about Sam’s methodology — built from his theology of evangelism — is that it lives up to the title; it is relentlessly about Jesus. If you want help talking about Jesus in a way that grapples with the world as it is, in ways that might work, Sam is a good guide.

Chapter 7, ‘Become Their Unofficial Defacto Chaplain’ is perhaps where the biggest question about whether the book nails the brief comes up for me, but as a bivocational professional, Sam is actually better positioned to assess the questions I have than I am.

Many of the examples Sam shares from his own life involve conversations, and relationships, built from particular opportunities that are created as a result of his profession. It is profoundly easy for me to get into conversations about religion because 90% of my conversations with new strangers involve the question ‘what do you do?’ and the inevitable awkward conversation that develops from my answer; I can relate to lots of the opportunities Sam describes in the book, but it’s harder for people in my church community to pivot those interactions towards the sorts of conversations and relationships Sam describes. It is easy for me to slip into the de facto chaplain role in the lives of my friends — and probably even for him to do this as a bivocational worker. There’s a bit more groundwork to put in that we professionals don’t have to do. And look, a significant chunk of my audience (so far as I’m aware) are professional ministry types — and you guys and girls, you have no excuse. Imagine your community if you modeled the sorts of relationships that Sam describes to the people around you, involving them in the work of the Gospel happening in your neighbourhoods and suburbs.

That said, Sam doesn’t shy away from the fact that the lifestyle change required for the approach to evangelism his book advocates is costly and requires a deep systemic commitment, not just for him, but also for his family. It’s not a set of evangelism tactics, silver bullets, or pre-packaged solutions. I don’t think it’s necessary to be a professional evangelist to practice hospitality, or have a sense of how to listen to others, and ask questions, or to take up any of his other challenges — lots of it boils down to a commitment to people, and to Jesus — I just think it helps. The way of life he pictures is compelling (but probably difficult for introverts, though Sam, himself, is an introvert).

While there are parts of the two final tips that are likely to prove challenging, there’s gold in these chapters that are worth the cover price if you’ve already got Evangelism in a Skeptical Age. The section on ‘How to be a Chaplain‘ and especially ‘how to be wise’ could be titled ‘how to be the things I love about Sam Chan,’ other than the great section on hospitality earlier, it’s the closest he gets to acknowledging that his BBQ obsession is a useful part of his evangelistic tool kit. In my time at Bible College I became pretty convinced about the idea that the Wisdom Literature in the Old Testament was essentially Israel’s international evangelistic strategy — that the nations flocking to hear Solomon’s wisdom, in the Bible’s narrative, was a model of how Israel was to be a compelling blessing to the nations, connecting them to truths about the world and the ‘fear of the Lord’ as the beginning of true wisdom, and that the texts in the wisdom literature are deliberately ‘global’ in their approach (so, Proverbs borrows stacks of Egyptian wisdom material and reframes it). Sam finds similar examples in the faithful, chaplain-like, presence of Israelites in foreign courts — from Joseph, to Moses, to Daniel, to Ezra — all of whom were known for their wisdom. You’ve heard of the Daniel diet, here’s the Sam Chan diet:

“I’ve learned so much by going to parenting courses run by experts, most of whom are not believers. I read the New York Times and the New Yorker regularly. And I have a steady diet of podcasts: The Moth, TED Talks, This American Life, Conversations (ABC Radio), Invisibilia, Reply All, Pop Culture Happy Hour, You Are Not So Smart, The Savvy Psychologist, Malcolm Gladwell, Planet Money, and Radio Atlantic. And at the same time, I have access to God’s special truth — not only through the Scriptures, but also through the blessings of being a believer — and a Holy Spirit who lives inside me to change me and guide me.”

I know, too, that while Sam was in hospital for a while he didn’t just watch Aaron Sorkin movies (which he describes in the book), he also binged on Master Classes, because the guy is relentlessly curious about the world.

Look, we’re not all going to be Sam Chan. He’s an evangelism genius (probably just a genius genius). And that’s ok, but we could all do with being a little more like Sam Chan, I read this book and I want to be more like ‘that guy,’ it is a guide to better (Evangelistic) living, which makes it a great book for “a time such as this.”

The author

Nathan runs St Eutychus. He loves Jesus. His wife. His daughter. His son. His other daughter. His dog. Coffee. And the Internet. He is the campus pastor at Creek Road South Bank, a graduate of Queensland Theological College (M. Div) and the Queensland University of Technology (B. Journ). He spent a significant portion of his pre-ministry-as-a-full-time-job life working in Public Relations, and now loves promoting Jesus in Brisbane and online. He can't believe how great it is that people pay him to talk and think about Jesus.

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