Evangelism in a Changing Culture

Recently Pastor Ken read Will McRaney’s The Art of Personal Evangelism.  Here is his review of that book.

The mission of the church is to clearly communicate the unchanging gospel of God’s grace in Christ to the lost, and Will McRaney’s work in The Art of Personal Evangelism provides a helpful aide in equipping Christians to be the personal witnesses for Christ they are called to be.  The author grounds his book in the biblical foundation for evangelism and offers counsel in reaching people in a postmodern context.  The church grows and the kingdom of God expands through the faithful witness of God’s people, and McRaney offers a sound, practical resource for effective evangelism to take place.

The spiritual environment in the United States is different today than it was in previous generations, and this fact calls for a reevaluation of the evangelistic methods of the church.  Years ago, the church was seen in a more favorable light than it is today, and much of the population had a higher level of biblical knowledge than the average person currently possesses.  Added to these shifts, postmodernism has brought about a skepticism about absolutes and whether truth can be known at all.  These cultural shifts call for Christians to adapt in their mission so that the gospel is contextualized and communicated clearly.  McRaney writes, “The greatest need today in the Christian church just may be the need to equip people effectively and intentionally to share their faith in a way that makes sense to the witness and also makes sense to the person hearing the gospel” (6).  God’s gospel does not change, but the manner in which one communicates that gospel must adapt to the shifts of the surrounding culture.

The author wisely spends the first three chapters on the basic, biblical foundation of evangelism.  The Christian needs to have a firm grasp on the fact that the salvation of a sinner is a work of God.  He has sent His Son to die for the sins of mankind, and the good news of Christ’s atoning death and resurrection from the dead is God’s power to salvation for all who believe.  God has sent his Spirit to bring about conviction of sin and to empower the witness of believers so that Christ might be revealed to the lost.  McRaney confesses, “With regard to evangelism, the Holy Spirit is at work in the life of the witness, in the life of the lost person, at the point of regeneration, and after conversion” (28).  Salvation is God’s work.

Yet, God has chosen to use human messengers to deliver his saving gospel.  The role of the witness is simply to be a faithful witness, clearly proclaiming God’s good news in the power of the Spirit.  A witness cannot save anyone, but “we should assume 100 percent responsibility for effective communication” (43).  This role includes a thorough knowledge of the gospel, and McRaney devotes a substantial chapter to a thorough review of its essentials (74-98).  In a pluralistic society where there is often a dearth of Bible knowledge, a faithful witness cannot simply proclaim the realities of sin and Jesus as the only Savior.  Rather, one must begin at a more foundational level of God’s revelation of himself as the one, true Creator God and progress forward to God’s ultimate revelation in Christ, the Redeemer, all the while seeking to achieve an understanding in the mind of the hearer.

A faithful witness must also strive to gain an awareness of the person with whom one is sharing.  There is no single style or form of evangelism that is effective with every person one meets, so there should be a commitment to discover where that person is in his worldview and understandings and then meet him there with the gospel.  This process will take the investment of time.  “Evangelism does not happen without cost,” the author writes (67).  Faithful, loving communication of the gospel is the mission, “checking for understanding and commitment along the way” (100).

McRaney provides helpful instruction on sharing Christ both in one’s own context of culture and generation and in different contexts.  He addresses the cultural shifts that postmodernism has introduced, and he advises that “Christians will have to be intentional about developing relationships and planting seeds through servant and ministry evangelism projects” (139).  What is called for is an incarnational witness for Christ, the commitment to enter people’s lives, really listen to their beliefs and ideas, and strive to show them that God’s grace is their urgent need.  “Today, we need to give more attention to training the witness to listen,” McRaney counsels (167).  God may still use one-time witnessing encounters to save the lost, for one does not know what seeds have been planted previously in the hearer’s heart.  Witnessing in this postmodern culture, however, will most often require the commitment of a personal relationship.

This book offers a valuable resource for encouraging and equipping the church to be effective witnesses in a culture that has shifted farther away from truth.  The temptation for the Christian when facing such a culture is either fear, discouragement, or cynicism.  All of these reactions are a lack of faith in the God who saves and empowers witness, and McRaney’s recounting of the foundation of evangelism is a faith-bolstering reminder that every Christian needs.

The overarching message of the book is that Christians are called to invest the time and effort to be incarnational witnesses in the surrounding culture.  Events intended to attract the lost to come to the church will find little success.  The author writes, “The church must find a way to penetrate the lost world or to project the message outside the walls of the church” (134).  As was the case in Acts, the church must be the sent church into the surrounding community, engaging family, friends, and co-workers with the gospel.  Door-to-door evangelism with a memorized script is not likely to be the most effective means of conveying the gospel message in our current culture.  Evangelism cannot be quarantined to a night of visitation once per week.  As McRaney vividly expresses, “We are not dump trucks containing the gospel.  We do not just back up to people and dump our load” (100).  When people are farther away from truth, it will take more time and personal investment to evangelize the lost.  It will take loving people “communicationally . . . to put oneself to whatever inconvenience necessary to assure that receptors understand” (102).  Evangelism will call for self-denial and sacrifice, doing whatever it takes to get the message through to the lost around us.

As I read the book, I repeatedly thought that what McRaney is arguing for is a missionary frame of mind for all Christians.  For far too long, American Christians have considered it a peculiar call upon a select few to sacrifice their comforts and leverage their whole lives for the sake of the kingdom of Christ.  While the call to leave home and serve the gospel in a faraway place and a cross-cultural setting may indeed be a special call, all Christians are to think and act like missionaries in whatever setting they find themselves.  All Christians are to sacrifice their comforts for the eternal well-being of others and leverage their whole lives for the furthering of God’s kingdom.  This mindset and lifestyle inevitably calls for sacrifice, taking up our cross and following the One who sacrificed himself for our salvation and the salvation of all who will believe.

Such a missionary frame of mind calls for listening to and coming to terms with the worldviews of the people of a culture and using any means available to faithfully and correctly communicate the gospel.  The missionary in a foreign setting certainly cannot use a cookie-cutter approach, and neither can the church in a postmodern setting.  As the title of the book conveys, our form of evangelism will have to be more of an art than a science, like the early church who “had to rely completely on the leading of the Holy Spirit and one another as they lived out their faith in front of their peers” (112).  As missionaries reaching out to the lost in our setting, “we need to (1) understand their position correctly, (2) encode our message appropriately, and (3) speak relevantly to their concerns” (157).  McRaney presents these steps in the context of cross-cultural evangelism, but I would argue that this is what we must do both within our own culture and outside of it.

A crucial part of an incarnational witness is that the witnesses’ lives show the transformation that the gospel brings.  In a postmodern context where universal absolutes are questioned, people must see the real-life change that Christ brings about in the lives of his redeemed.  McRaney is right to say that “we can no longer easily present a message of Christ with credibility and believability to this audience without living out the message in front of them” (131).  Churches that are plagued with bickering and strife within are not going to be effective witnesses for Christ without in a postmodern context (or any context, for that matter).  Jesus told his disciples, “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35, ESV).  If the postmodern person does not witness the real love and fellowship created by the gospel, our pronouncements of truth will fall on deaf ears.

There is no doubt that the changes we have witnessed in the surrounding culture present us with certain challenges in the work of evangelism.  The church must not respond to these shifts with trepidation or despair, but we must labor to be equipped for the challenges before us.  The Art of Personal Evangelism is a useful tool to utilize in that equipping.  The book not only encourages and challenges Christians to be the incarnational missionaries our Lord has called us to be but also provides practical helps in communicating the gospel in the postmodern context.  The gospel does not change and is still the power of God to salvation for all who believe, but we must adapt to the shifts in culture appropriately so that the unchanging gospel might be heard and understood.

Click here to view this book on Amazon.com


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