Earlier this year, I read Jonathan Dodson’s book, The Unbelievable Gospel: Say Something Worth Believing (Zondervan), and found it to be a solid resource that gives careful attention to the message we proclaim as well as the person with whom we are speaking.
Dodson casts a vision for evangelism that goes beyond formulaic recitation of biblical facts, re-centers it within the grand narrative of Scripture, and refocuses our attention on the particular needs of the person who needs good news. This is a biblically faithful and contextually sensitive approach to evangelism that systematically demolishes the most common obstacles to proclaiming Jesus as Lord.
Jonathan is the lead pastor of City Life Church and a leader in PlantR and Gospel Centered Discipleship.com. I invited him to the blog today to discuss his new book.
Trevin Wax: Your work intends to renew our passion for evangelism, and you go about this from two angles. First, you want to eliminate the obstacles that keep Christians from sharing their faith with others. Second, you want to eliminate pre-packaged presentations that fail to correctly discern the best way to share the gospel with a particular person. Why is it important to pay attention to both these aspects?
Jonathan Dodson: Whenever I talk to someone about their struggles in evangelism, their reasons typically cluster around these two aspects of what I’m calling “unbelievable evangelism.” The first is defeaters, warranted evangelistic concern to not be preachy, intolerant, shallow, impersonal, and so on.
The second is gospel metaphors, a discerning and patient evangelism that is less concerned with dropping doctrine and more focused on getting the gospel into a person. In a sense, I’ve responded to both out of pastoral concern, but there are also cultural and theological reasons for addressing both of these aspects of unbelievable evangelism.
Evangelism that doesn’t use some sort of gospel metaphor approach has to rely on a rehearsal of gospel truth—saying the same thing to the same person over and over again, which in evangelical circles often amounts to “Jesus died on the cross for your sins.”
Much of American culture has become inoculated to this repetitious evangelism. It comes across as canned and insincere to Millennials, who screen it out. This is why much of our evangelism is mocked publicly through documentaries like Jesus Camp and films like Saved!
If we want to engage a secularized country with the hope of the gospel, we will have to understand and sympathize, wherever possible, with their objections. “Postmoderns” don’t want to be preached at; they want to be heard, and their doubts taken seriously. The approach outlined in the book suggests a natural, biblical, and discerning way to do that to communicate a gospel worth believing.
Now, before we chalk public indifference up to total depravity, we need to consider the fact that some of our evangelism might be fallen. Could we be motivated by performance-driven duty—getting evangelism done—more than grace, listening to see what grace could do in a particular life?
We should also recognize that humanity’s intellect and heart longings aren’t as fallen as they could be. The people we evangelize have a lot of information, experiences, and genuine longings that could teach us a lot about evangelism. John Calvin talks about “the seed of religion” that exists in every person. By this, he means that there are particular gospel longings in every human being that, if identified, can be connected to the good news about Jesus Christ. When they go unengaged, the seed of religion flowers into some aberrant spirituality. All the more reason to water the seed with particular gospel truth.
Trevin Wax: You say that we’re often so focused on what the good news is that we’ve missed how the news is good for others. What’s the difference here and why does it matter?
Jonathan Dodson: In general, evangelicals know the gospel information but don’t know how to communicate it to others well. While we can rehearse gospel definitions and defend gospel doctrines, we don’t know how to translate it into cultural vernacular so that others can understand their need for it. This is the great missionary task, practiced by many missionary heroes.
Knowing the Chinese culture, missionaries knew the Chinese wouldn’t grasp the meaning of Christ as “the bread” of life, so they communicated Christ as the “rice of life.” The essential food for living in their culture.
In our culture, the overworked professional who is looking to impress his peers, boss, and possibly even his family needs to know there is a more enduring, freeing acceptance he doesn’t have to work for that comes through the gospel of justification. He or she needs to give up on acceptance by personal success and give into gospel success, perfect acceptance, won by Christ.
Trevin Wax: You bring out five “gospel metaphors” like different sides of a diamond in order to show us different ways of communicating the good news. What are these metaphors and how do you utilize them in evangelistic conversations?
Jonathan Dodson: The most succinct statement of the gospel is “Jesus Christ is Lord.” Everything we need is packed into Jesus as the Christ—Redeemer—and Jesus as Lord—King. Everyone needs to know how to respond to him. While there is one, eternal unchanging gospel, there are also many gospel metaphors that connect our need to God’s grace in profound ways.
Gospel metaphors stretch across the breadth of the Bible communicating God’s saving grace. They collect in the epistles as: justification, redemption, adoption, new creation, and union with Christ. These graces are not metaphors in the sense that they are symbolic of some deeper reality. Rather, each gospel metaphor actually represents a facet of the gospel. Here are three ways to connect people’s needs to God’s grace.
1) Seeking Acceptance/Justification
One of the greatest needs people have today is to be accepted, to know that they are welcome and won’t be rejected. Though we may try to deny or hide it, we all carry with us a sense of shame, a fear that we will be found out, rejected, and judged when people learn who we really are.
When we explain that, through justification, the holy God offers perfect acceptance through his unique Son, Jesus Christ, it can bring tremendous relief and joy to those seeking acceptance.
2) Seeking Hope/New Creation
The metaphor of new creation can be especially compelling for people who are longing for a new start in life. People whose lives have been littered with failure, scarred by abuse, humbled through suffering, darkened by depression, or ruined by addiction need the hope of becoming a new creation.
When we explain that, through new creation, their old life can be exiled and that God welcomes them into a new life in Christ, it can shed a bright ray of hope into the lives of the hopeless.
3) Seeking Intimacy/Union with Christ
Our search for intimacy in relationships seems to never end. Even the best friendship or marriage isn’t enough for our insatiable demand to be noticed, loved, and cared for. We all want a place where we can be ourselves and know that we are accepted. We want relationships that are secure, where we feel safe to share our innermost thoughts and darkest struggles.
When we explain that, through union with Christ, people can enter into the most intimate, loving, unbreakable, fulfilling relationship known to humanity, it can bring deep healing and joy to those seeking intimacy.
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 show them 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 gospel that resonates with personal, intimate union with Christ.
Trevin Wax: A lot of people feel inadequate when it comes to evangelism. They’d rather let the “professionals” handle it. What do you say to someone who feels unqualified?
Jonathan Dodson: It can be difficult to answer objections and sympathize with skeptics when we feel inadequate. It’s tough to sort through all the pop philosophy and bumper sticker truth claims. That’s why we need to understand that a reasonable defense is not always “the right answer.” To be sure, we must have clarity on the gospel and understand how it is good news for others, but must everyone become a professional apologist? I don’t think so. While we may not have the ability to answer every question, Jesus gives us the ability to be secure in our faith.
Consider Peter’s oft quoted statement: “always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you.” Now listen to the preceding verse: “Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy…” (1 Peter 3:14). Peter reassures early Christian believers facing mockery and hatred, not by drilling down into apologetics, but to sink their security deep into Christ the Lord, holy in their hearts.
Often we opt for intellectual security, “If I just had the right answers then I’d be a better evangelist.” We have the most profound answer in the gospel itself, but we put our faith in something else. Our security breech is deeper than our intellectual shortcomings—it runs deep, into our hearts. There the enemy plays upon our fears, chases us into the shadows, and lays a hand over our mouths. True apologetics begins with heartfelt confidence in Jesus.
In Christ, we possess a power that can rip the muffle off, chase away the shadows, and bolster winsome, authentic gospel witness. We need verse 14 to go with verse 15, to desperately to set apart Jesus as Lord in our hearts, not the approval of others as Lord. This is the where deep security is found. To get there, the idol has to be replaced with a greater God who offers deeper security and meaning. We need the gift of repentance, to exchange our adoration of what others think of us, or of ourselves, for what God the Father thinks of us in Christ—fully loved and accepted, no condemnation and no rejection.
You have every resource, every truth, and every power available to you in Christ. You are more than a conqueror in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:37). The key is to return to this wonderful promise over and over again, to remain in Christ.