Today, I’m drinking a South African drink called rooibos. How can I explain to you what rooibos is if you’ve never tasted it? I can say it’s like tea, but that doesn’t fully capture it. I can tell you it’s reddish-brown in color, but that won’t tell you its taste. Words and analogies only get us so far.
We have a similar problem when we tell post-Christian friends the gospel. We can use standard Christian concepts like sin, guilt, hell, reconciliation, and salvation—concepts that are essential to the gospel message. But there’s a better chance they’ll understand “rooibos.” After all, many biblical words now have different meanings. “Sin” is a giggly pleasure like chocolate or ice cream. “Redemption” is what happens to a sporting hero who makes a comeback.
How can we move from felt needs to the gospel?
At the same time, there are opportunities to tell post-Christian friends the gospel. They’ll come to church for a parenting course or to look for freedom from anxiety. But how can we move from felt needs to the gospel? How can we tell post-Christian friends about their ultimate need for forgiveness, reconciliation, and salvation when the terms don’t make sense? Here are just a few ways.
1. Ask friends to read the Bible with you.
Friends and coworkers are surprisingly open to reading the Bible if you ask, “Do you want to read the Bible with me?” We may think no one wants to read God’s Word in our post-Christian world, but Word121 has found that 20 percent of people will say yes to an invitation to read the Bible. If a bank gave us that sort of return, we’d take it! And I’m sure this number increases when you have social capital with a friend.
Also, a “no” answer is not a “never” answer. If someone declines your invitation, that doesn’t mean he’ll never want to read the Bible. Receive that “no” as a “not right now.” Our ministry at City Bible Forum has stories of friends who’ve begun reading the Bible 18 years after they were first asked. Is there a friend you could ask to read the Bible with you today?
2. Don’t discount the power of a story.
I believe in the power of story to communicate complex ideas without precise words. Take the mythological story of Icarus: Icarus’s father gave him wings made from feathers and wax but warned him not to fly too close to the sun. Icarus didn’t listen. He flew higher and higher until the sun melted his wings and Icarus fell to his death.
What is this story about? You’ll say it’s about pride. But notice I didn’t use the word “pride” as I told the story. The story implicitly teaches pride without using the word.
When post-Christian people read the Bible, they discover countless stories of people coming to Jesus with felt needs. The woman at the well needed water (John 4:1–29), the man born blind asked to see (John 9:1–7), and the paralyzed man longed to walk (Mark 2:1–12). Jesus showed them all their ultimate need for salvation.
When post-Christian friends read the Scripture, they also encounter countless stories where Jesus shows people their sin without using the word. He tells Nicodemus, “You must be born again” (John 3:7). He helps a rich fool see that one who “lays up treasure for himself . . . is not rich toward God” (Luke 12:21). In another place, Jesus speaks a parable to those who “trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt” (Luke 18:9).
It’s when our great need for salvation is exposed that we’ll understand the necessity of Jesus’s death and resurrection as the only way back to God. The Bible’s narratives help to expose this need. They do so with language many believers first encountered as children, and they do so in a way that can help post-Christian people learn biblical concepts as well. What biblical narratives have had a lasting effect on your understanding of the gospel?
3. Use analogies.
Jesus used trees, birds, and flowers to illustrate spiritual truths. Not every story we use to explain truth to our non-Christian friends needs to come directly from the Bible. But by following Jesus’s storytelling model, we can use analogies to help them see biblical concepts as well. Here’s an example.
It’s when our great need for salvation is exposed that we’ll understand the necessity of Jesus’s death and resurrection as the only way back to God.
Imagine that one Saturday my wife and I are cleaning the house. I hate cleaning, so I tell her, “I’ve got a brilliant idea. How about I go surfing, and you keep cleaning. Then, tonight, we can go out for a meal. Does that work?” What will my wife say? She’ll give me a “you can go if you want to” answer. Now, that might sound like a “yes” on the surface, but it’s really a “no.” It’s actually, “Go if you dare.” And in this analogy, I don’t go surfing, because I don’t dare. I’d know that no matter how enjoyable the surf was, I would have a miserable time because I was at odds with my wife.
This analogy helps me explain to non-Christian friends why good things we enjoy—like wine, oil for beauty, and bread (Ps. 104:15)—don’t fully satisfy, because they’re unenjoyable if we’re not experiencing them with God. What analogies might you use when talking about the gospel with a believing friend?
I don’t know if I can find a story that will explain to you the joy I find in rooibos. But I’m convinced that reading and telling stories and analogies (both from the Bible and our own lives) can help post-Christian people see their ultimate need for forgiveness, reconciliation, and salvation in Jesus.