Evangelism in a Skeptical World: How to Make the Unbelievable News About Jesus More BelievableWritten by Sam Chan Reviewed By Tim Silberman
The dramatic pace of cultural change in the Western world has left many Christians feeling battered and unsure about the task of evangelism. The approaches that seemed to work so well in the past have little impact on our unbelieving friends. Though a number of valuable books address this issue, Sam Chan’s book provides a depth of engagement that is much needed in this area. Though theologically rich, Chan also draws on philosophy, psychology, sociology, and missiology to give a robust defense of his approach.
The essence of Chan’s argument is that Christians need to utilize a wide variety of evangelistic methods to effectively engage our secular pluralist culture. In chapter 1, Chan provides a biblical and theological foundation for this conviction, drawing on his earlier work in speech-act theory (Preaching and the Word of God: Answering an Old Question with Speech-Act Theory [Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2016]). He helpfully reminds us that evangelism is defined by its content not its form. Effective communication of the gospel is the goal, yet the methods we may employ are many and varied.
Chapter 2 discusses the impact of plausibility structures on evangelism and outlines a range of practical ways to get started in personal evangelism. He emphasizes the lifestyle dimension of evangelism and the value of a communal approach. Though the implications for a church are briefly mentioned, a more in-depth discussion of these principles for church communities would be appreciated.
The tendency among evangelicals to demand a single mode of evangelism is addressed in chapter 3 with a biblical survey of gospel metaphors. Some common gospel outlines are critiqued. Chan surveys the breadth of imagery employed in the Bible for God, Jesus, sin, atonement, and salvation. Readers would benefit from further reflection on these perspectives as a way of broadening their gospel vocabulary and fluency. The following chapter’s review of post-modern epistemology reinforces this need for diversity in approach. The contrast between modernism and post-modernism that Chan outlines is a valuable introduction to the impact of western philosophical paradigms on personal and public evangelism.
Chapters 5 and 6 draw heavily from the field of missiology to apply the principles of contextualization and cultural exegesis to our western contexts. Building on the work of Paul Hiebert and Kevin Vanhoozer, these chapters introduce essential skills for culturally sensitive evangelism. Chan outlines a method for this practice that readers can apply to their own situation.
Storytelling, topical preaching, and expository preaching are discussed in chapters 7–9 as indispensable tools in our evangelistic arsenal. Narrative communication, and Bible storytelling in particular, has been widely promoted in cross-cultural missions circles for some time. Chan appeals to the preferred learning styles of our listeners, arguing that a narrative approach is equally relevant in western contexts today. Though people may not fall into the abstract or concrete-relational learner categories as neatly as Chan suggests the practices he prescribes are widely used and well tested.
Chan’s defense of topical preaching is passionately presented though again argues for a plurality of approaches. In this and the following chapter on expository preaching, Chan outlines a range of practical approaches for preparing evangelistic sermons. He shows a commitment to both knowing and engaging the audience that builds on the earlier discussion of cultural exegesis. The book even gives tips on illustrations, preaching at special events, and leading people in the sinner’s prayer. These chapters are an invaluable source of fresh ideas for those regularly using this mode of communication.
The final chapter explores religious epistemology as it applies it to the practice of apologetics. Contrasting evidentialist and presuppositional approaches, Chan presents his “middle way” of winning over the listener emotionally while presenting a biblical perspective. Unashamedly drawing on the ministry of Timothy Keller, he provides a useful model through a number of worked examples.
The strength of this book is its multidisciplinary approach to evangelism. Though deeply theological and gospel-centered, the insights from other fields of knowledge provide richness and depth to the argument. The missiological perspective is particularly valuable as we increasingly wrestle with the cultural obstacles to evangelism in western contexts. Yet regardless of one’s context, Chan’s focus on understanding both the gospel and the listener more fully is a great encouragement.
The book only occasionally mentions the implications of this approach for a local church. Readers will find regular emphasis on the power of community in evangelism but little discussion about the evangelistic role of our church communities. This would be a valuable addition.
Overall, this book is a wide-ranging and valuable introduction to the increasingly challenging task of evangelism. The gospel message is central, but there is passionate ambivalence about the mode of communication. It would make an excellent textbook for a seminary course or an encouragement to anyone wanting to lead people to Jesus.
Sydney Missionary and Bible College
Croydon, New South Wales, Australia