How do people come to faith? The way you begin to answer this question explains a lot about who you think people are and the way God works in their hearts to bring them to faith. So often the way Christians approach this question is by way of theory and method, comparing ideas and what they think will “work best.”
While it is certainly important for us to brainstorm with others or compare ideas to refine our ability to share the gospel, many Christians get stuck in the world of theories and never move into the realm of real relationships with real people. The result is a lot of hypothetical evangelism which forgets about the complexity of sharing life with flesh and blood friends, neighbors, and co-workers.
This is why I have long been grateful for the work of Randy Newman. In his first book Questioning Evangelism, Randy presented the task of evangelism as less of a theory and more of an art. He showed us how the work of the evangelist involves real conversations with real people – meaning we actually need to come into contact with real people and engage them in conversations using good questions and plain speech.
In his newest book Unlikely Converts: Improbable Stories of Faith and What They Teach Us About Evangelism, Randy shares real stories that help us see the dynamic and supernatural means God can use to bring people to repentance and faith. The way he weaves real stories, biblical exposition, and practical applications helps us to avoid mere theory while sharing lessons that translate into the everyday life of Christians.
How do people come to faith? Using his concept of pre-evangelism, Randy tells us people tend to come to faith in four ways: gradually, communally, variously, and supernaturally.
While not the first to use the phrase “pre-evangelism,” Unlikely Converts elevates the work of pre-evangelism while helpfully distinguishing between the work of evangelism and pre-evangelism. While evangelism is the specific proclamation of the gospel message, pre-evangelism “refers to the many different things that can pave the way for that proclamation.”
Pre-evangelism could take the form of spiritual conversations, mercy initiatives, hospitality, and building relationships. In a world where less and less people seem interested in Christianity (or even strongly opposed to it!), the work of pre-evangelism is increasingly important for Christians to be invested in. As Randy says, “Sometimes people need to consider ideas that pave the way for the core truths of the gospel before hearing those propositions, and the Bible gives us models of what that can look and sound like.”
People tend to come to faith gradually.
The first chapter gives us lessons in the gradual shifts many people have before coming to faith. When people come to faith they often cannot point to just one moment that brought them to faith in Christ. Instead, it was a series of conversations, relationships, or experiences that slowly moved them closer to the point of repentance and faith.A conversation that gets someone from C to E should be viewed as a tremendous Spirit-filled success, and not an evangelistic failure on our part. Click To Tweet
Randy uses the illustration of a scale of unbelief ranging from A to Z, with A being a committed atheist and Z being someone who is ready to become a Christian. If someone already believes in God and thinks the Bible is a trustworthy source of information, then direct questions and conversations about the gospel may be appropriate. But it is often the case today, in a world filled with doubt and skepticism, that our friends and co-workers are much closer to point A on the scale than we may know.
The work of pre-evangelism involves helping people make gradual shifts on the scale, pushing them closer to belief. In other words, a conversation that gets someone from C to E should be viewed as a tremendous Spirit-filled success, and not an evangelistic failure on our part.
But this means we’ll have to get better at the art of communication and dialogue. We need to recognize when “What authors have shaped your thinking the most?” is a better question to ask than “Where will you go if you die tonight?” Small steps can often be very effective in showing the credibility and plausibility of the Christian faith.
People tend to come to faith communally.
By coming to faith communally, Randy means “…conversion came after interactions with a whole lot of people. They discussed the gospel with friends, heard numerous sermons (both live and online), read apologetic articles on the web, went to small group Bible studies, heard total strangers’ testimonies at meetings, and listened to podcasts. They heard a whole chorus of voices singing different parts of the same song.” In other words, people tend to come to faith after seeing the gospel worked out in several different ways, in various contexts, and in different people and relationships.What if the things we were already doing in our everyday lives could be evangelistic? Click To Tweet
This may be the lesson in evangelism which would have the most impact on our churches. I think most Christians tend to view evangelism as a task they perform as individuals– it’s just another duty to be fit into their already crammed schedule somewhere. This is why many Christians protest at the thought of outreach and evangelism. The idea sounds great, but there’s just no time and energy.
But what if the things we were already doing in our everyday lives could be evangelistic? What if the church activities our calendar is filled with 3 nights a week could at the same time build up believers and welcome non-believers to see and experience the gospel in a communal setting? What if we were willing to sacrifice a beloved ministry in the church in order to direct funds and energy to a new ministry that could both engage the existing church community and bless the surrounding neighborhoods?
It’s ambitious I know, but isn’t this the lesson of Jesus in John 4:35-38, or the Apostle Paul gives in 1 Corinthians 3:6? What about the “final apologetic” of Christian love on display for the world to see (John 13:35)?
People tend to come to faith variously.
The implications of the gospel are profound, multifaceted, and touch every area of our lives. When we limit the implications of the gospel in any way, we fail to understand that people are drawn to faith in all sorts of ways. Some are drawn in because of the promise of rest, others because of an existential need for life to make sense, others because of a pressing sense of guilt, and still others healing for deep wounds of the soul. And we have no right to determine which road a person may travel to their Savior.
There is great advice in this chapter for learning how to adapt our gospel message to individuals depending on what might attract them and draw them in. And for evidence that this kind of evangelism really works – just think of Jesus’ parables and all the many images and kingdom promises he made to people to draw them to a place of repentance and faith.
Randy ends the chapter by saying, “When we proclaim the gospel in all its fullness, with all its dimensions, we bring a multifaceted salvation to multifaceted people.” Amen!
People always come to faith supernaturally.
One of the things I love about all of Randy’s work is how he always takes the reader back to dependence on God for the work of faith and conversion. This chapter served as a great encouragement and reminder for me. His challenge for us is to “reflect more seriously on the supernatural dimension,” for this is the “intersection of the divine, where people do ordinary things and God does what only he can do.”
In this age of great skepticism and doubt, we all have friends and neighbors who seem completely disinterested in questions of spirituality. It may even feel like our loved ones are “too far” for God to do a work in their lives. But the very fact that you, me, or anyone else believes is an incredible miracle that could only happen by the grace of God.
So let us not be discouraged in the work of evangelism! If these 5 short summaries of some major themes in Unlikely Converts captured your interest, then you should definitely pick up a copy of the book. Missing from my summary is Randy’s great stories of some really unlikely people coming to faith, his insightful Bible teaching, and accessible style of writing – not to mention content from the second half of the book! So pick up a copy for yourself – I know you’ll greatly benefit from it.