Evangelism. One word that, if we are all honest, makes every Christian a bit nervous. Refreshing. One word that comes to the forefront of my mind as I have read through Jonathan K. Dodson’s The Unbelievable Gospel. In the book, Dodson takes perhaps one of the biggest hurdles the church faces in this postmodern era and tackles it head-on. What we are left with is an honest assessment of the state of Christian evangelism and several brilliantly crafted responses to many of culture’s main turn-offs to the approach of Christians in recent years. The book is thoughtful. This is perhaps its greatest strength. It is not as if Jonathan sat down and sought to create a formulaic, “next-big-thing” kind of approach to evangelism. Rather, he seems to be seeking to answer this question: “How can we faithfully contextualize unchanging truth in an ever-changing world?” Or, as he puts it: “How can we make an unbelievable gospel believable?” What a worthwhile endeavor which will certainly benefit the church at large.
The structure of the book is helpful in that it begins by openly discussing many of the cultural barriers Christians are undoubtedly facing as they engage in evangelism—Dodson calls them “defeaters.” In seeking to unearth the false motivations such as self-righteousness, fear, and apathy, Dodson begs Christians to check their hearts before they engage someone in a discussion over the most important truth that exists. Your motivation matters. Your approach matters. Your half-heartedness certainly affects your witness. Furthermore, Dodson tackles the difficulties of pluralism, overcoming old stereotypes, and ensuring we are well informed and well equipped.
Jonathan’s confession that, “evangelism is not proselytizing,” (p. 56) uncovers a helpful distinction between “recruiting” and “evangelizing.” Whereas the former seems to be concerned with numbers and fast converts, the latter is more concerned with people. Dodson’s honesty about the negative perception that plagues the church in this area is vital to an understanding of how we can change.
In his fourth chapter, Dodson lays ax to the root of our fear of the word “tolerance” by simply talking about what it is (as well as what it has been historically). “Old tolerance,” according to Dodson “held that other opinions have a right to exist; the new tolerance is the belief that all opinions are equally valid or true.” (p. 71). Drawing from D.A. Carson’s helpful work The Intolerance of Tolerance, Jonathan calls Christians to think deeply as we approach this new form of tolerance. Understanding that “the new tolerance is intellectually careless” will be helpful to Christians who continually find themselves up against a wall with regard to the issue of tolerance.
With regard to many traditional approaches to evangelism–which seem more like a sales pitch than a life-giving transmission of truth–Dodson asks, “Is there a better way?” (p. 39). His answer comes in parts two and three. Part two, “Re-evangelization,” is a breath of fresh gospel-air, in the sense that it helps the reader to uncover how the gospel affects the release from pressured evangelism and the like. The idol of acceptance is tackled head-on at the outset of this section, and rightly so. Until Christians embrace their own acceptance in the gospel, they will be unlikely to put their reputation on the line by sharing Christ in the workplace or elsewhere.
Next, Dodson depicts the depth and scope of the gospel by describing its “three-dimensional” nature. By understanding that the gospel is historical, personal, and cosmic, Christians are able to step back and embrace a much bigger and more compelling gospel message, indeed the one that is presented in the Scriptures. It is also within this section that Dodson first introduces his gospel metaphors, which he further espouses in part three.
These metaphors (justification, redemption, adoption, new creation, and union with Christ) are perhaps familiar to Christians, but they should be considered from the vantage point of evangelism. Many Christians think that the various nuances and deep truths of the gospel are needed only after we are in the family of God. However, Dodson skillfully debunks this notion by showing how each of these metaphors can apply to lost people with certain needs and differing stories.
It is important to note that these metaphors all have one commonality—Jesus. Dodson is not deconstructing the gospel or trying to make it more palatable by removing the offense of the cross or of the depravity of man. He takes great care to emphasize the work of Jesus within his examples of each of these metaphors. Jesus is central, and Dodson does not depart from this.
Perhaps the most helpful chapter of the book is the final one, in which Dodson emphasizes the vitality of Christian community for evangelism. Throughout the book, Jonathan has made clear that his church has rallied together on mission with the various examples he gives. He is not some lone ranger pastor. Rather, he has skillfully equipped his people to understand the importance of being a community on mission. Emphasizing the familial nature of evangelism and the importance of Christian hospitality (which he and his wife have embraced, according to numerous examples), Dodson shows that God’s intent is for the community to be sent out together. This point cannot be overemphasized.
The Unbelievable Gospel has been vastly helpful for me in this way: it has forced me back to a time in which I was first evangelized. I was evangelized by a community. It didn’t happen in a vacuum. As an artist, I had questions about self-expression and the laying down of my dreams for the sake of pursuing Christ’s mission. At the time of my conversion, I was struggling with depression, self-pity, and all kinds of other ills. And all along the way, men and women who loved Jesus simply loved me and continued to share the life-giving nature of the gospel with me. But how easily we forget those early days. You see, all too often, we expect people to respond immediately and in a certain way. We expect that, since we seem to have it all together, the people we evangelize should easily lay down their questions, their hurts, and their legitimate hurdles in coming to the church. We expect it to be clean and neat.
But regeneration is anything but clean. Why? Because it involves death. Jesus was crucified, and our old man is crucified with him. This is more often than not a painful process. We reluctantly lose our grip on our old idols. We deal with the wake of destruction sin has left in its path. We try to put broken relationships back together.
Jonathan’s book reminds us that the hope of the gospel is God descending to man, not man ascending to God. As central as this truth is, we Christians can be so prone to self-salvation that we grow impatient with those who are not able to “get it together.” When our hearts are disposed in such a way, we miss the whole point of the beautiful gospel that captured our hearts in the first place.
Evangelism is intensely personal. Listen, empathize, and ask questions. Show people that you care. The days of throwing tracts out the window of your church van and yelling “Jesus loves you,” are over. They are no longer (and may have never been) culturally relevant. We need real, tangible, cultural engagement. We need to love people. We need to meet them where they are, just as our great Savior met us where we were. Toward that end, I pray this book will go a long way in changing the way many think about evangelism.
Some great quotes from the book:
“Respectful dialogue can go a long way in overturning bigoted impressions of Christianity. In fact, it will open doors that would remain closed otherwise.” (p. 175)
“Because we desire the approval of our spiritual mentors, our peers, and even God, we end up evangelizing to impress.” (p. 23)
“We possess the most attractive (and repelling) message on earth, which has been and should be communicated in endless dazzling (and mundane) ways in order to thrill the human heart, capture the imagination, and rivet the intellect.” (p. 109).
“Our therapeutic culture reinforces the idea that we deserve to have all our longings fulfilled by others. These good, deep longings—to know other and be known without fear of rejection—can only be met by someone big enough to fill them.” (p. 162).
“If there’s one thing urbanites can detect, it’s a lack of authenticity.” (p. 169)
Soli Deo Gloria