The Heart of Evangelism (Book Review)

heart-of-evangelismEvangelism.  Just dropping the word in polite conversation elicits groans.  Why?  Because for so many—the evangelist and the evangelized—it feels so unpleasant.

Like a sales pitch.  “Do you have a happy life?  Do you have a sense that all is not well?  Do you get the feeling there is more to life that work, play, sleep, rinse, and repeat?  Well look no more.  I’ve got the answer to all your problems.  His name is Jesus, and he died for your sins to make you happy!  Ready to sign on the dotted line?  This offer will only last until…the next time we meet.”

Like cleaning toilets.  “Aw, God.  Do I have ta?  It’s the worst part of being a Christian.  Talking to people I don’t know but I’m supposed to love.  They don’t want to listen to me even more than I don’t want to talk to them.  But I know I gotta obey.  Gotta get dirty to feel like a shiny useful Christian after the chore’s done.”

Like killing my reputation.  “God, if I share the gospel with my friends, I’ll lose them.  If I share with my coworkers, I’ll lose my career.  If I share with my neighbors, I’ll lose my sense of comfort at home.  If I share with my family, I’ll lose my seat at the grown-up table at Thanksgiving.  If a share with strangers, I’ll lose my self-respect.  God, what do I gain?”

None of this is funny.  I only slightly exaggerate.  And you know it.  Secretly, you’ve thought the same thoughts at one time or another.  But the funny thing is, there is no hint of these kind of evangelistic experiences in the New Testament.  When Jesus and the apostles share the gospel, there is a palpable sense that eternal life is at stake.  What if we could discover what NT evangelism was like, and whether there are principles we might learn to bring our experience and practice of evangelism more in line with what the Bible says we should expect?  Thankfully, Jerram Barrs, author and seminary professor, has thought carefully, methodically, and fruitfully on this question.  In his book, The Heart of Evangelism, we learn how to get past the unpleasantries of sharing the good news of Jesus Christ.

Author

From the back cover: Jerram Barrs, a former staff member at English L’Abri, is the founder and resident scholar of the Francis Schaeffer Institute at Covenant Theological Seminary, where he also teaches apologetics and outreach as professor of Christian studies and contemporary culture.  His books include Crossway’s Learning Evangelism from Jesus and Through His Eyes: God’s Perspective on Women in the Bible.”

Thesis

Christians can best learn about and practice the NT pattern of evangelism by examining the teaching and examples of Jesus and the apostles.

Overview

Divided into four sections, the author seeks to dispel mistaken notions about evangelism.  In Section One, Barrs shows from various passages throughout the Bible that God is the Great Missionary Evangelist.  In these chapters we learn that evangelism is not some unpleasant task that God won’t do himself.  Section Two describes the kindness and perseverance of God, arguing that God is not reluctant to evangelize.  Far from reluctant, God meets people where they are at by entering their lives with an understanding and sensitivity to each person’s history.  In Section Three, Barrs examines various barriers Christians face when they seek to communicate the gospel.  He addresses barriers within ourselves, between the Church and the World (and vice versa), and the “Pharisee within”.  He also includes a chapter on memorized summaries of the gospel (i.e., “canned” approaches to sharing the gospel like the famous “Four Spiritual Laws”).  Section Four concludes the book with seven principles of NT evangelism that properly guide the effort to make the gospel known.  These seven principles are:

  1. Showing respect
  2. Building bridges for the gospel
  3. Understanding what others believe
  4. Speaking the right language
  5. Reasoned persuasion
  6. Clarifying the Good News
  7. Challenging the heart and mind

My Thoughts

As the author states in the book’s first sentence, the contents are the fruit of more than 30 years of reflection on what the NT teaches us about evangelism.  It doesn’t take long before this becomes readily apparent. This is a mature book that feels like an intimate conversation with someone who has “been there and bought the t-shirt.”  Each chapter is the length of a digestible column or blog post (most chapters are 4-6 pages).  There is not a lot of fluff here.  With a total of 38 chapters, it would be tedious to wade through extended illustrations and stories.  Thankfully there are sprinkled every few chapters so as not to distract from the goals of Bible study, meditation, and application.

I especially appreciated the section on barriers in the way of communicating the gospel.  Each obstacle resonated with my internal struggle and my interaction with my neighbor and the American culture we share.  Barrs explores the loss of a common language in our culture today.  In previous generations, the Christianese spoken in churches was more or less understood by the common man.  No longer.  Living in a post-Christian society, rapidly becomes more and more secular and pluralistic creates conflict between the Church and the World.  These conflicts manifest themselves when Christians feel intimidated and condemned, which pressure them to retreat and separate from the world.  But conflict and the barriers we erect for emotional security are antithetical to the call to evangelize.  But just deciding to share the gospel can be an eye-opening experience too.  Christians often confront a failure to reason when people refuse to grant that truth is desirable, real, and knowable.  Christians discover that quoting the Bible just doesn’t carry much moral weight anymore in a culture that questions and disdains authority in general.  Making moral arguments and judgments appears arbitrary, absolutist, and arrogant when people have no moral certainty or are motivated by consensus.  Idolatry seems rampant but almost totally unseen.  Idols of the mind, the will, the heart (notice the tri-perspectival division) rule over our neighbors who are increasingly pagan in their beliefs and lifestyle.  For someone who laments the current struggles in evangelism and just wants to go back to the “good ole days” when there was a church building on every street corner and people got saved by reading a tract, our postmodern culture is a mystery.  But if we read our Bibles a little more carefully we might discover that the first century Church lived in a society that looks increasingly like ours.  Therefore in an odd kind of way, the Church’s experience recorded in the NT is in some aspects more relevant today than in previous years for the American Church.

One portion of the book could use a little more content.  There is one chapter on memorized summaries of the gospel.  Barrs surveys contemporary, ancient, and biblical summaries of the gospel, concluding that it is a little difficult to boil the essence of the gospel down to a handful of statements—at least according to the examples provided in the NT.  He ends the chapter with five questions designed to communicate essential gospel truths to a person while leading them to a place of confessing the faith.  These five questions closely resemble the five membership vows that Presbyterian (PCA) churches use.  This is helpful, but I wish Barrs would have reflected a little more on how to help Joe Evangelist remember the five questions.  Perhaps a mnemonic, a simplified outline for drawing out the fuller content through conversation, or even a graphical method of explaining how the five questions might be used during brief informal gospel conversations.  The method of Two Ways to Live is an example of such a method that doesn’t feel too canned or corny.

Overall, I would highly recommend The Heart of Evangelism to any Christian looking for a thoughtful and mature exploration of evangelism according to the NT.  After all, Jesus and the apostles are the biblical exemplars God gave us to share the gospel!

Memorable Quotes

“We can never look down on anyone as unworthy of our love, honor, and respect or we would be disqualifying ourselves. Whoever they are, whatever they have done, we are one with them in human dignity, and we are one with them in human shame. God’s response to our sin is grace, the grace of Jesus Christ. Our response to the sin of others is to be the grace that has been extended to us.” 194

Other Resources

Book Reviews

Nine Marks

Mission to the World

Sample

CEP Bookstore

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