Evangelism: Doing Justice and Preaching Grace (Book Review)

I’ve mentioned before on this blog the inter-church project that I’m working to build in my local community.  We call it the Warrenton Gospel Partnership.  It’s still in its infancy phase as we’re actively seeking to expand membership to a critical mass of like-minded local churches.  The purpose of the project is to bring local churches together to cooperate in evangelism and mercy ministry.  The goal is a visible public testimony to the unity of Christ’s church in our town—when congregations confess the worldwide Church is one, holy, catholic, and apostolic, we really do live it out.  Like all places, our home town has many wonderful resources to offer and yet significant needs to meet.  We are convinced that Jesus is the provision for every need and the inexhaustible resource the Church holds out to everyone.  This is the marriage of word and deed that has deep historical roots in the ministry of the Church.  Tragically this marriage is on the rocks in many communities in America as the Church has constructed an artificial barrier between word and deed.  Today it is common for the confessing and evangelical church to focus on the ministry of the word and neglect the ministry of deeds. The criticism is too often accurate: we are too heavenly-minded to be any earthly good!  And so our Gospel Partnership seeks to rectify our neglect to the glory of God and the good of our neighbor.

To that end, a few of the Christians leading the initiative are studying how to bring the good news of Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord to bear on our community.  Surely there are many resources that address this problem.  I’ve found a good one: from the late Harvie Conn, former professor of missions at Westminster Theological Seminary, comes a short but helpful treatise on the theological underpinnings of biblical evangelism.  What do I mean by helpful?  This is not a book offering yet another step-by-step outline on how to condense the gospel into a few conversational points.  Nor is it urging evangelism practitioners to share less good news and start addressing more this-world needs.  Rather, it seeks to reorder our assumptions about preaching the gospel in a culture that doesn’t care what we know until it is knows that we care.  The central thesis of Evangelism: Doing Justice and Preaching Grace (hereafter EJG) is the Church has worked herself into a situation where either (1) we talk to people or do good works for people (one or the other), or (2) we talk to people but won’t also do good works for them unless they convert to Christianity and join the Church.  Conn observes these methods have not resulted in effective gospel outreach and they are not even consistent with the principles and examples of biblical evangelism.  The Bible’s model, upon closer inspection, is actually quite simple: scratch people where they itch (doing justice) in order to gain a hearing for the gospel they will then perceive as relevant (preaching grace).

EJG functions as a sort of manifesto to the American Church from an experienced and thoughtful Christian (Conn served for years as a missionary to Korea before shifting focus to teach pastors and missionaries in seminary).  Missionary observations originating from a cultural insider who has spent a number of years in another culture are often brimming with fresh insights.  (Lesslie Newbigin, former missionary to India, is another theologian and missionary turned missiologist whose books seek to awaken the American Church of its need to think more like foreign missionaries.)  Conn stands in this tradition.  He contends that America is full of “publicans”—church outsiders who have not given up faith in God but have turned their backs on the institutional church.  In the late 1970s when EJG was conceived and into the early 1980s when it was first published, this was certainly the case.  Such analysis is not as true now as America trends multicultural and pluralistic, but while the country has significantly changed it has not totally transformed.  There is still a hidden multitude of “publicans”—whom the Reformed tradition would consider wayward covenant children—for Conn’s contentions to remain quite relevant.  So what are his arguments?  One method of deciphering an author’s flow of thought is to study the book’s analytical outline (basically a reconstruction of the Table of Contents and each chapter’s subheadings).  Here is such an outline of EJG:

  1. Can the Church be all things to all people?
    1. A theology of scratching where people itch
    2. The art of itch discernment
    3. Is our message cultural or demythologized?
    4. Is our church the message as well as the medium?
    5. Is our strategy preacher-oriented or people-oriented?
    6. Is our approach pastoral or patent-medicinal?
    7. Is our concern parochial or universal?
  2. If Jesus is the answer, what are the questions?
    1. Evangelism in terms of what the world needs
      1. Evangelism as a call to reconciliation with God
      2. Evangelism as a call to incorporation
      3. Evangelism as a call to humanization
      4. Evangelism as a call to celebration
      5. Evangelism as a call to justice
    2. Evangelism in terms of what the Church gives
  3. Evangelism and justice: setting things right
    1. Hindrances to dikaiōma [justice, righteousness] evangelism the publicans
      1. Sympathy, not compassion
      2. Talk, not truth
    2. Models of dikaiōma evangelism among the publicans
  4. Spirituality as a barrier to evangelism
    1. One dimensional spirituality
    2. Two-dimensional spirituality
    3. Fourth-dimensional spirituality
  5. Prayer: where word and deed come together
    1. How to recognize the dawning of a new day
    2. How to pray in the new day
  6. Models: how to change what we’ve got
    1. Do we need new models?—Reinvestigation
    2. What does a model do?—Reinforcement
    3. How do you change a model?—Rejuvenation

At the end of this exercise in analytics we discover a few emphases.  First, evangelism should be preceded by cultural exegesis.  Nowadays there is a lot of talk about “exegeting your culture,” or “exegeting your neighborhood/community” to uncover its demographics and felts needs.  Every nascent church planter is required to do this.  Conn reminds the Church she must be strategic when planning its evangelism—saying yes to some ideas and no to others is not limiting God but staying on mission.

Second, it is not enough to say “Jesus is the answer” if people are not asking the right questions.  Biblical evangelism is not merely about sharing the gospel.  The gospel requires contextualization to the macro-questions a culture is asking, but it also assists people in reframing their questions in a biblical worldview.  Evangelism done rightly leads a culture to see that its questions can be answered only in worshiping Jesus as the Lord of every aspect of life, and that the lordship of Jesus is inextricably bound up in God’s design for the work of his people (the Church).

Third, holistic evangelism is about setting things right—announcing and cooperating with the kingdom of God coming from heaven to earth.  This kind of evangelism is about setting things alright for human beings in the vertical (God and man) and horizontal (man and man) planes.  An inadequate method invokes sympathy and talk, but biblical evangelism flows from a marriage of compassion and truth.

Fourth, true spirituality entails four dimensions that are properly oriented around God’s covenant with humanity.  One dimensional spirituality insists that body or soul is of sole importance.  Two-dimensional spirituality counters with the claim that both are important but one is primary.  Evangelicals insist the soul is primary, while liberals hold to the body’s primacy.  Both positions maintain a hierarchy of the natural and the spiritual.  But four-dimensional spirituality recognizes that the cultural mandate (exercise stewardship dominion over the earth) and the great commission (baptizing and discipling the nations in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ for our salvation from sin and death) together summarize the Church’s covenant obligations.  Both Law and Grace are fulfilled in Jesus Christ, and so the vertical and horizontal are holistically related in the natural and spiritual.  All things are from, through, and to God.

Fifth, prayer is the tool that God has given the Church to reorient our hearts to seek the union of word and deed.  For one cannot earnestly pray for something and then claim to be faithful when God gives opportunities to see that prayer request fulfilled.  “Let go and let God” is pseudo-spirituality.  It is anti-biblical, quietist, and other-worldly.

And finally, Conn suggests a few updated (old but neglected) models to move our evangelism in a more biblically faithful direction.  For a book 35 years old, I was surprised how “classic” are the models (a classic never goes out of style!).  He also provides a broad framework for a local church to get out of its evangelism rut in order to change its model (whether it is subconsciously assumed or explicitly intentional).

Don’t mistake this book as solely theoretical.  Although it does lay the theoretical foundation, EJG spends a good chunk of its small space providing examples, illustrations, and ideas for applying its principles.  And for a book that weighs in at just under 100 pages, this is its greatest strength.  Conn wants to awaken you to the Bible’s grand vision for evangelism, but he pushes you out the classroom door to get started.


About Harvie Conn

The Legacy of Harvie Conn, by Mark Gornik

Conn-versation: a blog that discusses the ideas of Harvie Conn

Two sermons by Harvie Conn

Books by Harvie Conn

7 Things I’m Learning About Evangelism, by John Starke







This entry was posted in Book Outline, Book Review, Evangelism, Missional and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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