How do you write a response to a critique of your own blog post that you not only agree with wholeheartedly, but have also benefited from? 

This is the situation I find myself in as the editors of TGC Australia have encouraged me to interact with Stephen McAlpine’s reply to my article titled “Evangelism is Easy?!”. 

My first reaction when I read Stephen’s insightful critique was, “Why reply?” There’s so much that I love about what our brother had to write. Yet the TGCA editors have suggested that it might be a good opportunity to provide a constructive model for disagreements and differences of opinion. So here I go.

Complementary Perspectives

It’s probably worth pointing out the obvious as I begin. Stephen and I are writing from two different perspectives and with two different purposes. 

My short article was structured a lot like a “devotional” – the kind of thing I frequently do as I flit from meeting to meeting in my responsibilities as a pastor. Therefore, my article was more anecdotal than analytic. It made only one point and was intended to be motivational rather than deep. You could accuse it of being a “thin” rather than “thick” argument for evangelism and you’d be right. 

Stephen’s reply, on the other hand, offers “thicker” account of our (or the West’s) struggle with evangelism. I haven’t done a word count, but it’s at least twice the length of my initial article. It’s incisive, analytical, and intends to be so. Even if it were not a response to my article, it could stand alone very comfortably as a post loaded with apologetic insight. 

Stephen, then, is taking a birds-eye view of the cultural and social context in which we do evangelism, whereas I am zooming in on one aspect of how ordinary Christians might share about Jesus with their friends and neighbours. This is why I find myself agreeing with Stephen so wholeheartedly, without feeling any need to “abandon ship” on my initial article in spite of this agreement.

What is Evangelism?

A less obvious point – though it is probably more significant – has to do with differences in what we mean by “evangelism.” Is evangelism simply the activity of speaking / announcing / preaching / sharing the gospel (the evangel) or does it also include how that message is received by the hearer and what happens as a result?

To put it another way, is cultural receptivity part of evangelism? Is a person’s willingness to listen part of evangelism? Is conversion part of evangelism?

I think that this is where Stephen and I differed most in our respective articles. 

I believe evangelism is, at its heart, the activity of speaking the gospel. In both Jesus’ and Paul’s metaphoric language, evangelism is “sowing the seed” (Mark 4:1-20; 1 Cor. 3:6-8). Certainly the condition of the soil, and the culturally adapted expression of the gospel are both important matters. But I think the New Testament stresses the distinction between sowing and growing (even between sowing and watering, or if you like, “mission” and “maturity”) precisely because there is a difference between what we are responsible for and what God is responsible for. Our job is to speak the gospel; tell people about Jesus; share our faith – that’s evangelism. The work of softening hearts, making that foolish message find plausibility in the hearts and minds of the hearers, converting the cynical is God’s work and is not, strictly speaking, evangelism.

My impression, as I read Stephen’s article, is that he considers the semantic range of “evangelism” to be wider. That’s why he writes that “things have dried up.” For Stephen, “evangelism” is harder because the soil has become arid and unfruitful. For me, however, as I focus on the activity of the message bearer, the real threat to evangelism is that we’re no longer excited about the person of Jesus. 

Our Responsibility and God’s

Now you could stop reading at this point and say, “Well, that solves it. I can agree with both Stephen and Pete’s perspectives because they’re really coming from two different vantage points.” And if that’s what you get out of this reply to a reply, then great! Job done.

But I’d like to press a little harder. I’d like to make the case that it’s actually quite important for us to be clear about the line between our responsibility and God’s when it comes to evangelism and its reception.

I’d like to do this by posing two questions. 

First question: If we could wind back the clock on the decline of receptivity in the West, or, in Stephen’s words, if there could be a greater general belief in transcendence and no specific rejection of Jesus, would it make evangelism easier, and why? 

The answer would probably be “yes”, it would be easier. But why would it be easier? It’d be easier because we’d probably feel less fear of not being heard. We probably wouldn’t have to work as hard at communicating to a hostile “third culture.” We’d be able to write about our faith and its perspectives without being ridiculed and shut down on the internet. 

Second question: would it make conversion easier? Why / why not?

I think we know the answer to that. The answer is, of course, no. It wouldn’t make conversion easier, because conversion is far more than just gaining a hearing or having your message sync-up better with where society is. Nominal belief and intellectual assent do not equal conversion. Conversion is a radical transformation of the heart as the Spirit of God creates a person anew. Of course Stephen believes this. He writes: “We must pray that “even if our gospel is veiled” (2 Cor. 4:3), that God will do what only he can, and that is to open blinded eyes.” 

Conversion – Always Impossible 

I want to argue that conversion has never been easy. It’s always been impossible. That’s why every conversion is a miracle from God. Certainly the gospel’s plausibility and believability may wax or wane, but plausibility and believability are not conversion. Otherwise, there wouldn’t have been such thing as nominal Christianity in past eras. Nominal Christianity exists when the gospel is seen as intellectually plausible but fails to really transform hearts and minds. 

The Way Forward

No doubt a change in our culture could make it easier to do the basic work of evangelism. But we are where we are, and it’s no use being nostalgic about the “good old days” (if indeed there were any). 

Better knowledge of apologetics and better understanding our cultural context could make it easier too. But if that in itself were enough, then those who are theologically and philosophically trained would be at the frontlines doing most of the evangelism (and from my experience, this is far from the truth).

However, and here’s the point of my original article, perhaps the real need is for a change in our hearts. Maybe, just maybe, for a large number of God’s people the problem isn’t simply ability but apathy. We just don’t feel excited enough about Jesus to overcome our fear and reach out to people – regardless of the season (c.f. 2Tim 4:2). 

Being excited or passionate about our relationship with Jesus isn’t the cure-all for things “drying up.” But as I take a look over to a place like China where evangelism has thrived despite years of skepticism and persecution, I find something that rebukes me to my very core. Those who are speaking most fervently about Jesus aren’t culturally aware and apologetically trained. Many are barely literate. But they love Jesus and are overwhelmed by the reality of Jesus in their lives. And so they can’t stop introducing others to him.

Photo: Kevin Culala, flickr