Wineskins Archive

January 21, 2014

Book Review: Evangelism Through the Local Church (Apr 1993)

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by Randy Fenter
April, 1993

O.K., so this is not a book you’re going to casually pick up. First, any tome the size of War and Peace will look impressive on the shelf but should always sport a heavy-duty dust jacket. It will be needed. Second, talking about evangelism scares us only slightly less than doing it. Emphasize slightly. And, third, any book with the subtitle, “A comprehensive guide to all aspects of evangelism,” has an editor who really wanted to be a seminary professor in the first place. Obviously this is not a book you’re going to read … unless you happen to stumble into someone who has. Then you’d better know a good massage therapist because your arm is going to be twisted and your ear bent.

Michael Green knows what comes to your mind when you hear the word evangelism: “strident, perspiring preachers, smooth-talking televangelists or strange characters at street corners urging the passersby to repent and meet their God.” And he knows that you don’t want to read this book. “In a word, evangelism seems something no self-respecting person would want to be involved in. It has overtones of manipulation. In a permissive age it smacks of wanting to change the way another person is. And that is an insult. It is unacceptable.”

So why shouldn’t we let such unattractive, sleeping dogs lie? Because we cannot help but “reflect on the godlessness, materialism, and selfishness that are becoming more and more rampant throughout society.” Because “evangelism is not an optional extra for those who like that sort of thing. It is a major part of the obedience of the whole church to the command of its Lord…. It is hard to see how we can realistically acknowledge Him as Lord if we take no notice of what He tells us to do.”

After deleting some common but ill-tempered views of evangelism, Green reminds us of the beauty of this lifestyle, one that “is so full of joy about Jesus Christ that it overflows as surely as a bathtub that is filled to overflowing with water.” He is not satisfied with “eliciting decisions for Christ [or] getting hands raised.” Instead, “true evangelism issues in discipleship…. And evangelism that is truly evangelism issues in a life that is changed from going my way to going Christ’s way.” Such evangelism “means incorporation into the church, the body of Christ…. A Christianity that does not begin with the individual does not begin: but a Christianity that ends with the individual ends.”

Green is a rare bird: a theologian who talks theology without you knowing it (he never mentions soteriology; he asks, “What is man?” “What is salvation?”, “What is conversion?”, and “What is baptism?”) a professor who regularly leads people to Jesus, and a scholar who enjoys interfacing with modern culture. His description of evangelistic preaching beautifully describes his book: “[It is] crisp; it wastes no words. It is interesting; it grabs attention from the opening sentence and maintains it throughout. It is biblical; Scripture has a power our words do not. It is relevant to the needs of the hearers, and it is immediately perceived to be so. And it challenges people to decision.”

Evangelism Through the Local Church is divided into four sections (but you’ll find yourself profitably skimming subheadings).

“Part One: Issues for the Church” clarifies our view of the church’s mission and rejoices in God’s incredible plan to answer our common needs. Addressing our reluctance to speak in a pluralistic culture (with our “awareness of the need for world citizenship, of the search for what unites us rather than divides”), Green honestly addresses questions which many secretly believe but are afraid to ask out loud: “’There’s truth in every religion. Why not leave people alone?’ ‘All religions are relative,’ ‘Truth has many forms,’ and ‘People should be left with the religious truth in which they have been raised. Why should they be disturbed?’”

He challenges us to think through “What becomes of those who have never heard the gospel?” and “Will nonbelievers be judged by their deeds?” He candidly addresses our universal desire for universalism to be true. Like any good book, Evangelism through the Local Church will stretch your thinking, raise new questions and provide multiple “Ah ha” moments.

In challenging us to be passionate about Jesus in a multi-faith society, Green paints a balanced picture of Islam. He says that while some Christians want to imagine that Christianity and Islam are much the same thing, “try persuading the Arab states or Nigeria or Pakistan of that proposition. Any trace of syncretism would be repudiated far more passionately by the followers of Muhammad than by most zealous and informed Christians.” Noting that there are more Muslims in Britain than Methodists and Baptists combined, Green affirms “Christianity and Islam are fundamentally and irreconcilably different. Islam is in no doubt about the propriety of its missionary work in a multi-faith society. Nor should Christians be.”

Perhaps closer to home for many American readers is the New Age movement, “the most modern and most comprehensive, joyous, and eclectic of all attempts at syncretism.” Why is it so popular? “It speaks to the hunger of mankind for unity in a desperately dangerous world. It speaks to the heart that has been reared on the values of materialism and realizes that they are totally inadequate to live by. It speaks to important modern issues that Christians have been slow to address; the environment, various kinds of oppression, and the sterility of the technological society. It offers a spiritual dimension to life that is free of dogma, diverse in manifestation, full of celebration and “fun” things, undemanding in life-style, and emancipated from the claims of morality. That is a very powerful mix. It offers hope in a time of hopelessness, countering prophets of doom with the message of human potential and social transformation. And the biggest and reddest cherry on the top of the cake is this: self-deification. The primal sin has become the ultimate truth. I am divine. I can do what I like.”

”Part Two: The Secular Challenge” rewards as it comes to grips with the secular mind including monism, humanism, narcissism, agnosticism, and pragmatism. For instance, in confronting New Age thinking, Green suggests that “first, we should rejoice in its recognition of spiritual values after decades of barren materialism. Second, we should make friends with members of the New Age movement, go to their bookshops and foodshops and get to know them.” As an active evangelist who rubs shoulders with other evangelists, Green peppers his book with real life stories. “One of my friends goes to [New Age] meetings regularly and has been asked to read pieces from the Bible each week on the topic chosen for the evening. These readings make a lot of impact. There is an openness, and we need to take advantage of it.” I find myself agreeing with Green: “A movement like the New Age movement is a judgment on the Western church for its rationalism and deadness. We are so weak on the transcendent; they are not. We are so feeble and dull in worship; they are not. I believe we will get nowhere with such people by argument. They are devotees of experience. And we have to show that in Christianity there is an experience just as dynamic but far more credible and reasonable.”

In confronting the secular challenge, Green is not afraid to deal with the inevitable questions: “Does God exist and how do you know?” “In today’s world, how can you believe in miracles, any miracles, but particularly, how can you base your life on the belief that a man came back from the dead?” “How can there be suffering and evil in a world created by a good and loving God?” And finally, “How can we—how dare we—make claims of ultimacy for Jesus Christ in a highly pluralistic world?”

In this secular age intellectual problems float on top of emotional turmoil. “Most people are not moved by reason alone, perhaps not by reason primarily. There are powerful nontheological factors that we ignore at our peril…, and this is especially the case in our own day when nonlinear thinking has robbed logic of a lot of its effectiveness. People are more touched by atmosphere, love, welcome, surprise—rather than argument.” Green tells of a “senior woman, who [is a] charming, well-educated humanist teaching biology at [the] doctoral level in a university, who came out with nonsense comments about Christianity: The Gospels were written hundred of years after the event,’ ‘All religions are the same,’ and so forth. Those were the rationalizations of the head.. The reasons of the heart also began to emerge, and they were the real things. There had been desperate hurt in childhood: her mother had died of cancer, untreated, because she was a Christian Scientist and was taught to believe the pain was unreal. That left great bitterness… If we neglect the reasons of the heart, we shall never help people into the kingdom of God. We shall certainly never succeed in introducing them to the kingdom by argument alone.”

Part Three: Church-Based Evangelism” is remarkably practical, with a powerful call to special occasion evangelistic preaching and a detailed description of “Discovery Groups,” an effective small group ministry to those who respond with interest to the preaching. This section is not just for preachers or the clergy, however. “Most churches give only the most limited scope and responsibility to lay members. This is disastrous. It not only creates a two-class society, but it gives the impression that the… minister knows it all, and the layman is an amateur. Nothing could be further from the truth. In many ways the laity know far more about life, about celebration and friendship, about natural contacts with their friends than the clergy do.” Evangelism must be church-based, not minister-based. This section ends with the reminder that evangelism is not a matter of human effort; we are privileged to share in God’s work.

The book concludes with a number of practical appendixes including “Setting Up Discovery Groups,” “A Course for Inquirers,” “Leading a House Meeting,” “Drama and Movement in Evangelism,” ”Leading Worship in Evangelism,” and “Social Justice and Evangelism.” Additionally, each chapter concludes with a considerable bibliography for further reading.

Green remembers a cartoon from the time of the 1960 Olympics which showed the celebrated runner from Marathon arriving in Athens and falling exhausted on the ground while he mumbles with a blank look on his face, “I have forgotten the message.” Evangelism Through the Local Church reminds us all of the message, and that his name is Jesus. It is equally a reminder of the joy of telling others the “good news.” “There is no joy on earth to compare with that of leading a friend to Christ. If only church people who are so timid and cautious about it could be persuaded of that, nothing could keep them silent. God’s gagged people would become His confident people.” Evangelism Through the Local Church is a joyful argument for removing the gag.
Wineskins Magazine

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