We’ve seen them in all manner of places—on street corners, in parking lots, at craft fairs, outside stadiums. Sometimes they’re on wearing placards, admonishing hearers to “turn or burn.” Or perhaps they’re warning America of coming judgment and doom. Others may prefer challenging individual “sinners” on the street, exposing them to their failure to live up to the Ten Commandments. A common justification from those “witnessing” is: “You need to tell people the bad news before they can listen to the good news.” After all, isn’t the Law a schoolmaster to bring us to Christ (Galatians 3:24)? Isn’t this the reality of Romans 1-3?
My friend Robertson McQuilkin has frequently said, “It is easier to go to a consistent extreme than to stay at the center of biblical tension.” I think that the “bad-news-first bears” (J) may serve as an example of this extreme. The point is that we should be careful about making hard-and-fast formulas (or, if you like, formulae) about communicating Christ to others. A wider read of Scripture presents a mixed bag; it isn’t a formula—indeed, a “uniformula”—announcing first, “you’re a sinner” and only then “there is a Savior.” I’m not denying hell, judgment, sin, or the need for repentance. Jesus saved his harshest message of judgment for the hard-hearted religious leaders of his day (e.g., Matthew 23), and he called on his hearers to turn/repent and align themselves with God’s kingdom agenda.
That said, Jesus had the strong reputation of being a “friend of sinners.” He reached out to the “unlikelies” of his day—those who, according to the religious authorities, were unlikely recipients of God’s kingdom blessings: tax gatherers, prostitutes, Gentiles, lepers, the ceremonially unclean, the demonized. Jesus let them know that God hadn’t forgotten them, that God was interested in them. Jesus illustrated the point that people need to know you genuinely like them and take an interest in them if your message is to get through to them.
How many of those preaching divine judgment in our day do so with tears in their eyes (Philippians 3:18)? How many of them have the reputation of being “friends of sinners”? How many of them truly follow in the way of the Master? It’s a lot easier to preach a message of judgment than to exemplify Jesus, who actually got involved in the lives of others. As David Kinnaman shows in his book unChristian (Baker), the unchurched are under the general impression that they are the “project” of the professing Christian. Most of them come away from “witnessing” encounters with the impression that Christians—however well-meaning— are also legalistic and arrogant or superior-minded. By contrast, the incarnate Christ had earned a right to be heard by paying the price of friendship with “outsiders.” Unfortunately, many of the law-first-grace-later messengers don’t exude a friend-of-sinners demeanor.
It seems that we should be careful about a formulaic method of communicating the good news. After all, helping people connect with Christ is more a process than it is an event. This process includes friendship, the integrity of Christian character, a loving community, and time process the implications of Christ’s Lordship. (See Greg Boyd’s Letters from a Skeptic [Victor] that nicely illustrates the process—even if you or I may not agree with all of Boyd’s arguments.)
So let’s explore whether we must follow the bad-news-first method—or if there’s more to consider. This is one of my longer pieces; so hang in there with me!
First, people will at some point need to be aware of the bad news, but are we the ones who have to bring this up? Too often we don’t even know where people are coming from. Perhaps they’ve been burned by the church or certain professing Christians, and they may even have a visceral reaction to the term “Christian.” Donald Miller puts it well in his Blue Like Jazz:
In a recent radio interview I was sternly asked by the host, who did not consider himself a Christian, to defend Christianity. I told him that I couldn’t do it, and moreover, that I didn’t want to do defend the term. He asked me if I was a Christian and I told him yes. “Then why don’t you want to defend Christianity?” he asked, confused. I told him I no longer knew what the term meant. Of the hundreds of thousands of people listening to his show that day, some of them had terrible experiences with Christianity, they may have been yelled at by a teacher in a Christian school, abused by a minister, or browbeaten by a Christian parent. To them, the term Christianity meant something that no Christian I know would defend. By fortifying the term, I am only making them more and more angry. I won’t do it. Stop ten people on the street and ask them what they think of when they hear the word Christianity and they will give you ten different answers. How can I defend a term that means ten different things to ten different people? I told the radio show host that I would rather talk about Jesus and how I came to believe that Jesus exists and that he likes me. The host looked back at me with tears in his eyes. When we were done, he asked me if we could go get lunch together. He told me how much he didn’t like Christianity but how he had always wanted to believe Jesus was the Son of God (Blue Like Jazz [Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2003], 115).
We may come in as spiritual storm-troopers rather than being “quick to listen and slow to speak.” Yet in 1 Peter 3, Peter exhorts wives of unbelieving husbands to focus on the way they live their lives—quietly, gently, virtuously—so that their husbands may be won without a word even though they didn’t believe the word of God (3:1). A virtuous life is a very attractive thing, and such a life may create a spiritual and moral longing in those previously disinterested in Christ—and this without a single word about anything, let alone sin!
Second, I have met plenty of “the encountered” who report that those “witnessing” about the bad-news-first commonly come across sounding judgmental, legalistic, and morally-superior, arrogant, and so on. Yes, rebels against God love darkness rather than light. But our focal point ought not be a guilt-finding mission. Our consciously taking on Paul’s chief-of-sinners title would go a long way in building bridges.
Third, like the prodigal son, most people already know they carry shame or guilt and are looking for relief, hope, acceptance, and friendship. As Romans 2:4 reminds us, it is the kindness of God that leads to repentance. Christian sociologist Rodney Stark comments: “Hell fire-and-brimstone sermons to the contrary, people respond far more strongly religiously to a carrot than to a stick. This has long been recognized by missionaries.” Stark ends his comments with the quotation from John 3:16-17: “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have eternal life. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through him might be saved” (Rodney Stark, What Americans Really Believe [Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2008], 78).
Fourth, certain contemporary evangelistic methods in America would be deemed culturally insensitive in non-American contexts. Think of how missionaries are often taking years to learn a particular culture. Even once they have learned a foreign language, they still need to understand how the gospel connects to the culture and to the felt needs of people. For example, Muslims tend not to feel guilty (which is assumed by many American evangelistic methods), but dirty, defiled, fearful, and often full of shame; so the string of stories in Mark 5 of Jesus’ authority over impurity, demonic powers, and death resonate with Muslims (see Nabeel Jabbour’s The Crescent Through the Eyes of the Cross [NavPress]). Yet well-meaning American Christians often don’t take time to contextualize the gospel when speaking with non-Christians. They assume a ready connection exists between the non-Christian and the biblical worldview; this is, after all, “Christian America,” right? Even in 1913, J. Gresham Machen pointed out that caricatures and bad philosophies often prevent people from taking “sin” and the call to “repent” seriously.
God usually exerts that power in connection with certain prior conditions of the human mind, and it should be ours to create, so far as we can, with the help of God, those favorable conditions for the reception of the gospel. False ideas are the greatest obstacles to the reception of the gospel. We may preach with all the fervor of a reformer and yet succeed only in winning a straggler here and there, if we permit the whole collective thought of the nation or of the world to be controlled by ideas which, by the resistless force of logic, prevent Christianity from being regarded as anything more than a harmless delusion. (Christianity and Culture,” Princeton Theological Review 11 : 7.
The gospel will not instantly make sense for people who have a completely different worldview. (Consider the momentous response to pre-evangelized Jews at Pentecost in Acts 2 with the lesser response of pagans in Athens in Acts 17.)
Fifth, how many of us came to trust in Christ because a stranger told us that we were sinners? Or did we come through friends or relatives who modeled an attractive, redeemed Christian life? The drumbeat of statistics over the years reveals that 75-90% of those who have come to Christ and faithfully continue in their discipleship were introduced to the Christian faith through believing friends and relatives; this personal connection to the gospel came through love, acceptance, and a modeling of the Christian faith. (For example, Win and Charles Arn, The Master’s Plan for Making Disciples [Pasadena: Church Growth Press, 1982], 43).
Sixth, the idea that “this may be the non-Christian’s only chance to hear the gospel and she may not hear it again” often turns into a self-fulfilling prophecy. Becky Pippert observes that Christians and non-Christians have one thing in common; they’re both uptight about evangelism! That is, we may actually create an awkward, confrontational situation (I’ve done this before!), and the non-Christian is put off by it all. As a result, the non-Christian doesn’t want to hear “the gospel” (or “whatever that was!”) again. Sometimes well-meaning Christians tend to take the entire burden of another’s salvation upon their shoulders and fail to trust in a sovereign God who may use us to be a stepping stone in another’s life. In John 4, Jesus reminded his disciples that they were “reaping,” thanks to the faithful labors of others who had gone before them.
Seventh, the “what if the person dies tomorrow?” question raises issues about our own view of God’s sovereignty. Keep in mind that while we are to be responsible witnesses, we mustn’t diminish God’s sovereignty on this score either. Will God put people into hell just because of our human failure (of the Christian witness)? Too often the “what if he dies tomorrow?” idea can often creates a forced “witness” that, in my experience, creates relational (not spiritual) awkwardness and turns people off on any Christian witness for the longer term. Relationships that respect the process, trust the Holy Spirit, and allow people time to think through the implications of the Christian faith are (statistically speaking) far more effective and long-lasting than the short-term, “I must tell him now or else” approach.
Those touched by Jesus knew that he first was genuinely interested in them. Perhaps that friend-of-sinners approach has something going for it! The confrontational method diminishes the listening and unfolding process involved in evangelism. The gospel should be expressed in a holistic and relational manner. Otherwise it more often than not appears to be a judgmental sales pitch.
Eighth, Jesus and other authorities in the New Testament don’t necessarily bring up sin at the outset, and they may in fact first “dangle the benefits of salvation” before them! The Samaritan woman in John 4 first received an invitation to receive living water so that she would never thirst again. It was only toward the end of the conversation that her being a sinner came up—which was actually an incidental point that almost didn’t get brought up!
The same goes for Paul in Athens (Acts 17). Though angered at its idols, he calmly built bridges with the Athenians, quoting the Stoic thinkers they were familiar with. Mention of repentance came only much later in the discussion.
Again, Jesus own missional message in Luke 4:18 (citing Isaiah 61:1) affirms benefits of salvation: Jesus came to preach good news to the poor, freedom for prisoners, release for the oppressed, and the year of the Lord’s favor. Notice that Jesus even leaves off “the day of vengeance” from the original Isaiah quotation!
Another famous Isaiah quotation brings good news without mentioning the bad news: “How lovely on the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news, who announces peace and brings good news of happiness, who announces salvation, and says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns!’ Listen! Your watchmen lift up their voices, they shout joyfully together; for they will see with their own eyes when the LORD restores Zion. Break forth, shout joyfully together, you waste places of Jerusalem; for the LORD has comforted His people, He has redeemed Jerusalem” (Isaiah 52:7-9).
Ninth, in what ways can we build bridges with our postmodern peers? Try “idolatry”! While conviction of sin is important, we must be careful not simply to “scold” the postmodern or the “apatheist” (who doesn’t care if God exists or not) for, say, inferior moral standards or mushy views of truth. Yes, premarital sex or sexual lust is wrong, but usually we won’t connect with our audience if we focus on “doing bad things.” Rather, a more effective, and very biblical, emphasis comes by exposing the human tendency to make good things into ultimate things. Using the specific term “sinner” may not readily resonate with the postmodern, but the scriptural theme of “idolatry” often does. Idolatry is, as Tim Keller puts it, “building your identity on anything other than God.” So rather than coming across as scolding non-Christians, we should take this advice:
Instead of telling them they are sinning because they are sleeping with their girlfriends or boyfriends, I tell them that they are sinning because they are looking to their romances to give their lives meaning, to justify and save them, to give them what they should be looking for from God. This idolatry leads to anxiety, obsessiveness, envy, and resentment. I have found that when you describe their lives in terms of idolatry, postmodern people do not give much resistance. Then Christ and his salvation can be presented not (at this point) so much as their only hope for forgiveness, but as their only hope for freedom. This is my ‘gospel for the uncircumcised.’ (Tim Keller, “The Gospel in All Its Forms,” Leadership Journal 29/2 : 15).
As a side note, as we grow in Christ, we will increasingly come to grips with the depths of our own sinfulness, which pales in comparison to any sin-detection going on around the time of our conversion. At the outset of our Christian pilgrimage, we are often oblivious to sin except in the most basic ways. Note what the famed preacher and theologian Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) wrote about his own experience:
Often . . . I have had the very affecting views of my own sinfulness and vileness, very frequently to such a degree as to hold me in a kind of loud weeping, sometimes for a considerable time together, so that I have been often obliged to shut myself up….When others that have come to talk with me about their soul’s concerns have expressed the sense they have had of their wickedness, by saying that it seemed to them they were as bad as the devil himself; I thought their expressions seemed exceeding faint and feeble to represent my wickedness . . . . My wickedness, as I am in myself, has long appeared to me perfectly ineffable [i.e., inexpressible] and swallowing up all thought and imagination–like an infinite deluge, or mountains over my head. I know not how to express better what my sins appear to me to be, than by heaping infinite on infinite and multiplying infinite by infinite . . . . When I look into my heart and take a view of my own wickedness, it looks like an abyss infinitely deeper than hell (Personal Narrative, Pt. XV).
Perhaps these reflections will give insight into more effectively helping others connect with the gospel. To reach people, we shouldn’t diminish the gravity of sin; rather, we should walk in the way of the Master, whose earthly ministry earned him the reputation of being a “friend of sinners.” May the same be said of us redeemed sinners as well!