Change the Way We Do Evangelism in North America?
Eighty-two percent of Americans surveyed believe the statement “God helps those who help themselves” is a Bible verse. Sixty percent cannot name five of the Ten Commandments. And 12% believe that Joan of Arc was Noah’s wife. Over half of the graduating high school seniors surveyed believe that Sodom and Gomorrah were husband and wife. And we can be sure that these survey results will be even more distressing five years from now!
Should the increasing Biblical illiteracy in North America affect the way we do evangelism? Or, is it just as effective to evangelize now the way it was done 50 years ago, when many non-Christians would have been able to pass a basic Bible literacy test.
There’s an interesting, and very significant, parallel between the two major ways Bible students study the doctrines (“theology”) of the Bible and the ways we can do evangelism. And neither is right or wrong, if done in and for the proper context and purpose.
For example, if you were to enroll in a “Bible Doctrines” course in a Bible school, it would follow a pattern that Bible teachers call “systematic theology.” Your textbook would have been written by someone who had painstakingly organized the main teachings (doctrines) of the Bible into chapters—probably one chapter for each of the major doctrines of the Bible.
We might think of each of those chapters as a “box” the author used to systematically organize Bible verses or extended passages. So, in the box (chapter) labeled “God,” he would have placed, in a systematically organized format, all the key Bible verses that help us to understand about God, who He is and what He is like, etc. And there would be another chapter (box) for the verses that tell us how God has revealed truths to us in the Holy Scriptures—and the same for the teachings about angels, humans, sin, Jesus Christ, salvation, the Holy Spirit, the church, and last things. These chapters or “boxes” might be labeled Theology Proper (Study of God), Bibliology (Study of the Bible), Angelology (Study of Spirit Beings), Anthropology (Study of Human Beings), and so forth.
This approach to studying the doctrines of the Bible is sometimes called “systematic theology” because the Bible texts are organized systematically according to ten or more key Bible doctrines. That’s all well and good for those of us who grew up in Sunday school and church, because to understand Bible doctrines this way requires and presumes an overall Biblical context for these teachings—a big picture grasp of the Bible.
Even middle-aged and older non-churched folks who were reared in a quasi-Christian North American community, probably have at least a vague knowledge of Adam and Eve, the meaning of “sin,” major stories from the Old Testament, and the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
Most gospel presentations created in the Western world follow the topical pattern of systematic theology. These generally focus on a series of logically ordered theological questions or us-related topics, such as: What is God like and how can I experience peace with Him? How do I escape Hell and get to heaven? Do I have to be good to be saved?
Or, in many cases, western gospel presentations and gospel tracts use a bullet-point approach to evangelism, such as: three things you need to know to be saved, or four steps on the road to heaven, or four spiritual laws, or five things the Bible says about eternal life, or etc.
The “systematic” approach to evangelism may not be a problem for people who have a general knowledge of the big story of the Bible.
But, if you present Biblical salvation-concepts to people who not know their Biblical context, how will they understand?
For example, if you tell Biblically illiterate people, “God loves you,” and they do not know the “In the beginning God...” account of creation, what will your words mean to them?
If you explain to them that “We are all sinners” and they do not know the Bible’s story of Adam and Eve’s disobedience to God, how will they understand what sin is?
If you share with them the good news that “Jesus Christ died for us to pay our sin debt,” how will that be meaningful to them if they have never heard about the Old Testament’s sacrificial system?
Context gives meaning to concepts! These essential Biblical salvation-concepts need a Biblical context (the Bible’s plotline or “Big Story”) for them to be understood clearly.
But, fortunately there is another way to study the teachings of the Bible, which also provides another way to do evangelism—especially evangelism with people who know nothing or little about the Bible.
Bible teachers call this approach to studying theology, “Biblical theology.”
In the Bible, God gradually and progressively revealed truths about Himself, His creation, and His plan of redemption. And Biblical theology seeks to learn and understand the teachings of the Bible, the way God revealed them—progressively from Genesis 1:1 through Revelation 22:21.
For example, in Genesis 1:1 we learn a few things about God: He exists, He was “in the beginning,” He is one God, He is the Creator of the heavens and the earth. And as we read through the remainder of the chapter, and the book of Genesis, and the whole Bible, we gradually learn a LOT more about God. So that by the time we finish reading Revelation 22, we have a good understanding of the God of the Bible, the true God.
And as we are reading through the Bible, we are gradually and progressively learning the other doctrines of the Bible.
For someone who knows nothing about the Bible, this is the most effective way to learn it—exactly as God progressively revealed it, a little bit at a time.
Now think about this process as it relates to evangelism with people who are not familiar with the Bible—not just the “heathen” in Africa, Asia, or the jungles of South America. Think about the 21st century North Americans who have grown up with no Bible-based Christian church background. Their ignorance of the Bible and its cover-to-cover plotline may be as foreign to them as it is for people who live in spiritual darkness in other parts of the world.
The best way for us to expose them to the gospel is to begin where the Bible begins—with God. And then we should continue to progressively unfold the Bible’s metanarrative (plotline) to them so that they understand the overall context of the gospel, God’s redemptive plan.
One of the leading evangelical scholars of our day, Don Carson, has said:
The good news of Jesus Christ is virtually incoherent unless it is securely set into a Biblically worldview.
I am suggesting, then, that a world both Biblically illiterate and sold out to philosophical pluralism [the view that all religions are equally valid] demands that our proclamation of the gospel be a subset of Biblical theology. (D.A. Carson, The Gagging of God, page 502)
In order to equip Christ-followers to share God’s story of hope in a world of competing faiths and cultures, Good Soil Evangelism and Discipleship provides training and resources that follow the Biblical theology model. The Story of Hope is an evangelism and discipleship Bible study book that begins in Genesis 1:1 and unfolds the Bible’s redemptive story through Revelation 22 using 40 key Bible events. The Roots of Faith Old Testament and New Testament Bible courses are built on 100 chronologically-ordered Bible events, 50 in the Old Testament and 50 in the New Testament.
In addition to its value for evangelism, people who have been Christians for many years often comment how The Story of Hope and The Roots of Faith have helped them “put the pieces together” so that they can better understand the BIG Story of the Bible.
Previous articles in this series:
- Three Greek Verbs Define Good Soil
- Assessing Unbeliever’s Gospel Understanding
- Assessing Gospel Receptivity
- Initial Contact or Relational Evangelism—or Both?
- The Problem of Gospel Static
- One Gospel - Three Worldviews
- Worldview “Noisy” Neighborhoods
- How To Understand Worldviews: I’m an Onion – You’re an Onion
- How To Witness to A Non Believer: 3 Step Guide To Using Verbal & Non Verbal Communication
- Gospel Knowledge Deficiencies
- The Romans Road in “Post-Christian” North America?
- Gospel Tracts in “Post-Christian” North America?
- Evangelism that BEGINS with Jesus – Good or Not So Good?
- Explaining the Gospel – Where Did Jesus Begin?
The Story of Hope is an evangelistic Bible study workbook designed to help people who are open to dialogue at the investigative questions and core beliefs levels. And the FREE downloadable Leader’s Guide for The Story of Hopewill guide you in the process of knowing how to evangelize unbelievers based upon a chronological Bible study of God’s overall redemptive story.