Evangelism that BEGINS with Jesus – Good or Not So Good?
Beginning a gospel presentation by telling the unbeliever about Jesus—that’s a good thing. Right? Wrong? Or, it all depends?
“Tilling Evangelism” with the Gospel of John
Ann, a campus ministry worker on a state university campus was developing a redemptive relationship with a graduate student from China. At some point, Ann asked the Chinese young lady what she knew about Christianity. The student explained that, since being in America, someone had given her a booklet containing the Gospel of John and she had read it, hoping to learn about Christianity. Ann responded, “What did you think of it?” The student, probably coming from a Buddhist or Taoist or Confucianist or atheistic family and culture, explained that the Gospel of John was confusing to her—it made no sense. On the horizontal-receptivity dimension of the Good Soil Evangelism and Discipleship Scale, she was very “open” to the gospel. But, on the vertical-understanding dimension, she was very low, probably in one of the lower levels that we call the “Tilling Level.”
Obviously, for this young Chinese graduate student, being introduced to the gospel through the life of Jesus was not a good and meaningful experience. If anything, it probably was a negative initial encounter with Christianity and the Bible.
Put yourself in the place of that Chinese young lady. Open your Bible to chapter one of John’s gospel. Pretend that you have never been to a Christian church, never read or heard any portion of the Bible, and have never been engaged in a religious conversation with a Bible-believing Christian. And certainly, you have never read or known anything about the Old Testament! As you read, look for all the names of people and places and theological concepts or words that would be totally meaningless to you. For example, what about these?
The Word. The beginning. Moses. The Father. Elijah. The Prophet. Isaiah. Pharisees. Baptize. Bethabara beyond the Jordan. Lamb of God. Sin. Israel. The Spirit. The Holy Spirit. The Son of God. Rabbi. The Messiah. The Christ. Jesus – Jesus of Nazareth. Galilee. King of Israel. Angels of God. The Son of Man.
Now, think about this—what if someone had introduced you to the storyline of the Old Testament before asking you to read the Gospel of John. How much more meaningful would your reading of John 1 be? Yes, there would be some concepts that would need clarification, but in general the content of John 1 would make much better sense to you.
Passing out Gospels of John (or the Gospel of Mark), or using these Bible books for evangelistic Bible studies, may still be a good evangelistic method for unbelievers who have been exposed to the Bible enough to be familiar with the Old Testament storyline and basic gospel concepts. But, as North American culture rapidly becomes Biblically illiterate, starting to present the gospel with the life of Jesus becomes more and more inadequate if we want to plant God’s seed in “good soil.”
“Tilling Evangelism” with the Jesus Film
In 1981, Bill Bright, President of Campus Crusade (now “Cru”) created the Jesus Film Project organization, with the goal of presenting the story of Jesus Christ through video to people all around the world, many of whom who have had no exposure to the Bible or Christianity. According to the Jesus Film Project website, the classic version of the Jesus video has been translated into more than 1,500 languages, more than any film in history. And the film has been shown to an estimated audience of 7.5 billion viewers, which happens to be the estimated total world population in 2017! And nearly 500 million people have “indicated decisions for Christ following a film showing.”
Thank God for the many viewers who have come to sincere saving faith through the Jesus Film! But, no doubt many film viewers with no Biblical background-knowledge were left wondering about much of what they saw. In the original version of the Jesus Film, the audience learned the “content” of the life of Jesus Christ without any Biblical-historical “context” to explain clearly who He was or why He came to Earth. They were simply dropped into the Bible’s storyline about three-fourths of the way through the Bible!
After 20 years of experience with the Jesus Film Project, in 2001 a new opening sequence (approximately seven minutes of video) was added. The new video segment depicts the creation of humans, the sin of Adam and Eve and their expulsion from Eden, Abraham's aborted sacrifice of his son, and the prophesies of Isaiah and other Old Testament prophets.
This new addition to the Jesus Film was produced to show how Jesus' life fits into the span of human history—context was added to the content of the story of Jesus. Apparently, the Jesus Film Project leaders came to realize that evangelism with Biblically-illiterate people should not begin with Jesus, but should begin with the Old Testament storyline that leads to and culminates with Jesus, His life and death and resurrection. Even if the redemptive storyline of the Old Testament is summarized in only seven minutes, it does at least provide some Biblical context for the main character of the film, Jesus.
Backfilling or Chronological Bible Storying or Teaching for “Tilling Evangelism”?
For people who know little or nothing about the Bible, the true God, and Jesus Christ, it is essential that they understand the Bible’s story of redemption that unfolds through the Old Testament before being introduced to Jesus.
A ministry to young adults in a former communist country uses the Four Spiritual Laws gospel tract to evangelize agnostic or atheistic young professionals. When asked – “How does that work?” “How do these people understand the gospel if you start with ‘God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life.’”? The response was, “We just go back and explain all of the important Old Testament concepts to them.” That’s what we, in Good Soil Evangelism and Discipleship, call “backfilling.” And, if you do enough backfilling it can be effective.
But, we submit that a better way is to begin telling or teaching the Bible’s story of redemption, beginning where the Bible begins – in Genesis. And beginning with “God” in Genesis 1:1, we recommend that you tell or teach the Bible’s redemptive plotline chronologically so that the gospel of Jesus Christ that makes sense even to the most Biblically ignorant non-Christian.
Now, let’s go back to Ann and her Chinese graduate student friend. After hearing that the Gospel of John did not make sense to this intelligent and well-educated young woman from China who knew very little about the Bible and Christianity, Ann led her through a chronological Bible study using The Story of Hope. At the end of the study, Ann asked, “Now, does Christianity make more sense to you?” Her Chinese friend’s response was something like this – “Oh yes, now I understand!”
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?
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 Hope will guide you in the process of knowing how to evangelize unbelievers based upon a chronological Bible study of God’s overall redemptive story.