David C. Cook
First-Century Principles for Reaching the Twenty-First Century
Does the idea of speaking to a total stranger about Christ make you nervous? Have you ever tried to tell someone about Jesus and had it go nowhere? Has someone ever asked a difficult question about your faith that you did not know how to answer?
As I will point out again later, we often overcomplicate this thing we call evangelism. I believe God can use you to bring others into His kingdom. Otherwise, why would God have commanded us to make disciples? We are told in Proverbs 11:30, “The fruit of the righteous is a tree of life, and he who wins souls is wise.” And Daniel 12:3 says, “Those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the firmament, and those who turn many to righteousness like the stars for ever and ever.”
God wants to use you to bring others to Himself. That’s a fact. Let’s find out how together.
Billy Graham once said,
The evangelistic harvest is always urgent. The destiny of men and of nations is always being decided. Every generation is crucial; every generation is strategic. But we are not responsible for the past generation, and we cannot bear full responsibility for the next one. However, we do have our generation! God will hold us responsible at the Judgment Seat of Christ for how well we fulfilled our responsibilities and took advantage of our opportunities.
I believe the world today is hungry for the message we have to offer. People are in a spiritual search mode—especially young people. Every day we face opportunities to share this message, opportunities we must seize. We must take hold of the moment or we may lose it forever.
I’m well aware that we live in a postmodern world where moral relativism is the rule of the day. Some people may feel as though the time to present absolute truth has passed. “We can only ask questions, not offer answers,” they might say. But, to borrow a phrase from the British, that’s rubbish. Regardless of the trends of contemporary culture, truth is still truth. In spite of our dramatic advances in technology, the essential needs of humanity remain the same. And so does the answer to its problems.
God calls us to bring the gospel to our generation, but many of us fail in this regard. Perhaps this is because many Christians are out of touch with our culture. Some of us seem to have forgotten that we live in the twenty-first century.
This reminds me of the woman who accompanied her husband to his doctor’s appointment. Afterward, the doctor called her into his office and said, “Your husband is suffering from a very severe disease, combined with horrible stress. If you don’t do the following, your husband will surely die.
“Each morning, fix him a healthy breakfast. Be pleasant, and make sure he is in a good mood. Fro lunch, make him a nutritious meal. For dinner, prepare an especially nice mail for him. Don’t burden him with chores, as he probably will have had a hard day. Don’t discuss your problems with him; it only will make his stress worse. And most importantly, smother your husband with affection and kiss him constantly. Make every effort to satisfy his every whim.
“If you can do this for the next ten to twelve months, then I think your husband will regain his health completely.”
On the way home, the husband asked his wife, “So, what did the doctor say?”
“You’re going to die,” she replied.
Like this woman, some Christians would rather disregard a lost soul than change how they live. We live in a sin-sick world, and we need to do everything we can to reach people. As God told the prophet Isaiah, “So is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it” (Isa. 55:11 NIV).
I believe that the principles used in the first century for proclaiming the gospel still work today. In Acts 17 we observe Paul, a master communicator, bringing his message to Athens. At that time, Athens was the cultural and intellectual center of the world, carrying the legacy of the great philosophers Socrates, Plato, Aristotle and others who established patterns of thought that have affected human learning for centuries. Almost all philosophies follow, to some degree, the teachings of these men.
While Paul was in Athens, he did what any tourist would do. He went sightseeing. There were magnificent architectural edifices, statues and images erected to many deities. But he was grieved to see the absolute absence of the living God. Instead, he found every imaginable substitute.
Have you ever felt that way looking at our own confused society? Do you ever find yourself channel surfing, and as you look at all of the things that are being offered, to our culture today, you get angry? We have a choice: We can wring our hands in exasperation and complain about the state of affairs in our world. Or we can do something about it: Take the gospel to the world.
Paul could have cursed the darkness, but instead he turned on the light. And that brings us to our first principle of effective evangelism.
Principle 1: Effective Evangelism Begins With a Burden
Paul’s message to the Athenians began when God stirred his spirit. He was grieved to see the absence of the living God and every conceivable substitute in His place. So Paul took action:
While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols. So he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the God-fearing Greeks, as well as in the marketplace day by day with those who happened to be there. (Acts 17:16-17 NIV)
The phrase greatly distressed in verse 16 could be literally translated “exasperated” or “irritated and roused to anger.” In other words, Paul was hot and mad.
Moved to Action
One of the reasons we don’t always reach our culture effectively is because we are woefully out of touch, living in our own Christian subculture. And honestly, many of us don’t care about people who don’t know the Lord. This is hard for some of us to admit. If we were brutally honest, we would have to say that we don’t have that burden. However, Paul felt so burdened that he declared, “Woe is me if I do not preach the gospel!” (1 Cor. 9:16). We simply have to care, or nothing will happen in the way of effective evangelism.
Does your heart ache for lost people?
C.H. Spurgeon knew the need for such a burden when he said, “The Holy spirit will move them by first moving you. If you can rest without their being saved, they will rest too. But if you are filled with an agony for them, and if you cannot bear that they should be lost, you will soon find that they are uneasy too.”
Principle 2: Effective Evangelists Need to Know Their Audience
We need to know the people to whom we speak. Paul went right to these people and brought the gospel to them. It’s important for us to have contact with—to be among—people who need the gospel. Jesus certainly modeled this. Tim and time again, we see Him breaking free from the multitudes to bring the message to one individual. From the midst of a crowd, He called Zacchaeus out of a tree. In the blazing noonday sun, He engaged a Samaritan woman in conversation. And He managed a late-night meeting with the religious man, Nicodemus,. Jesus always had time for people, and we should too, be it day or night.
Build a Bridge
One of the best ways to share the gospel is simply to listen and ask questions. I have discovered that everyone’s favorite subject is himself or herself. We can easily turn a monologue into a dialogue by saying, “Tell me about yourself,” or asking, “What do you think about this or that?” As you do so, you learn about and better understand that person. And because you’ve taken the time to listen to what the other person has to say, it’s more likely he or she will listen to you.
We see Paul taking the tme to familiarize himself with the Athenians and what they believed. He examined their idols. He read their poems. He understood their culture. And he wanted to build a bridge to them:
So he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the God-fearing Greeks, as well as in the marketplace day by day with those who happened to be there. A group of Epicurean and Stoic philosophers began to dispute with him. Some of them asked, “What is this babbler trying to say?” Others remarked, “He seems to be advocating foreign gods.” They said this because Paul was preaching the good news about Jesus and the resurrection.” (Acts 17:17-18 NIV).
The Epicureans and the Stoics
There were two primary groups that Paul addressed in Athens: the Epicureans and the Stoics, representing the two dominant schools of thought at that time.
According to the founder of the Epicureans, Epicurus, the chief goal of life was to attain the maximum amount of pleasure and the minimum amount of pain. The Epicureans believed the world came about by chance, a random concourse of atoms, and that there would be no afterlife or future judgment. Their basic belief was that this life is all there is. You only go around once, so if it feels good, do it. If it doesn’t feel good, don’t do it. Avoid what hurts or causes pain. You could say they were the party animals of the first century.
The Epicurean mentality is still with us today; we see this way of thinking everywhere in our culture. The Bible even points out that this mindset will be prevalent in the last days: “But know this, that in the last days perilous times will come: For men will be lovers of themselves … without self-control … headstrong, haughty, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God” (2 Tim. 3:1-4). The Bible also warns against embracing this philosophy, saying those who live for pleasure are dead already (1 Tim. 5:6).
In contrast to the Epicureans, the Stoics were more disciplined, shunning the pursuit of pleasure. Founded by a man named Zeno, the Stoic philosophy taught self-mastery. The Stoics’ goal in life was to reach a place of indifference to either pleasure or pain. Zeno taught that life is filled with good and bad. Because you cannot avoid the bad, you must try to grin and bear it. The Stoics believed that God was in everything material: in the trees, plants, animals, mountains and fields. The Stoics’ descendants are among us today as well. These are people who have no sense of God or His will for their lives. They do the best they can, and if bad comes, they try to stay strong and endure.
Yet both of these philosophies are wrong because they both reject God. After all, if you don’t know God, then you must put something in His place.
Principle 3: Effective Evangelism Must Be Culturally Relevant
Paul could have blasted his listeners with both barrels. But amazingly, he sought to build a bridge to them and quoted one of their own poets: “For in Him we live and move and have our being, as also some of your own poets have said, ‘For we are also His offspring’” (Acts 17:28).
It is so important that our listeners know that we live in the same world they do. We don’t necessarily want to build our message on current issues, but to completely ignore the culture we live in is to miss an opportunity. Far too often, those of us called to communicate are out of touch with others. The bible speaks of the leaders of the tribe of Issachar, “who had understanding of the times, to know what Israel ought to do” (1 Chron. 12:32).
The Downside of Christian Subculture
Some Christians can immerse themselves in the Christian subculture with a language that no one else can understand: “Are you washed in the blood, sanctified and a part of the body?” and “Just make sure you are not living in the flesh!” Meanwhile, the person listening is thinking, Let’s see, I need to be part of the body, but not live in the flesh?
I’m not suggesting that we stop using biblical terms; we just need to better define them. Far too often, we answer questions no one is asking and fail to answer the ones they are.
Jesus made an interesting statement on this subject: “For the people of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own kind than are the people of the light” (Luke 16:8 NIV). The “people of this world” are far shrewder in the way they present their message and advertise their wares. Meanwhile, the Christian community often puts out mediocre presentations. The problem is that the devil never goes on vacation. He never goes to sleep. He is ever vigilant to pull more and more people into his web of destruction.
A number of years ago I was invited to address the members of the National Religious Broadcasters at their annual convention. I asked why we settle for mediocrity and low standards in the Christian media. We no longer live in the 1950s; it’s the twenty-first century. Why can’t our graphics be cutting-edge? Why can’t our music be fresh and original—rather than rehashed copies? Why can’t our TV and radio productions be attuned to the culture? Why can’t our movies be better crafted and created with artistic integrity? I believe these things can happen. At the time of this writing, Christian music and movies with a faith message have dramatically advanced.
I am not arguing for sensationalism, although I would prefer that to stagnation. I will not compromise our message one bit. But Jesus did say that the sons of this world are shrewder in their generation than we are. So I say, let’s beat them at their own game. Be culturally relevant and speak their language, but deliver the message they need to hear.
The problem often lies in the out-of-touch, even bizarre way we present our message. I would venture to say there are some Christians today who are not persecuted for righteousness’ sake—they are persecuted for being just plain weird!
Keep It Interesting
Paul’s message aroused the interest of his listeners. And the first thing he did was to build a bridge to his audience:
Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: “Men of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an alter with this inscription: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD. Now what you worship as something unknown, I am going to proclaim to you” (Acts 17:22-23 NIV).
What a diplomatic way for Paul to begin his message! He could have said, “You’re a bunch of pagans, and you’re going to burn in hell!” Technically, that would have been true. But the objective of effective communication is to build a bridge, not burn one. So Paul found something in common with these people. Along the same lines, he said,
Even though I am a free man with no master, I have become a slave to all people to bring many to Christ. … Yes, I try to find common ground with everyone, doing everything I can to save some. I do everything to spread the Good News and share in its blessings (1 Cor. 9:19, 22-23 NLT).
Far too often, unbelievers know Christians only for what we stand against, no what we stand for. They know we’re against abortion, sexual immorality and same-sex marriage. But do they know we stand for Jesus? Religious leaders criticized Jesus for eating and drinking with sinners. But He did this to reach them rather than repel them.
The classic example is Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman, whom I mentioned earlier. He could have said, “You are an immoral woman, and you’re going to hell!” But instead, He talked with her. The bible says that it is the goodness of God that leads us to repentance (Rom. 2:4). Jesus appealed to the emptiness inside her that drove her to immorality, and He gained a real convert that day.
I heard a story about a minister who was asked to say a few words at a luncheon. He had been instructed to speak for about five minutes, but soon he reached ten minutes and then fifteen minutes. The moderator cleared his throat, hoping the good reverend would notice it was time to stop. The preacher continued to speak.
So the moderator actually pounded his gavel to get his attention. But on the minister droned. Twenty minutes passed, and people grew upset. A few walked out. Finally, the moderator continuously pounded his gavel, hoping the preacher would cease. Still, the minister did not stop speaking. In frustration, the moderator threw his gavel at the preacher, narrowly missing him. The gavel hit an elderly man who had fallen asleep in the front row. The man woke up, heard the preacher, and mumbled to the moderator, “Hit me again! I can still hear him!”
There is no excuse for communicating the gospel poorly. Paul said, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God to salvation” (Rom. 1:16). There is explosive power in the gospel. We don’t need to add to it or take away from it. We don’t need to complicate it or gloss it over. We just need to proclaim it and allow God to work.
Principle 4: Effective Evangelism Must Be Biblical
Paul’s message was biblical. He opened with a cultural connection and then took his listeners to the Word of God. This is important because, as I wrote earlier, God’s Word will never return void (Isa. 55:11). In other words, the gospel will always bear fruit. I have heard so many evangelists begin with a humorous illustration or a tear-jerking story and build their entire message on that illustration. They might read a biblical text and then return to their stories and jokes. I believe this is a grave error. Never build a message on an illustration. Always build it on the Word of God. God did not say that clever illustrations would not return void; He said that His Word would not return void.
The great preacher C.H. Spurgeon said, “A sermon without illustrations is like a room without windows.” We don’t want to build a house of glass or a house without any windows. I have seen that glazed look on people’s faces as I am explaining a term like justification, only to see them spring back after a simple illustration.
Certainly Jesus modeled this for us in His use of parables, which are earthly stories with a heavenly meaning—illustrations, in other words. Matthew 13:34 tells us, “Jesus always used stories and illustrations like these when speaking to the crowds. In fact, he never spoke to them without using such parables” (NLT).
The Power Source
Illustrations certainly have their place, but the power is in God’s Word. Paul reminded Timothy of the power of Scripture:
From infancy you have known the holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work (2 Tim. 3:15-17 NIV).
The word useful in verse 16 focuses on the fact that Scripture is sufficient. Everything we need to know about God is found in the Bible. We don’t need some “new” revelation. The objective is not to make the bible relevant, because it is relevant. However, if we do not believe, as Paul stated, that “all Scripture is given by inspiration of God,” then we will have problems from the very beginning.
Principle 5: Effective Evangelism Focuses on Jesus
An effective evangelistic message will always go to the cross. Paul concluded his message in Athens by saying, “For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to all men by raising him from the dead” (Acts 17:31 NIV). I am amazed when I hear entire evangelistic messages that make only a passing reference to the cross.
I once asked Billy Graham, “After all these years of preaching, if you knew as a younger preacher what you know now, what would you emphasize more?” Without missing a beat, he replied, “I would preach more on the cross of Christ and on the blood. That is where the power is.” How important that is! And when we fail to do this, we water down the message of the gospel.
Paul gave this same warning, pointing out that God had called him “to preach the gospel, not with wisdom of words, lest the cross of Christ should be made of no effect. For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved, it is the power of God” (1 Cor. 1:17-18). The phrase of no effect could be literally translated “deprived of its power.”
Paul also said that he “resolved to know nothing … except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2 NIV). Paul recognized the distinct power in the simple message of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Principle 6: Effective Evangelism Presents the Whole Gospel
Paul also used a word that we rarely hear these days: repent. He told his audience in Athens,
Truly, these times of ignorance God overlooked, but now commands all men everywhere to repent, because He has appointed a day on which He will judge the world in righteousness by the Man whom He has ordained. He has given assurance of this to all by raising Him from the dead (Acts 17:30-31).
This was a command from God Himself. Paul didn’t say, “I’d suggest you repent,” or “I’d advise you to repent,” or even “I hope you repent.” Paul said that God “commands all men everywhere to repent.” Then he went on to give three reasons why they should repent:
1. There is a day of judgment coming (Acts 17:30). God has appointed a day on which He will judge the world.
2. There is an unchallengeable Judge (v. 31). The one who will do the evaluating will be God.
3. There is an irrefutable fact (v. 31). God has made this irrefutabley evident by raising this Man (Jesus) from the dead.
The Entire Gospel
Rarely do we hear about judgment in our day and age. Yet if we fail to talk about it, we fail to declare the whole counsel of God. I’m not suggesting that we preach only “hellfire and brimstone,” but we do want to help people fully appreciate the good news of Jesus Christ. To do that, they must first understand the bad news of their situation. If we don’t tell people they need to repent, we haven’t shared the entire gospel.
There are a lot of people who feel remorse for their sin, but they never truly repent. Remorse is feeling sorry, while repentance is being sorry enough to stop. “Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorry brings death” (2 Cor. 7:10 NIV).
There is such a thing as phony repentance. Phony repentance is like crying when you chop an onion: The eye sheds tears because it is irritated—not because the heart is broken. Repentance means a change of mind and a confession of wrongdoing. It means to turn around, to change one’s direction, and to change both the mind and the will. Repentance does not denote just any change, but is always a change from wrong to right, away from sin toward righteousness.
When Paul stood before the Roman governor Agrippa, he spoke of how on the road to Damascus Jesus met him and told him,
I will rescue you from your own people and from the Gentiles. I am sending you to them to open their eyes and turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me (Acts 26:17-18 NIV).
Paul laid out for Agrippa (and for us today) the process of salvation, which clearly includes repentance:
1. We must have our spiritual eyes opened.
2. We must turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God.
3. We will receive, as a result, the forgiveness of sins and an inheritance.
Paul told his listeners there was a coming judgment. And he told them they needed to repent. Yet this is absent from much discourse today. Our job is not to make people feel good. Our job is to tell them the truth.
Principle 7: Effective Evangelism Leaves the Results to God
God will hold us responsible for proclaiming the truth and being faithful. But after that, the rest is up to Him. Even the great apostle Paul had days when the response was minimal. I take comfort from the fact that one of the greatest communicators of all time didn’t always have the most successful meetings imaginable:
And when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked, while others said, “We will hear you again on this matter.” So Paul departed from among them. However, some men joined him and believed, among them Dionysius the Areopagite, a woman named Damaris, and others with them (Acts 17:32-34).
Reactions to the Gospel
The word mocked in verse 32 could be translated “some of them sneered and burst out laughing.” Paul had just shared the gospel, and they laughed in his face. These elitists, who thought they were so brilliant, dismissed the preaching of the gospel by one of the greatest preachers in the history of the church.
This is a reminder that no matter how effectively you communicate, some people will react with scorn. And that will hurt. But it happened to Paul; it will happen to you. That’s why you need to pray that God will open their eyes and help them see the reality of what you are saying.
While some mocked, others procrastinated. They succumbed to the curse of intellectual, academic detachment. They used the delay tactic: “We will hear you again on this matter” (v. 32). May intellectuals today use the same tactic: “You know, those are interesting points you’ve brought up. I will think about this.”
Even though some mocked and some delayed, some believed: “However, some men joined him and believed, among them Dionysius the Areopagite, a woman named Damaris, and others with them” (v. 34). Dionysius the Areopagite was one of the judges, an intellectual and a ruler of the city.
D.L. Moody once said, “I would a great deal rather see a hundred men thoroughly converted, truly born of God, than to see a thousand professed conversions where the Spirit of God has not convicted of sin.” I would rather see a few people who really understand the gospel respond to its message than a multitude who don’t have a clue.
Conversion is the work of God and God alone. Yes, He uses us, but we must completely depend on Him for the results. Many of our attempts at sharing the gospel fail because we do so in our own strength. We are like the disciples who fished all night and caught nothing, only to see everything change when Jesus came on board.
It’s actually a great relief to know that my responsibility is to lovingly, accurately and clearly proclaim the gospel. The actual work of conversion is God’s job. Jesus said, “No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent me draws him; and I will raise him up at the last day” (John 6:44).
We need to remember that it’s all in the hands of God. At the same time, we are foolish to congratulate ourselves for great successes. We are also fools to condemn ourselves for times when our message doesn’t resonate. It is the gospel. The results are always up to Him. All that God holds us responsible for is faithfulness in proclamation, not how many people were in attendance or how many responded. That’s not our job.
People don’t convert people—the Holy Spirit converts people.
Our job is to proclaim the gospel faithfully, lovingly, accurately and understandably, and then let the Lord do His work with His message in His way.