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1st Century Teaching for 21st Century Church

Does the idea of speaking to a total stranger about Christ cause you to get very nervous? Have you ever tried to tell someone about Jesus and had it go nowhere? Have you ever had a difficult question asked about your faith that you did not have the answer to? Then this book is for you!

As I will point out later, we way overcomplicate this thing we call evangelism. It is my firm belief that God can use you to bring others into His Kingdom. Otherwise, why would God have commanded us to do so? The calling of God is the enabling of God, and I believe that He wants to use all believers to bring people to Himself. 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 forever and ever.” God wants you to turn others to righteousness. God wants you to win souls.

According to one poll, nine out of ten American adults cannot accurately define the meaning of the Great Commission. Seven in ten adults have no clue what “John 3:16” means. And barely one-third know the meaning of the expression, “the gospel.” We may be thinking, They aren’t believers, so what do you expect? But the most alarming statistic of all is that 95 percent of Christians have never led another person to Christ.

This book can help with all that and more. God wants to use you to bring others to Himself. That’s a fact. Let’s find out how together.

Billy Graham has 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 actually hungry for the message we have to offer. It seems to me that people are in a spiritual search mode—especially young people. There are opportunities for sharing this message that will be either seized or lost. 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 in the rule of the day. Some may feel as though the time to present absolute truth has passed. We can only ask questions, but not offer answers, they would 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, as does the answer to their problems.

We are called to bring the gospel to our generation, but many of us are not doing that. It seems to me that many Christians are out of touch with our culture today. Some of us seem to have forgotten that we are living in the twenty-first century.

It 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. For lunch, make him a nutritious meal. For dinner, prepare an especially nice meal 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 their methods. 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 shall My word be that goes forth from My mouth; it shall not return to Me void, but it shall accomplish what I please, and it shall prosper in the thing for which I sent it.” (Isa. 55:11)

Paul’s Playbook

I believe that the principles used in the first century for proclaiming the gospel still hold true for us today. In Acts 17, we find a page right out of the Apostle Paul’s playbook as we observe this master communicator bringing his message to Athens. At that time, Athens was the cultural and intellectual center of the world. Athens was heir to 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 Athens tourist would do. He went sightseeing. There were magnificent architectural edifices, statues, and images erected to every deity imaginable. You name it, and the Athenians had erected some kind of representation to a god they thought existed. But he was grieved to see the absolute absence of the living God. Instead, there was every imaginable substitute.

Have you ever felt that way as you look at our 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 find yourself getting 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 always begins with a burden.

Effective evangelism always begins with a burden. Paul’s message began when his spirit was stirred. He was grieved to see the absolute absence of the living God and, in His place, every conceivable substitute. So he took action. Acts 17 (NIV) tells us,

“So he reasoned in the synagogue with both Jews and God-fearing Greeks, as well as in the marketplace day by day with those who happened to be there.”

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 effectively reach our culture is because we are woefully out of touch, living in our own Christian subculture. And to be honest, many of us don’t really care about people who do not know the Lord. This is hard for some of us to admit. If some of us were to be brutally honest, we would have to say that we don’t have that burden. Paul was burdened to the point 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, 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 we are speaking to. Paul went right to where these people were and brought the gospel to them. It is important for us to have contact with—to be out and among—the people we are speaking to. Jesus certainly modeled this. Time 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 the tree…In the blazing noonday sun, He engaged the 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

That is why one of the best ways to share the gospel is to listen and ask questions, because I have discovered that everyone’s favorite subject is themselves. We can 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 are learning about and better understanding that person. And because you have taken the time to listen to what they have to say, it’s more likely they will be willing to listen to you.

We see Paul taking the time to familiarize himself with these people and what they believed. He examined their idols. He read their poets. He understood their culture. And he wanted to build a bridge to them:

Therefore, he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and with the Gentile worshipers, and in the marketplace daily with those who happened to be there. Then certain Epicurean and Stoic philosophers encountered him. And some said, “What does this babbler want to say?” Others said, “He seems to be a proclaimer of foreign gods,” because he preached to them Jesus and the resurrection. (vv. 17-18)

The Epicureans and the Stoics

There were two primary groups that Paul was addressing in Athens: the Epicureans and the Stoics, representing the two dominant schools of thought at this time.

According to the Epicureans founder, 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, as this way of thinking is so common 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, lovers of money…without self-control…haughty, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God.” (2 Tim. 3:1-3, emphasis mine) The Bible also warns against embracing this philosophy: “She who lives in pleasure is dead while she lives.” (1 Tim. 5:6)

In contrast to the Epicureans, the Stoics were more disciplined, shunning the pursuit of pleasure. Founded by a man name Zeno, the Stoic philosophy taught self-mastery. The Stoics’ goal in life was to reach a place of indifference to 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 spirit of 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 just do the best they can, and if bad comes, they just try to be strong and endure it.

Yet both of these philosophies are wrong in that they both reject God. After all, if you don’t know God, then you will put something else in His place.

Principle 3: Effective evangelism must be culturally relevant.

Paul could have blasted his listeners with both barrels. But amazingly, he sought instead 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.’” (v.28)

It is so important that our listeners know we are living in the same world as they are. We don’t necessarily want to build our message on these issues, but to completely ignore them is to miss an opportunity. We need to keep up with the times. Far too often, those of us who are called to communicate are out of touch with the people we are speaking to. 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 a Christian Subculture

We can immerse ourselves in our Christian subculture with our own 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 am not suggesting that we stop using biblical terms; we just need to define them. Far too often, we are answering questions that no one is asking and failing to answer the ones that are being asked.

Jesus made an interesting statement on this subject: “For the sons of this world are more shrewd in their generation than the sons of light.” (Luke 16:8) The “sons of this world” are far more shrewd in the way they present their message and advertise their wares. Meanwhile, it is all too common in the Christian community to put 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 are no longer living in the 1950s; it is the twenty-first century. Why can’t our graphics be cutting-edge? Why can’t our music be fresh and original—not rehashed copies of something else? Why can’t our TV and radio productions be attuned to the culture we are speaking to? Why can’t our movies be well-crafted, done with artistic integrity without shrouding the message? I believe that they can. At the time of this writing, some dramatic advances have been made in Christian music and movies with a faith message.

I am not arguing for sensationalism, although I would prefer that to stagnation. I will not compromise our message one iota. But Jesus did say that the sons of this world are more shrewd in their generation than we are. So I say beat them at their own game. Be culturally relevant and speak their language, but deliver the message they need to hear.

The problem lies in the often odd, 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. The first thing he did was to build a bridge to his audience:

Then Paul stood in the midst of the Areopagus and said, “Men of Athens, I perceive that in all things you are very religious; for as I was passing through and considering the objects of your worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO THE UNKNOWN GOD. Therefore, the One whom you worship without knowing, Him I proclaim to you. (vv. 22-23)

The One whom you worship without knowing, Him I proclaim to you…Now that was a diplomatic way for Paul to begin his message. He could have said, “You are a bunch of pagans, and you’re going to burn!” Technically, that would have been true. But the objective of effective communication is to build a bridge, not burn one. So Paul sought to find something in common with these so-called religious people. Along the same lines, Paul 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 only know Christians for what we are against instead of knowing what we are for. They know we are against abortion, sexual immorality, and same-sex marriage. But do they know that we are for Jesus? Jesus was strongly criticized for eating and drinking with sinners. But He was doing this to reach them rather than repel them.

The classic example is Jesus in His encounter with the Samaritan woman, whom I mentioned earlier. He could have said, “You are an immoral woman, and you’re going to hell!” That would have been essentially true. But instead, He sought to establish a dialogue with her. The Bible says that it is the goodness of God that leads us to repentance (see Romans 2:4). Jesus appealed to the emptiness that drove her to her immorality, and He ended up with a real convert that day.

Allow me to share a few thoughts with those of you who might be in ministry or engaged in some kind of public speaking where you share the gospel message with others. Some certainly seem to do a better job at this than others.

I am amazed at how someone can take the life-changing, action-packed Word of God and actually make it boring. I cannot think of a torment worse for me than listening to bad preaching.

I heard a story of 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 had gone to ten minutes and then fifteen minutes. The moderator was clearing his throat, hoping the good reverend would notice it was time to stop. The preacher continued to speak. So the moderator actually pounded down his gavel. But on the minister droned. Twenty minutes had gone by, and people were getting upset. A few walked out. Finally, the moderator continuously pounded his gavel for the preacher to cease and desist. Still, the minister would not stop speaking. In frustration, the moderator threw his gavel at the preacher, narrowly missing him, and instead hitting an elderly man who had fallen asleep in the front row. The man woke up, heard the preacher still speaking, and mumbled to the moderator, “Hit me again! I can still hear him!”

There is no excuse for not communicating the gospel well. 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 message of 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 let God do His work.

Principle 4: Effective evangelism must be biblical.

Paul’s message was biblical. He opened with a cultural connection, but then took his listeners to the Word of God. This is important because, as I wrote earlier, God’s Word will never return void (see Isa. 55:11). I have heard so many evangelists begin with a humorous illustration or a tear-jerking story, and then essentially build their entire message on it. They will read a biblical text, which is nothing more than a point of departure, and then go back to their endless stories and jokes. 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 is the house; illustrations are the windows that let light in.” Don’t build a house of glass, yet don’t build a house without any windows, either. I have seen that glazed look coming over people’s faces while I am explaining a term like justification, only to see them spring back when a simple illustration is used.

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)

Where the Power Is

Illustrations certainly have their place, but the power is in God’s Word. Paul reminded Timothy of the power and sufficiency of Scripture:

From childhood, you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work. (2 Tim. 3:15-17, emphasis mine)

The word “profitable” in verse 16 above 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. As it’s been said, if it is new, it’s not true; if it is true, it’s not new. 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 must focus on Jesus, crucified and risen.

An effective evangelistic message will always make a beeline to the cross. Paul concluded his message in Athens with, “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.” (v. 31) I have been amazed to hear entire evangelistic messages that make only a passing reference to the cross at best.

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 a missing a beat, he said, “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 effectively water down the message of the gospel.

Paul warned against this, 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 “determined not to know anything…except Jesus Christ and Him crucified.” (1 Cor. 2:2) Paul recognized there is distinct power in the simple message of the life, words, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. This cannot be emphasized enough.

Principle 6: Effective evangelism presents the whole gospel.

Paul 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.” (vv. 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.” He said that God “commands all men everywhere to repent.” Then he went on to give three reasons as to why they should repent:

1. There is a day of judgment coming (v. 30). God has appointed a day in 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 evident by an irrefutable fact, which is that He raised 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, then we are not declaring the whole counsel of God. I am not suggesting that we preach “hellfire and brimstone,” but we do want to help people fully appreciate the good news of Jesus Christ. And to do that, they must first understand the bad news of their situation. If we don’t tell people they need to repent, then we have not told them the entire gospel.

There are a lot of people who feel remorse for their sin, but they never truly repent. Remorse is being sorry, while repentance is being sorry enough to stop. “Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow 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 will. Repentance does not denote just any change, but is always a change from wrong to right, away from sin to righteousness.

When Paul stood before the Roman Governor Agrippa, he told of how, on the road to Damascus, Jesus met him and told him,

“I will deliver you from the Jewish people, as well as from the Gentiles, to whom I now send you, to open their eyes, in order to turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and an inheritance among those who are sanctified by faith in Me.” (Acts 26:17-18, emphasis mine)

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 left out of a lot of preaching today. Our job is not just to make people feel good. It is to tell them the truth.

Principle 7: Effective evangelism leaves the results in the hands of God.

God will hold us responsible for proclaiming the truth and being faithful. But the rest is up to Him. Even the great Apostle Paul had days when the response was minimal. I take a measure of comfort from the fact that one of the greatest communicators of all time didn’t have the most successful meeting 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. (vv. 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 started laughing in his face. These elitists, who thought they were so brilliant, dismissed out of hand the preaching of the gospel from one of the greatest preachers in the history of the church.

This is a reminder to us that no matter how effectively you communicate, some people will react that way. And that will hurt. But that is just the way it is. It happened to Paul; it will happen to you. That is why you need to be praying that God will open their eyes and help them see the reality of what you are saying.

While some mocked, others delayed. They succumbed to the curse of intellectual, academic detachment: the delay tactic: “We will hear you again on this matter.” (v. 32) Many intellectuals today use the same tactic: “You know, those are interesting points you have brought up. I will think about this.”

Even though some mocked and some delayed, there were some who 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. Along with him was a woman named Damaris and some others.

D. L. Moody 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 have fewer people who have a real understanding of what the gospel is respond to its message than to have a multitude respond who didn’t have a clue.

Conversion is the work of God and God alone. Yes, He uses us, be we must be completely dependent 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 is actually a great relief for me to know that my responsibility is to lovingly, accurately, and clearly proclaim the gospel. The actual work of conversion is God’s part. 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 is all in the hands of God. At the same time, we are foolish if we congratulate ourselves for great successes. We are also fools if we condemn ourselves for times when our message doesn’t resonate. It is the gospel. The results are up to Him. All that God holds me responsible for is faithfulness and proclamation, not how many people were in attendance or even how many people responded. That is not my job. People don’t convert people—the Holy Spirit does.

Our job, if you will, is to proclaim the gospel faithfully, lovingly, accurately, clearly, and understandably, and then let the Lord do His work with His message in His way.   

Greg Laurie is the senior pastor of the Harvest Christian Fellowship, a Calvary Chapel, in Riverside, California. In 1990, Laurie began holding public evangelical events called Harvest Crusades. Since that time, well over 3 million people have attended Harvest Crusades in California, Seattle, Oregon, Philadelphia, New York, Hawaii, Florida, New Zealand, and in Australia. Laurie is the author of several books including the Gold Medallion Award winner The Upside-Down Church, Every Day with Jesus, Wrestling with God, Losers and Winners, Saints and Sinners.

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