Randy Newman

Randy Newman

Randy Newman has been with the staff of Campus Crusade for Christ since 1980 and currently serves with Faculty Commons, their ministry to university professors. He ministers on campuses and elsewhere in our nation's capital to students, professors and policy shapers. He is an honors graduate from Temple University and has a Masters of Divinity degree from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, where he is also engaged in doctoral studies. Randy is a Jewish Believer in Jesus and is the former editor of The Messiah-On-Campus Bulletin. He is the author of numerous articles and the books Questioning Evangelism: Engaging People's Hearts the Way Jesus Did and Corner Conversations: Engaging Dialogues about God and Life, both published by Kregel Publications, and Bringing the Gospel Home: Witnessing to Family Members, Close Friends, and Others Who Know You Well, forthcoming from Crossway.

To find out more, visit his blog, Connection Points.

Ten Reflections on Hearing Forty Testimonies

As part of a research project I’m conducting, I have just completed listening to 40 college students who say they have become Christians within the past two years. I have interviewed each student for 45 minutes or more to probe, gain insight, and learn what “worked” in their journey from unbelief to salvation. I hope, as a result of analyzing the transcripts of these interviews (and writing a little thing they call a “dissertation” towards a PhD in missions), to offer insights about how the church can be more effective and fruitful in evangelism.

Here are ten initial thoughts by way of observation and concerns:

- Nothing can thwart God. I know that sounds like a cliché but the stories highlighted just how powerfully God can break through to those who seem the least likely to respond. There were many moments when I marveled at how relentlessly God pursues the lost.

- So many of these students come from terribly messed up backgrounds. Their parents’ divorces, alcoholism, and irresponsible lifestyles have had devastating effects on them. And they connect the dots from their parents’ divorce or other problems to their own self-destructive behaviors. At times, it was difficult to listen.

- The social experiments of the 1960s (so-called “free love,” “easy divorce,” “gay pride,” and more) have proven to yield disastrous results. This generation has not benefited from the self-expression their parents thought would be so healthy, freeing, or better than the “repression” they rebelled against. During the interviews, I often reflected on which social experiments we’re launching today that may yield even worse consequences.

- The hookup and porn cultures are not as much fun as they’re portrayed to be by irresponsible television shows or other culture-shaping outlets. The women feel abused by a system that insists upon conformity to sexual pressures. And some men are near suicidal in their loneliness.

- This generation has imbibed mammoth quantities of alcohol and drugs. It was deeply disturbing to hear of blackouts and forgotten weekends (behaviors often associated with people much older and with longer dramas of addiction) from people only 19 or 20 years old.

- Most of them don’t read. Personal relationships and conversations with friends clarified the issues for them and helped them find answers to their questions. Happily, many of them became serious and diligent readers after conversion. But for those of us who write or want to write evangelistic books, this was a sobering finding.

- The so-called “new atheism” is real and growing among this age group. But most of the converts out of this background admit that, for them, it was more of a persona than a deep intellectual conviction. Compassion from Christians and friendship during crises pointed them to God more often than philosophical arguments.

- The questions have changed. Christians used to feel the need to defend the authority and inerrancy of the Bible, the historicity of the resurrection, and the uniqueness of Jesus to unsaved inquirers. Today the questions are:

“Why are Christians so homophobic?” (iterated in a variety of ways as the biggest objection to responding to the gospel!)

“If I believe what you believe, do I have to become judgmental, too?”

“Why are Christians so weird?”

“Do I have to be against science, evolution, abortion, and gay marriage to become a Christian? If so, I’m not interested.”

- A loving community of Christians who seemed to “have a purpose,” “be accepting of others,” “express love,” and “not be cynical” was a common thread through most of the stories. For some, coming from unloving, dangerous, or blatantly harmful home situations, the church provided a refuge beyond their wildest imaginations.

- We, the church and all our outreach ministries, need to do a better job with clearly articulating the gospel message. Many students had moving emotional experiences or made firm commitments to stop certain behaviors or felt loved by a community of believers in ways that healed painful wounds of their dysfunctional families’ messes. But I’m not totally sure they were regenerated by the power of God made manifest through the death and resurrection of Jesus, the Messiah. The need for deep, thoughtful, penetrating Biblical teaching is no less urgent than ever.

Randy Newman has been with the staff of Campus Crusade for Christ since 1980. Find out more at his blog, Integration Points.

Talking to Yourself

Talking to yourself is not always crazy. In fact, quite often it is downright essential for mental health. Becoming fluent in positive, healthy, truthful, Scripture-saturated internal dialogue should be a high priority for all of us. Talking to yourself is an important life-skill that requires practice, careful consideration, and perseverance.

The New Testament exhorts us to “set our minds on things above” (Colossians 3:2), to “think about” things which are “true… noble… right… pure… lovely… admirable… excellent or praiseworthy” (Philippians 4:8), and to “consider” certain truths about ourselves that we might not want to believe (see Romans 6:11). The Old Testament admonitions to meditate on God’s word (e.g., Psalms 1:2) require far more moment-by-moment focus than just a daily reading of the Bible for a few minutes.

At certain times (when wrestling with unrelenting pain, encountering persecution, struggling with doubt, or various other trials), the need for persistent internal dialogue rises to the level of urgent. We must win arguments with ourselves because the alternatives can spiral in terribly destructive directions.

Recently, I found a helpful (and rather humorous) written out internal dialogue that C.S. Lewis penned. It is one of four “scraps” found in God in the Dock, a collection of Lewis’ writings about theology and ethics. Apparently, this short paragraph appeared in a church’s magazine. But one has to wonder if Lewis might have been experimenting with a form that could have expanded into a whole book full of such internal conversations. In some ways, the fuller work might have proven to be as helpful in handling internal struggles as The Screwtape Letters has been for dealing with external attacks from our adversary.

Have you ever found yourself in need of the kind of internal argument Lewis spells out here?

‘You are always dragging me down,’ said I to my Body. ‘Dragging you down!’ replied my Body. ‘Well I like that! Who taught me to like tobacco and alcohol? You, of course, with your idiotic adolescent idea of being “grown-up”. My palate loathed both at first: but you would have your way. Who put an end to all those angry and revengeful thoughts last night? Me, of course, by insisting on going to sleep. Who does his best to keep you from talking too much and eating too much by giving you dry throats and headaches and indigestion? Eh?’ ‘And what about sex?’ said I. ‘Yes, what about it?’ retorted the Body. ‘If you and your wretched imagination would leave me alone I’d give you no trouble. That’s Soul all over; you give me orders and then blame me for carrying them out.’

Certainly the tone of these conversations will vary, depending on temperament. But none of us is exempt from the need for some form of such exchanges.

Of course, if you prefer to do this out loud, I’d recommend judicious care in choice of location.

The Question Behind the Question

I’ve been interviewing a lot of new Christians to hear how God has worked to bring them to the Savior. Their stories encourage me greatly. Several recurring themes emerge. Mostly, I hear of the improbable nature of God breaking through to people who seem the least likely to be interested, open, or ready.

One pattern intrigues me. I often hear of people asking one question but really seeking an answer to something else. Underneath the iceberg lies something far bigger.

An illustration may help me express this.

One man told me of a Bible study he attended for months before trusting in Christ. The study was designed for people just like him – those who knew little about the Bible but were open enough to come every week to wrestle with the text. They walked through the gospel of Mark, asking who Jesus was, what faith looks like, and why God works the way he does.

In the course of my interviewing these new converts, I always ask if there was any one question or objection they felt they needed to have resolved before believing. You can imagine the common roadblocks: “What about evolution?” “Why is there so much evil and suffering?” “Isn’t the Bible full of contradictions?”

I asked this man if he had any major questions. Here’s how he responded.

“No… not really… well, wait a minute. Yeah, I can think of one. You know that part in the Bible where Jesus cast the demons into the pigs? When we read that, I was like, ‘What’s up with that? What’s Jesus got against pigs?’”

I must confess, as he told me this, I wondered, “Really? That’s your big objection? A bunch of pigs was stopping you from experiencing eternal life?” I said none of those things. Instead, I asked him how his Bible study leader answered his question.

“Well… at first he said he wasn’t sure.”

That’s actually a good start, I thought. Admitting we don’t know the answer to every question may be a great evangelistic aid. Too many non-Christians think we’re arrogant know-it-alls. Admitting we’re not sure of something helps break down barriers.

“Then he told me that the story of the demon and the pigs tells us at least two things. It shows that demons aren’t to be messed with. And it kind of implies that there’s something radically different between being a person and being a pig.”

“Did that resolve it for you?” I asked him.

“Yeah… well, it answered it enough. Y’see, you need to know where I was coming from. If I had asked that question at the church I went to when I was growing up, they would have told me to not ask such a question, that some things are just mysteries, and you just have to ‘believe in Jesus’ and he’ll take away all your questions. That always seemed stupid to me. So, when this Bible study leader gave me a fairly intelligent answer, I figured that his faith wasn’t stupid.”

I’m not sure he had put all those pieces of his story together before he recounted this moment in his journey. I noted that his real objection was far bigger than concern for swine.

And this point is worth considering: Quite often the “presenting problem” is just the tip of an iceberg. The question behind the question may be far larger. It may be, as it was for this man, “Is your faith a stupid faith that tells people not to ask questions?”

The gospel already carries a significant stumbling block that we dare not eliminate or minimize – the need to repent of sin and acknowledge that we have no righteousness of our own. But we can clear the way for receptivity of that good news by listening for the question behind the question and responding to both. What starts out as a discussion about pigs may lead to far bigger things.

Music in the Life of the Believer

I’ve been mulling over and reading about the intersection of music and theology. To be more precise, I’ve wondered about how music can play a part in the life of a Christian to help him or her be more devoted to God, more transformed by the gospel, and more in love with the God who created us to love him with all our being.

Martin Luther said “next to the Word of God, music deserves the highest praise.” From a rather different vantage point, Leonard Bernstein said about Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony “Beethoven… leaves us… with the feeling that something is right in the world, that something checks throughout, something that follows its own laws consistently, something we can trust, that will never let us down.”

It seems that music serves as a powerful antidote to the pure naturalism that prevails in much of our world today. It’s hard to believe we’re just molecules surrounded by matter when we hear a Bach cantata, a Charlie Parker improvisation, or a Nickel Creek riff.

Biologist and philosopher Lewis Thomas was once asked what one artifact we should send out into space as evidence of human achievement. “I would vote for Bach, all of Bach, streamed out into space, over and over again,” he suggested. Then added ruefully, “We would be bragging, of course.”

I am helped a great deal by Jeremie Begbie’s writings and videos. He makes a helpful distinction between thinking about music from a theological perspective (e.g., what does music tell us about God or about our relationship to God?) and experiencing theology through music. The first topic is probably what I’ve been talking about so far in this blog.

Here are just a few thoughts about the second topic—experiencing theology through music. Again, to be a bit more precise, these ideas are about how music can play a sanctifying or deepening role in the life of a Christian.

  1. Music can connect us to beauty, which could remind us of the way God originally created the world—good, without the ravages and damages of sin and the fall. Music can prompt deeper worship of the God who created all things merely by uttering words. (Note that God used sound to create!)
  1. Music can serve as a preventative against reductionism—the tendency to think of anything in just one dimension. For example, we can think of people as “just” alternatives to loneliness or solitude. We can think of work as “just” a means to a paycheck. We can think of praying as “just” a way to get God to do things for us. The complexities of music force us to see richness in other things—people, activities, tasks, etc. As we close our eyes and explore the whole of music, which is so much greater than the sum of its parts, we attune our minds to seek similar complexity elsewhere.
  1. Music can heighten our experience of tension and release. How this happens in music, I hope, is obvious. Certain pieces of music create a sense of “unresolvedness” and, in some cases (e.g., the final movement of Sibelius’ fifth symphony) extend so long that when the resolution finally comes, the exhale feels monumental. In a parallel way, the Bible creates a tension that is only resolved by the cross. It’s the tension between holiness (God’s) and sin (ours). We long for righteousness and goodness, and we resonate with it to a certain extent. But we also feel a tension because we also resonate with the notion that something’s just not right with the world and with us. That tension is only resolved as God’s judgment and grace meet at Calvary. God’s righteous requirement for atonement is satisfied. God’s love provides that atonement. He is both the just and the justifier. Listening to music that extends the tension and releases it can help us appreciate the gospel.
  1. Music can increase our longing for the consummation of the ages, the final stage of God’s four chapter drama of Creation-Fall-Redemption-Consummation. When a piece of music ends by restating a theme it introduced at the beginning, we find ourselves at home. Yet, that “at-home-ness” seems even better for having been away. And yet, that “at-home-ness” leaves a longing that no piece of music can satisfy.

As C. S. Lewis put it in The Weight of Glory, “The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.”

I hope to return to this topic again and again in future blogs.

Randy Newman has been with the staff of Campus Crusade for Christ since 1980 and currently serves with Faculty Commons, their ministry to university professors. Randy is a Jewish Believer in Jesus and is the former editor of The Messiah-On-Campus Bulletin. He is the author of numerous articles and books including Questioning Evangelism: Engaging People's Hearts the Way Jesus Did and Bringing the Gospel Home: Witnessing to Family Members, Close Friends, and Others Who Know You Well.

Many Motivations: One Ultimate Goal

A common theme in my blogs is “thoughtful faith.” This kind of faith allows for complexity where the Scriptures give complex insight about various aspects of life. While our flesh and our culture may push us towards lazy thinking or overly-simplistic explanations for nuanced realities, we should resist.

We need this kind of rich reflection when it comes to considering motivations for holiness. Some argue for holiness simply out of obligation. “God calls us to be holy as he is holy…so just do it!” Others appeal only to gratitude and shun efforts of discipline as “mere legalism.”

Kevin DeYoung in his recent book The Hole in our Holiness shows us that God’s word offers many motivations for holiness. I found his entire book to be quite challenging but also very encouraging. In chapter four of his book, he lists over two dozen motivations for holiness. I believe his list is worth serious reflection and diligent application.

I’ve copied below these motivations preceded by his introduction to the list.

“So what might be good motivation for holiness in a certain situation with a particular person facing a specific sin may not be the best prescription for someone else in different circumstances. Jesus has many medicines for our motivation. He is not like a high school athletic trainer who tells everyone to “ice it and take a couple ibuprofen.” He’s not some quack doctor who always prescribes bloodletting. “High cholesterol? Here’s a leach. Overactive bladder? I got a leach for that. Gout? A couple leaches will take the edge off.” The good news is that the Bible is a big, diverse, wise book, and in it you can find a variety of prescriptions to encourage obedience to God’s commands.

Here are just some of the ways in which the Bible motivates us to pursue holiness:

Duty. “The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man” (Ecclesiastes 12:13).

God knows all and sees all. “For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil” (Ecclesiastes 12:14).

It’s right. “Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right” (Ephesians 6:1).

It’s for our good. “Be careful to obey all these words that I command you, that it may go well with you and with your children after you forever, when you do what is good and right in the sight of the LORD your God.” (Deuteronomy 12:28).

God’s example. “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you” (Ephesians 4:32).

Christ’s example. “And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Ephesians 5:2).

Assurance. “Therefore, brothers, be all the more diligent to confirm your calling and election, for if you practice these qualities you will never fall” (2 Peter 1:10).

Being effective as a Christian. “For if these qualities “are yours and are increasing, they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. (2 Peter 1:8).

Jesus’ return. “Since all these things are thus to be dissolved, what sort of people ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set on fire and dissolved, and the heavenly bodies will melt as they burn!” (2 Peter 3:11-12).

The world is not our home. “Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul” (1 Peter 2:11).

To win over our neighbors. “Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation” (1 Peter 2:12).

To lift up a nation. “Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a reproach to any people” (Proverbs 14:34).

For the public good. “You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored?” (Matthew 5:13).

For the sake of our prayers. “Likewise, husbands, live with your wives in an understanding way, showing honor to the woman as the weaker vessel, since they are heirs with you of the grace of life, so that your prayers may not be hindered” (1 Peter 3:7).

The surety of our inheritance. “For you had compassion on those in prison, and you joyfully accepted the plundering of your property, since you knew that you yourselves had a better possession and an abiding one” (Hebrews 10:34).

The communion of the saints. “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us” (Hebrews 12:1).

The good examples of others. “Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith” (Hebrews 13:7).

The bad examples of others. “Now these things took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did” (1 Corinthians 10:6).

We were created for good works. “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2:10).

God is the master and we are his servants. “So you also, when you have done all that you were commanded, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty” (Luke 17:10).

The work of God. “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:2-3).

To please God. “Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God” (Hebrews 13:16).

To avoid the devil’s snares. “Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil” (Ephesians 4:26-27).

For an eternal reward. “They are to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, thus storing up treasure for themselves as a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is truly life” (1 Timothy 6:18-19).

Because Christ has all authority. “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:18-20).

Love for Christ. “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15).

Fullness of joy. “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full” (John 15:10-11).

To experience God’s favor. “A good man obtains favor from the LORD, but a man of evil devices he condemns” (Proverbs 12:2).

Our union with Christ. “For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin” (Romans 6:5-6).

Whatever is Lovely...

Philippians 4:8 admonishes us to think about things which are true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent or praiseworthy. If you’ve ever sought to apply that kind of mindfulness, you may have emphasized (as I have tended to) so-called spiritual things. And you’d have good reason to do so. Most of the terms employed by the Apostle point in the direction of our relationship with God through the saving work of our Messiah.

Things that are “true” line up with what God has revealed through his word. The “noble” things become incarnated through practices encouraged in the book of Proverbs. That which is “right” conforms to the standards set by God’s character. “Pure” things show up in moral behavior that brings glory, rather than shame, to the name of our God. The vocabulary Paul selected for this verse has resonance with and allusion to teaching found throughout the Old Testament.

But two of the terms, “lovely” and “admirable,” come from other sources. Both words appear only once in the New Testament. Gordon Fee, in his excellent commentary says, “With this word [lovely] and the next [admirable] we step off New Testament turf altogether onto the more unfamiliar ground of Hellenism—but not hellenistic moralism…. This word has to do primarily with what people consider “loveable,” in the sense of having a friendly disposition toward.”

In other words, part of the mental discipline of mindfulness or even “taking every thought captive” could include thoughtful appreciation for displays of beauty or order or goodness that God has woven into our world through his general revelation of creation. To be sure, we should be careful never to elevate general revelation above God’s special revelation of his word. But to dismiss physical beauty or any pointer to goodness, grace, and design, would be a failure to appreciate God’s hand in all of life.

Regarding this word “lovely,” Fee goes on to say, “Here is the word that throws the net broadly, so as to include conduct that has little to do with morality in itself, but is recognized as admirable by the world at large. In common parlance, this word could refer to a Beethoven symphony, as well as to the work of Mother Teresa among the poor of Calcutta; the former is lovely and enjoyable, the latter is admirable as well as moral.”

After hearing his mention of a Beethoven symphony, I felt inclined to add a long list that includes things like a Dvorak aria, a Van Gogh landscape, a Monet footbridge, a Richard Wilbur poem, a vibrant sunset, Edwardo’s Chicago style deep dish elephant garlic pizza, or even the way a dazzling white azalea plays off the earthen brown deck in my back yard.

Does this have any connection to the task of evangelism? I believe it does. Some of our non-Christian friends have a great deal of difficulty relating to our mentioning of “a personal relationship with God” or anything that sounds “religious.” But they do see and experience God’s general revelation all the time, even if they don’t acknowledge the Giver behind the gift. Perhaps our comments about how “lovely” things are could pave the way to discussions of where those things came from and why we, as image-bearers of the creator, find such things so worthy of praise.

Randy Newman has been with the staff of Campus Crusade for Christ since 1980 and currently serves with Faculty Commons, their ministry to university professors. Randy is a Jewish Believer in Jesus and is the former editor of The Messiah-On-Campus Bulletin. He is the author of numerous articles and books including Questioning Evangelism: Engaging People's Hearts the Way Jesus Did and Bringing the Gospel Home: Witnessing to Family Members, Close Friends, and Others Who Know You Well.

Reading C.S. Lewis (Carefully)

In some recent blog debates, some people have defended unorthodox theology, seeking support from C.S. Lewis. “Lewis believed some questionable things and people don’t reject him,” they reason.

It has caused me to reflect on why I like Lewis so much, even when I think he occasionally misses the mark.

I read C.S. Lewis for at least three reasons. The obvious one is that Lewis, like no one else, helps me understand things in ways I hadn’t before. Second, I find him to be a sheer delight to read. It is rare that I read Lewis without at least one chuckle along the way. But my favorite reason is that Lewis trains my mind to think in ways I would not otherwise think. It’s not just that he teaches me how to understand topics about which he has written. He helps me see patterns, principles, and insights about a host of topics of which he never wrote.

Lewis was spared the world of blogs, text messaging, Twitter, and the like. I can only imagine what Screwtape would have said about these modern wonders! But his insights about chronological snobbery or the priority of old books or the importance of keeping second things second shed light on social networking techniques and many other mainstays of the twenty-first century.

He’s not just a tour guide pointing out sights to see. Lewis gives me lenses through which to see.

The author of Mere Christianity taught me how to evaluate arguments against the faith, even ones he never addressed. The preacher of The Weight of Glory enables me to see joy in the midst of disappointments–even post 9/11 varieties. The educator who penned The Abolition of Man changes the way I read The Chronicle of Higher Education. And the dreamer who invented Narnia helps me rejoice in a world that, at times, feels like it’s “always winter and never Christmas.”

But he’s not perfect. And so, Lewis also trains me, ironically, to not accept everything any individual human writer offers. On some points, Lewis was just plain wrong–no matter how eloquently he worded it. For example, he suggests the possibility of salvation through other faiths–a position soundly rejected by evangelicals for many decades, even centuries. He sometimes relied on logic more than Scripture and that got him into theological trouble. So… his writings are not inerrant. I know only one book that meets that criteria. I read that book more than I read Lewis. He would approve. It’s an old book.

Randy Newman has been with the staff of Campus Crusade for Christ since 1980 and currently serves with Faculty Commons, their ministry to university professors. Randy is a Jewish Believer in Jesus and is the former editor of The Messiah-On-Campus Bulletin. He is the author of numerous articles and books including Questioning Evangelism: Engaging People's Hearts the Way Jesus Did and Bringing the Gospel Home: Witnessing to Family Members, Close Friends, and Others Who Know You Well.

3 Strategies for Witnessing to Family over the Holidays

Many of us will be gathering with family during the next few weeks and some of us feel pressure to “make the most” of these times. Specifically, some feel the need to “make sure to get the gospel in” to our conversations. It’s worth pausing and thinking through some possible strategies for these crucial reunions.

Strategy #1: Convey love as well as truth.

In talking to many people about the complex issue of family, I’ve found that, when it comes to our relatives, love is often assumed but seldom expressed. At least, it’s not expressed in ways that people actually feel loved. “I love you” may be tacked on to the end of a phone call. Or an obligatory “love” might be placed before our name at the bottom of an email. But do our relatives actually sense that we truly care about them? We may be tempted to say, “Of course he knows I love him. He’s my brother.” But over time, we may need to adapt our expressions to fit new stages of life. When we’re together this year, we may need to break old habits of just saying the same old clichés we’ve said many times in previous years. Listening, asking questions, expressing empathy, and finding common ground may be more important (and more difficult) than quoting a Bible verse or handing them a tract.

Strategy #2: Consider proclaiming some of the truth before delivering the whole truth.

I know this sounds counterintuitive. In fact, to some, this may sound like downright heresy! Some of us have been trained to “make sure to state the whole gospel” or “their blood will be on our hands.” To me, that sounds a bit like a lack of trust in the sovereignty of God. In our day of constant contact (through email, texts, tweets, etc.), we can trust God to string together a partial conversation at Christmas dinner to a follow up discussion the next day, to a phone conversation, to numerous emails, etc. Some of our unsaved family members and friends need to digest parts of the gospel (“How can God be both loving and holy?”) before they can take the next bite (“Jesus’ death resolves the tension of God’s love and his holiness.”).

Strategy #3: Don’t be a grinch.

The temptations to whine about the commercialization of Christmas, to complain that our world has forgotten that “Jesus is the reason for the season,” or to campaign for more Christ-centered Christmas music on the radio may turn out to be just as annoying as one more chorus of “Jingle Bell Rock.” Besides, for people who don’t know Jesus, he’s not the reason for their season—and yet some of them still like this time of year. Perhaps a more positive attitude and strategy may make greater headway. Join them in their enjoyment of the tree, the lights, the food, and talk about the wonder that God sent his son as all parts of a glorious time of year. Find ways to insert snippets (not entire sermons) about forgiveness, grace, eternity, or hope in between praising Aunt Sue for the delicious cookies and thanking Grandpa for not bringing another fruitcake.

This is a wonder-full season. Let’s do all that we can to make it attractive to those we love, pray for, and see only a few times a year.

Randy Newman has been with the staff of Campus Crusade for Christ since 1980 and currently serves with Faculty Commons, their ministry to university professors. Randy is a Jewish Believer in Jesus and is the former editor of The Messiah-On-Campus Bulletin. He is the author of numerous articles and books including Questioning Evangelism: Engaging People's Hearts the Way Jesus Did and Bringing the Gospel Home: Witnessing to Family Members, Close Friends, and Others Who Know You Well.

Yadah: Giving More than Thanks

Our family concludes our Thanksgiving meal every year by sharing what we’re thankful for. I look forward to that moment all year long. We relive great moments, echo our notes of thanks, and nod our heads in agreement. And we smile.

Each year, it seems, the experience grows richer. And thus it should. The Biblical notion of giving thanks digs deeper than merely making a list. It is worth reflecting on the Hebrew word yadah, often translated “give thanks,” to see all that God has in mind for us. There’s more to it than we might think.

The Hebrew language reveals an inseparable link between giving thanks and offering praise. Indeed, the two terms are often paired through parallelism in the Psalms. Thus the two phrases in the opening of Psalms 92 are more similar than our English ears might hear: “It is good to give thanks to the Lord, to sing praises to your name, O Most High.”

The root of the word means “to acknowledge or confess” and can be equally employed for confession of sin, offering of thanks, and lifting of praise. When you yadah, you acknowledge both the giver and the gift. In fact, the focus is more on the generosity, grace, and abundance of the source than on the joy, pleasure, or gratitude of the recipient. Still, the term encompasses both sides of the exchange.

Hebrew scholar Claus Westermann says, “In the Old Testament… there is as yet no verb that means only ‘to thank.’ Hodah, [a form of yadah] which is usually translated as ‘to thank,’ is not used in the Old Testament a single time for an expression of thanks between men. Thus it is clear from the start that this hodah cannot be equated with our ‘to thank,’ which can be directed equally to God and to man…. The expression of thanks to God is included in praise, it is a way of praising.

And so our listing of what we’re thankful for should find its way to more than mere list making. It should point and lift our hearts to the Giver behind the gifts. We should exalt, bless, glorify, honor, adore, pay tribute to, revere, and magnify the God who chooses to pour out blessing upon blessing.

I have often quoted C.S. Lewis who distinguishes between gratitude and adoration. Enlisting the help of a rare word, coruscations (which means something like flashes of light), Lewis writes in Letters to Malcolm:

“Gratitude exclaims, very properly, ‘How good of God to give me this.’ Adoration says, “What must be the quality of that Being whose far-off and momentary coruscations are like this!’ One’s mind runs back up the sunbeam to the sun.”

His distinction is helpful but only if, once the difference is understood, we reunite gratitude and praise in their Biblical union. They feed off one another in ways that make us increasingly grateful and doxological with each breath. Surely, our minds and whole beings should run “back up the sunbeam to the sun.”

Happy Thanksgiving.

Deeper Answers for Deeper Questions

Are there unanswerable questions? Should we opt to not answer some questions and choose instead to just “accept some things by faith?”

Billy Graham faced this dilemma early in his career as an evangelist when his close friend Chuck Taylor barraged him with questions about the Bible. Taylor had gone off to a seminary that doubted the authority and inerrancy of the Bible and wanted Graham to explain why the Bible contained what appeared to be contradictions, problems regarding history and science, and other thorny issues.

Graham writes of his struggle in his autobiography, Just As I Am:

“I got up and took a walk. The moon was out. The shadows were long in the San Bernardino Mountains surrounding the retreat center. Dropping to my knees there in the woods, I opened the Bible at random on a tree stump in front of me….

The exact wording of my prayer is beyond recall, but it must have echoed my thoughts: “O God! There are many things in this book I do not understand. There are many problems with it for which I have no solution. There are many seeming contradictions. There are some areas in it that do not seem to correlate with modern science. I can’t answer some of the philosophical and psychological questions Chuck and others are raising.… Father, I am going to accept this as Thy Word – by faith! I’m going to allow faith to go beyond my intellectual questions and doubts, and I will believe this to be Your inspired Word” (page 139).

Some biographers and fans of Graham have pointed to this moment as a watershed that led to his success. Others have lifted his example up as one all Christians should adopt.

I find the issue to be more complex. I realize I may be on thin ice to question someone used by God in such miraculous ways as Billy Graham. But cautiously and with tremendous reverence for the way God did anoint Graham’s ministry, I want to suggest that his example may not be universal. In other words, what undeniably worked for Graham may not work for all Christians. Some people need deeper answers and they should be encouraged to seek them out. One of my prayers for this blog is for it to be a source of encouragement for those kinds of Christians.

Some want further explanation about how Scripture squares with science and history. Some want to wrestle with apparent contradictions until an explanation resolves the tension. Tragically, some have been told they are sinning by even asking such questions. They’ve been told to stop being so intellectual and “accept things by faith.”

Let me try to put it another way. I think there may be other options besides Graham’s and Taylor’s. Graham accepted the Bible by faith. Taylor demanded explanations that fit his intellect and, when he didn’t get them, he rejected the Bible.

I want to quickly add that everyone needs to accept, with humility, the limits of their own intellect. At some point (and it varies for different people) we need to say, “Just because I don’t understand something does not mean there is no answer out there.” Or “Perhaps we need to do more research historically, scientifically, archeologically, or with other academic disciplines before we can understand certain issues.” (By the way, good scientists do this all the time. They humbly admit that more research needs to be done and, until then, we should withhold judgment or refrain from firm conclusions.)

The good news for those who want to dig deeper is that resources do exist to help. For Biblical issues, recent commentaries are breaking new ground in levels of understanding and dismantling arguments that have lofted themselves above the scriptures. For apologetic questions, Christian philosophers and theologians are producing written arguments that are worth the effort for those who want more than they can find in footnotes or clichés. One very helpful resource with a growing number of articles is The Christ on Campus Initiative at The Gospel Coalition’s website.

See: http://thegospelcoalition.org/cci/

There is much more to be said about this important issue. Too many sincere questioners (and I do admit that many are not sincere) have been turned off by shallow answers to questions that deserve better responses. Let’s offer thoughtful faith to those who are looking for it.

Close Enough Isn't Good Enough

I found college students to interview for my research about how people become Christians by asking campus ministers to introduce me to students they knew who had come to faith within the last two years through their ministries. I had delightful interactions with staff of Campus Crusade, Intervarsity, Campus Outreach, Christian Union, and other great ministries. They contacted students first and asked them if it would be OK for “a guy doing doctoral research” to email them and set up a time for an interview.

Thus, I only initiated with people who had already expressed willingness to tell their story about how they became a Christian. I, therefore, avoided a common problem in research – hearing from people who really don’t fit into the “sample” you’re hoping for. I had a very high likelihood of success in finding people who truly were born again and had come to that milestone within the last two years.

Still, I did find myself, on a few occasions, listening to someone tell me about their conversion wondering if, in fact, they really knew the Lord. Granted, the very fact that they were new to the faith meant they did not know all the terminology or the best ways to articulate the gospel. That was part of the design of my research. I wanted to hear how people described their experience before they learned how to “sanitize” the message or use common expressions instead of choosing their own terms.

Even taking into account their lack of training and their newness to the faith, some people spoke about their experiences in ways that made me wonder if they ever really grasped the centrality and the uniqueness of the cross.

For example, a few people told me how they stopped doing certain things (getting drunk, having sex, taking drugs, etc.) and started “living my life the way God wants me to.” A few people told of very emotional experiences on a retreat where they were overcome with tears or joy or warmth or love from other people but never mentioned Jesus in any way other than “he just seemed really…like, y’know, there…and accepting of me just the way I am.” And some others compared how they used to be so unhappy, depressed, suicidal, lonely, fearful, etc. and now after meeting such great Christians, they’re never unhappy, depressed, suicidal, lonely, fearful, etc.

I followed up their stories with probes about who they thought Jesus was or what they understood about his death. In most cases, they expressed a clear understanding of the gospel. (Although I did still wonder why that didn’t make it into the initial recounting of their “how-I-became-a-Christian” story.) Some of them showed such a little amount of understanding about the cross, forgiveness, atonement for sin, etc. that I took out a piece of paper, drew a diagram of my understanding of the gospel, and asked them how that compared to what they believed. How delightful that “research” became a great opportunity for evangelism (even if it did slow down my work, since I decided not to include these interviews toward my goal of 40).

My point is this:

Lesson 16 in my list of “Evangelism Lessons for the 21st Century” is that evangelism training must include deep reflection on the nature of true conversion.

This is nothing new. Jesus told parables that included mention of seed scattered on rocky soil that grew up and then died away. In fact, two out of the four soils in that parable (according to most commentators I’ve consulted) might have looked like “good soil” but turned out to be just as bad as the one where the seed fell beside the road and never took root. Jonathan Edwards and others have written extensively on the dire need to distinguish between genuine and false conversions.

But our day and age may need greater attention to this problem because we, in our postmodern milieu, downplay the importance of words, overvalue the validity of emotional experiences, and have limited (if not crippled) capacities to read, understand, and apply the Bible. We use words incorrectly, vaguely, or poorly, shrugging our shoulders with “whatever” “like” and “yeah!” and wonder why our understanding is as cloudy as our vocabulary.

I realize this opens up several cans of theological worms. I also know that different schools of theological thought have very different ways of interpreting these experiences. I won’t attempt to sort that out here. I do believe that all evangelicals, regardless of denomination or tradition, would agree that true conversion involves more than a warm feeling, a change in behavior, or a new social arrangement. We would hope those things would flow from a new acceptance of the gospel. But we should also distinguish them from the realities of saving faith.

At bare minimum, we need to think carefully about terminology. Some expressions are vague and unhelpful in proclaiming the gospel. We need to wrestle with what we mean and what people may hear when we say:

“Ask Jesus into your heart.”

“Become a follower of Jesus.”

“Turn from sin.”

“Be born again.”

Hearing how others explain the truths of Scripture, describe their own experiences, or instruct us in how to proclaim the gospel is crucial in our day and always. Reading books intended for believers and non-believers, learning from people with experience in evangelizing distinct groups of people, and insisting on the importance of proper use of words should become part of our evangelism training curricula in the 21st century.

We dare not offer assurance to people who have come close but have still missed the gospel. The stakes are too high.

The Evangelism Recipe

Almost, if not all, of the students I interviewed about their conversions recounted a process that took weeks, months, or years to unfold. They spoke of gradual realizations, sequential surrenders, or incremental levels of understanding. As a result, I think we need to consider evangelistic strategies that use a gradual approach rather than a single delivery system. And we need to train Christians to develop skills for these longer-term strategies.

I’ve written elsewhere comparing evangelism to following a recipe. I think this can help people move from unbelief to belief, even if it takes longer than we’d like.

If you’ve ever followed a recipe you know it contains two parts. The top part lists the ingredients. The bottom part explains the procedure. If you only had the top part – the list of ingredients (e.g. 1 cup of flour, 1 cup of sugar, the largest bag of chocolate chips you can find, 4 pounds of butter, etc.) – it’s unlikely you’d produce anything worth eating.

True, luck might be on your side and just throwing all the ingredients in a bowl, mixing them together and plopping them in an oven might yield delicious chocolate chip cookies. But you’re far more likely to produce something edible if you mix certain ingredients together and let them sit, preheat the oven to the best temperature, grease the cookie sheet, and do all the steps experienced chefs recommend. There are recipes where some ingredients need to marinate overnight in a refrigerator before being added to other ingredients. It’s not just having the right ingredients. You also need to combine them in the right order, in the right proportions, using the right settings, etc. or the results won’t be what you drooled over when you watched The Food Network.

I wonder if certain “ingredients” of the gospel need to marinate in some people’s minds before we add other parts of our message.

For example, the cross resolves a crucial tension that some people feel. They sense there is such a thing as righteousness or holiness, even if they don’t use those theological terms. They also sense they fail to live up to such standards, even if they can’t say the word “sin.” They wonder how God can uphold his righteous standard and still love them when they think and do such terrible things. For such people, the cross is the most wonderful resolution they could ever ask for.

But many people don’t feel that tension. Thus, the cross seems unnecessary, irrelevant, or just plain weird. They would never say that. But I’ve seen quite a few puzzled looks on people’s faces when I’ve tried to tell them they need something as drastic as the death of the son of God. They can’t figure out why it’s such a big deal.

– Perhaps we need to preheat the oven by asking how they deal with two competing issues – the distinct sense there is a standard of goodness and the painful realization that we don’t live up to it.

– Maybe the next step of the recipe comes after people try to be “good enough” and fail enough times that they cry out for something better than more effort, new resolutions, or longer to-do lists.

– Maybe the combining of ingredients happens when we help people see that their longings for intimacy or beauty or cleansing aren’t psychological disorders but things planted in their hearts by their creator.

This kind of recipe-pre-evangelism can take many forms. I think it’s worth exploring. Like good recipes, it may take some experimenting, some flops and failures. But, then again, we may discover ways to connect to people who have dismissed our message for a very long time.

Randy Newman has been with the staff of Campus Crusade for Christ since 1980 and currently serves with Faculty Commons, their ministry to university professors. Randy is a Jewish Believer in Jesus and is the former editor of The Messiah-On-Campus Bulletin. He is the author of numerous articles and books including Questioning Evangelism: Engaging People's Hearts the Way Jesus Did and Bringing the Gospel Home: Witnessing to Family Members, Close Friends, and Others Who Know You Well.