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.
The lofty notion of revival has taken center stage in my prayer life as of late. I’m sure I’m motivated in part by the disturbing stories that dominate our news. And God has guided me to some books that have underlined the need for such prayer.
Walter Kaiser’s book, Revive us Again: Biblical Principles for Revival Today, investigates numerous outpourings of God’s blessing that have been recorded in the Bible. Why such an approach seems so novel may indicate just how far we’ve slid away from spiritual vitality! Reading Kaiser’s commentary on God’s works of “refreshment” in the past is remarkably encouraging.
I also appreciated a hopeful comment in Ross Douthat’s otherwise disheartening book, Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics. The book is well worth reading and helps put into perspective how we’ve gotten into some of the messes we are in. But without the belief in God’s ability to shake up his church, this book would be tough to wade through.
Here’s what Douthat wrote in his concluding chapter:
“It would be heresy and hubris to assume that a renewal of either [the church or our country] is inevitable. Christianity’s overall resilience hasn’t prevented particular Christendoms from decaying and dissolving, and Jesus never said that the gates of hell would not prevail against the United States of America. But to hope for a revival is every believer’s obligation. And perhaps, just perhaps, a more robust and rigorous American Christianity is something that even non-believers should consider hoping for as well.”
The best book I’ve read recently about revival is Collin Hansen and John Woodbridge’s A God-Sized Vision: Revival Stories that Stretch and Stir. Knowing that God’s people have faced even darker times than we see today and hearing how God poured out an unusual flood of evangelistic fruit, transformational worship, and anointed preaching can move even the most pessimistic saint towards expectant intercession.
I’ve written an article that explores how this might look on college campuses and beyond. I’ve entitled it The Next Campus Revival: A Prayerful Consideration and I’ve posted it here. I hope you’ll consider reading it and sharing it with others.
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.
During a recent study of the book of Acts, I was struck with the recurring emphasis on the irrepressibility of the gospel. Several commentators pointed out that Luke weaves in several “summary statements” that help the reader step back from the drama and see an overarching theme.
Consider these six key announcements:
Acts 6:7 So the word of God spread. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly, and a large number of priests became obedient to the faith.
Acts 9:31 Then the church throughout Judea, Galilee and Samaria enjoyed a time of peace. It was strengthened; and encouraged by the Holy Spirit, it grew in numbers, living in the fear of the Lord.
Acts 12:24 But the word of God continued to increase and spread.
Acts 16:5 So the churches were strengthened in the faith and grew daily in numbers.
Acts 19:20 In this way the word of the Lord spread widely and grew in power.
Acts 28:30 Boldly and without hindrance he preached the kingdom of God and taught about the Lord Jesus Christ.
As I discussed the book with others throughout a two-year-long study, we kept sensing that Luke’s agenda for writing the book was not only to inform Theophilus of all that had transpired (see Acts 1:1), but also to encourage all of us who “will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on [us] and… be… witnesses” throughout the world (see Acts 1:8).
When we face setbacks, as Peter and Paul and others (e.g., Stephen!) certainly did, we should not lose heart. When obstacles seem to slow things down (e.g. complaints, divisions, storms, snakes), we should remember that God’s word will go forth. When people threaten to persecute us (or vow never to eat or drink until they kill us – see Acts 23:14), we should not be surprised nor shrink back. The gospel is irrepressible.
Thus, while it almost always is disappointing to anyone who reads the book of Acts, it should not seem odd that the book ends without answering the question, “So whatever happened to Paul?” We know that Paul was beheaded… but we have to turn to sources outside the Bible for such information. Why is that?
The best answer I found both satisfies and unsettles: For Luke and all those who grasp his reason for writing, it is far more important to know what happens to the gospel than to know what happens to Paul. More pointedly, it is more helpful to know that the gospel will not be stopped than it is to hear what our future may be. God wants us to be more committed to His kingdom than to our well-being, to His glory than our comfort, to the eternal kingdom than to earthly ease.
The “lack of closure” at the end of the book of Acts is no mere editorial oversight. It adds emphasis to the unifying theme in no uncertain terms.
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, Integration Points.