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.

Complex People Desperately Need a Rich Gospel

The first lesson from my research about evangelism is that conversion is a communal experience. The second is that conversion is a multifaceted experience. Allow me to elaborate.

Many Christians think of conversion as primarily a cognitive experience. There is good reason for this. The Bible (a written book that needs to be read, understood, and applied—thus, implying a rather cognitive context for all aspects of our relationship with God) speaks about “believing,” “knowing,” “understanding,” and other words that all point toward our minds. But the Bible also describes a relationship with God in terms that are not primarily intellectual. We’re encouraged to “trust,” “seek,” “taste and see,” and other sensory endeavors. Jesus told Nicodemus that being born again is like the wind. “You hear its sound but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit” (John 3:8). This does not rule out the cognitive, but it doesn’t limit conversion to that realm either.

The students I interviewed spoke of their experiences as emotionally moving events or socially engaging experiences as well as intellectually educational realizations. Some of them had trouble finding the words to describe their experiences. Several got quite emotional while recounting their conversions. Using a technically refined computer program, I analyzed the transcripts of the students’ stories, categorizing terms and phrases as cognitive, emotional, or social. Within the “emotional” category, I placed the terms into over a dozen subcategories (e.g. joy, sadness, remorse, depression, relief, etc.). All forty stories included at least two out of the three dimensions—cognitive, emotional, and social. Most included all three with great variety of emotions.

On some level, this is not surprising at all. In fact, I can hear some of you responding to this with, “Well, duh!” But what strikes me is the discrepancy between the way the students described conversion and the way most evangelists present the gospel. We can imply conversion is only a matter of understanding and intellectual ascent. Some of us even downplay the emotions when we evangelize. We don’t want people to be ruled by emotions, but I wonder if we swing the pendulum too far in the other direction.

Perhaps a specific illustration will help. One young woman recounted how exhausted she was by the time she reached college. In her efforts to get accepted to college, she joined every activity her high school had to offer. She worked hard to get good grades, played several varsity sports, held offices in numerous clubs, and even volunteered outside of school. After her acceptance at her first choice, thanks to an impressive application, she began her freshman year with the same zeal to start building a good resumé for the job search four years in the future. By October, she was worn out. One night she heard someone (not the main speaker) at a Christian organization’s weekly meeting. She thought membership in a religious organization would look good on the resumé. The speaker read Jesus’ words, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” She couldn’t believe her ears. Someone was offering rest! That’s exactly what she desperately needed. She became a Christian less than a month later.

Please hear me carefully. I do not want to downplay the intellectual component of evangelism. Proclaiming the gospel is primarily a cognitive event. People need to understand and believe the truth of our message. But we should also appeal to other aspects of our personhood when we tell people the good news. It shouldn’t just sound like a logical argument that people can either accept or reject. Our gospel preaching (over a cup of coffee, in small group discussions, or from the pulpit) can also appeal to their need for rest, their hunger for meaning, their desire for connection, their remorse over sin, or a host of other aspects of what it means to be whole people.

For Biblical support of this multifaceted approach to evangelism, see D. A. Carson’s article, Motivations to Appeal to in Our Hearers When We Preach for Conversion. He identifies eight motivations found in the gospels and Acts:

  • 1) fear,
  • 2) the burden of guilt,
  • 3) shame,
  • 4) the need for “future grace”,
  • 5) the attractiveness of truth,
  • 6) a general, despairing sense of need,
  • 7) responding to grace and love, and
  • 8) a rather vague desire to be on the side of what is right, of what is from God, of what is Biblical, of what is clean, of what endures.

People are complex. The gospel is rich. Our evangelism should seek to connect the two. I’ll explore this further in the next lesson in my next blog.

Reaching People Takes a Community

This is the first of a series of blogs I plan to write about evangelism based on the research I conducted for my doctoral dissertation. I interviewed 40 college students who had come to faith within the past two years. I think some of my findings and conclusions may be helpful for pastors, campus ministers, and any Christian interested in reaching out with the unchanging gospel to a constantly changing culture.

I’ve entitled this series “21 Evangelism Lessons for the 21st Century” with a nod to a similarly titled chapter in Scott Burson and Jerry Walls’ book C. S. Lewis & Francis Schaeffer: Lessons for a New Century from the Most Influential Apologists of Our Time. Much of my thinking about evangelism has been shaped by Lewis and Schaeffer and this book helped deepen my appreciation for them. Burson and Walls’ book is a bit dated (copyright 1998), and you may not land where they do on several theological points; but it’s still worth reading as we try to adjust our outreach methods to people who connect with us less and less.

Lesson #1

Conversion is more of a communal experience than we may have considered in the past.

I do not mean that people convert in groups. The gospel must be believed and received individually. But some new Christians describe their conversion as the culmination of a series of interactions with many people, each one contributing in a distinct way. They first were attracted to the gospel (even if they couldn’t articulate it as such) by meeting a Christian down the hall. They then met more Christians who asked gospel-paving questions. They were given something to read by yet another Christian. They observed interactions between Christians at large gatherings. They heard a sermon preached by someone else. And the cast of characters just kept growing.

When asked, “What would you say were the most important factors that contributed toward your coming to faith?” the vast majority said “a friend” or “friends” or “community.”

This is no surprise to any of us who have been involved in campus ministry or other evangelistic efforts. But here’s what sounded different to me. The students made very little differentiation between the kinds of input they received. In other words, the late-night chat with Joey down the hall was just as important as a message they heard from a big name speaker at a conference. In fact, most of them couldn’t remember the names of those big name speakers, but they knew Joey’s name. Some even said that a conversation they had with a non-Christian influenced them more than anything they had read by a Christian author. (More about the role of books and reading in a future installment in this series).

Some even went further. They distrusted the experts (the pastors who preached sermons or the campus ministers who gave talks), but they accepted answers from peers. Credentials and polish were detriments. Sincerity and friendship trumped expertise.

There’s a lot we could say about this, but here’s just one application I want to promote: We need to do a better job equipping all Christians in the skills of evangelism and apologetics. Some of the things I heard from the new converts were vague, at best. The “answers” some of them received from peers were far from orthodox. If the most significant presentations of the gospel come from friends, we need to help those messengers understand, articulate, and defend the message with more clarity, more depth, and more support from the scriptures. There may have been a time when people had a pretty good idea what we meant when we said “a personal relationship with God” or “ask Jesus into your heart” or “give your life to the Lord,” but those days are gone (and those expressions weren’t all that good anyway).

Some aspects of our current world suggest resistance to the gospel or, at bare minimum, confusion about it. We should not be naïve and discount them. But behind closed dorm room doors or through Facebook messages or via tweets that link to URLs, many people may be more open than we think. We need to train as many Christians as possible to be prepared to give reasons for the hope we have. And the need for clarity has never been greater.

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.

The Miracle of Evangelism

I recently read Arnold Dallimore’s biography of George Whitefield. Prompted by a passing comment by Don Carson on a Gospel Coalition video, I decided to dig in, motivated by the fact that Crossway had recently released a condensed one volume paperback of the former two-volume, 1200+ page highly acclaimed version. Call me lazy, but I was scared off by the larger item but drawn in to the shorter one. (Now that I’ve finished the slim condensation, I hope to tackle the longer original. The story is that gripping).

Here are a few things that stood out to me, which I hope will encourage you, whether you have the gift of evangelism or, far more likely, venture into evangelism timidly as I do.

  1. Whitefield’s story blends two complementary realities—the sovereignty of God and the diligence of people. You can’t read about Whitefield’s ministry without marveling at the way God worked. He fashioned a man with a flair for the dramatic (13*), one eye that squinted (creating an especially convicting expression) (15), and a booming voice that could be heard by thousands (48). In the early days of Whitefield’s ministry, before he became extremely busy, he immersed himself in the study of the scriptures for hours and hours every day. Dallimore remarks, “When we shortly see him preaching forty and more hours per week with virtually no time whatsoever for preparation, we may look back upon these days and recognize that he was then laying up a store of knowledge on which he was able to draw amidst the tumult and haste of that later ministry” (22).
  1. Sometimes, God works in unusual ways to bring about revivals. We should never tire of asking him to do it again. On occasion, Whitefield walked outside to an empty field and began preaching. Inexplicably, people started coming to hear him—by the thousands! One February, “the coldest in memory,” Whitefield preached to a crowd of over 200 on a Saturday, 2000 the following Wednesday, and 4000 two days after that (46). Soon thereafter, he was holding some “thirty meetings a week in and around Bristol” (47) at a time when there was no form of electronic amplification. Later, even skeptical Ben Franklin admitted that Whitefield’s voice could be heard by 30,000 people (76).
  1. The preaching of the gospel also prompts opposition. Whitefield was hated (107), accused of being “a scandalous idolater” (in numerous printed pamphlets) (121, 145), physically attacked (133), shot at with guns (134), “nearly murdered” (138), threatened with assassination in a letter (186), and mocked in a play written especially about him as the main character called “Dr. Squintum” (190).
  1. Whitefield teamed up with John and Charles Wesley for many evangelistic efforts but came into conflict over the doctrine of predestination. Wesley was so opposed to the doctrine, he published and preached a sermon “against Predestination” in which he said “it is a doctrine full of blasphemy… [that] represents God as worse than the devil” (63). Whitefield also rejected the Wesleys’ acceptance of the view of “sinless perfectionism” in sanctification. It caused a rift in their friendship that Dallimore calls “Whitefield’s darkest hour” (97). Nevertheless, when Whitefield became ill in America and knew that his time on earth was coming to an end, he insisted that John Wesley conduct his memorial service back in England (197).
  1. Toward the end of his life, Whitefield wrote, “Lord Jesus, I am weary in thy work, but not weary of it” (194). After crossing the Atlantic by boat some 13 times (201), preaching numerous times every day for weeks on end to crowds of thousands against fierce opposition, seeing revival-fueled results, we can certainly understand his sentiment.

Indeed may our sovereign God choose to bring about revival in our day and may we pray fervently toward that end. If you need encouragement in that discipline, Dallimore’s biography of Whitefield could surely help.

* These page numbers refer to the Crossway one volume paperback version of George Whitefield: God’s Anointed Servant in the Great Revival of the Eighteenth Century.

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.


The Tension of Evangelism

One of the purposes of this blog is to help Christians proclaim the gospel well. From time to time I hope to post a question someone has posed and my response. Here’s my first attempt at this.

Question: How do you go about resolving the tension between, on the one hand, having a “dialogue” approach to evangelism and viewing it as a process, and, on the other hand, wanting to get the whole gospel into the conversation? I find that if I don’t get the whole gospel outline into the conversation, I feel guilty and anxious afterwards, because what if a) I don’t get another chance to talk to this person, or b) they don’t get another chance to hear the gospel? E.g. they get hit by a car next week (I realize that’s a bit of a cliche but you get the picture).

My answer: It is a tension, and I choose to live with it rather than trying to resolve it. Instead, I pray for wisdom to know exactly how to engage with a particular person. I rest in the reality that Jesus spoke to different people in different ways and that Paul varied his approaches depending on his audience. Sometimes they allowed the conversation to be incomplete, or, as you word it, they didn’t “get the whole gospel outline into the conversation.” (See, for example, Mark 10 or Acts 17:16-34).

I believe, for some people, the wise approach is to try to move them from a point of unbelief to a point of considering something they have previously rejected. They might need to consider that they may have been wrong about things for a very long time. I find that some people need to wrestle with that before they can consider “the whole gospel.” In other cases, the wise thing is to push it all the way to, “Can you think of any reason right now not to place your trust in what Christ did on the cross?”

I have to rest in the fact that God is the one who causes the growth and superintends the process of who he brings in and out of a particular person’s life. I realize this is counter to what many people teach but I sometimes wonder if my concern of “What if I don’t get another chance….” is more of a concern for my own comfort or a “clear conscience” than a concern for God’s glory or knowing “how to answer everyone” (see Col. 4:6).

I do think I need to resist the temptation to seek a kind of “comfortable evangelism.” For me, any kind of “comfortable evangelism” is too timid. In reality, it reveals my idolatrous longing for a hassle-free life or people’s approval of me or something with “self” as the centerpiece.

Randy Newman blogs at Integration Points.

Meditation 101

We all meditate whether we realize it or not. But it’s far better to choose carefully which thoughts get massaged into our hearts rather than default to whatever is floating around the airwaves or lurking in our subconscious.

I’ve just finished reading a challenging book by Robert Saucy entitled Minding the Heart, which, in some ways, puts into writing the meditations of a lifetime of theological study and reflection. At age 83, Saucy shares decades worth of intellectual research, systematic processing, and pastoral application about the role our hearts play in our becoming more and more like the Messiah.

At its core, the book urges us to develop the discipline of meditation because our mind can be employed to shape our heart and our heart shapes everything about us. The thesis statement of the book may be Proverbs 4:23, “Above all else, guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life.”

Tim Keller also encourages meditation as a crucial component in our prayer life. In his recent book, Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God, he observes, “meditating on the law of the Lord, the Scripture, moves us through duty toward joy.” Both Saucy and Keller found in their own practicing of meditation a source for transformation that prayer and Bible study only began to address. Deeper life-change came from meditation that incorporated the insights gained through Bible study and the application sought after through prayer.

Consider one observation pointed out in several commentaries on the Psalms. The first two psalms serve as an introduction or gateway to the whole collection of praises that follow and contrast good and bad meditating. Keller observes that “the first Psalm is not a prayer per se but a meditation—in fact, it is a meditation on meditation” (146). It tells of “delighting in the law of the Lord” and “meditating on it day and night.”

By contrast, Psalm 2 cries out, “Why do the nations conspire and the peoples plot in vain?” The two Psalms are linked together in several ways. One key way that gets lost in our English translations is that the word for meditate in Psalm 1:2 and the word for plot in Psalm 2:1 is the same Hebrew word—hagah. We can meditate on God’s word (which delightfully leads to fruitfulness and prosperity, depicted as a tree) or we can meditate against God and His Messiah (which tragically leads to experiencing God’s wrath and anger, depicted as pottery dashed to pieces). Either way, we meditate.

As I consider my own internal mutterings (that’s how some commentators explain the act of meditation), I see that sometimes I’m purposeful in dwelling on the good, the true, and the beautiful. I deliberately point my internal attention to a particular verse or phrase from the Bible. Unfortunately, at other times, I dwell on a complaint or a hurt or I rehearse a display of anger. Sometimes I repeat lyrics of some silly song I recently heard or replay a jingle from a television commercial. I’m tempted to say that I “mindlessly” dwell on nonsense, but the problem is that it’s not “mindless” at all. The words I hagah engage my mind and shape my heart whether I want them to or not.

What messages do you mutter to yourself? Where do they come from? And what effects do they have on your mind, heart, and life?

May the words of our mouths and the meditations (same Hebrew word—hagah) of our hearts be pleasing in your sight, O LORD, my Rock and my Redeemer (Psalm 19:14).

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.

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.

A Theme Verse for Thoughtful Faith

Proverbs 25:2 may be the leading candidate for a life verse for thoughtful Christians. The text reads, “It is the glory of God to conceal a matter; to search out a matter is the glory of kings.” This shows the contrast between God and people but also the glory of both. There are some things only God knows or can know. People are not omniscient. But there are some things that people can know, should know, and would find great “glory” in seeking out. In other words, the very acts of study, inquiry, research, investigation, questioning, examining, and “searching out” are things of glory.

The primary contrast in this context is between God and kings. Thus, the first setting of application would be when rulers seek to know all that is going on in their domain.

But it is not unreasonable, given the poetic nature of proverbs and the vocabulary chosen here, to apply this principle to all fields of rulership, in which academic or intellectual study fits rather nicely.

But remember the contrast. Our “searching out” or “uncovering” things brings glory. It is something worthwhile, satisfying, and beneficial – not only to the one doing the searching but to anyone else who might benefit from learning what has been discovered. Thus, a student may be thought of as someone who serves others just as a king serves people (good ones do, at least) by ruling well with equity, honesty, integrity, etc.

The other part of the equation is that all our study and inquiry has limits. God has not told us everything and he will not reveal everything. (Meditate on Deuteronomy 29:29 sometime to fill out this idea). Commentator Allen P. Ross says about this verse, “Kings must make things understandable to people, but God’s providence is beyond knowing.” As we seek, uncover, study, and research, we must do so with a blend of zeal and humility – zeal that it’s worth all the effort, even when it stretches our intellect more than ever before; humility that, at the end of the day, we may never find some of the answers we seek.

7 New Year’s Evangelistic Resolutions

It’s that time of year to remember why you bought that exercise bicycle, what those charts of nutritional information are doing on the backs of food packages, and where you last saw your “Read Through the Bible in a Year” chart.

It might also be a good time to rededicate your efforts to reach out to non-believers God has placed in your life. For most Christians, steadfastness in evangelism does not come easily. And guilt works as a motivator for only so long (and does so rather poorly). Here are some of my suggestions to bring outreach to the front burner for the next year.

  • Don’t expect it to be easy. Evangelism is almost always a struggle for most of us. Don’t make “feeling compassion for the lost” the sole prerequisite for taking steps towards them. Take the steps first and ask God to give the compassion along the way.
  • Begin with a renewed discipline of prayer for non-believers. (Note: Paul says we need to be “devoted” to prayer in Col. 4:2. If there’s the admonition to be devoted, it probably requires effort.) Many people begin the new year with a new prayer journal. Make sure your new tool has a section for petitions for the lost. Brainstorm ways to make these prayers a regular part of your times with God.
  • Take stock of people who are new in your life since a year ago. Thank God he has sovereignly worked to have your lives touch theirs. Add them to your prayer list.
  • Brainstorm next steps. It’s easy to get stuck in a non-action rut with “outsiders.” You always wave to your neighbor (but never strike up a conversation) or you always email your unsaved friend about the same “non-spiritual” topics (but never go near the spiritual ones). A new year is a good time to change old patterns—even if it’s uncomfortable.
  • Ask questions. (I once read a pretty good book on the topic.) Try inquiring about their new year’s resolutions. See if any of them have put “seeking out answers to big questions” on their list. Ask what books they might have read over Christmas vacation. See if they’d be willing to read one of your suggestions.
  • Read another book on evangelism. There are certain topics (prayer, basic doctrine, world vision, etc.) that require renewed input to keep the commitment front and center. Evangelism is certainly one of them. Reading another book on the topic, every year, is not a bad strategy. This year, my recommendation is Mere Apologetics by Alister McGrath. I’ll write more about it in a future blog. For now, I can say that he realizes that most Christians are not apologists or evangelists and most non-Christians are not responding to the same arguments they used to.
  • It’s not too late for a belated Christmas present. In fact, now that the clamor of the “holidays” is past, they might actually have time to appreciate a gift. If you’ve had some pre-evangelistic conversations so far, perhaps a book that pushes things to the next level is in order. Or maybe any type of gift that expresses kindness (not necessarily anything to do with spiritual issues) can pave the way to deeper conversation.

Paul told a rather timid Timothy to “do the work of an evangelist.” Note the use of the word “work.” Like so many other tasks, the “work” of an evangelist can be tackled in small incremental steps. It’s January—a good time to take some of those first steps.

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.

New Year = New Trend? Let’s Hope So

I’ve mentioned Stephen Prothero’s revolutionary book, God is Not One, in this blog before. I think his writings are worth noting, especially with the hopes that he could be signaling a change in the ways our culture discusses different religious views. At the beginning of a new year, it may be worth praying that a new cultural trend will accompany the new calendar.

Published in 2010, God is Not One sent ripples through Prothero’s academic discipline of Religious Studies. He is not a Christian but voices something Christians have been trying to say for quite some time – The major religions of the world do not teach the same things. The subtitle of Prothero’s book tips his hand – “The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World and Why Their Differences Matter.” (Interestingly, the 2011 paperback edition of his book dropped the phrase “and why their differences matter.”)

A professor of religious studies at Boston University, Prothero has done what few academicians have been able to do – connect to both university and pop cultures, finding a platform in both The Chronicle of Higher Education and on Oprah’s couch. He writes winsomely and cogently and dares to say what few, if any, in his field have had the nerve to say. Truly, his book has an Emperor’s New Clothes feel to it.

He cites Huston Smith’s well-worn illustration equating different religions to different paths up the same mountain and says such a view is “dangerous, disrespectful, and untrue” (p. 3). Smith’s book, The World’s Religions may be the most popular religious studies textbook of all time, selling over two million copies since its release in 1958. I’m sure you know that his sentiment holds sway in the minds of most people “on the street.” But what gets challenged in academic circles has the potential to trickle down and change popular discourse. One can only hope for that in this case.

Consider a few other observations Prothero makes:

“According to Mohandas Gandhi, ‘Belief in one God is the cornerstone of all religions,’ so it is toward this one God that all religious people are climbing. When it comes to divinity, however, one is not the religions’ only number. Many Buddhists believe in no god, and many Hindus believe in thousands.” (1-2)

“…the idea of religious unity is wishful thinking nonetheless, and it has not made the world a safer place. In fact, this naïve theological groupthink – call it Godthink – has made the world more dangerous by blinding us to the clashes of religions that threaten us worldwide. It is time we climbed out of the rabbit hole and back to reality.” (3)

“Faith in the unity of religions is just that – faith (perhaps even a kind of fundamentalism). And the leap that gets us there is an act of the hyperactive imagination. (3)

“If practitioners of the world’s religions are all mountain climbers, then they are on very different mountains, climbing very different peaks, and using very different tools and techniques in their ascents.” (12)

“One of the most common misconceptions about the world’s religions is that they plumb the same depths, ask the same questions. They do not.” (24)

And Prothero takes on the popular notion that it doesn’t matter what different religions believe as dogma (usually used as a derogatory term) since all that “really counts” is how we treat one another. (I’ve often been bothered when non-Christians feel the freedom to declare what the “really important parts” of Christianity are and which beliefs “don’t matter”). “No religion,” Prothero says, “sees ethics alone as its reason for being.” (2)

His book is not without its flaws. I’ll share some concerns in a future blog. But it’s worth celebrating (and quoting) when he sees things the way we want others to. Part of the necessary, pre-evangelistic process of deconstructing people’s worldviews will be to disabuse them of the silly idea that all religions are the same. Once people get released from that straightjacket, they may appreciate how the Christian view of atonement is radically different from those other paths on those other mountains.

Applying the Gospel to Parenting

I’ve reached the age when discussions of family move quickly to updates about our grown, adult sons. People my age compare stories of “having survived” our children’s adolescences and we now look forward to spoiling our grandchildren as revenge.

It’s not long before we all admit some level of shortcomings. We all made mistakes and hope our children are saving adequately for the psychotherapy they’ll need to undo the damage we caused. Inevitably, one of us utters the mantra, “I did the best that I could.” Sometimes someone adds the modifying clause, “with the knowledge I had back then.” I don’t remember any bestselling book boasting the title, “I did the best I could,” or some famous person making it their motto. But that slogan, “I did the best I could” (herein abbreviated as IDTBIC) has become universally accepted and relied upon by parents of a wide range of backgrounds, ethnicities, financial statuses, and any other demographic I can think of.

We all did the best we could! So, why are our kids so messed up? Or why is the world in such trouble? And would our kids evaluate our parenting careers with the same passing grade? Would they reward us with a blue ribbon for our parenting efforts?

Not too long ago, I watched a televised interview of Arnold Schwarzenegger. He had just published his memoir, Total Recall: My Unbelievably True Life Story, and was making the talk-show circuit to boost sales. The interviewer had to inquire about Arnold’s now-infamous affair with his family’s housekeeper and his fathering a child with her. Everyone watching the interview knew this moment would be coming. Surely, Arnold anticipated the question. (Perhaps he went back and reread that portion of his book to remember how he explained his actions there). But the man who had played the Terminator and other powerful characters on film stammered weakly as he looked for words to respond. He offered quite a few attempts that began with, “well, I” and “Y’know…” and “no one’s perfect.”

And then he said it. He uttered the same line I had used countless times: “I did the best I could.”

I don’t often talk to my television set. But I found it impossible not to blurt out, “Really? You? The best you could?” I thought, “He gets to use the IDTBIC line?” The best he could do was have an affair, father a child out of wedlock, lie about it until cornered by the evidence, and say it really wasn’t as bad as people thought? (I think that came later in the interview). Surely, he could have done better, I reasoned with smug confidence.

And then it hit me. I did not do the best job I could as a parent. I wonder if anyone can ever use that line. By God’s grace, I did a lot of good things. But I did quite a few bad things as well. I did harmful and insulting things. I said words that I wish I could erase from my sons’ memories. On occasion, I treated them harshly when they most needed tenderness. I won’t even diminish the intensity of these acts by calling them “mistakes.” They were sins. I sinned against my sons and the God who blessed me with them. I am humbled beyond measure that they and God forgive me. No wonder Jesus died on a cross. Nothing less could atone for such behavior.

It is important for me (and any other parent who did not do the best he or she could do) to acknowledge it. Only then do we rely on the grace of God for the cleansing of our consciences and the wellbeing of our offspring. Only then do we stop trusting in our performance as the richest resource for them to draw on. Only then do we stop taking credit for our kids “turning out OK” or beating ourselves up if they didn’t.

As long as we cling to the IDTBIC line, we aren’t really clinging to the cross. Applying the gospel to all of life must include our parenting. To do so is to realize that, “we are saved by grace, not by works” and therefore, our best efforts in all areas of life have and always will fall short.

But our God is a gracious savior whose shed blood covers all our sins, including the ones we committed in the privacy of our homes – perhaps, especially the sins we commit there. To God be the glory – He did the best He could.

The Power of Anonymity

I continue to learn valuable lessons about evangelism by interviewing recent converts. Hearing what they report as significant in their journey from darkness to light encourages and instructs for further outreach.

Most of the people I’ve talked to tell me they heard the gospel from friends they trust. This reinforces what many people have written about the need to “earn the right to be heard” or “pave the way for preaching.” I recall the oft-quoted admonition, “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”

One book even insists that people “will not” listen until trust has been established. While I certainly see the need to build trust and express the truth within a context of love, I wonder if some have overstated this case.

And then I heard Nora’s account of her conversion.

In high school, Nora “got into the wrong crowd.” (That’s how she described it). I tried not to let my jaw drop too dramatically as she recounted experiences with alcohol, drugs, and sex. She said she developed a reputation as a harsh blasphemer who loved to embarrass Christians with her foul mouth attacks on their faith. She wore T-shirts with offensive messages about Jesus just to enrage her religious classmates.

When she arrived at college, she chose to maintain the same reputation so that “Christians would know, right away, not to mess with me.” Her expletive-laced attire found a new audience to shock.

Then, one day, as she walked across campus, she was handed a card advertising an event sponsored by a Christian organization on campus. The topic for discussion at the meeting would be, “Who Goes to Heaven?” She almost threw the card on the ground but resisted due to her concern for the environment. But the question on the card nagged at her.

So, she went back to the girl who gave her the card and asked her, “Well… can you tell me who goes to heaven? That’s an important topic and I’ve actually been wondering that very question.” The card-distributor chose to set up an appointment to talk later rather than stop her work of publicity. This began a two-month-long, one-on-one Bible study between Nora and the young woman who, it turns out, was on the staff of a Christian organization serving on that campus.

As Nora elaborated, she offered this insight, “Even though I was wrestling with the very issues I was mocking, I couldn’t admit it to anyone who knew me. I needed someone anonymous to talk to. It had to be a stranger.”

So... just when we thought we figured out the key ingredient for evangelistic fruitfulness, we are reminded that God can use a variety of means to get his gospel through to unsaved people. Sure, friendships and trust-filled relationships can pave the way for the gospel. But for some people, anonymous strangers may be what God uses.

Consider that some people may be just like Nora – unable to admit to their friends that, behind their public persona, is someone seeking a different path. Wouldn’t it make sense that anonymity would connect well with Orthodox Jews, devout Muslims, out and proud gays, vocal feminists, unashamed drug users, and wearers of profanity-filled T-shirts!

The Problems (Plural) of Pain

C.S. Lewis wrote The Problem of Pain, seeming to narrow his investigation to a single entity – “the” problem. It’s an excellent book that addresses the philosophical issue of suffering with a keen theological eye mixed with practical pastoral encouragement.

But I find that the experience of suffering or, more specifically, the handling of physical pain, entails a combination of many different problems, not just a singular difficulty.

One week ago I underwent surgery to repair a hernia. Actually it was a double hernia, to be precise. In keeping with my lifelong pattern of going down the road less traveled, my body did not allow for the “typical” approach – a laparoscopic surgery with a shorter, less painful recovery period. No, I needed the more invasive procedure complete with scars not worth describing. Thus, I find myself experiencing numerous problems associated with pain.

The Lament Psalms have offered me great encouragement many times when it comes to handling suffering. They model how we can cry out to the Lord, ask for deliverance, enlist help from positive self-talk, and recall to mind God’s character, help in the past, and ways he has worked on behalf of others. They cover a wide range of lament-inducing circumstances – persecution, discouragement, depression, feelings of alienation from God, etc.

But physical pain offers unique challenges. It is not mentioned often in the Lament Psalms. Psalms 69:1-6 is a rare exception, including pain in its list of causes for lament. Psalms 69:29 says, “I am in pain and distress: May your salvation, O God, protect me.”

One could be tempted to think that all we really need to do is recall certain truths or remind ourselves of certain theological concepts and all emotional struggles would vanish.

Counselor and author Edward T. Welch, of the Christian Counseling and Education Foundation, writing about handling fear says this about simply reminding ourselves of fear-countering cognitive thoughts: “This might help, but it rests on the premise that fear submits to logic, which is a dubious assumption. In reality, fears are rarely logical.” (Running Scared, page 23).

I find that there are at least five problems associated with pain. Processing them individually has been helpful for me as I wait for the pain from surgery to subside and some sense of normality to return.

• There’s the problem of fear: With physical pain comes the temptation to believe that it will never go away or it’s the sign of other problems or the harbinger of even worse things to come. Constant prayer for comfort, strength, and the peace that passes all understanding needs to counter this problem.

• There’s the problem of total dependence: When you experience surgery, your body stops performing certain functions that used to just happen. Taking deep breaths, moving without additional pain, and the continuing performance of certain “bodily functions” now take on a level of challenge that used to be reserved for things like mountain climbing or major athletic feats. It’s humbling, to say the least. It involves prayer for things you’ve always taken for granted, which underlines the reality that we have always been totally dependent upon God for every breath, every heartbeat, and every bodily fluid that needs to flow properly.

• There’s the problem of “not-rightness”: I don’t know how else to put it. But every ache and every pain is a reminder that we live in a fallen world with broken bodies that will someday die – and that was never the way it was supposed to be. While you can understand all this, and it’s easy to find this doctrine heavily supported in scripture, it does not minimize the “groaning” component that never should feel normal or acceptable.

• There’s the problem of mental-perseverance: Much of the physical battle takes on the flavor of the mental battle. We must talk to ourselves far more than merely listen to ourselves. Now is the time to converse internally as doggedly as the Psalmists who said, “Why so downcast, Oh my soul?” and other introspective interaction. But it gets tiring and mere mention of these truths does not guarantee full receptivity.

• And, in the darkest moments, there is the problem of despair: With physical pain come attacks from our adversary. He would have us think, “This is never going to get better, God doesn’t care, I must have done something to deserve this,” and dozens of other condemning lies from the pit. Thus, the need for deep reflection on the truth of the gospel, diligent concentration on the power of God’s word, and relentless meditation upon the goodness of God’s care for his people – especially before the times of pain.

C. S. Lewis’ book and others are helpful for wrestling with the theological and philosophical puzzles associated with suffering. But don’t think that mere reading of books will provide the full equipment for all the problems of pain. The issue is far more complex than that. Indeed, life itself is richer, more complex, and, sadly, more painful than we expect. But our God is greater, more compassionate, and more powerful than we suspect.