Come, Follow Me: Using the Bible in Personal Evangelism
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In my church heritage (the Christian and Missionary Alliance and various independent Bible Churches) we often viewed the Bible as a "how to" manual for evangelism. We learned how to take someone through the Gospel of John, using key texts that outlined the "plan of salvation." We utilized the "Romans Road," which mapped out Paul's letter to the Romans in such a way that we could show someone the way to heaven. Or, if we really knew our Bibles well, we presented the gospel simply by prooftexting our way through the New Testament.
We prided ourselves in knowing that we were "ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you with meekness and fear" (1 Peter 3:15 KJV). Our propositions were logical and rational, and we were convinced that we were accurately speaking for God—though, truth be told, few people ever did ask us for the reason for our hope. Nevertheless we were ready, with some degree of meekness and a healthy dose of fear. We were convinced that this was the way the Bible told us to witness—a way that in actuality reflected late twentieth-century North American culture far more than the Bible.
While I do believe that many people have been introduced to Jesus Christ through the above methods, I no longer believe this is the best way to use the Bible in sharing my faith. However, I do believe we ought to share the gospel using generous references to Scripture. I challenge students in my classes at the seminary to avoid the above-mentioned prooftexting, propositional models and be prepared instead to share the gospel through the dominant themes of Scripture. The Bible is above all else a book of stories—all summed up in one grand drama, consisting of four acts with scenes too numerous to count. This grand story is best told in vintage Reformed terminology: Creation, Fall, Redemption, Consummation. God is the main character in the Bible's storyline. This focus on God flies in the face of the "me" focus of many evangelistic presentations. Such presentations easily focus the attention on a "wonderful plan" for the individual who is the target of our evangelistic enterprise. This is bad theology. True evangelism has a singular theme and focus—God: as Creator, Judge, Redeemer, and coming King.
Besides being true to Scripture, a story centered on God offers a "softer" approach to evangelism (which more fittingly follows the NIV translation of 1 Peter 3:15, ". . . do this with gentleness and respect"). As I interact with my neighbor or coworker, I might talk about creation and environmental issues, for example. Instead of emphasizing that she is a sinner and that she must accept Christ, I point her to the Genesis story of God, the author of all creation, who made all things good in the beginning.
I might continue by sharing the Genesis story of human disobedience and failure, which results in a fallen creation, and the corruption of humankind. The Bible's storyline demonstrates human hearts' capacity for deceit and pride and selfishness, which results not only in so-called personal sins but in corporate sins as well (for example, our failure to care for the environment and our failure to care for "the least of these" in our midst).
In telling my neighbor the story of the Bible, I might outline for them the story of God's chosen people Israel. They are to be a light to the nations. God desires that they be a righteous people known for good works. "He has told you . . . what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?" (Micah 6:8, NRSV).
I might introduce my neighbor to the Bible by telling the story of Jesus, who did not carry a little booklet to illustrate the Four Spiritual Laws (one that I as a college student used many times while accosting strangers sunning in the sand at New York State's popular vacation spot in Lake George), but who lived the gospel by his example. Jesus simply said, "Come, follow me."
In practicing this evangelism, we need to keep in mind that we ourselves need to be evangelized; Jesus is talking to us too. If I am not following Jesus as a disciple, how can I call others to come follow along? If I am not following the Lord by serving others, for example, by ministering at a local homeless shelter, how can I call my next-door neighbor to come along? If I am not giving up two Saturdays to work on a Habitat house, how can I ask my coworker to come and help out? The evangelistic call to follow Jesus comes first to me and then through me to others.
Good evangelism is not the verbal presentation of a set of laws or principles or seven Bible verses strung together. Evangelism is pointing others to God as he is revealed in Scripture and calling others to come along and follow Jesus, as we ourselves follow and serve Jesus.
Is the Bible then superfluous? No, indeed. Without the Bible there would be no witness. For that reason, I always include Scripture passages in my course outlines, and I challenge my students to use those texts not only when they are facing faculty members in their oral exams but also—and most importantly—when they are sharing their faith with others. I cannot teach missions and evangelism courses without teaching the Bible.
The longer I teach the more I realize that I learn more from my students than they learn from me. Some of my students have come straight from college. But many come to seminary with years of experience: a firefighter, a mega-church pastor, attorneys, teachers, farmers, and missionaries too numerous to mention. Indeed, from my students—inside and outside the classroom. And as I contemplate sharing the gospel through the grand narrative of Scripture—Creation, Fall, Redemption, Consummation—I sit at the feet of one of my students.
Yeon-Jeong Kim and his wife Anne have both been in my classes, and I've come to know their children Hanna and David as well. Their homeland is Korea; they have served as missionaries in the Philippines and Nepal. In class and through the research and writing of his Th.M. thesis Yeon-Jeong brought the grand narrative of Scripture to life. I had challenged him to be true to his own culture, to tell stories, to share his own experiences in ministry. He worried that such things might not be scholarly enough for an academic thesis. But I pushed and prodded, and the final product was the finest thesis I've mentored in my teaching career.
Yeon-Jeong's thesis demonstrated that there were points of contact between the biblical worldview and the traditional East Asian worldview. He showed how the elements of the biblical story could be shared in that culture, and gave me a model for thinking about my own culture and how to share the gospel here in my own context. His focus on creation drew from his Asian background—from paintings and music and literature. He evoked feelings of awe and reverence for God's creation that made my Kuyperian Reformational worldview seem small. That awe and wonder of creation is the starting point in the story of God. And Scripture is our source. The Genesis story of the glory of God's created work must take hold of us before we can effectively communicate the gospel with others. The gospel message starts with creation.
The matter of sin is a bit more tricky. The sin of eating the forbidden fruit in the Garden is a difficult and much debated matter among biblical scholars. For one not schooled in biblical teachings, the story may make little sense. How do we explain it to someone sitting beside us on a two-hour flight to Phoenix—whether that person is a Korean corporate executive or an American university student? Yeon-Jeong's approach helped me. Without becoming bogged down in trying to explain the Fall, he moved beyond to the horrific results. We best understand sin though murder and death, the story of Cain and Abel. For Asians this ultimate breach of filial piety is a potent story—as it is for all of us. The results of sin infect the whole of human nature and the whole of God's good creation.
In explaining redemption, once again Yeon-Jeong is my teacher. Love and sacrifice in his culture (and perhaps Western culture as well) is most often represented by the mother. Here Yeon-Jeong drew from a wealth of stories and poems and songs that speak of the heart of the mother—the one who would give her very life for her children. But a mother's love pales in comparison to the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. The gospel stories of Christ's passion are at the heart of the biblical drama. Jesus died to redeem us, and the story of that death speaks clearly in an Asian context.
Yeon-Jeong has now returned to Nepal, where he is retelling that story as an evangelist in a way that makes sense in his East Asian culture, and where he is living a lifestyle that fits that story. Evangelism is not four verses or seven rules or twelve steps. It is the story of God and his great love for us. It is a story that is not only contextual-ized to our own culture but also woven into the multicultural fabric of humanity. To effectively tell that story we must immerse ourselves in the Bible, allowing it to shape our lives, and retell the biblical story both verbally and through our lifestyle. Our role in this drama is as complex as it is simple—following Jesus as a disciple in word and deed and calling others to come along.