From Unlikely Converts, pages 20 to 24:
I’m convinced that pre-evangelism is essential for reaching people with the gospel in postmodern settings today. But perhaps I need to make my case a bit more persuasively. After all, isn’t the gospel self-authenticating and powerful enough on its own? Do we really need to appeal to fallen people’s inadequate reasoning in proclaiming a message about rebirth? Perhaps my quoting of Schaeffer, Moore, and Keller still leave you wanting input from a higher authority.
To be sure, proclaiming the gospel is powerful. We trust in the Holy Spirit, who “will prove the world to be in the wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment” (John 16:8) as we do so. But we must notice that the Scriptures offer a variety of preparations for the gospel before stating the message outright.
At this point, I must offer a few definitions. What exactly is evangelism, and how is pre-evangelism distinct from or related to evangelism? We need to be very clear about this. I hear a lot of fuzzy thinking about evangelism, and I’d hate to contribute to that fog. Here’s how I am using these terms in this book.
Evangelism is the verbal proclamation of a very specific message: that Jesus died to atone for sins, that he rose from the dead, and that people must respond with repentance and faith. Pre-evangelism refers to the many different things that can pave the way for that proclamation. Evangelism and pre-evangelism are related, but we must remember their distinctions.
Sharing your testimony is a great pre-evangelistic strategy—but it’s not evangelism. Discussing philosophical arguments for the existence of God may be exactly what you need to do with some skeptics— but it’s not evangelism. Admiring beauty in nature or order in the physical universe and asking why our world seems so tailor-made for people is a very good pre-evangelistic tactic (one that I particularly love!)—but it’s not evangelism. And digging wells or building houses or feeding hungry people might serve in pre-evangelistic ways—but that’s not evangelism either.
I get nervous when people tell me they helped their neighbor with a chore around their house and then declare, “That’s the gospel!” No it’s not. It was probably a really great thing to do, and it may have even communicated sacrificial love to the neighbor. It might have even made them wonder why you’re so nice. But until you use words that articulate some very important facts about the cross, you’ve only paved the way for evangelism. You haven’t yet evangelized. We need to maintain the difference.
The distinction between evangelism and pre-evangelism has similarities with the distinction between conversion and the path that leads to that defining experience. Conversion is “our willing response to the gospel call, in which we sincerely repent of sins and place our trust in Christ for salvation.”1[i] A long process often precedes conversion. In this book, I will use the phrases “coming to faith” and “faith stories” to include both the specific event of conversion and the many things that lead up to that point.
Here is one significant argument in favor of the value of pre- evangelism: the entire Old Testament is pre-evangelistic. It paves the way for a message that, when finally presented, prompts a response of, “Ohhh. So that’s what we’ve been waiting for!” (I have to wonder if that wasn’t Simeon’s feeling when he saw the infant Jesus in the temple—Luke 2:25–32.)
The first hint at a gospel of a suffering Messiah in Genesis 3:15 is remarkably cryptic and incomplete. God declares, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel.” Who’s crushing whose head? And how does the striking of a heel compare? The text urges the reader to keep reading with the skills of a detective to see how that puzzling prediction will come to fulfillment. The drama of the Old Testament brings a dazzling array of characters onto the stage, prompting us to wonder which one could be the head crusher promised in the garden. The way Eve describes her newborn son makes us think that, just perhaps, he’s the one (Gen. 4:1). But it doesn’t take long for us to see he’s no leading character for us to follow. The same can be said about Noah, who “found favor in the eyes of the Lord” (6:8). But he lets us down when he gets drunk (9:21). Might it be Abraham? We doubt it when he lies and says his wife is his sister—twice! (12:10–20; 20:1–12). And on and on it goes with disappointing non-Messiahs, one after another. And so we long for one who won’t let us down. Can we not see this pattern of hope and disappointment as a form of pre-evangelism?
The Old Testament does far more to prepare our hearts for the Messiah than simply hint at his suffering; it moves us toward solving the mystery of who he will be. It features characters who act out intriguing dramas that seem to point forward to a main character who will make all the minidramas make more sense. Abraham offers up a son as a sacrifice but has the process halted by a God who provides his own substitute. The text itself lets us know this drama is not finished because it identifies the location as “The Lord Will Provide” (Gen. 22:14). You would have thought it should be called, “The Lord Did Provide.” Apparently this drama pointed to a future provision that will be better.
So many examples could be given. One man, David, fights a battle against an enemy, Goliath, so that all who identify with him will be saved. While we could zoom our lens in on David’s courage, the story is crafted in such a way that we see God’s supernatural miracle as a way of saving his people through an unlikely representative. The Old Testament is filled with types, foreshadowings, predictions, and unfinished stories to prepare us for a message yet to come.
Fair enough, you say. The Old Testament is pre-evangelistic. But we live after the cross. Now that the Messiah has come, we simply need to point to his finished cross-work and reap where the Old Testament has sown. Right? Not quite. The New Testament recounts instances of partial gospel proclamations. It gives us models and tem- plates for pre-evangelism. I’ll offer a few here, but I’ll elaborate more throughout this book. Consider Jesus’s tantalizing offer of “living water” while saving an explanation about atonement, the cross, and forgiveness for later (see John 4:1–39). Or think about Jesus’s questions to the rich man that led to a list of commandments (a rather select list at that!) but no discussion of salvation by faith alone (see Mark 10:17–22). Or examine Paul’s sermon in Athens, which went for quite a while, meandering into quotes of pagan poets, before saying anything about a resurrection (see Acts 17:16–34). Sometimes people need to consider ideas that pave the way for the core truths of the gospel before hearing those propositions, and the Bible gives us models of what that can look and sound like.
(From Stan: For further reading—besides buying and reading Randy’s latest book—check out his website, where he has a great blog addressing a range of issues helpful to Christians seeking to grow in Christ and be salt and light in our world.)
[i] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 709.