“Randy Newman has done it again! His latest book on personal evangelism is so captivating and inspirational that I read it in one sitting.” So says Dr. Lyle Dorsett, Billy Graham Professor of Evangelism at Beeson Divinity School, Samford University. Randy’s latest book is Unlikely Converts, the result of his doctoral research on how we can help non-believers come to faith. I’ve asked Randy to write a series of four guest blogs here to share some of what he discovered (and hopefully entice you to buy his book!)
God has granted me the gifts, abilities, experiences, and the stamina to write five books. The newest one has just arrived from the publisher. Thanks be to God. Quite often, when I’m speaking at a conference or preaching at a church, people ask me what one of my books is about. “Could you just tell me, in a nutshell, what it says?” they ask. This always presents a challenge for me. I think it was Flannery O’Connor who once said, “If I could tell the story in a nutshell, I wouldn’t have written the whole thing!” I’m not as nice as O’Connor. (And that’s saying something, given the disturbing stories she tells.) I want to respond, “Why would I want to tell you ‘in a nutshell’ what my book is all about? If I did, you wouldn’t read the whole book!”
Still, nutshells have their purposes. My new book, Unlikely Converts: Improbable Stories of Faith and What They Teach us About Evangelism, retells stories from over 40 interviews I conducted of new Christians. Originally, these qualitative hour-long interviews formed the core of my PhD dissertation research. The stories were so moving and remarkable, I thought I needed to repackage them into something more lively than a dissertation. Hence, this book.
Here are a few key things that stand out to me as I reflect back on the entire process. (In my next three posts I’ll share an excerpts from the book.)
First, nothing is too difficult for God. I used the words “unlikely” and “improbable” in the title and subtitle. But such vocabulary is irrelevant when it comes to our all-powerful, sovereign God. From our flawed, human perspective, we may write people off as too far gone or too hopelessly ensnared in sin. God poses, “Is anything too difficult for me?”
Second, hearing from the receiving end of the evangelistic process (if I may speak about it that way) is tremendously valuable as we formulate strategies and plans for outreach. To be sure, we need to study scripture to learn how to evangelize and not compromise the gospel. But hearing “what worked” and how God orchestrated circumstances in people’s conversion journeys can guide us as we wonder how to say things to outsiders. The more you can listen to people’s stories, the more emboldened you’ll become to trust God to use you, no matter how fearful or reluctant you may be.
By the way, all my interviews lasted more than 45 minutes. That was by design. Short, computer-generated questionnaires, as quantitative research, are quite valuable. But so are more lengthy qualitative interviews. We need both. Things came out after the 35-minute mark that would not have surfaced in a quick questionnaire. It was almost uncanny how people would remember things or tie things together or realized things they had not previously known. In a few instances, the most significant statements came after my interview was over, my recorder was turned off and my notebook was closed. Maybe there was even a cause and effect between the “official end” of the interview and the willingness to delve deeper.
Finally, here’s something that I hope academicians can especially appreciate. The conversion process is complex, multifaceted, and rich – just as the gospel is complex, multifaceted and rich. People (complex, multifaceted, and rich human beings) connect and resonate with the gospel in a variety of ways. Think about the ways the scriptures talk about salvation. We encounter a wide range of vocabulary to grasp the concept: salvation, regeneration, redemption, reconciliation, propitiation, etc. At the center is the non-negotiable message of substitutionary atonement for sins. But, for many people, the starting point of their journey begins somewhere else. For a few, it’s feelings of guilt that need cleansing. But for others, it’s a vague sense of shame or a deep loneliness and alienation or a confusion about what life is all about or an ache from evil perpetrated against them that needs liberation.
Our evangelism needs to be as diverse in methodology as our gospel is as multifaceted in beauty. I could say more. But this nutshell is overflowing. And besides, I’d really like you to read the whole book.
Over the next three weeks I’ll share excerpts from Randy’s new book, which I believe you will find interesting, intriguing, and stimulating. Until then, grace and peace.
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.