Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Best Kept Secret of Christian Mission book review

I’ve just read The Best Kept Secret of Christian Mission by John Dickson, subtitled Promoting the Gospel with More Than Our Lips. It is not often anymore that I read books on evangelism or mission. I am tired of “how to’s” and this book’s title smelled like another how to book. Although I must admit that I’ve never liked sermons giving me 10 ways I can defeat the enemy or 15 ways to act like a Christian, I thought I’d give this book a chance - mostly because it had forewords by one of my favorite authors, Alister McGrath, along with Ravi Zacharias. It also had a nice word written by N.T.Wright on the back of the book jacket along with several others. So, I read it. I’m glad I did!

John Dickson begins with an apology. Not an apologetic, but an apology. Dickson is a self-admitted evangelist. And as such, feels that how evangelism has been taught has oftentimes hurt more than helped. By giving us specific ways to bring someone to the point of a ‘sale’ we have moved away from genuine interchange and into the realm of artifice. Potential ‘buyers’ can smell it and put up their sales resistant shields. Thus fewer and fewer sales are made and a rift is placed between the sellers and ‘targets’. The joy of sharing the gospel is replaced with self-consciousness and frustration and the world is left without a clear witness to Christ from His people. John hopes to help remedy that situation through this book.

John lists four unhelpful perspectives that have come from how we have been taught. These unhelpful perspectives have undermined our witness to Christ. First, because we have been given what words to say when, we have become self-conscious and contrived. Evangelism has become a special type of behavior that is somehow different than our daily life in Christ. We go out to witness as an add-on to how we actually live our lives. Thus our witness becomes contextually divorced from life.

Second, since our witness has been divorced from life, when we get an opportunity to say something about our faith in Jesus, we feel the need, nay the requirement, to say everything that we can say about the gospel. Every verse that has a bearing must be said. The ‘Roman road’ has trod over many a weary traveler, to this I can attest.

Third, we reduce the gospel to two simple points. First, we are unworthy of God’s acceptance, and second, that to be accepted by God we need only believe. The actual story of Christ Jesus as testified to in the four gospels is never mentioned. It is as if we expect people to already know who Jesus really is and all they need is some guilt and or fear to move them along. ‘Witnessing’ becomes a sales pitch instead of a personal testimony of the living Lord of life. No wonder people often feel like they have been sold a bill of goods. The Jesus that John wrote of who he had seen with his own eyes and his own hands have handled is noticeably absent.

The fourth unhelpful perspective is that we have underestimated the mission we all have in promoting the gospel in this world. We have often thought that the only way to get the message of Jesus out is to preach, or at least give verbal witness (lip service?). Now Dickson assures us that the verbal expression of the gospel is vital. He just wants us to realize that the verbal witness to Christ must come in a context that promotes the acceptance of this verbal witness. We all have a role in promoting the gospel by living a life consistent with the truth of this gospel.

This is where the title of the book comes in. Dickson writes “perhaps the best kept secret of Christian mission is that the Bible lists a whole range of activities that promote Christ to the world and draw others to him. These include prayer, godly behavior, financial assistance, the public praise of God (in church) and, as already mentioned, answering people’s questions. All of these are explicitly connected in the Bible with advancing the gospel and winning people to Christ. They are all “mission” activities, and only a couple of them involve the lips at all.” The first seven chapters are devoted to filling out what he means by these ways in which we all can promote the gospel.

He makes a helpful distinction between promoting the gospel and declaring the gospel. While we all can promote the gospel by these ways, not everyone is to declare the gospel through preaching. This service is set aside for those whom God has equipped and called to do such things.

This book was both a relief and a challenge to me. A relief in that I do not have to knock on doors or accost people at the mall in order to contribute to the church’s witness to Christ. The last vestiges of that leftover guilt was washed from my spirit, of which I am thankful. It is a challenge in that I can see several ways that not only I, but also those I lead, could be more involved in promoting the good news of our Lord Jesus Christ.

This book is an excellent and timely encouragement. In an era where the pressure on Christians to acquiesce before the god of this age is intensifying, squeezing them into a crippled posture of hopelessness and ineffectiveness, the thoughts that John Dickson has shared herein can work as an antidote. I pray for the day when Christians will live their lives in such a way as to adorn the gospel with beauty, presenting Jesus as He is, the gracious and awesome Lord of all.


Jon Rising said...

Wow! Thank you for this post, Steve. If Dickson's book is as encouraging and nourishing as your review of it, it will help many.

This year I, too, have been challenged to simplify my witness (and to wait for genuinely appropriate moments to share it). Basically, I feel compelled to get across: I have tried living without the Lord and I have tried living with the Lord. My life only makes sense when I live with Him. I also want an interested listener to understand that the biblical worldview I have gained is the only one I have encountered the makes living bearable. It does not provide me with glib answers, nor have all my questions been tidily answered, but it does --- in an overarching way --- make sense of life for me ... even the hard parts.

As far as our life being a credible witness, I couldn't agree more. The Spirit of the Lord has been impressing on me the need to be an ambassador. I mean by that that I feel impressed to quit living with my aims and my reputation in the forefront of my consciousness, and rather live with the awareness that I am the King's ambassador and what I say and do reflects on Him (and also adds to, or subtracts from, my declaration of Him). That is far from a new thought, I know, but for me it is a fresh one.

Thanks for making us aware of this important --- and freeing --- book!

Rahgwood said...

I love the use of the sale metaphor for evangelism. I recently used it myself. I wonder if he talks about how what people fake in customer service, should be genuine in Christianity. Sales are designed to make someone feel valued, so that they will buy. Christians should make people feel valued because God loves them.

Andrew said...

Thanks for posting this extensive, and heartfelt review! I've also felt guilty about my lack of face-to-face evangelism and found the message of this book liberating - and challenging!

Best to you,
- AR for Koinonia