Evangelism: Context & Method

The discussion from yesterday’s post raised some good questions about methods of evangelism.  I’m putting together some of my own thoughts on this, sparked by Scot McKnight’s forthcoming book, The King Jesus Gospel.  For now, however, I’m just wondering a bit about the extent to which context determines method.

Here’s my question: How wise is it to dip into the pages of the New Testament, make note of an evangelistic strategy, and adopt it without considering the wider context?

It seems to me that much evangelistic preaching over at least the last 150 years in the U.S. and U.K., at least, has its basis in the apostles’ preaching in Acts.  Our reasoning runs like this: They went out into the streets and proclaimed the gospel.  If we want to be faithful to the New Testament model, therefore, we should do the same thing.

But should we?

Is there a sense in which the audience(s) of apostolic preaching in Acts differs dramatically from modern audiences of gospel proclamation?  It certainly seems so.  The apostles first proclaimed the gospel to Jews who were raised in the imaginative world shaped by the narrative of Scripture.  They prayed daily to the God of Israel for the fulfillment of his promises to send Messiah and restore the Kingdom.  These first audiences had a ready-made interpretive matrix shaped by Scripture and its categories, themes, and expectations.  The apostles proclaimed the resurrection of Jesus as something that made immediate sense within that interpretive matrix.

The method, then, fit the context quite well.

What’s really interesting is that when evangelistic preaching goes outside this Jewish interpretive matrix, it sometimes goes badly, even for the apostles.  In Acts 14, Paul and Barnabas do their usual thing of gospel preaching confirmed by signs and wonders in Lystra.  But now the audience is a pagan one.  They envision the preaching and working of miracles from within their pagan interpretive matrix with disastrous results.  They figure that Paul and Barnabas are gods and attempt to offer sacrifices to them.

That is not, to say the least, what Paul and Barnabas had in mind.

What is it about our current context(s) that we must keep in mind when thinking about evangelism?  To what extent does our context determine our method?

9 thoughts on “Evangelism: Context & Method

  1. Craig Beard

    Tim, you have touched upon something I’ve been pondering — a two-fold sort of thing: (1) What exactly do we tell people when we “share the gospel” with them? and (2) What is the most appropriate approach to doing that? The ‘old school’ message is something like this: you are a sinner alienated from God . . . unless you are saved, you are headed for eternal hell . . . you can’t saved yourself . . . Jesus died for your sins so that you can be saved and go to heaven when you die . . . believe. The ‘old school’ method is to tell everyone the same message and ask for that “believe” decision. As I learn more about the ‘mission of God’ and about a more cosmic (and less individualistic) gospel, the ‘old school’ message (and method) just don’t seem adequate. I’ll be reading here to see what else you might have to offer a ‘ponderer’. Thanks.

    1. timgombis

      Yes, that’s what I was getting at a few days ago–the thought that the gospel is “one-size-fits-all” and you just toss it at people expecting the same response. But the gospel speaks to the arrogant a word of rebuke and to the broken a word of rest and relief. The gospel isn’t “mono-tonous,” though our witness usually is.

  2. athanasius96

    Context is important, but that can be discerned by where discussions are being held already. In college, we would do so much work preparing ourselves for evangelism. It occured to me at one point that my friends were having discussions about God all the time…without me. I was working hard to bring them into my context, but what I needed to do was immerse myself in theirs. Once I made the shift, constructive discussions happened on a regular basis.

  3. Pastor Ryan

    In my opinion most Evangelicals would say something like this “The Bible transcends the context… Christians are called to spread the Gospel no matter what the context.” Then they will throw in a jumbled quote about the “Word of the Lord” and how it “never comes back void.” Don’t forget if America will “humble themselves and pray” then God will bless America again. I hear things like this all the time.

    It is obvious in Matthew 28:19-20 and Acts 1:8 that the church is called to be a witnessing community. But what does it mean to be a witness? If we were modeling ourselves off of the life of Jesus, would we participate in door to door survey work (door to door witnessing)? Jesus didn’t spread the news of the Kingdom on Monday evenings from 6-7:30. The Gospel was a way of life for Him as it should be for his followers. All people live in a particular culture, place, and time in history. It is up to every Jesus follower and the local church to figure out how they live out the Gospel in their own cultural context.

    1. timgombis

      Yes, that’s it, Ryan. Also, Jesus’ ministry was quite unique, so we have to recognize that, too. But it’s that notion of being wise to figure out how it looks in different settings, contexts, and situations.

  4. Dan

    How do you think the differences in ancient and modern speech or rhetoric would effect our method.

    For instance in the NT, wasn’t it more acceptable to speak in overstatements and caricature your opponents? If this so, do you think we should be more sensitive and nuanced when we say “everyone is a sinner”.

  5. Pingback: Elsewhere (08.12.2011) | Near Emmaus

  6. Mirce Tancev

    The Gospel od our Lord JESUS Christ is still the same, and thanks God that He is revealing it to the babes in faith, and not to the wise. (Mat. 11, 25-30) Read 1. Kor. 1, 21 about the subjective method and 1. Kor. 2, 1–5 about the experiance of ap. Paul in his own subjective context!

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