What we talk about when we talk about Jesus

Nov 07, 2014

A review of Evangelism by Mack Stiles.

(Crossway, 2014)

Originally posted at Eternity.

There are two recurring problems with books about evangelism written by evangelists. Sometimes it seems like the gifting of evangelists, especially those bold enough to be famous for it, is a certain willingness to fly in the face of public disbelief. (And this is not to say that there are not evangelists who are gifted in other ways, or who evangelise by other means.) Those who become ‘famous’ evangelists are invited to preach more, or become famous because of their preaching. When they do this enough, they are invited to write a book about evangelism.

However, here’s the rub. These evangelists who have become famous because of their style of persuasion or the clarity of their gospel message are not now being asked to persuade or explain the gospel: they’re being asked to explain how they explain the gospel. And, sometimes bafflingly to all, this is more difficult than it might seem. My theory is that sometimes the exact same gifts that make them great evangelists—the aforementioned boldness, and willingness to ignore public disbelief—do not automatically lend themselves to good writing.

That’s not meant to be unkind. Writing is difficult. Self-analysis is difficult.

The second problem is that explaining how to evangelise requires a certain degree of self-awareness, enough to ask, “How much of how I evangelise is personality, and how much is based on gospel truth?” In some of the evangelism books the prescription is be bold … because the writer is bold. Which leads into a story about how easy it is to strike up conversations on the bus that lead from the weather to God and his judgement and then to the answer found in Jesus. This sort of talk can leave those who are shy at the best of times feeling like they’ve committed an error simply in accepting their personality.

Which is all a rather long-winded intro to the book Evangelism: How the Whole Church Speaks of Jesus, from the memorably named Mack Stiles. It’s part of the 9Marks series, which emerges from the US parachurch ministry of the same name, helmed by Mark Dever.

This is not Stiles’ first book on evangelism. He’s previously written Marks of the Messenger: Knowing, Living and Speaking the Gospel. That book is more of a primer at instilling an individual passion for evangelism, whereas Evangelism looks at instilling a church-wide culture of evangelism. “It’s about getting the whole church to share their faith”, he says in the introduction.

This is a great book, in part because Stiles manages to avoid both of the problems mentioned in the introduction through a dedication to Scriptural principles, as well as an adroit self-awareness that filters how he evangelises through a perspective of how he’s been able to personally bring many others into a culture of evangelism.

Part of this perspective comes from a unique ministry field: Stiles doubles as the general secretary for the Fellowship of Christian UAE Students in the United Arab Emirates. Preaching the gospel in a Muslim area lends him a welcome nuance and awareness about culture and boundaries.

Evangelism begins with Stiles defining evangelism—“teaching the gospel with the aim to persuade”—and then goes on to show why he believes a culture of evangelism in a church is important. He’s careful to distance this from the idea of evangelism through programmes and evangelistic speakers, but instead churches which are “loving communities committed to sharing the gospel as part of an ongoing way of life, not by the occasional evangelistic raid event”. The picture that Stiles goes on to paint of the church with a culture of evangelism is attractive without being gimmicky, motivated by a true love of Christ and a true love of others, with an eye not only for the immediacy of conversion, but the reality of a long-term journey with Christ.

The chapters that follow talk about the ways to (and ways not to) instil that kind of vision into the culture of a church, the role of ‘evangelists’ within a culture of evangelism, and then a chapter about how to do it: how to speak about Jesus in evangelism.

What I love about this book is that it’s realistic, biblical and practical. Stiles doesn’t pull punches about what might be necessary, but he is also warm and optimistic about what might be possible. In fact, he does something that’s notable in its rarity: when he tells personal anecdotes about successes in evangelism, you find yourself nodding and thinking “I could do that”, rather than the many books where anecdotes had me fairly certain that I’d never be able to do the same.

It’s worth noting that the book’s length and his writing style are appealing too, short enough to read over a few hours on a weekend afternoon, and easy enough to read that you might actually want to read it on a weekend afternoon.

In conclusion, here’s Stiles on the picture of the kind of church that he wants this book to shape:

“I long for a church where the Christians are so in love with Jesus that when they go about the regular time of worship, they become an image of the gospel. I long for a church that disarms with love, not entertainmnent, and lives out countercultural confidence in the power of the gospel. I long for a church where the greatest celebrations happen over those who share their faith, and the heroes are those who risk their reputations to evangelize.”

If that sounds like something you want to happen where you are, pick up this book.