Graceful Evangelism, Christian Witness in a Complex World by Frances S. Adeney. Baker Academic, 2010.
I won this book in a book giveaway from The Baker Deep End Blog in…2014! Finally, I read it this year! This informal blog, associated with Baker Book House, has giveaways of Christian non-fiction books – mostly academic or of a more thoughtful nature. I won another book recently, and hope to read it before 2020 (haha).
First off, this is an academic book. It is not a practical “how to” book about sharing Christ with your co-worker or neighbor. Rather it is about the theology that underlies evangelism and the history of evangelism over the last 2,000 years – with the ultimate focus on approaches to evangelism today. I think its primary use would be as a textbook in classes on evangelism, outreach, and missions. If I was teaching such a class, I would pair it along with one that is practical in regards to everyday sharing of your faith with those around you – such as Paul Little’s classic: How to Give Away Your Faith.
There is the tension or conflict between sharing Christ in word or deed. Of course, it should involve both, but polarization occurs. Some (this would tend to be mainline Christians) see evangelism as social justice and are even opposed to sharing Christ in word. While some (this would tend to be conservative evangelicals) can neglect social justice and focus only on word – giving a gospel presentation, handing out tracts, going door to door. The author tries to build a bridge between these two sides.
I found myself trying to analyze the author herself, and I would describe her as a conservative mainliner. Clearly, she loves Jesus and cares enough about evangelism to write a book about it! At times I was pleasantly surprised by her emphasis on the gospel and Christian truths. However, some evangelicals may find her “too liberal” and liberal mainliners may find her “too conservative.” I guess that is the peril of writing a diplomatic book that attempts to resolve what can be called the evangelism wars.
Note the title and subtitle of the book. As Adeney says in the book’s introduction:
“The word evangelism evokes strong reactions from Christians and non-Christians in American society today. To some Christians it is a word full of hope. Evangelism is the way to spread the good news that Jesus Christ came into the world to save us…To other Christians evangelism is ‘the E word.’ Evangelism is the way to alienate non-Christians and embarrass the church…To some non-Christians evangelism is the way super religious Christians push their views onto others.” page xi
Thus the need for graceful evangelism. The book has 4 parts: Where have we come from?, Where are we now?, Where are going?, and Can we craft graceful evangelism?
In part one, several chapters carefully look at evangelism in the Bible, evangelism over the last 2,000 years, and an entire chapter is dedicated to the Western missionary movement of the 19th century. I like the history of just about anything, and appreciated these chapters the most. History matters. As Adeney states as part 2 begins: “Seeing where we have come from informs our understanding of where we are now and, at the same time, raises a number of questions.”
Part two addresses aspects of modern life and current trends in evangelism. Issues are addressed such as our diverse society, religious pluralism, the mishandling of evangelism by charlatans, and postcolonial critique of Western Christian missions. A chapter looks at seven contemporary theories of evangelism, such as: Fulfilling needs, Community practices, Prophetic preaching, and Faith sharing. Adeney emphasizes that these need not compete, but can complement each other.
Part three is essentially about creating an approach to evangelism. Chapter 8 entitled “Abundant Life” reminds us that the gospel is good news! We need to keep our eyes on Jesus and remember that Jesus died for the sins of the world. “So much of what we focus on is peripheral to the good news – even detrimental to it.” (page 103) There is a chapter on forming a mission statement, and another on the importance of context. The gospel does not change. However, times do change, and how we go about about proclaiming the gospel must take current culture into consideration.
The final section is about applying all these things. It addresses various challenges, how Christians with differing views of evangelism can understand each other, and radical habits through developing a way to live. In the “Radical Habits” chapter, individuals such as the apostle Paul, St. Patrick, Catherine Booth, Mother Theresa, and Billy Graham are considered.
Always, the author was trying to build bridges between Christians with differing views of evangelism. There is much to learn from the strengths and weaknesses of various methods. Churches and individuals can appropriate strategies from across the theological spectrum.
I don’t recommend this book to everyone. Some would find it dull, some would find it too academic, and some evangelicals will find it too liberal or wasting time with analysis. However, I’m glad I read the book and found it worthwhile.
In close, I was amused by a couple of brief stories Adeney told about mainliners being filled with angst about past evangelism and apologizing to Christians in Asia for 19th century missions. The Asian Christians were puzzled, and responded that they would not be Christians if the missionaries had not brought the gospel to them! They were thankful for the 19th century mission movement.