This talk was the opening keynote address to a meeting of the Fellowship of Evangelists in the Universities of Europe (FEUER), meeting in Pescara, Italy.
It is great to be here with you all at this important conference, where we hope to learn together how to be more effective evangelists. My task tonight is to help us all to see more clearly the role of persuasion in the work of evangelism.
Can I start by saying a little bit about myself? I became a Christian 50 years ago at the age of 20. My parents were not Christians, but I met Christians during my teens – and they impressed me. They were kind and practised hospitality. They always made me feel welcome and included me in their activities. The more I heard, the more I was intrigued. So at the age of 17, I decided that I needed to evaluate Christianity for myself. I bought a modern English version of the New Testament and set out to read just one chapter every night, before putting my light out. It takes nine months to read it like that, and I expected then to be able to make up my mind about Christ, one way or the other. Instead, I finished it full of questions, but different questions from the ones I started with. So having got a measure of it, I started to read it all again, and then a third time, to focus specifically on the issues and the centrality of the resurrection. So after three years of personal and private enquiry, I became satisfied that Jesus was whom he claimed to be, that God had raised him from the dead and I would have to face him in eternity.
We must put ourselves into
the place of unbelievers, and try to understand their perspective
The moment I became a Christian I had a deep conviction, not just that I should tell others about Christ, but that I should tell them in the way I would want to be told. This was Christ's Golden Rule – applied to evangelism – that we should treat others as we would want to be treated. It applies to everything we do and it certainly applies to the way we share the Gospel. We must put ourselves into the place of unbelievers, and try to understand their perspective – culturally, morally and intellectually.
To equip myself for this task, I attended several evangelism training courses. One involved learning a sequence of memory verses to use. Another involved the Bridge diagram. One majored on Church-based initiatives, with guest services, where non-Christians were invited to join in singing the hymns, saying the prayers, even standing to recite the Apostles Creed – before they had even heard the sermon! (which I thought was daft!). The sermon was of course a monologue, delivered from a raised pulpit with a wall around it. Was that to stop the preacher falling out, I wondered, or to prevent angry people getting in? I wasn't quite sure. Another used a little booklet, which assumed the existence of God at the outset, explaining that God has a wonderful plan for our lives. At each point I came away from these training courses, feeling that they were far removed from the atmosphere of the New Testament. "This is not that" I thought – but I struggled to identify the nub issues.
After being a Christian for 18 months, I had started at Medical School. We organised a weekly evangelistic meeting, where students were invited to hear a Christian speaker and some 20–30 students would attend. One afternoon, as some 150 students were assembling after lunch in our large Student Common Room, one of these students asked me a question about Christianity. We sat down and I attempted to answer. As I did so, someone else butted in, then another. Others gathered round and soon we were surrounded by 20 or more students all asking questions or disputing what I was saying. Some stood around listening. Others pulled up chairs or sat on the floor. Some were scornful and hostile, others were intrigued. But they were all engaging in what became a very lively discussion about Christian faith. Now I was a new Christian and completely out of my depth. But I had a great sense that "This was that". This is what was going on in Capernaum, in Thessalonica, in the market place of Athens, in Corinth and in the Lecture Hall of Ephesus. After about half an hour of this lively dispute, a bell rang to give five minutes' warning that lectures were about to begin. Everyone gathered their things and left, leaving me sitting on a sofa with the girl who asked the original question. I turned to her and apologised for not answering her question. In fact, I admitted I couldn't even remember what her question was.
She said, "It doesn't matter."
I said, "No, surely it does matter. You asked a serious question!"
"No it doesn't matter now," she said.
I thought I had ruined it. Then she added, "I asked you what it meant to be 'born again'. It doesn't matter now – because I just have been."
Mary and I remain friends and are still in touch. She is a doctor in Australia. She and her husband stay in our home when they come to England. Her daughter has been working as a missionary in Indonesia. Mary's life was turned around during that chaotic discussion nearly 50 years ago. As a result, we saw a steady trickle of students in our year becoming Christians. The change in Mary was evident for everyone to see. We started the year with just five Christians. Within two years there were twenty of us, in a year of just 96 students. I remember asking the President of the Student Union, a self-confident atheist, what she thought of Christ. To my surprise, she suddenly welled up in tears and said, "How can I not believe? Five of my closest friends have become Christians. They have found a joy in life they never had before. They have found meaning and purpose in life." So many people had become Christians, I wasn't able to work out who her five closest friends were.
So what can we learn from all this? Come with me to Thessalonica and see what Paul was actually doing (Acts 17:1-9). Note first of all that this was (verse 2) his normal custom. This is what he did – here, there and everywhere. There is nothing exceptional about this. This was his normative practice.
the first stage of Christian mission was entirely to the Jews and those God-fearers who attended the Synagogues
Paul started in the synagogue. We need to take careful note of this. Not only were the first Christians themselves all Jewish but until the conversion of Cornelius and subsequent events at Antioch, they only shared the Gospel with the Jews. This is explicitly stated in Acts 11:19. Scattered widely by the persecution that followed the martyrdom of Stephen, they told their message "only to Jews". It was not until some men from the island of Cyprus and from Cyrene in North Africa went to Antioch that they "began to speak to Greeks also, telling them the good news about the Lord Jesus." And we are told a great number believed and turned to the Lord. "Then Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul and brought him to Antioch. So for a whole year Barnabas and Saul met with the church and taught great numbers of people. The disciples", Luke says, "were first called Christians at Antioch." (Acts 11:25-26) Why? Because they weren't Jews! They were neither Jews, nor the God-fearing Gentiles who attended the synagogues. Now they were speaking to outright, pagan Gentiles.
So the first stage of Christian mission was entirely to the Jews and those God-fearers who attended the Synagogues and that went on for probably ten years. How can we date this? Because chapter 12 tells us that about this time King Herod put James the brother of John to death and imprisoned Peter. After Peter's escape, Herod went to Caesarea, where he suddenly died. Herod's death is recorded by Luke and Josephus and is dated at AD 44. So for some ten years, the early Christians were all Messianic Jews, who told other Jews about the Messiah, until those Christians from Cyprus and North Africa started evangelising the Greeks in Antioch.
The difficulty for us is that most of the evangelism recorded in Acts is focussed on the Jews, where the Messianic Jews appealed to the Jewish scriptures to proclaim the Jewish Messiah to Jewish people. We must think outside of that box. This is why Paul's appeal to the pagan farmers at Lystra, so briefly told in Acts 14:8–20, and his visit to Athens (Acts 17:16–34) are so important for us. (There is a chapter in my book, The Search for God: and the Path to Persuasion, on Paul's presentation at Athens, and this is also on bethinking.org as Paul at Athens.) In these places, he made no mention of the promised Messiah nor did he appeal to the Jewish scriptures. The pagan Greeks knew nothing about the Old Testament and its promises. Rather he spoke to them from their own culture and their own understanding. And that is the model we must adopt.
the early Christians never proclaimed a book; they proclaimed the historic person of Christ
This has immediate implications for the way we use the Bible. Many evangelists assume the authority of the Bible in their preaching, expecting non-Christians to accept what the Bible says as being true. But the early Christians never proclaimed a book. They proclaimed the historic person of Christ. To the Jews they referred to the Scriptures. These were the Old Testament scriptures, which foretold the coming of the Messiah. They did not ask Gentiles to believe a book but to trust an historic person. Every time we say, "The Bible says this" or "the Bible says that", we are putting the cart before the horse. A cart should be pulled by the horse, not pushed along by the horse behind by it. We ask people to trust Christ. They will learn from him to trust the Scriptures as an article of Christian faith, not the other way around.
Our argument is not circular – "trust Christ because of the Bible and trust the Bible because of Christ". No. We present a linear argument from history. Trust the historic Christ on the evidence of history and he will teach you to trust the scriptures. If you quote 'The Bible', you are appealing to the authority of a Book. But the Bible isn't a book – it is a library of books. If you quote Moses, David, Isaiah, Jesus, Paul, Luke or John, you are appealing to their historic testimony recorded in a variety of documents. Their testimony stands or falls on their historic validity.
So after the breakthrough in Antioch, Paul and Barnabas were sent to Cyprus, then Perga, Pamphhylia, Pisidia, Iconium, then Lystra, Derbe,and Attalia and back to Antioch to report "all that God had done through them and how he had opened the door of faith to the Gentiles" (Acts 14:27 – N.B. this is half way through the book!). And this first Gentile missionary journey, it seems, happened between AD 46 and 48, some 14 years after Christ's death and resurrection.
Trust the historic Christ on the evidence of history
Now such was the historic dispersion of the Jews into communities across the Roman Empire that most of these places had synagogues, and many Greeks, presumably disillusioned by the trivialities, vanities and flagrant immoralities of the Greek, Roman, Persian and Egyptian created gods, found a much more serious, monotheistic understanding of the moral, Creator God, who was being presented in the synagogues. And these people, who came to understand the Jewish Scriptures, were clearly well prepared then to understand the Gospel. So we have three main groups: the Jews and the God-fearing and biblically literate Gentiles, whom the apostles met in the synagogues, and the pagan Greeks whom they met in the country districts like Lystra, as well as the public venues in the cities and the Areopagus of Athens.
So come back to Thessalonica. "As his custom was, Paul went into the synagogue and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures." Now this word confused me. It sounds as though he gave then an academic lecture or exposition of the Scriptures from a podium. This verb 'to reason' is used to describe what Paul was doing in Thessalonica, Athens, Corinth and Ephesus. But the underlying Greek word used here is dialegomai, which is the root of our word 'dialogue'. In other words, he was not giving monologues but was engaging in two-way conversations and discussions, with whoever was present. Neither did he expect them to believe what he was saying without question. And why should he?
Now as soon as you get this picture of two-way discussion in your mind, everything else said here falls into place. So verse 3 tells us he was explaining the gospel. We need to explain things that are not being understood. And the only way we can know whether we are being understood is if we allow our hearers to respond to us. Then we can say, "No, no, that is not what I meant. Let me put it another way." Their misunderstandings are revealed in what they say back to us. It has been wisely said that it is not what we say that matters, but what they hear. We can say all the right things, but if they don't understand us, our communication has failed. It is an important part of putting ourselves into the unbeliever's thinking to make sure we are being understood.
he was not giving monologues but was engaging in two-way conversations and discussions, with whoever was present
The next verb in verse 3 is that Paul was proving that Christ had to suffer and rise from the dead. Now Paul was speaking here to Jews from the Scriptures. They presumably did not believe what he was saying and he had to show them from the Scriptures that these things were in fact prophesied. In other words, they had entirely legitimate doubts, which they revealed in this two-way conversation, allowing Paul to identify and address their specific questions and issues.
So there are three distinct features of Paul's evangelism here. He was telling them things they did not know, was explaining things they did not understand and was persuading them of things they did not think were true. In dialogue then, Paul addressed their ignorance, their confusions and their doubts. We must decide what non-Christians need to be told, explain the things they need to understand and establish the evidence for truths they might have good reason to doubt. One of the great problems in evangelism is when evangelists think they need only do one or two of these three things. It isn't enough to speak in a monologue and assume we are being understood. Nor should we assume that they should believe such things about God without being given sound reasons to do so.
What did this amount to? Look at verse 3: "This Jesus I am proclaiming to you is the Christ." This is what Paul called proclamation. He did not see proclamation in terms of an exposition of a text, delivered in a monologue, six foot above contradiction, with no opportunity for questions and discussion. Yet this is what the Church does right across the world. I think that this caricature of proclamation is the single biggest reason that the Church in Europe is being so ineffective in our day and generation. It is a bad teaching model.
Luke goes on to record (verse 4) that "Some of the Jews, a large number of God-fearing Greeks and not a few prominent women were" – converted? No, Luke says they were "persuaded". That is what he was trying to do. That was his part in evangelism. Please God, that some of those who are persuaded of the truth of Christianity will subsequently be moved by the Holy Spirit and humbled under the kingly rule of Christ and be truly converted. We must be clear what our part is and what God's part is in effective evangelism. We are called to persuade people that Jesus is Lord. We cannot convert them. That is God's part. By his Holy Spirit, he brings people under his kingly rule.
We must be clear what our part is and what God's part is in effective evangelism
So we have five key verbs here describing what Paul was actually doing when he was teaching the gospel. He was dialoguing, explaining, evidencing, proclaiming and persuading. So what then is persuasion? This I believe to be the key ingredient that is missing today. Just telling people things, just giving them information is not sufficient, if they do not understand it or have sufficient reasons not to believe it.
What does it mean to be persuaded that something is true? Do you believe everything you are told? Did you check the details about this conference? How confident were you that it would take place? As you set out, did you consider it might not happen? That it could be cancelled? That the venue might be changed? Or that you'd booked the wrong flight, or got the wrong month? Or that the efficient Lindsay Brown might not be entirely reliable? Or that an earthquake might destroy the hotel? [A serious earthquake had occurred in central Italy the week before the conference.] In other words, you could not know beyond doubt that this conference would take place.
All our knowledge is like that. Outside of mathematics and strict logic, all our knowledge including all our knowledge of history, science and theology is always provisional. It is true and certain only providing various other things are reliable – such as our rationality, our memory, our eyesight, our sources of information, the emails we have been sent, the state of shifting tectonic plates and much else. Yet despite the provisionality of our knowledge, we still speak of knowing things and knowing them anyway with sufficient clarity and confidence that we take action in the light of them. We do set out on journeys; we do believe other people's promises, even despite past disappointments.
As we learned about the conference, it was like adding weights to a weighing scale until it reached a tipping point and we were persuaded to go. We might have doubts. We might need more information. We need to work out the costs, and the flight times. Eventually, we were persuaded and set out for Italy.
So it is with the gospel. Paul wrote that now we know in part. Eventually we shall know fully. Now we see but a poor reflection, as in a mirror dimly, then we shall know face to face (1 Corinthians 13:9–12). Just getting the story of the gospel from an unreliable source is not enough. People need to probe the story, see if it makes sense; weigh up the evidence and see if it is true, and having done all that, they still might remain unmoved. Some people really don't want Christianity to be true!
we invite people to trust what they can know to be true and reasonable
We become persuaded when the balance of probabilities shifts in the direction of something being true, and we are unlikely to take action until we are sufficiently confident that it is true. When we do set out, we do so in faith, realising we might yet be wrong. We still carry our doubts. These ebb and flow throughout our lives. Sometimes we are carried along with great conviction. At other times our doubts disturb us deeply. We are not asking people to take a blind leap of faith against the evidence. Rather we invite them to trust what they can know to be true and reasonable.
When Paul made his defence before King Agrippa and Governor Festus in Caesarea, recorded by Luke in Acts 26, Festus interrupted him. He shouted "Paul, you are out of your mind! Your great learning is driving you insane!"
"No, I am not insane, most excellent Festus," replied Paul. "What I am saying is true and reasonable. The king is familiar with these things. I am convinced that none of this has escaped his notice, because it was not done in a corner. King Agrippa do you believe the prophets? I know you do."
Then Agrippa said to Paul, "Do you think that in a short time you can persuade me to be a Christian?"
To Paul, the amount of time was irrelevant. It takes as long as it takes. He replied, "Short or long – I pray God that not only you but all who are listening to me today may become what I am."
Luke says that Festus and Agrippa then left together. And Agrippa said to Festus, "This man could have been set free, if he had not appealed to Caesar." Agrippa was in no doubt that Paul was trying to persuade him and it seems that he was well on the way to being persuaded.
So at Ephesus, we read in Acts 19:8 that for three months in the synagogue, Paul was "arguing persuasively about the kingdom of God". That is a great phrase to describe authentic New Testament evangelism. Does it describe your evangelism? Is that what you do?
People don't like the word 'argue'. They think is means we getting heated and having a row. Try this one! If A=B and B=C, then A=C. That is no reason to get heated or angry. But it is a good argument. It is a straightforward, logical deductive argument. Of course the conclusion which the argument drives them to might indeed get them heated! A silversmith called Demetrius complained that, "this fellow Paul has convinced a large number of people here in Ephesus ... that man-made gods are no gods at all; our trade will lose its good name and the temple of the goddess Artemis will be discredited" (Ephesians 19:26–27). And a riot broke out.
What happened in Ephesus had happened in Corinth. Acts 18:4 says, "Every Sabbath he reasoned in the synagogue, trying to persuade Jews and Greeks." Paul was attacked and dragged before the proconsul Gallio. "This man," they charged, "is persuading the people to worship God." Paul was doing the same in Corinth that he was doing in Athens.
And what effect did Paul have in Thessalonica (Acts 17:5)? It caused a riot there! They rushed to Jason's house in search of Paul. They dragged Jason before the city officials, shouting "These men who have caused trouble all over the world have now come here. They are all defying Caesar's decrees, saying there is another King, one called Jesus." This was in AD 49, just five years into the mission to the Gentiles.
Meanwhile in Rome, in that same year according to the Roman historian Suetonius, the Emperor Claudius expelled all the Jews from Rome due to repeated disturbances instigated in the name of someone called Chrestus, which is generally accepted to mean Christus. And Luke refers to the same event in reference to Priscilla and Aquila, the Christians Paul met at Corinth, who had recently had been expelled from Rome by the Emperor.
As a result of this edict, Paul was able to write in AD 57 to Christians in Rome saying, at the beginning of his great letter to the Romans, "First of all, I thank my God because your faith is being proclaimed all over the world" (Romans 1:8). In trying to end the trouble the gospel was causing in Rome, Claudius had compounded the problem. In driving them out, he had scattered them everywhere.
it is our task to turn the tide and persuade a new generation of students to put their hope and their faith in the risen Christ
In that year AD 57 in Caesarea, a lawyer named Tertullus prosecuted the case against Paul. Luke recorded his statements to Felix, "We have found this man to be a troublemaker stirring up riots among the Jews all over the world. He is a ringleader of the Nazarene sect" (Acts 24:5).
Finally, we leave Paul under house arrest in Rome, preaching the Kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ boldly and without hindrance. "From morning to evening he explained and declared to them the kingdom of God and tried to convince them about Jesus. And some were convinced, but others would not believe" (Acts 28:23).
Pilate had asked Jesus if he was a king. Jesus replied, "My kingdom is not of this world. If it were my servants would be fighting." The Jews shouted to Pilate, "If you let this man go, you are no friend of Caesar. Anyone, who claims to be King, opposes Caesar." "Shall I crucify your king?", Pilate asked. "We have no King but Caesar," the chief priests replied to their great shame. That would be like us saying about our consciences, "We have no higher authority in this world than Donald Trump or Clinton, or Putin." It would be blasphemy. What a mess the world would be in if that was the case!
By AD 64, just thirty years after Christ's death and resurrection, the Emperor Nero was interrogating large numbers of Christians in Rome, soaking them in olive oil and setting light to them, displaying them on crosses in his gardens, and for the next 250 years there were repeated persecutions until the Emperor Constantine bowed himself before Christ. Christian civilisation was then allowed to flourish in Europe for the next 1600 years. Now, you will have noticed, Europe is effectively post-Christian. And it is our task to turn the tide and persuade a new generation of students to put their hope and their faith in the risen Christ.
© 2016 Peter May