Eric Newton, BJU Seminary Faculty
Several years ago, I had the privilege of taking a mission trip to Singapore and Indonesia. On the 12-hour flight from Detroit to Tokyo I sat next to a quiet Filipino who was returning from an international psychiatry conference in Toronto. With her occupation in mind, I explained that I mentored students, attempting to steer the conversation to the true needs of every human heart and the centrality of Jesus Christ. She politely dialogued for a while then found the first of several movies to watch during the long journey across North America and the Pacific Ocean. I confess, our interaction didn’t seem to amount to much. Unlike on some other flights, this seatmate and I didn’t share much in common.
For us who follow Jesus Christ, the term atheist provokes a range of thought and feeling. Contemporary atheism may frustrate us, because it won’t go away and sometimes swallows up those whom we know and love. Perhaps it intimidates us with its seemingly sophisticated arguments. Hopefully atheism stirs up our zeal. As Romans 1 clearly teaches, the glory of God is at stake in every individual’s acceptance or rejection of God’s self-revelation. But I wonder if, more often than not, atheism numbs us. We don’t share in common the most basic of beliefs, that there is a God. And therefore, conversation with an atheist seems senseless.
But that would be to discount God ourselves. Recently I attended a seminar presented by an atheist-turned-Christian. His personal story was sobering, instructive, but ultimately thrilling. He grew up in a Christian home, had doubts about the goodness of God, attended a Christian university, started reading unbelieving philosophers, and became an avowed atheist. He plunged himself into liberal social causes, seeking to fill the void in his soul by helping change the planet. But he found the lives of his cohorts to be in disarray and the purposes for which he lived dissatisfying. Then his seemingly hopeless journey took a significant turn when he attended a Bible-believing church with a relative and was confronted by genuine Christian love and, subsequently, earnest prayer on his behalf. Eventually, this intelligent prodigal came to the end of himself and was graciously rescued by the Lover of souls.
So, if we’re asking the question of whether we should have a conversation with an atheist about Jesus Christ, the answer is yes. But how? Like anything else, we have to start by adopting God’s revealed perspective. Scripture speaks straightforwardly about atheists. God calls them fools: “The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God” (Ps. 53:1). The designation fool isn’t referring to someone’s intelligence. It’s a moral description. It focuses on the inclination of a person’s soul. In other words, the heart of atheism isn’t heady arguments but an emotional commitment.
That means that conversations with atheists rarely succeed through intricate debate. Yes, there are good explanations for why we believe and what we do. And yes, we should always be ready to commend and defend our faith (1 Pet. 3:15). Yet, an atheist isn’t lacking a good reason to believe in God’s existence. Like all of us who were once outside of Christ, he needs a new heart and eyes to understand that true freedom is confessing Jesus as Lord. Peace is found, not in skepticism awaiting satisfactory proof but believing in order that we may know (as Augustine put it).
An atheist may initially frustrate or confuse or intimidate us, but we can be confident that he has an innate knowledge of God, the true God of the Bible whose very nature is mercy. And we should remember that, like in the example above, love often cuts a path for truth. It may not be a theistic proof but rather otherworldly kindness and intercessory prayer that set the table for our gospel conversation to begin or continue.
Mark Vowels, CGO Director
Why don’t we typically excel at sharing the good news of salvation in Jesus Christ? There are a variety of reasons for our frequent failures, ranging from a lack of clarity about our own relationship with God to a paralyzing fear about being rejected by others. But one of the reasons that we often give is that we just don’t know what to say to start a gospel conversation. That’s what I want to discuss in this blog post.
On one level, it is helpful to simply learn how to be friendly and conversational. My own natural tendency is to be an introvert. Left to myself, I’m the guy at the party who stands alone in one corner. It doesn’t come naturally to me to be the one who starts a conversation with a stranger. Once a conversation is initiated, I’m usually good, but my personality is to wait and let others talk to me. I realized a long time ago, however, that my personality and my desire to share the gospel did not work well together. So I just had to learn to start conversations and push myself to be friendly. Believe me, I still need to push myself, but I have found that most people enjoy someone being friendly to them and never realize that for me it doesn’t come natural.
So what will you talk about? Well, some topics are easy, like the weather or some major current event, or whatever the particular situation that has brought you together (travel, shopping, waiting in a line, etc.). Most people also like to talk about family, what they do for a living, their ideal vacation spot, or anything they might find to be fun and interesting. Be observant and talk about something that seems to be important to the other person. Once I was on a cross-country flight seated next to a man covered in tattoos. I have nothing in particular against tattoos, but I have never gotten one, so I said to the man, “I’ve never thought about getting a tattoo, but you’re deeply invested! Can you tell me about your tattoos?” And he did! For more than an hour! But then when he finished, he asked me, “So what are you into?” And I told him about the gospel. On another occasion I met a guy with a huge blue mohawk, so I just asked him, “Why blue?” and that started a conversation which eventually led me to tell him about Jesus.
My point is that learning to have conversations with people you don’t know is a skill that can be learned through practice. I often say in class, you can’t make disciples without relationships, and you can’t make relationships without learning to have conversations; so if you hope to evangelize and make disciples, you have to learn to talk to people.
Once you have started a friendly, non-threatening conversation, think of some way to introduce a spiritual element to your interaction. I know some people who ask, “If you were to die today, do you know where you would spend eternity?” That’s actually a really good question and forces people to think deeply about their lives, but in today’s world it will strike most people as very abrupt and rather offensive. When we hear about threats from active shooters and terrorists, I’m not sure that asking somebody about how ready they are to die works as a non-threatening way to deepen the conversation.
Here are a few of my favorite questions to ask:
The nice thing about these types of questions is that it really doesn’t matter how people answer. Be polite and listen to whatever they have to say. Most people, however, will intuitively look at you after they have responded and ask, “so how would you answer that question?” Even if they don’t ask, it is easy to say, “Would you mind if I gave you my answer to that question?” Some people will not allow the conversation to turn to spiritual things, but many will. Your role as a Jesus follower is to tell them good news, not to convert them. Conversion is the job of the Holy Spirit. Your job is to give them information that brings understanding and leads to conviction. So even though many conversations will not progress beyond this point, some will, and you can begin to discuss what the Bible says is true about our relationship with God and how we can find salvation through Christ.
Another idea is to ask what author Rico Tice calls “pain-line questions.” Pain-line questions ask hard questions at people’s point of pain. To the person with chronic physical pain, you might ask, “What if this pain never goes away?” Or to the person whose life is defined by their anger or bitterness, you might ask, “Why are you so angry? Does being angry help the situation?” In other words, rather than try to move away from talking about pain points, gently ask questions that make the person face what they wish to avoid. Then give them the gospel hope.
One last idea to help start gospel conversations is to use a great free phone app called “Questions in a Box.” It is a lovely little tool to help you think of something to start or move conversations along, divided into categories ranging from “We Just Met” to “Big Picture” questions. Take a moment to download it from your app store and try it out. Let me know what other apps you have tried or what other conversation starters work for you. We can all continue to learn how to ask good questions, be good listeners, and give people good news about our hope in Christ!
 Rico Tice and Carl Laferton, Honest Evangelism (New Malden: Good Book Co, 2015), p. 62.
Forrest McPhail, BJU Alumnus
Let’s talk about some more misunderstandings that affect our view of poverty.
Who is our paradigm for cross-cultural missions—Jesus or Paul?
Some see Jesus as the ultimate example of how to fulfill the Great Commission. Others argue that Paul is the primary example. Does it matter?
While the Son of God made flesh is our perfect example of righteousness, His ministry lifestyle is not the paradigm for cross-cultural missionaries in the Church Age. Jesus never left Israel and focused on the Jews. His teaching ministry was attended continually with signs and miracles. Before His death and resurrection, He chose and trained men whom He would later commission with the task of making disciples among all nations.
The Holy Spirit was poured out in Acts 2. After this, and on through the rest of the NT, we see the first sixty years of the Great Commission. Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles, is our God-given example of a cross-cultural servant of the Gospel. The nature of Jesus’s earthly ministry and the unfolding of biblical revelation naturally lead us to consider Paul and his co-laborers for a model of how to “do missions.”
There is no conflict between the ministries of Jesus and Paul. Jesus and Paul ministered under different circumstances for different purposes.
A Closer Look at Poverty: What is it? What is the church to do about it?
A casual look at most missions literature today would reveal that many professed Christians believe that relieving world poverty and helping people achieve a higher standard of living is central to the task of the Church. The vast number of aid organizations, many with Christian roots, exist to promote upward mobility, economic development, and justice in foreign governments. The lion’s share of resources used towards “mission” are used for these purposes.
A simple question that is often left unasked is, what is poverty? When the Bible speaks of poverty, it is not describing people on government support, people with less, those in less developed contexts, or those unable to achieve middle class economic status. Those who are poor in Scripture are those that who do not have clothing, food, or shelter. They are people that cannot survive without emergency aid given to them by others. Search the Scriptures, and you will see that this is so.
What places and circumstances require such aid in today’s world? Those in refugee camps, in war zones, and suffering from recent devastating natural disasters are the kinds of people that need our attention. There are also individuals in our lives that we may meet in real need and genuine poverty.
The love of God commands us to reach out and help those around us. Righteousness means mercy and compassion. Yes, as individuals, we must be generous.
Missionaries today are not bound by Scripture to double as social justice agents or charity organization professionals. These means may be necessary at times, and may even meet a timely need, but these are the exception, not the rule.
Factor #7 A consistent spiritual focus of ministry can be difficult to maintain.
Keeping the Gospel clear among the poor
We can obscure the focus of ministry when we sweeten the call for repentance and faith with any material benefit for those that answer. Many among the world’s relatively poor profess Christianity in order to get a better deal in this life. Some of that is just human nature—being sinners, none of us desire the truth of the Gospel apart from saving grace. However, when aid work and charity programs are combined with evangelism, often the result around the world is large numbers of public professions with little enduring fruit.
If we are to use compassion ministries in conjunction with cross-cultural ministry, it must be done in a way that guards the Gospel and discourages false faith. Too often our love for visible success and desire for eternal fruit through our short-term efforts clouds our minds from reality. Those cross-cultural laborers who know the language and culture are best equipped to understand how best to use aid in ways that encourage true faith. Methods that confuse the hearers or encourage them to false faith are unworthy means for giving the Gospel message.
The Local Church: guarding spiritual relationships amid relative poverty
We can blur the focus of our ministry when we are confused about our role. Church planters/disciple-makers in the New Testament were not aid organization managers who wielded power and influence through their funding from overseas. Nor were they employers of those that they led to Christ. They were servants of the Gospel whose primary identity was that of being teachers of the Word of God. They were either financially independent of those with whom they served, as Paul, or dependent upon those they served, as Peter. There are no examples in the NT of church planters or spiritual leaders acting as financial patrons of the people that they served.
The norm for pastors in Scripture is that local congregations help provide for their pastors materially as he provides for them spiritually. This is true for cross-cultural laborers and traveling evangelists in the NT as well. But what has happened in modern times among cross-cultural missionaries is that they are not merely independently supported as Paul was (by his own hands and by love offerings), but they also become financial patrons to those whom they serve.
What happens when spiritual leaders become financial patrons, and believers they lead become their clients? People follow their leader because of the authority, status and power that he/she wields because of financial influence. The people do not give generously and fulfill their ministries apart from their patron’s immediate support. The people do not learn to support their own pastors as commanded by God. Servant leadership is almost impossible.
The Doctrine of the Holy Spirit
This one thing can sharpen the focus of our ministry: the only thing required of God’s people in any given place to fulfill the Great Commission is to proclaim the Gospel through the enabling power of the Spirit. If we teach or exemplify through our ministry methodology that anything else is necessary to accomplish the task of making disciples, we render most Christians in this world incapable of obeying Christ!
Many cross-cultural missionaries lack faith in the power of God’s Spirit. They trust instead in a plethora of programs, buildings, and social aid. The national believers assume that if they too want to serve Christ and plant churches, they will need massive capital in order to do the same! The more complicated and expensive our methods on the field, the more we handicap the faith of the people we are striving to teach to obey Christ. The more simple our methods, the more reproducible they are, which encourages the faith of the people. Methods matter profoundly because of what they communicate about our faith in the power of God’s Spirit.
Factor #8 Changing times can obscure unchanging needs.
Avoid getting sidetracked from a primary need
Compassion ministries have their place and are current expressions of God’s love and mercy. People in this generation are far more interested in these types of ministries than past generations were, and that is just fine. But who fulfills these ministries, how they do so, when, and how these affect local bodies of believers on the field need to be grappled with. Compassion ministries must not be allowed to distract God’s people from the primary need of making disciples.
The 1 Corinthians 9 principle
Cross-cultural missionaries who are willing to labor for the Lord Jesus on pioneer fields must embrace the 1 Corinthians 9:19-27 principle: “I must be all things to all men with all discipline of body and spirit that I might win some.” This spirit is contrary to the spirit of our day.
Men and women are needed who are committed to labor for the Gospel who possess the spirit of the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 9. These will lay down their personal rights and embrace a life of discipline for Jesus’ sake. They will not insist on privileges or comforts. They will sacrifice and do hard things like conquer languages and understand and adapt to other cultures in order to preach Christ.
Missionaries may have to be creative and tolerate extra pressures in order to live where Christ is not named. They might have to be bi-vocational. They might have to endure the continual strain of imminent expulsion or imprisonment. But they will do this out of love for Jesus Christ. They will discipline their bodies and spirits by God’s grace and pursue His glory among the nations.
A return to biblical priorities and simplicity in cross-cultural missions would clarify the Gospel, empower believers for ministry, free up resources, promote reproducible methods of evangelism and training, and, above all, bring more glory to Jesus Christ whose name we proclaim.
Meet the challenges and share in the blessings!
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The CGO Blog
Written by the CGO staff, with guest posts from students and other faculty/staff at BJU to provide thought leadership for missions in a new millennium.