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Isn't the Gospel Contagious Enough?

By Sherman Nobles
Evangelist - The great commission is to "Go and preach the good news to everyone in the world. Anyone who believes me and is baptized will be saved. But anyone who refuses to believe me will be condemned" (Mark 16:15-16 CEV).

Clear communication of the Gospel must take priority in our lives! Without hearing the Gospel, how can people believe?

Well known pastor, Bill Hybels, of Willow Creek Community Church in Chicago has recently published, "Becoming A Contagious Christian," a book on evangelism that focuses on building relationships in order to share the Gospel. While it is clear that Bill Hybels has had wonderful success in mobilizing Willow Creek Community Church to reach their community with the Gospel, I have concerns about some of the underlying theological assumptions in relational evangelism as presented in this book.

In no way do I wish to minimize the positive impact he and his congregation are having upon their city, America and even the world. I do hope to address the significant problems I see in this approach. I also hope to inspire you to have faith in the Gospel and to share it boldly with all who will listen.

It is my opinion that relational evangelism as promoted in this book lacks faith in the power of the Gospel. Such evangelism lacks the urgency of knowing our days are short. I don't believe Hybels effectively addresses the root issue of fear that keeps believers from sharing the Gospel. This form of relational evangelism does not follow the evangelistic pattern that Jesus demonstrated.

Overall, "Becoming a Contagious Christian" is well written, inspirational and informative. The authors present a good formula for maximum impact in reaching the lost with the Gospel; MI = HP + CP + CC. Maximum Impact = High Potency + Close Proximity + Clear Communication.

The section on "High Potency" inspires one to grow in three specific areas of Christian character -- authenticity, compassion and self-sacrifice. "Close Proximity" encourages you to build strategic relationships with unbelievers. "Clear Communication" gives practical advice on starting spiritual conversations, making the message clear and breaking the barriers to belief.

In truth, each of these components is necessary for an individual or a congregation to have maximum impact in their sphere of influence. Yet there is an underlying theme in the book and in the order of this equation with which I disagree. The assumption is that it is best to establish some level of social relationship with unbelievers before you present the Gospel. That also assumes that our character is of such quality that unbelievers will be attracted to Christ through us. This is done in the hope that, once the person sees we are authentic, compassionate and self-sacrificing, they will be more receptive to the Gospel.

This theme is seen in many aspects of the book. Hybels devotes 28 pages to "High Potency in Christian Character," and 24 pages to "Close Proximity," but only 20 pages to "Clear Communication of the Gospel." He plainly states, "Though it's tempting, to run ahead and talk about practical tips for communicating our faith would be premature. You see, before we can become highly contagious Christians, we must first live in a way that convinces the people around us that we actually have the disease ourselves!" (Pg. 54, emphasis mine).

This sounds good, but I emphatically disagree for several reasons. To start with, the power of the Gospel is in no way dependent upon me, my life style, or my character. The essence of the Gospel is that, although we are a mess with a capital "M," God loved us so much He gave Jesus to suffer the punishment for our sins, freely giving us the reward for Jesus' righteousness. The Gospel is true regardless of my character or lack thereof. All people will be judged one day on their acceptance or rejection of the Gospel regardless of the messenger's character.

Secondly, I disagree with the assumption that "we must first live in a way that convinces the people around us" of the Gospel, because it assumes that there will be a tomorrow and that Christ will not return any time soon. Yet no person is guaranteed tomorrow; in fact, we are guaranteed just the opposite! It is appointed for man to die and after this the judgement.

Simply stated, people die. People die every day and we may not have time to build a relationship and e-v-e-n-t-u-a-l-l-y share the Gospel. Situations arise, people move, jobs change and we may never talk again with this person. I believe many people have died without knowing Christ because the church has presumed upon tomorrow and not lived in the present. Therefore, we must take advantage of every opportunity to share our faith, recognizing our days are numbered and that Christ could return at any time.

Today is the day of salvation! Now is the acceptable time to share the Gospel. No one is guaranteed tomorrow.

The third reason I disagree with the underlying assumption of relational evangelism is that I do not assume that a relationship with me predisposes someone to accept Christ. In fact, I see my sins so clearly that I am amazed that God can even use me to share the Gospel. Truly, anything good that people see in me is directly due to the work of Christ in me, giving me favor in their eyes. Like Isaiah, I recognize that everything about me is polluted with my selfish nature. In reality, my best is shown as filthy rags in the awesome and convicting light of God.

Admitting this truth is very liberating. Based on God's unconditional love, I am freed to love God passionately and to love people in whatever state they are. Even though they may be liars, adulterers, homosexuals or murderers, I can love them and openly share with them the Good News of Jesus Christ because I have personally received the unconditional love of God.

We must also recognize that the god of this world has blinded unbelievers in such a way that they call evil good and good, evil. Therefore, in many cases we can be seen as peculiar, strange or even weird because we do not partake in their evil ways. To the tormented mind, loving, selfless acts of kindness can be interpreted as hateful, controlling and manipulative. We must rely upon the inherent power of the Gospel and the dynamic power of the Holy Spirit to deliver people from such powerful delusions.

As stated earlier, I do not believe we should wait to share the Gospel with a person until we have developed some level of social relationship with them. Another reason for this is honesty and integrity. Has someone who is part of a network marketing organization ever approached you with the following line: "You look like a sharp young man/woman; well we are looking for a few key people to…."? For me, a big red flag goes up immediately. I quickly assume that his flattery is not genuine and that he has ulterior motives. I would much rather he approach me openly and honestly, giving me the opportunity to listen if I so choose. If I choose not to listen, he should respect my decision and leave me alone.

In the same way, I believe it is better to share the Gospel openly, boldly and relationally, giving everyone an opportunity to choose to listen or respecting their decision not to.

There is another reason I disagree with the assumption that "we must first live in a way that convinces the people around us" of the Gospel. New believers, especially those from very depraved lifestyles, can usually expect years of growth in the Spirit before their life-style and character could be considered compassionate, authentic and self-sacrificing. Yet, there is often great potential to see a tremendous move of God in and through their existing relationships.

Because of the evangelistic efforts of the woman at the well in Samaria, a large percentage of the people in her town received Jesus. After Jesus delivered the demoniac from a legion of demons, he immediately sent him into the cities in his area to declare the great things God had done for him. The next time Jesus came to this area he was welcomed with open arms. I believe our greatest potential to reach the lost often lies with those who are weakest among us, the newborn babes in Christ. Every new believer should be immediately trained and equipped to share his or her faith in Christ.

In my work as an evangelist, I have found that fear, not a lack of compassion, authenticity or self-sacrifice, is the primary factor that keeps Christians from openly sharing the Gospel. The fear of rejection, the fear of persecution, the fear of not knowing enough, the fear of saying something wrong, the fear of what others will think, the fear of offending others, all hinder Christians from openly sharing their faith.

Many mature Christians, who are full of compassion, totally authentic and self-sacrificing, rarely share the Gospel of Jesus Christ even with close friends who are unbelievers. This is due directly to fear. Fear is a lack of faith and is the result of believing the lies of Satan, misunderstanding our responsibilities in evangelism and having little training or experience in sharing the Gospel.

As stated earlier, I like Bill Hybels' formula for evangelistic "Maximum Impact," but I would change the order and the emphasis of each component. Communicating the Gospel is of utmost importance. It needs to be communicated clearly, boldly, personally, relationally, compassionately, repeatedly, dogmatically, scholastically, apologetically, abundantly, and dramatically. The Gospel needs to be broadcast person to person, via TV, radio, telephone, internet, cassettes, videos, tracts, mail, billboards and every means possible.

The second part of the Hybels' formula is "Close Proximity." Yes, we do need to seek ways to interact with unbelievers. Inspired by God's love for all of mankind, we need to create opportunities for getting to know and getting involved in the lives of the lost.

The other part of Hybels' formula is "HP, High Potency." Christian character is very important. We need to be authentic, compassionate and self-sacrificing. These are elements of the fruit of the Spirit in which every Christian should grow over time; but in no way should our lack in any of these areas keep us from openly sharing the Gospel. The Gospel is truly Good News; to keep it to ourselves because of some guilt trip or false sense of humility is a travesty. We are the light of the world. The light we radiate is the Gospel, the Good News of Jesus Christ! Let no one hide his or her light under a basket.

Even though I share the message unlovingly and incompetently, the Gospel is powerful enough to save those who have ears to hear. Salvation is totally a work of God, by His Spirit, through His Word. We are simply privileged to be part of the process by which people hear the Gospel.

Please do not get me wrong; how we live is very important. Christ calls us to holiness, compassion and service. The more we are like Jesus, the more effective our presentation of the Gospel. The more we are filled with His Spirit, the more we overcome the barriers that keep people from accepting Christ. The greater our anointing, the greater our participation in the deliverance of people bound by Satan and his lies.

Jesus is our ultimate pattern for life and ministry. Jesus took purposeful steps to increase His audience and boldly proclaimed the truth to all who would listen. He then ingratiated His audience through compassionate service, the miraculous and in natural ways. Jesus would then say and do things that brought people to a point of decision, identifying those who believed in Him and those who didn't. Those identified as believing in Jesus were then involved in His ministry.

Perhaps we should follow this pattern of Christ -- declare the Gospel with boldness and trust the Holy Spirit to do the rest.

What do you think? Send Sherman your e-mail response.

More evangelism resources on Spritual Life

Sherman Nobles is an evangelist and a graduate of Regent University School of Divinity.

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