Improbable Stories of Faith and What They Teach Us about Evangelism
Randy Newman is the author of the best-selling Questioning Evangelism. He has served in campus ministry for over thirty years. Presently, he serves as a senior teaching fellow with the C.S. Lewis Institute in Washington D.C. Randy’s latest book, Unlikely Converts, frames the following interview.
The interview was conducted by David George Moore. Some of Dave’s teaching and interview videos can be found at www.mooreengaging.com.
Moore: You’ve written three other books on evangelism. What, perhaps who, motivated you to write this one?
Newman: It actually began as my Ph.D. dissertation. How’s that for an inauspicious beginning? I interviewed 40 college students who had come to saving faith in the past two years. Their stories were so moving and beautiful that I felt they needed to be told – somewhere more accessible than in a doctoral dissertation. I also interviewed a dozen more after my dissertation was finished and those stories also moved me deeply.
Moore: You dedicate this book to your dad who is a poster child of sorts for an “unlikely convert.” Tell us a little about him and his late in life conversion.
Newman: My Dad was Jewish, as was my Mom. So, I grew up in a secular Jewish household. My father was not very religious at all. In fact, I’d say he was angry at God because of all the evil he saw in his childhood and then when fighting in World War II. But he softened when he saw how my mother came to faith and that was so meaningful for her. My Dad started attending, along with my Mom, a Messianic Jewish congregation where he heard the gospel week after week. Eventually, it became irresistible to him.
Moore: The Puritans, among others, believed that true conversion is not something to rush. In our day of sales pitches and quick transactions, how can we guard against rushing people to faith while still maintaining an urgency that people embrace Christ as their Savior?
Newman: It has to begin with a deep faith in God’s sovereignty. He alone causes spiritual birth and interest and we need to remember that. When evangelism flows out of guilt or obligation or, worse, pride in our ability to persuade, it’s horrible. When evangelism flows out of worship, it’s beautiful – and I would say it’s more effective.
Moore: One of my many pet peeves is that we trumpet the idea that people can have a “personal relationship” with Jesus. I’ve asked many Christians what this means and have received many puzzled looks followed by stammering comments. Should we tell non-Christians they can have a personal relationship with Jesus, and if so, how can we be more honest in explaining it? I’m sure you have seen the disillusionment, as I have, when people realize there are times when God seems distant/hides Himself…an important theme throughout Scripture and the history of the Christian faith.
Newman: It seems like you’ve woven several questions into one. And one of those is about the problem of evil. Yikes! How long is this interview? First, I’ll make your pet peeve worse by telling you that I don’t think it’s all that bad to use the phrase, “personal relationship with God.” Perhaps that’s because I was so intrigued by that when people used that phrase when they reached out to me before I was a Christian. My formal Judaism didn’t seem to connect me to God and a “personal relationship” with that God seemed very appealing. I think it’s OK for us to use that phrase. I think the Bible gives examples of people turning to God as individuals. So, I think it’s worth mentioning. No one method or expression works with everyone. I do think you have a good concern of making sure we’re not saying this relationship with God means we’ll never have any problems or struggles or doubts. We can express that while still telling people they can know God personally.
Moore: One theme of your book, though you don’t use these words, is the ability to improvise. Theologians like Kevin Vanhoozer and Samuel Wells talk about knowing the Christian faith well to be able to improvise on issues that are not directly mentioned in Scripture. How can we develop this kind of Holy Spirit nimbleness in sharing our faith with non-Christians?
Newman: I like that term, improvise, as a way of thinking about evangelism. The structure is the Gospel. But the ways we express it can vary, depending on the person we’re talking to and the circumstances that led to an evangelistic conversation. Like improvising in music, this takes practice. I think we can make progress in expressing the gospel in a variety of ways but reflecting on the different ways the gospel is expressed in the New Testament. Think of the many different words to indicate the many different aspects of the gospel – salvation, atonement, redemption, reconciliation, forgiveness, eternal life, etc.
Moore: I’ve found very few Christians who regularly share their faith. Many of these would be regarded as mature believers by other means of assessment. Like the lack of talk about the importance of Scripture memory, I rarely hear Christians speak about how they are looking for opportunities to share their faith. Evangelism has never been easy, but it seems we are in a pretty dire situation even among us so-called Evangelicals. What do you think?
Newman: You’re probably right. But I don’t know enough to make a firm pronouncement about how many Christians are witnessing or not. I do think it’s difficult and we do people a disservice if we imply that it’s easy. What is encouraging to me is that we now have so many resources available to us online or in print that we don’t have to do the entire process of evangelism on our own. When I talk to a non-believer, if he or she asks me something I don’t know, I can easily point them to a website or a YouTube video that can answer them far better than I can. So, while the task is more difficult in some ways, it may be less difficult in other ways. But I wouldn’t ever call it easy.
Moore: What are two or three things you hope people take away from your book?
Newman: More than anything, I want them to feel encouraged that God can reach anyone and that no one is really an “unlikely convert.” I also hope the idea that people come to faith gradually can encourage people to be okay with just moving along incrementally in their efforts to witness. They don’t have to “close the deal” every time. And I certainly hope people’s appreciation for the gospel grows as a result of reading my book. That would be the best of all.