Archive: Evangelism in a new era

By Nicky Gumbel
Good News

I have never been a natural evangelist. I have never found it easy to talk to my friends about Jesus Christ. Some people are completely natural evangelists; they find it the easiest thing in the world. … I’ve been looking for ways in which ordinary people like me, who aren’t naturally gifted evangelists, can communicate their faith with friends, family, and colleagues without feeling fearful or risking insensitivity. …

The Alpha course began in our church, Holy Trinity Brompton Anglican Church in London, in order to present the basic principles of faith to new Christians. It is a 10-week informal course offered to explore the basic meanings of the Christian faith. What we discovered was chat most of the people taking the course were not committed Christians, but people who were merely curious about the faith.

When Alpha first started growing I thought, “How could something that started in Central London work elsewhere?” Alpha currently runs in more than 100 countries: in Zimbabwe, Kenya, Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Germany, Malaysia, Hong Kong, Australia, New Zealand, the United States, Canada, and many others.

While at an Alpha conference in Zimbabwe, I discovered that Alpha was not only running among the English-speaking white Zimbabweans but also among the Shona-speaking people in their own language. Zimbabwe has a population of just over 10 million people: there are 80,000 whites in Zimbabwe but 90 percent of the black population speak Shona. While I was at the conference l met Edward Ngamuda who had originally done Alpha in English but then thought that he would like to run the course in Shona. A couple who had come to Christ on Alpha asked him to come and run the course with the 900 people who worked on their farm. Thirty people came on the first course and 50 came on the second.

I asked him whether these people were Christians when they came on the course. “No,” he replied, “we had a Muslim, a witch doctor, and a polygamist come.” I asked how the polygamist happened to be there and was told that his first wife came on the first course, and that she had brought him and the other two wives on the next one! Edward assured me that Alpha worked better in Shona than it did in English. It was then that I began to realize that this course, which started in London, could operate in different countries and cultures. Why is this?

Evangelism is a process. Conversion may take place in a moment but it is part of a process. Jesus used the expression “born again” (John 3:3) for the beginning of a spiritual life, and the New Testament speaks about becoming a child of God. While the birth of a child may be one event, there is a much longer process before and afterwards. The Bible uses many other images to represent spiritual growth: some are taken from agriculture, others from the ideas of building or journeying. All these involve a process.

Alpha is a 10-week course involving a total of 15 talks which include a weekend and a celebration party at the end. We do not expect people to respond to the gospel after the first week (although some do). We recognize that people need time to think, watch, listen, and to talk through their questions and difficulties. Each person is beginning at a different stage.

Some are already Christians but will often say in retrospect that at the start of the course they were Christians “without any real experience of God.” Others are at the point of new birth when they begin Alpha. Some have already given their lives to Christ at the party at the end of the previous course, others at a special event before the beginning of Alpha. Still others come to faith through the witness of their family or a friend. Many are still a long way off when they begin Alpha.

Some are convinced atheists, some are New Agers, some are adherents to other religions or cults. Many are living in lifestyles which are far from Christian. … We welcome them all. Some will complete the whole course and still not be Christians at the end; … others will give their lives to Christ somewhere on the course. For nearly all of them, Alpha will enable them to take a step forward in their relationship with God.

The fact that there is a process spread over 15 sessions enables us to give longer to aspects of the Christian faith than one would be able to in one evangelistic talk. For example, in 1994 I saw a man standing at the back of the room who looked very suspicious and worried. When I introduced myself he said, “I don’t want to be here, I’ve been dragged along.” I said, “Great! Let me introduce you to 11 other people who don’t want to be here,” and I took him to meet my small group. At the end of the evening I heard him chatting to someone else in the group.

“Are you coming back next week?”

The other man replied, “Yes, I’ll be here.”

To which the first man said, “Well, if you’re coming back next week, I’ll come back next week.”

Six weeks later he said to me, “This course is like a jigsaw puzzle. Every time I come back another piece fits into place. And I’m beginning to get the picture.”

Furthermore, the fact that Alpha is a process enables trust to develop. There is a great deal of cynicism, skepticism, and distrust about the Christian church. I had no idea of the extent of this until I spoke to someone who said that for the first three weeks of the course he had not eaten the food in case it was drugged. That was an extreme case of distrust, but many people wonder if the church is after their money, their mind, or something else.

The whole person. Evangelism involves an appeal to the whole person: mind, heart, conscience, and will. Each talk is designed to appeal to all four, although in some of the talks the emphasis will be on just one.

We appeal to the mind because we believe that Christianity is based in history: on the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We preach “Jesus Christ and him crucified” (I Cor. 2:2). We seek to persuade with every argument we can muster, just as Paul did on so many occasions (e.g. Acts 18:4). We try to teach only what we can establish from the Bible and we point people to the biblical text. We do not expect anyone to take a “blind leap” of faith. Rather, we hope they will take a step of faith based on reasonable grounds.

Secondly, we appeal to the heart. Our message does not simply require an assent of the intellect to a series of propositions, but rather it calls people to a love-relationship with Jesus Christ. John Stott has written: “There is a place for emotion in spiritual experience. The Holy Spirit’s … ministry is not limited to illuminating our minds and teaching us about Christ. He also pours God’s love into our hearts. Similarly, he bears witness with our spirit that we are God’s children, for he causes us to say ‘Abba, father’ and to exclaim with gratitude, ‘How great is the love the father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God!’ … I think it was Bishop Handley Maule at the end of the last century who gave this good advice: ‘Beware equally of an undevotional theology (i.e. mind without heart) and of an untheological devotion (i.e. heart without mind).’”

Graham Cray, principal of Ridley Hall Theological College in Cambridge, England, has spoken with great insight about the culture of the 1990s, which is in the process of shifting from an Enlightenment culture to a new and coming one. In the Enlightenment, reason reigned supreme and explanation led to experience. In the present transitional culture with its “pick-and-mix” worldview, in which the New Age movement is a potent strand, experiences lead to explanation.

I have found on Alpha that those from an essentially Enlightenment background feel at home with the parts of the course which appeal to the mind, but often have difficulty in experiencing the Holy Spirit. Others coming from the New Age movement find that rational and historical explanations leave them cold, but at the weekend away they are on more familiar territory in experiencing the Spirit. Previously they will have been seeking experiences which have then left them discontented and only in experiencing a relationship with God through Jesus Christ do they find their hunger is satisfied.

The gospel involves both the rational and the experiential and it has an impact upon both those from an Enlightenment background who need to experience God and those who have sought experiences but who need to understand the truth about God.

Third, we seek to appeal to the conscience. Paul writes, “By setting forth the truth plainly we commend ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of God” (2 Cor. 4:2). We know that every person has a conscience. Deep down we all have a sense of right and wrong. The Holy Spirit, often working through people’s conscience, convinces them about sin. Their consciences therefore are on our side. Throughout the course we are appealing to this side in urging people to repent and turn to Christ.

Fourth, we seek to appeal to the will. We recognize, of course, that no one can come to God unless he calls them. As Jesus said, “No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him” (Matt. 11:27). On the other hand, Jesus went on to say in the very next verse, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest” (Matt. 11:28). In other words, he called for a decision.

There is a difference between an appeal to the will and the wrong form of pressure. We try to avoid all forms of pressure on Alpha. We do not endlessly exhort anyone to respond, or chase people down if they do not come back: it is up to them to decide. Over the period of 10 weeks, as we pray and allow the Holy Spirit to do his work, giving people the opportunity to respond, we are, in effect, making a continuous appeal to their wills.

Dynamic and effective. On the day of Pentecost such was the power with which Peter preached that the people were “cut to the heart” and 3,000 were converted (Acts 2:37-41). The remarkable events continued: “Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles …. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved” (Acts 2:43-47).

Remarkable healings followed (Acts 3:1-10). People were astonished and came running to find out what had happened (3:11). Peter and John preached the gospel with great boldness: “When they saw the courage of Peter and John and realized they were unschooled, ordinary men, they were astonished and they took note that these men had been with Jesus. But since they could see the man who had been healed standing there with them, there was nothing they could say” (Acts 4:13-14). The authorities had no idea what to do because “all the people were praising God for what had happened. For the man who was miraculously healed was over forty years old” (Acts 4:21-22).

Far from dwindling away through the period covered by the book of Acts, this spiritual dynamic continued. Even in the last chapter we read of Paul praying for Publius’ father: “His father was sick in bed, suffering from fever and dysentery. Paul went in to see him and, after prayer, placed his hands on him and healed him. When this had happened, the rest of the sick on the island came and were cured” (Acts 28:8-9). All the way through we see the dynamic effect of the coming of the kingdom of God accompanied by conversions, miraculous signs, healings, visions, tongues, prophecy, raising the dead, and casting out evil spirits. The same God is at work today among us. Evangelism can still be dynamic and effective.

The fullness of the Spirit. Jesus told his disciples, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). On the Day of Pentecost the promise of Jesus was fulfilled and “all of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them” (Acts 2:4).

However, it did not end there. Later we read of Peter being “filled with the Spirit” again (Acts 4:8). Still later the disciples (including Peter) were filled again (Acts 4:31). The filling of the Holy Spirit is not a onetime experience. Paul urges the Christians of Ephesus “to be filled with the Spirit” (Eph. 5:18) and the emphasis is on continuing to be filled.

I think that there can be little doubt that the greatest evangelist of our century has been Billy Graham (b. 1918). In his authorized biography, John Pollock tells how Billy Graham visited Hildenborough Hall and heard Stephen Olford speak on the subject “Be not drunk, but be filled with the Spirit.” Billy Graham asked to see Olford privately and Olford expounded the fullness of the Holy Spirit in the life of a believer. “At the close of the second day they prayed, ‘like Jacob of old laying hold of God,’” recalls Olford, “crying, ‘Lord, I will not let Thee go except Thou bless me,’ until we came to a place of rest and praising,” and Graham said, “This is a turning point in my life. This will revolutionize my ministry.”

… Those who come to Christ on the course know that a radical change has occurred in their lives because they have been filled with the Holy Spirit. This experience of God gives them the stimulus and power to spread the good news of Jesus Christ and see, firsthand, the expansion of the kingdom of God.

Nicky Gumbel studied law at Cambridge and theology at Oxford, practiced as a lawyer, and is now ordained and on the staff of Holy Trinity Brompton Church in London. He is the author of the curriculum of the Alpha Course. He is also the author of Why Jesus?, Questions of Life, Why Christmas? Searching Issues and numerous other books. This article is excerpted from his book, Telling Others. © 1994 Cook Communications Ministries, Telling Others by Nicky Gumbel. Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved.



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