The Oklahoma State Evangelism Conference (SEC), Jan. 25-26, at Del City, First Southern will feature Lee Strobel as one of the keynote speakers. The Christian apologetics author is well-known for his numerous “Case” books and for his conversion from atheism which occurred while he was investigating biblical claims about Jesus Christ. The Baptist Messenger features an exclusive interview with Strobel in anticipation of his appearance at the SEC.
Can you give a sneak peek to the breakout session you are leading at the SEC?
One of the things that all our churches desire, and all pastors desire, is to see more evangelism effectiveness, to see the community reached with the Gospel, to see the congregation more engaged evangelistically, but how do we do that? How do we gently turn up the temperature of evangelism in the local church? This is something that my friend Mark Mittelberg and I have been studying for many years, and our new Center for American Evangelism at Houston Baptist University is built around how to help churches to become more evangelistically effective.
So I’m going to talk about a six-stage process that Mark and I have developed over the years that is how we can take any church, wherever they are on their evangelistic scale—whether they are white hot evangelistically or cold evangelistically—and ratchet up the temperature a few degrees. It’s very practical stuff, helpful stuff that deals with everything from leadership to training and so forth, so I think it’s going to be real meaty stuff that people can take and use in their own life but also in their church, whatever role they may have in their church, to see a greater harvest for Christ in the 21st century.
So many churches are started with the desire to reach people for Christ. And we look at our mission statements that were drafted maybe 100 years ago or 50 years ago, and all of them have in it the desire to reach their community for Christ. We all have that heart, but sometimes we kind of lose our way, and sometimes other things become seemingly more urgent and need our attention. Often we need to go back and say, ‘What are some concrete ways that we can shore up our evangelistic infrastructure and to be a church that is contagious with the Gospel?’
It seems like God is constantly using you to write books, and recently you released a book titled The Case for Grace. Can you summarize that book for us?
There is a story of C.S. Lewis who was wandering around the halls of Oxford, and he came upon a room where a bunch of professors were arguing about something. And he went in and said, ‘What are you talking about?’ and they said, ‘Well we are trying to figure out about what is really unique about Christianity.’ And he said, ‘Well that’s easy – Grace!’ Grace is unique to Christianity.
There is no other world religion that is based on a message of grace, God’s unmerited favor to us, His favor to sinners out of love. But what’s interesting to me is that when Jesus talked about grace, He didn’t give a theological treatise. He told the story of the Prodigal Son. And so I think often that stories illuminate various aspects of grace, like mere propositional statements of truth can’t seem to do.
In this book The Case for Grace I travel about 24,000 miles to sit down with people who I’ve come to know through the years and new people I’ve met whose stories about how God has changed radically their life, how His grace has absolutely redirected the course of their existence in this world and the next and to tell those stories in a way in which each story kind of shines a light on a different aspect of grace.
So the stories range from drug addicts to homeless people to orphans to ‘nice people’ to… you name it. And woven into it is a bit of my story that I’ve never really told before which delves into some reasons why I ended up an atheist for much of my early life and how God’s grace rescued me from that. It’s a story that’s very personal, but to me, I’m kind of a junkie for testimonies. I’m a junkie for stories about how God has radically transformed lives in such a way that you stand back and say ‘Only God can do this.’ And that’s what this book is about.
How do you see telling stories and sharing the Gospel going hand-in-hand in a conversational approach to personal evangelism?
When we think of conversational evangelism we often think of telling our story and telling God’s story. Both of those are important, to tell the story of how God has intersected our lives and changed us, and then of course the Gospel, God’s story.
But there’s another story that often gets missed, and that’s the story of the person we are talking to. Often I think the best approach to evangelism is to, first, elicit their story, to do more listening than talking, to ask questions about their background, to explore what their spiritual perspective is and what led them to those conclusions.
When I’m engaged in personal evangelism, I like to find out their background, their story, where they are coming from. So I like to ask a lot of questions and get into a lot of detail about what their beliefs are and what their beliefs were when they were younger, why they’ve changed, why they don’t go to church, why they are not interested in God or whatever it is.
And then ultimately, after you have explored their story, it’s very natural for them to say, ‘What about you?’ Then it’s a perfect opportunity for you to say, ‘Well, let me tell you my story.’ Then you can share how God has intersected your life.
We’ve got a lot of confusion of what it means to share the Gospel. It’s not a “good deed,” but help unpack what it means to share the Gospel with unbelievers.
It’s important when we serve other people in a way like (doing good deeds and serving others) that it becomes a way to set the stage for talking about what motivates us to do that, which is the fact that God through His son Jesus Christ loves us, has forgiven us and adopted us as His children and open the door of Heaven for us. Absent that kind of explanation, of connecting a good deed with words of the Gospel, you’re not really sharing the Gospel. You’re doing something nice.
You know, the Kiwanis Club is nice. The Rotary Club is nice. Churches are different. Churches are nice too. We do nice things. But more than that, we bear a message.
We do nice things for people because God has transformed our values and our character and our morality and our priorities and our relationships. Consequently, we’re willing to serve people and make a difference in other people’s lives.
But I get worried when people say that all we have to do is show people we care about them. It’s not quite enough; we have to help them understand. The Bible says in Romans ‘how are people going to believe unless someone tells them?’ At some point, in some way, we have to connect the way we serve other people with the message of hope and eternal life that is available through Jesus Christ.