An apologetic for bold, proclamation evangelism in the so-called Muslim world

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“But just as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel, so we speak, not to please man, but to please God who tests our hearts.” (1 Thessalonians 2:4)

 

In the New Testament we read of Jesus, Paul and others preaching openly and regularly in the open-air in the midst of crowds of people. Might it be possible that similar public proclamation can and even should be done in the so-called Muslim world in the 21st century? However one might answer that, the reality is that such open-air proclamation of the gospel is not happening very often these days in so-called Muslim countries. Why is this? The most common reason I hear is the “methods” objection. Public proclamation evangelism isn’t wrong, they say, but there are now better, more personal, less confrontational (read wiser) methods that we should use. Although not a direct criticism, we should take seriously these objections from devout fellow believers who also want to see the gospel spread.

So I have done lots of thinking about this “methods” issue. For one, I find that the New Testament (NT) is actually quite silent on the topic of evangelistic methods, at least in the ways we tend to think of methods (e.g., church building vs. house church, friendship evangelism vs. witnessing to strangers, whether locals or foreigners should do it, written vs. oral, story-telling vs. logical arguments, appealing to honor/shame vs. guilt/punishment, highlighting bridge truths vs. points of contradiction). There’s plenty of teaching in the New Testament on what the gospel is and how we as messengers of the Gospel should live and be, but little on how it should be disseminated. Which to me in itself is a warning to us: we should follow Jesus’ and Paul’s example (see 1 Cor. 11:1) by speaking less about how we should get the gospel out, and more about the gospel itself, it’s glories, beauty and power.

And if Paul could rejoice when people preached the gospel with bad motives (Phil. 1:18), I’m sure he would also rejoice when believers with good motives used less-than-perfect methods, since he would never say that methods are more important than motives. Otherwise we would have sending agencies spending money to hire the most persuasive salespeople to do the work of evangelism with scant regard to their faith or calling from God..

In another well-known passage (1 Cor. 9:22), Paul says he uses all means (methods) to save some! In other words, far from promoting one method over another, he was flexible enough to use all methods, and didn’t limit himself to trying to become like just one people group, but was able to become like many different types of people (Jews, those outside the law, the weak, etc.). Having said that, however, here are some of my observations on what the NT does teach about evangelistic methods:

Method #1: with boldness

“Boldly” is the most common adverb in the NT to describe evangelistic activity. My research found 19 verses about boldness in evangelism in the NT, and only one or perhaps two verses about the need for wisdom or wise methods in evangelism.[1]  Even though many centuries have past and situations have changed since the time of the NT, I find this ratio very fitting with the needs of modern-day Christian workers among Muslims, many of whom are well-read and trained in wise evangelistic methods, but still struggle (as I do) with feelings of fear when it comes to proclaiming the gospel. And even though the NT does speak about wisdom in evangelism, it states elsewhere that God, far from trying to make the message appear more wise, specifically chose “the foolishness of what was preached” as an appropriate method of salvation.[2]

In Ephesians 6:20, Paul asks the Ephesians to pray for him “that I might declare [the mystery of the gospel]boldly, as I ought to speak.” This is actually quite remarkable; he does not say that he wants to declare it boldly, but that he should declare it this way. In other words, if Paul is using evangelistic methods that don’t require boldness, he is not declaring it as he should; “with boldness” is the right way. Now I’m sure Paul is not against using methods that might not require so much boldness (the obvious example is anonymous Internet evangelism)—see 1 Cor 9:22. Yet what I think he means is that the nature of the gospel message itself is most accurately conveyed through methods that demand boldness. Or to put it another way, methods that don’t require boldness can actually make it harder for listeners to understand the goodness (greatness, urgency, etc.) of the good news, the gospel.

Method #2: plain, open, non-deceptive/guileless declaration of truth

Paul writes: “But we have renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways. We refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God’s word, but by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to every-one’s conscience in the sight of God. And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled only to those who are perishing. In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God” (2 Cor. 4:2-4).

In this passage, Paul foresees the objection that we often here in the so-called Muslim world: namely, that if we openly preach the hard-to-accept parts of the gospel along with the easy-to-accept parts (for example, saying that Jesus is the Lord of all, who died on the cross to pay the penalty for our sins, and if they don’t accept this they’ll receive the penalty their sins deserve: eternal hell, and that with the coming of God’s Son the age of the prophets has come to an end[3]), many Muslims won’t understand. But Paul’s response is clear: the problem here is not the evangelistic method, but rather “the god of this world, who is blinding the minds of unbelievers.” In the next chapter Paul says, “For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing, to one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life. Who is sufficient for these things? For we are not, like so many, peddlers of God’s word, but as men of sincerity, as commissioned by God, in the sight of God we speak in Christ” (2 Cor. 2:15-17).

Also, unlike in English, the Greek language’s word for “boldly” also can mean “plainly,” as we see, for example, in John 10:24, where the Jews say to Jesus, “If you are the Christ, tell us plainly.” This word “plainly” is the same Greek word that is translated as “boldly” in all these other places. As John Piper writes, “When a bold person speaks, people know what he means, his cards are on the table; he doesn’t seek to protect himself with obscurities or subtleties or euphemisms or generalities… Boldness overcomes the temptation to conceal the truth in vagueness. It is frank and plain and straightforward. It is not political and cagey and slippery.”[4]

George Whitefield said, “As a little child is looked upon as a harmless creature, and generally speaks true; so, if we are converted, and become as little children, we shall be guileless as well as harmless[5].” The Muslim world is afraid we are going to harm them[6], and therefore are afraid to open up towards us. But our guileless demeanor will show them just how harmless we are; that we wish only good for them (Paul calls this “commending ourselves to their consciences” in 2 Cor. 4:2).

Paul’s words against “underhanded ways” (deceptive methods), cunning and tampering with God’s word couldn’t be more appropriate for evangelism in the so-called Muslim world in the 21st century. A significant number of workers are tempted to believe that by avoiding associating themselves with the word “Christian”[7] or by hiding their religious motivation for living where they do, they can gain the right to be heard by more Muslims. They think that perhaps by using different words for translating key biblical phrases such as “Son of God,” “baptism,” and Jesus as “Lord” they can make the gospel more palatable for Muslims. What ends up happening though—as we already see throughout the Muslim world—is that Muslims perceive this as deception[8] and cunning[9]. And so in the end what was meant to draw more Muslims to the gospel is actually driving more and more Muslims away from the gospel (as more and more Muslims are warned about these “dangerous and deceitful missionaries”), dishonoring Christ (“…guile was not found in his mouth” 1 Pet. 2:22) and hurting the reputation of the gospel.

Method #3: In the NT good news is proclaimed, not shared

The most important NT instruction on evangelistic methods is actually built right into the meaning of the word “evangelize” itself. To illustrate this, I have created a chart below showing the various ways “evangelize” is translated into English. It becomes immediately plain that evangelism in the New Testament was a public, open, intentional activity.

If we want to remain true to the NT, we should speak often of proclaiming and preaching the gospel. Yet my experience is that we as believers almost always talk about how we share the gospel, even though the phrase is used only once in the NT. Even there (1 Thess. 2:8), the word “share” had to be used to express what he meant, for if he had written, “We proclaimed to you not only the gospel, but [we proclaimed]our very lives as well” it would not have made any sense. The verse is speaking about what is shared (their lives also), not how it is shared. Of course this doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t “share” the gospel, but that we should examine what we’re doing if most of our evangelism is better described as sharing rather than proclamation.

Another commonly misunderstood verse is “the sharing (or fellowship) of your faith” in Philemon 6. The context of this verse makes it clear that Paul is not referring to evangelism, but rather to the sharing that happens among believers.

The dictionary definitions of proclaim and preach shed light on the evangelism methods debate: Proclaim: 1. To announce officially and publicly; declare (synonym, announce), 2. To indicate conspicuously; make plain: 3. To praise; extol. Preach: 1. To proclaim or put forth in a sermon 2. To advocate, especially to urge acceptance of or compliance with. 3. To deliver (a sermon)[10] . When we look at the early church’s evangelistic methods recorded in the book of Acts, we see that their methods matched the meaning of these words; they were announcing the message publicly in every city through which they passed.

In Turkey, if someone were to come to you and whisper in your ear that the Turkish National football team has just won the World Cup, you would probably give him a strange look. Because if they had won the World Cup, you wouldn’t be whispering it; you’d be shouting it from the rooftops, honking your horn as you drive wildly up and down the neighborhood streets, shooting your pistol in the air and making sure that everyone in the area hears the news! (And not just where other Turks are; Turks gladly act this way (except for shooting pistols :)) in Europe, even though most people around them aren’t Turks). Why? Because news this good can’t be kept to yourself, it can’t be just shared with those who want to hear, it must be proclaimed to everyone!

I heard a story of a worker who shared the gospel with a Turkish friend. When the friend finally understood the gravity of the message, she turned to the worker with visible disappointment and anger in her voice and said, “If this is true, then why haven’t the other believers around here told me/us about this earlier?” She was surprised that a message this urgent hadn’t been made known to her earlier.

Or to use another example, if you notice that some paint is chipping off the wall in a theater hall, you may whisper it in your friend’s ear who is sitting next to you, but you would hardly stand up in the middle of the theater production and proclaim this fact to everyone. But if you noticed that a ceiling beam was swinging loose, and that the ceiling was about to cave in, you wouldn’t whisper that to your friend, you’d stand up and shout it to everyone! Some may be angry at you at first for interrupting the show, but once they realize the danger, they will thank you.

It should be obvious to all believers that the gospel is not only good news; it’s the greatest news the world could ever know, and therefore it certainly deserves to be proclaimed, declared, announced, and preached–and despite all the misinformation and prejudices and lies, it is still good, great news for the Muslim world as well–as the many, many thousands of people turning to Christ these days in Iran and Arab countries attest. The God of the universe has made the greatest sacrifice ever known to save people from every tribe, nation and tongue who accept Jesus as Lord of all and Savior from the penalty of their sins.

Comparison chart of the words the New Testament and modern-day believers use to describe their evangelistic activity

English translations of the NT Greek verb evangelizomai (to evangelize) or similar NT expressions for evangelistic activity How oftenused in theNT[11] How often used by modern-day believers
Preach the gospel 34 Little
Proclaim the gospel 16 Occasionally
Bring good news (Gabriel, of Jesus’ birth, Timothy, of believers situation) 5 Rarely
Declare the gospel 1 Almost never
Testify to the gospel 1 Almost never
Proclaiming and bringing the gospel 1 Almost never
Tell the gospel (Phillip to the Ethiopian Eunuch) 1 Sometimes
Share the gospel 1 Most often
Mention the gospel 0 Sometimes
Talk/converse about the gospel 0 Sometimes
Gossip/Chat about the gospel 0 Sometimes
Dialogue about the gospel 0 Sometimes
Preach the gospel with my life (good deeds) 0 Sometimes
Demonstrate the gospel 0 Sometimes
Incarnate the gospel 0 Sometimes

Method #4: Displaying the Spirit’s power, not human wisdom/clever speech

Paul wrote that “my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God” (1 Cor 2:4-5).

Commonly-misunderstood verses

1. “Be wise as serpents” (Matt 10:16).

Some think that being wise as serpents means avoiding evangelistic methods that might be deemed reckless or that would be sure to cause much negative reaction from those hearing it. We must be careful to avoid such bad things happening to us (e.g., losing a residence permit) or especially to local believers (e.g., ostracism by their unbelieving families and friends), so better to avoid doing things that might cause such harm. But this is an example of bad exegesis, taking a verse out of context.

When we look at Matt. 10:16 in the context of the surrounding verses, we see that this certainly cannot be what Jesus meant. He tells them plainly in the very next verse that bad things WILL happen to them (they will be arrested and beaten) as a result of them doing what he’s commissioning them to do. Jesus says, “I am sending you out as sheep among wolves.” Now sending sheep out among wolves is not a very wise thing to do. Jesus surely knows the danger (and since he knows the future he even knows for certain that bad things will happen to them), but he sends them out anyway. The correct interpretation of “be wise as serpents,” therefore, is not “be wise as serpents by avoiding activities that will bring persecution” but rather “because what you’re about to do will bring persecution, do it wisely as serpents!”

2. “I become all things to all men that by all means I may save some” (1 Cor 9:22).

Some take this as justification to become like Muslims not only in cultural ways but also in religious, doctrinal ways. A good answer to this line of thinking is found here.

3. “Do not give dogs what is holy, and do not throw your pearls before pigs, lest they trample them underfoot and turn to attack you. ” (Matthew 7:6)

How can we discern before giving the gospel to someone, whether they are “dogs or pigs?” Matt. 7:20 says we shall know them by their fruit, their actions. The Apostle Paul and Jesus’ disciples did this when they shook the dust off their feet when they encountered harsh opposition (see Acts 18:6). But this was always in response to specific actions done to them, not general stereotypes about people based on their religious background, how they dressed, where they lived, etc.

4. “Always be prepared to give an answer… but with gentleness and respect” (1 Pet. 3:15)

This verse is not about evangelism per se, but about basic Christian living in a hostile environment. “Being prepared to give an answer” is a passive state of readiness that is true for all believers at all times, whereas evangelism in the NT is always non-passive action, intentionally getting the message out to people. Also, one can boldly proclaim the gospel with gentleness and respect, just as much as one can passively give answers to questions in a way that is not gentle or respectful. And here also, as in Matthew 10, the context assumes that your other (good) actions, not your answers to their questions, are what is causing non-believers to speak maliciously about you.

 

Listen not to those… who look upon… Open Air Preaching as nothing but foolishness and fanaticism. Beware, lest in joining a cry of that kind you condemn the Lord Jesus Christ Himself… who has “left us an example that we should follow His steps.” — J.C. Ryle, 1878, Practical Religion p. 189


 

[1]Acts 4:13, 29, 31, Acts 9:27-28, Acts 13:46, Acts 14:3, Acts 18:26, Acts 19:8, Acts 23:11, Acts 26:26, Acts 28:31, 2 Cor 3:12, Eph 6:19-20, Phil. 1:4, Phil 1:20, 1 Thess 2:2, Rev 12:11

[2]1 Corinthians 1:21. D.A. Carson writes about this verse, “True , the focus of the participial construction (in Greek) is not on the foolishness of preaching,that is , the activity , but on the foolishness of “what was preached” , that is , the gospel . Nevertheless , it is not surprising that Paul speaks of the foolishness of what was preached rather than the foolishness of what was taught , or discussed, or reasoned over.” from “What is the Gospel–Revisited” in “For the Fame of God’s Name” Sam Storms & Justin Taylor eds.

[3]Hebrews 1:1-3

[4] cf. Colossians 4:4, “Pray that I may proclaim it clearly, as I should.”

[5]http://www.sermonindex.net/modules/articles/index.php?view=article&aid=20540

[6]“What seemed to rile the Moroccan participants most was their sense that some proselytizing comes under false pretenses. They said people come to Morocco claiming that they are opening a business or studying when their real goal is to convert Moroccans to Christianity.” Source: http://onfaith.washingtonpost.com/onfaith/georgetown/2011/02/evangelicals_and_islam.html

[7]Some justify this by saying that the word “Christian” has far worse connotations in so-called Muslim countries, but interestingly, even in the NT times the word Christian had negative connotations (otherwise why would you be ashamed or suffer from being one?), yet we’re specifically told not to be ashamed of being called a Christian (1 Peter 4:16).

[8]What’s more, deceptiveness in the NT is a characteristic, not of God’s true messengers, but of false teachers (2 Cor. 11:13).

[9]Deception is different than lying in that it focuses on the perception of the hearer rather than the content of the statement. Just as it’s possible to lie and not deceive (for example, when telling a joke to your friends), it’s also possible to tell the truth (or part of the truth) and deceive. Here is where many workers go wrong; they think that all that’s necessary is not to make false statements (not to lie), but Paul goes farther: he refuses even to leave the impression with others that he’s something that he is not. Which anyways is a great strategy for loving life and seeing good days (1 Peter 3:10).

[10]http://www.thefreedictionary.com/

[11]These numbers are the result of doing a quick search for the various phrases in the ESV; for more accurate results one should first search for all the occurrences of the Greek work evangelizomai, then see how they are translated. Other verbs used with the noun “gospel” in the NT include: “Fulfilled the ministry of the gospel,” “Confession of the gospel”“Readiness given by the gospel,” “Defense and confirmation of the gospel,” “Advance the gospel,” “Striving side by side for the faith of the gospel,” “Labored side by side with me in the gospel,” and “Imprisonment for the gospel.”

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About Author

David Byle has been spreading the gospel and helping to plant churches in Central Asia and Turkey for almost 20 years. He is part of the leadership team of an evangelistic ministry that partners with church planters throughout Turkey. He lives with his wife and five children in Istanbul.

1 Comment

  1. Pierre Houssney on

    Thanks so much for this demonstration of biblical methods of proclamation! On a pragmatic note, my experience has been that Muslims typically respect boldness and see anything less than boldness as lack of conviction, or even cowardice – and this actually confirms their disbelief in what you are saying, as if they say to themselves “see – even the Christians are not even confident in their own beliefs!”

    In this way, a wishy washy witness in the Middle East actually hurts the cause of the gospel.

    So I say, go bold or go home!

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