A Review of J. Mack Stiles, Evangelism: How the Whole Church Speaks of Jesus

imagesThis is a really good book, and it is part of a really good series: Building Healthy Churches, part of 9 Marks, published by Crossway. We Westerners in particular tend to approach many topics through an individualistic mindset–“its about me and my walk with Jesus first, and then maybe about the community.” This series approaches its various topics not as the marks of a healthy Christian, but the marks of a healthy church community. Some of its topics are obviously group-oriented, such as elders, discipling, and church discipline. But some, such as doctrine and, in this case, evangelism, are typically approached from a lone-ranger, individualistic standpoint. I have never read a book with “evangelism” in the title that approached it through the lens of how the church does it, the “Whole Church” in this case. So J. Mack Stiles’ contribution is somewhat unique, as far as I know, and much needed corrective to the merely “personal” evangelism narrative in modern evangelicalism.

Let me first say that this is a short book, and so you should probably just stop reading me right now, buy it, and be done with it in an hour or two!

In chapter 1, Stiles grapples with definitions os “evangelism”, “conversion”, and “gospel” to make sure our categories are firmly rooted in Scripture. In chapter 2, he introduces the notion of developing a “culture of evangelism” rather than focusing on evangelistic programs and crusades–a concept that makes this book worth its weight in gold (don’t read into the fact that I used that metaphor and this is a little book!). Listen to the following quote about a church that chose to discontinue a huge annual Christmas pageant in favor of shifting toward a culture of evangelism:

People love programs…But the church decided, in the end, that if members spent half the time they had spent on the production in friendly evangelistic conversations with neighbors, coworkers, or fellow students, they would see a better response to the gospel and reach even more people. If you think about it, there is no way you could ever fit into your church sanctuary all the non-Christians with whom the members of your church hare in contact weekly–no matter how big the sanctuary. The fact is, most people come to faith through the influence of family members, small-group Bible studies, or a conversation with a friend after a church service: Christians intentionally talking about the gospel (p. 45)

In chapter 3, he argues that the church is God’s plan for evangelism. In chapter 4, Stiles introduces the “platforms” or attitudes a Christian must build into his life for evangelism. And in chapter 5, he discusses practical principles for actual evangelism, down and dirty.

His overall thesis, though perhaps not clearly stated in the beginning  (which is perhaps the only criticism I would level against the book), is “that the best outreach happens in a culture of evangelism inside a healthy church” (p. 61). In other words, a church with an evangelistic ethos in its very DNA, including a belief in and celebration of the power of the Gospel and a conviction of our role in proclaiming it, is the most effective means of reaching the lost–not programs, soup kitchens, outreach staff, or ministry initiatives. My main takeaway is summed up in this string of quotes about the limits of evangelistic programs:

There is an inverse economic bang for the buck: the more money spent on the programs, the less fruit from evangelism…think of the cost comparison between a cup of coffee and TV programming…a strict diet of evangelistic programs produces malnourished evangelism…God did not send an event, he sent his Son (p. 46, emphasis added)

Consider another quote:

I would happily trade all the pizzazz of stunning speakers, mind-blowing music, and wildly popular Easter pageants for a culture of evangelism in which people are trained to lead a Bible study with a non-Christian in the Gospel of Mark, point to the message of the gospel in the text, and urge the unbeliever to come to Jesus based on the truth of what he has learned from the Scriptures (p. 55)

It’s very important to note what Stiles doesn’t mean when he says that the church is the best vehicle for evangelism. He doesn’t mean that we make our churches seeker sensitive or that we go out of our way to make Sundays about evangelism. As he says, “Jesus did not forget the gospel when he built the church” (p. 64). The gospel is built into the rhythms and ordinances of the church, so the church just needs to be the church, while the members of the church live out their faith in their networks and bring their non-church people into contact with their church people! This does mean that on Sunday mornings we don’t assume that everyone we talk to is a believer. We’re all “on game” and ready to proclaim the gospel. Regarding the Sunday morning experience, he writes,

The old seeker-sensitive movement and its modern replacements have it backward: churches are called to concentrate on God, while individuals are called to be sensitive to seekers (p. 87)

I led our church’s “local impact team”–basically the “missions committee” for local outreach– through this book in an effort to bring focus away from action points, initiatives, and parachurch partnerships and towards a foundational ministry vision for a culture shift. I don’t know that it “worked”, but then again, culture change takes time. My prayer is that God will use Stiles’ words to shape the thinking of leaders and elders in my church and any others that read this book so that they intentionally attempt to develop a culture of evangelism in their congregations…an ethos where it is not the responsibility of pastors or lay leaders to develop evangelistic programs or strategies to reach “this demographic or that”, but where each congregant views his/her situation in their workplaces, hangouts, families, networks and neighborhoods as God-given inroads to bring the gospel to the lost and hurting.

I’ll be quiet now. Buy the book here.

I’ll leave you with a few more choice quotes:

I yearn for a culture of evangelism that never trades confidence in the gospel for confidence in techniques, personalities, or entertainment gimmicks (p. 49)

A funny thing happens when we take risks: we become dangerous–that is, in the spiritual realms–to those who have their minds set against God (p. 59)

I can’t tell you how many times I have heard from non-Christian people that the church was strange to them, but what drew them into the fellowship was the love among the members (p. 64)

Something that you should do in evangelism personally might not be the best thing for the church to do as a whole (p. 73)

There will always be people in our churches who look like believers, which is why it’s so important that we keep sharing the gospel. They tend to be the very ones who push back about how boring and repetitive it is to talk about the gospel (p. 92)

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