Book Review: The Heart of Evangelism, by Jerram Barrs
Christians have often been slow to evangelize. After all, evangelism can be hard. It can be hard to know what to say, when to say it, and how to say it. It can be hard to understand people’s circumstances and to speak the gospel accurately into their lives. And so we are slow to share.
More recently, Christians have invented new methods to help address this problem, namely, simple and direct gospel presentations that can easily be learned and shared with others. This method has become hugely popular and is widely used today.
Yet in spite of its popularity, using a gospel presentation also raises significant questions: Does a recitation of the gospel really constitute “evangelism” if the hearer doesn’t comprehend it? How should we account for the infinite diversity of circumstances and personalities we encounter? How should we share gospel truths in an increasingly skeptical and pluralistic society?
In a culture that is ever drifting from its Christians roots, such questions will be more and more pertinent for our evangelism.
Fully aware of such questions, Jerram Barrs reminds the readers of his book The Heart of Evangelism that evangelism is not a one-size-fits-all activity. Rather, the gospel is presented in many different ways in the New Testament and is always tailored to a particular audience. Therefore, Barrs concludes, we should lay aside memorized, mechanical methods of evangelism and begin to recognize and respond to our hearers’ diverse challenges and circumstances (261).
The Heart of Evangelism is divided into four sections. In section one, Barrs walks through the New Testament to see how individual Christians have been called to evangelism, and what this means for our lives. Section two discusses God’s passion for evangelism in spite of our reluctance. Section three examines the barriers to evangelism, including personal barriers, barriers within the church, and barriers in our culture. Finally, section four lays out seven principles from the New Testament (particularly from Paul in Acts) that we should follow in our evangelism:
- Show respect
- Build bridges to the gospel
- Understand what others believe
- Speak the right language
- Use reasoned persuasion
- Clarify the good news
- Challenge the heart and mind
Barrs emphasizes that this is not meant to be “another ‘seven-step program’ of evangelism,” but “lessons for us all from examples of evangelism” (277) that we can apply in our own lives.
Flexibility in Evangelism
The main thrust of this book is that evangelism in the New Testament is always adapted to its hearers. Barrs writes, “Read the gospels to see how Jesus made the truth known. Every conversation Jesus had was different, for Jesus treated the people He met as individuals. To Jesus each person is unique” (177). Likewise, he contrasts Paul’s preaching in synagogues with his preaching in Athens. He concludes, “our communication is not merely to be a matter of stating the central truths of the gospel in some form that we can readily memorize… The focus in evangelism is not to be whatever is easy for us, but the particular person to whom we are speaking. Communicating the gospel is a personal endeavor, one person to another, and therefore we must be prepared to be flexible” (182).
Barrs is not suggesting that Christians should alter the basic content of the gospel—“there are, of course, truths that people need to know to become Christians” (174). Specifically, someone must know who God is, what sin is, what Christ did, and how we should respond in faith and repentance (175-176). But Barrs’ point is that these truths must be “expressed in the particular way that [a person] can hear them” (177).
I can appreciate Barrs’ exhortation. There might be times when Campus Crusade or Evangelism Explosion-type presentations are appropriate, and God can certainly use them as he wills. But Christians should always seek to understand their hearers and engage them with the gospel in an appropriately personal way. Barrs’ seven principles provide a helpful guideline for this.
Overcoming Barriers to Evangelism
Also helpful is Barrs’ discussion on barriers to evangelism. Throughout the book he highlights cultural trends and obstacles to evangelism such as pluralism, rejection of authority, and moral uncertainty. Yet he reminds us that “there will always be elements of truth in any unbelievers’ thinking because they have to live in God’s world” (206), and so our evangelism should seek out these points of contact. Rather than insulating ourselves from the world, we should seek to understand the people around us so that we may present the gospel to them in a comprehensible way.
Yet barriers to evangelism exist not only in the world, but also within the church and ourselves. Barrs calls Christians to lay down their pride, hypocrisy, desire for comfort, and all other such barriers, and instead to pursue humility, sensitivity, and prayerful dependence on God in their evangelism. “More than anything else in our prayers for ourselves, we need to pray for a humble and grateful heart and clarity about the ease with which we become self-serving and full of pride” (165).His discussion of each of these barriers is brief, but they are thought provoking and useful starting points for discussion.
God the Evangelist
Finally, Barrs does a good job of demonstrating that God is the “eager evangelist” who has been bringing sinners to himself from the beginning (95). He walks through the Bible to show how God persistently pursues the salvation of his people, unlike Christians who are often reluctant to share the gospel.
Yet God accomplishes his work through us, which leads to a number of implications for our evangelism:
- It should humble us and drive us to prayer (46).
- It should promote sensitivity to God’s work in others’ lives (124).
- It should fill us with gratitude for God’s gracious work in anyone who responds to the gospel, including ourselves (101).
Again and again, Barrs rightly describes evangelism as an endeavor that is utterly dependent on God, and then he draws practical implications of this truth for our lives.
Though there is much to commend in this book, two shortcomings should be mentioned.
What Exactly Is Evangelism?
First, Barrs never clearly defines evangelism. More specifically, he does not distinguish preparatory activities from evangelism itself and lumps all these activities together as evangelism. Now, his preparatory activities such as “respectful listening,” “bridge-building,” and “apologetics” are helpful, but none of these things can save a person and they do not constitute evangelism. Rather, the heart of evangelism is a clear proclamation of the gospel that calls people to repentance and faith.
This is an important question because there is pressure today for Christians to be involved in all kinds of social activism and outreach, but not to share the gospel.
What Is the Role of the Church in Evangelism?
Second, Barrs fails to address the particular role of the local church in God’s plan of evangelism for this world. In the New Testament, we see that the local church is to be a unique display of God’s glory in this world (Eph. 3:10). In the faithful proclamation of God’s Word, in the regular administration of the sacraments, in its membership and discipline, the local church displays the truths of the gospel to a watching world in a way that no other Christian individual or community can. Yet Barrs’ confused definition of “church” (he offers five different definitions on page 38!) waters down the role of the local church in evangelism. And so, he places the witness of the local church alongside the witness of the Christian home (65) and of “any community of Christians” (75). Though individuals and groups of Christians can effectively communicate the gospel, the local church remains the primary means through which the gospel will go to the ends of the earth.
The Heart of Evangelism is a challenge for Christians to thoughtfully, humbly, and graciously engage non-Christians as they seek to share the gospel with them. I would gladly recommend this book to those who are seeking to grow in their evangelism, as well as anyone who is active in evangelism, but resort to memorized methods rather than patient and thoughtful evangelism.