Book(s) Review: Questioning Evangelism & Corner Conversations, by Randy Newman
I know. We need another evangelism book like we need a hole in the head. I’m aware that there are numerous books on the topic of evangelism, some good and others disappointing, some geared toward instruction and others toward doctrinal fidelity.
Let me tell you why reading Randy Newman’s books on the topic would be time well spent.
Roughly speaking, his first book, Questioning Evangelism, is divided into three sections: 1) an apologetic for why asking questions in evangelism is needed, 2) a consideration of what questions non-believers are asking, and 3) and observations about why asking questions/knowing answers doesn’t necessarily address a Christian’s own issues like hard-heartedness or anger. Here’s what I found unique or helpful about the book:
Throughout the book Newman brings readers back to Scripture. Although he appeals to accounts of people like Paul in Acts preaching on Mars Hill, he also shows how the wisdom literature of Proverbs and Job is applicable to our evangelistic endeavors. You see this as he makes a case for doing evangelism by asking questions—like Jesus does (e.g. Luke 20:1-8)—but also as he illustrates this literature’s significance through real and fictional dialogues. (I can’t say I’ve ever seen an evangelistic tract using Job.)
Not only does the reader see the wisdom Newman has gleaned from Scripture, one sees the wisdom gained from 25 years of ministry with students, professors, and neighbors. His personal examples don’t end with every taxi driver praying to receive Christ, but the man has been fruitful.
Part of what motivates his instruction to do evangelism by asking questions stems from his desire for us to consider what is often below the surface of a conversation. He writes, "Often, when someone asks, "How can you believe in a god who allows evil?" the real question is something else. It could be, "Why should I follow a god who allows evil?" (120)." This kind of discernment requires knowledge of the human heart. Only when we understand where someone is coming from can we offer "an answer to a different question than the one they posed, but it’s the answer that they really need."
Let me say that I believe the ability to ask questions is a skill that Christians should practice and refine, and not just for evangelism’s sake. We use questions in formulating or leading bible studies. We use questions in understanding or shepherding our children. We use questions in wanting to understand and even possibly confront an erring brother or sister. Communicators even use questions rhetorically in sermons or speeches. Newman’s desire to see believers learn to ask better questions in evangelism can be applied to ministry and life generally.
Though the book deals with the weighty issue of evangelism, Newman frequently throws in light and funny comments. He begins his book with some examples of the kinds of questions he asked growing up in a Jewish family (26).
Randy: How’s the weather down there?
Granny Belle: How could the weather be in Florida in the middle of July?
Randy: How have you been?
Uncle Nat: Why do you ask?
Randy: How is your family?
Aunt Vivian: Compared to whom?
After describing an escalating conversation he had on campus with a student, Newman tells us he "laughed inwardly at the thought of a New York Jew debating with a Middle Eastern Muslim about Christianity in front of a table marked, "Campus Crusade!" There is even humor woven into the fictional conversations, reminding us that Christians can laugh—even with non-believers; and humor helpfully provides a little break in what can sometimes become intense conversations.
One of great aspects of his book is the compassion that’s evident even in some of the most heated discussions about skepticism or homosexuality. Newman obviously has heartfelt sympathy toward those who don’t believe Christianity—even for those who might be hostile. What’s at stake is more than persuasion or helping someone to see the futility of their worldview. All our interaction with non-believers flow from our desire to see the one true God worshipped and adored and for people to know the joy of living for this God. Newman describes situations throughout the book and the appropriate range of emotions that correspond to them, from terrorists and 9/11 to the cancerous death of a sibling. He rightly reminds us that the enemy isn’t flesh and blood.
One of the best aspects of the book is how Newman is able to move from a particular topic to the gospel. You see his ability to listen, ask questions, get to deeper heart issues, and steer the conversation towards Christ. I remember hearing D.A. Carson say something about no matter where you start in evangelism, your discussions should eventually drive toward the cross of Christ.
Does that mean I see a guy with a few earrings and say, "Hey, did you know Jesus was pierced for our transgressions?" Or that we should do what one pastor told me he always does on airplanes by asking people about "the weather"—whether they were going to heaven or hell? No, that’s not what Newman does. He is sensitive, tactful and intentional, not shallow or superficial.
Beginning on page 186, he offers a dialogue of a believer and non-believer progressing in their conversation from sex to marriage to the gospel. The fictional dialogues help to illustrate that asking questions lead to deeper issues which are finally and ultimately answered only in the person of Christ.
This is probably a natural time to talk about his second book, which is not necessarily the sequel to the first book. Corner Conversations is actually intended for non-Christians. It answers some of their objections to the faith (hypocrisy, reliability of Scripture, homophobia, etc) and, as I mentioned above, draws clear paths toward the gospel. Here is where you see discernment, theology, and apologetics woven together into evangelistic dialogue. There are seven conversations which read like plays. He sets up the scene, introduces the characters, and begins the dialogues. I found myself scratching my head, laughing, and, at one point, feeling sincerely choked up.
What you won’t find in the dialogues are a Christian version of how the media portrays evangelicals. On television Christians are usually stupid, greasy, and wimpy. Newman doesn’t fall to such levels. Non-believers are not belittled. He creates (fictional) conversations that are realistic or even adapted from his own experiences. People speak to each other as peers, friends, or family members. You don’t see the double-PhD adult taking on a snooty little pre-K. The conversations are fair; Newman had various critics read his manuscript to make sure he was portraying the other side accurately (13).
The book is explicitly written by a Christian with Christian commitments (13), but it’s not bogged down with Christian terminology that would lose a non-believer. One of the thoughtful features behind the book is how it leads the reader to more. Each conversation can be read in one sitting and leaves the reader needing to think more, unlike sitcoms where the world’s problems are solved in 30 minutes. No, these dialogues move a person towards Christ.
At the end of each chapter, Newman includes a small section called "Keeping the Conversation Going," which provides suggestions for further reading and reflection. It includes related biblical passages or books like Job or Romans 1-2. Also included are Christian books like How Long, O Lord by Carson or The Problem of Pain by Lewis—sometimes with a short synopsis or recommendation. Every once in a while he lists a website, to which I’m sure all the postmodern people say, Amen!
In addition to giving this book to non-Christians, believers will find still other uses for it. It could be used in a discipleship relationship with other Christians to talk more about evangelism. Of course, his first book might be more explicit in terms of teaching, but the second book really helps one to see how evangelistic exchanges could go.
A Christian could benefit from reading it to see how they could have turned a conversation about death and the afterlife towards Christ. I found myself a few times thinking, "I wish I would have done that" or "Oh, that is creative." There’s a lot to learn by observing others who may be more experienced or mature in different areas of life and ministry.
This book would supplement or compliment a Sunday School class on evangelism or apologetics by showing how one takes the orthodox theology and blends it into everyday discussion. One of the valuable lessons from the book is how just about anything in life can be redeemed and guided towards life’s ultimate questions and the Savior. Evangelism doesn’t have to be only "random," but natural relationships can be cultivated as God-given means of witnessing.
Randy Newman didn’t pay me to say this. You might be wondering if I had some disclaimers or caveats for the books. I do. First of all, the covers aren’t very attractive. They aren’t horrible, but they could do better. Second, if you’re a strict presuppositional apologetics person, you won’t agree completely with Newman’s lightly seasoned evidences approach. Third, if you have no patience for dialogue or get lost with who’s talking, you might want to read the second book, Corner Conversations, with a friend or just out loud to yourself switching back and forth between different voices. Last, there was a spot in Corner Conversations where I wanted to see more certainty in terms of epistemology, but it is possible that Newman simply didn’t develop all of his thought for brevity’s or conversation’s sake.
All in all, Newman’s books are worthwhile reads. If you wanted to cluster a few books to develop an evangelism curriculum for your church or some essential titles to add to a church (or personal) library, then consider these: Randy Newman’s Questioning Evangelism, Will Metzger’s Tell the Truth, J.I. Packer’s Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God—oh, and Mark Dever’s The Gospel and Personal Evangelism. Keep a couple of Corner Conversations on hand to give away to a friend or co-worker as you develop relationships with them.