Preparing to “go and tell”

In most western nations the culture has become more secular over the last few decades. People are not only unconvinced of religion but also uninterested. In most of the U.S. there is no longer any social pressure to go to church; in fact, if anything, there can be a social cost. In this situation how should Christians understand their call to be witnesses for Jesus (Acts 1:8)?

We can no longer just say to others come and see, but we need to move more and more to go and tell. Let me unpack that a bit.

“Come and see” means bringing friends and neighbors to events or to church to hear presentations of the gospel. This remains crucial of course, but in our society we may find fewer people are willing or even ready to profit from such occasions. As happened in the early church (see Michael Green’s Evangelism and the Early Church) today the great preponderance of witness must happen informally, naturally, relationally.

As those early disciples found, those who don’t yet believe become interested through conversations in which we identify ourselves as followers of Jesus and engage their questions about faith in general and Christianity in particular.

How do we prepare for this? The most basic requirement for personal faith sharing and witness is not any kind of formal training. The primary need is for the kind of courage, vulnerability, humility, love, and patience that come from a heart grown spiritually mature in Christ through the Word, prayer, and involvement in church and worship.

John Stott wrote that a “living contact with God” is the basic foundation for witness. “Nothing shuts the mouth, seals the lips and ties the tongue like the secret poverty of our spiritual experience.” In other words, if you love people enough and desire them to have the unique, infinitely rich life you have in Christ, then witness simply happens.

The second requirement, however, is your own study. The more good books you read on faith, the more confidence you will have to receive the kind of questions and complaints people have about our faith. There are too many good, basic volumes to list here, so let me just give you a sampling — all published just this year — that have prepared me better for “go and tell.”

A new great book is Rebecca McLaughlin’s Confronting Christianity (Crossway, 2019). It lists “12 Hard Questions,” all of which you will get (eventually) if you are in conversations about faith. One chapter is a good overview of the topic is “Hasn’t Science Disproved Christianity?”

If you’ve read that and want to go deeper I suggest Christian Smith, Atheist Overreach: What Atheism Can’t Deliver (Oxford University Press, 2019). Smith says that his book is not trying to make the case that atheism is wrong. Rather, he argues convincingly that if there is no God then there can be no basis for human rights or moral values of any kind, and that while many claim that science can give us a basis for those things, it cannot. Science can tell us what we can do and also how to do it efficiently — but it can never tell us whether we should do it or not.

Smith’s book is short and a pretty quick read. If you want a more detailed explanation of how science has failed to provide us any basis for moral ideals, see James Davison Hunter and Paul Nedelisky, Science and the Good: The Tragic Quest for the Foundations of Morality (Yale University Press, 2019) These authors — one a sociologist and one a philosopher — trace out all the attempts to use science and secular reason (rather than religion) to discover how human beings ought to live. The authors show how in each case those appealing to science for a definition of the good and just human life always smuggle in assumptions about reality and human nature that are essentially religious beliefs.

To drill down on just one of those failed attempts, see Anne Harrington, The Mind-Fixers: Psychiatry’s Troubled Search for the Biology of Mental Illness, (W. W. Norton, 2019). Harrington is a professor of the history of science at Harvard, and she shows how, since the late 1970s, there has been an effort to see virtually all mental illness, including depression and anxiety, as biologically based — as strictly a scientific problem, a problem with the physical brain, that can be fixed with proper medication. While the author is a not supporter for religion per se, she makes a strong case in one field that supports the larger point being made by Smith, Hunter, and Nedelisky.

In no way am I saying you must digest these particular books in order to “go and tell.” The books are illustrative. But they are the kinds of things to read in order to be in a position to have good and extended conversations with modern, secular people about their questions concerning faith.

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