Where will you go when you die?

How do we use evangelism tools helpfully in a culture that is post-Christian in attitude, but pre-Christian in understanding?

If you were to die tonight, do you know for sure that you are going to be with God in Heaven? And if God were to ask: ‘Why should I let you into My Heaven?’ What would you say?

Sound familiar? These questions come from Pastor James Kennedy’s door to door outreach, Evangelism Explosion, launched in Florida back in the 1960s. It was simple, and effective. Thousands have been trained in this approach as a springboard to sharing the gospel, and hundreds of thousands responded. Not to ‘dis Evangelism Explosion, but oftentimes we are guilty of so emphasising getting someone across the line and ‘saved’, that we fail to draw them into the bigger salvation story. We forget that Jesus’ Gospel never appealed to hopes of heaven when you die—however effective it may have been. And we forget that times have changed in the West. Questions about an untimely death and a pearly gates proposal might ‘work’ with lapsed Christians, but confuse Buddhists, New Agers, and New Atheists. I like what Einstein said: “Simplify as far as possible, but no further.” Simple is good. Simplistic, however, is dangerous.

How do you share the ‘Gospel’? The Roman Road, the Bridge Diagram, Do versus Done, the Four Spiritual Laws … each has a place. But each approach almost exclusively emphasizes what will happen to me as an individual in the future, based upon a past—seemingly unrelated—historical event. For many people I talk with, this sounds really ‘religious’ and distant from their everyday life. They’re wondering what difference this makes for today. And as good as it is to have God’s plan for my life, what about this hurting world around me; does it help there? We’ve got a good story to tell, that calls for a response. And while people may question the truth of our message, if we tell it right, they shouldn’t question the relevance. Quoting N. T. Wright, “The Gospel is that the crucified and risen Jesus is the Lord [master, or boss] of the world. And that His death and resurrection transform the world, and that transformation can happen to you. You, in turn, can be part of the transforming work.”

But how do we tell this kind of epic story to a sceptical age tired of spin? Indeed, in the context of friendship evangelism – life on life – do we still need a short and sharp summary of the Gospel at all? Perhaps you’ve come across an engaging book by James Choung, True Story: A Christianity Worth Believing In. Part story, part manual, his “four circles” approach offers a great starting point for a simple but not simplistic telling of the gospel. I think he’s missing the end of the story though, so here’s the basics for a tweaked version I use when sharing the bigger story of which we’re all a part.

Designed for good
We were made to love God, love each other, and cultivate this garden planet.

Damaged by evil
Instead, we’ve despised God, abused others, and vandalised our world. “Sin” pollutes, perverts and destroys life.

Restored for better
We’re forgiven, freed, healed, and transformed by Jesus’ sacrifice. God stepped into this world through Jesus: He paid for our wrongs, and defeated all the powers that lead to death. By rising again, he offers a new way forward to life. For those who admit their brokenness and sin, and align with God, a new chapter in life begins.

Sent together to heal
Jesus has empowered us with God’s Spirit to live the resurrection hope, a foretaste of what will be.

Set everything right
We await the day Jesus returns to deal with all evil, rule fairly, and set everything right – a transformed world, God with us, and real peace.

So what is the good news of the Gospel?

The Epic Story is that God designed us all for good, but through our bad choices we’ve been damaged by evil. But, through Jesus’ life, death on the cross, and resurrection, we’ve been restored for better. If you’re humble enough to admit to God that you fall short, and ask Him to forgive you for the wrong you’ve done, putting God first, then you can connect with life to the full—what God always intended for you. Then you can join other followers of Jesus, empowered by God’s Spirit, sent together to heal a hurting world, waiting for the day when God will set everything right by judging all the evil and restoring the whole universe.

Obviously you need to find your own words so you can share this naturally. Still, I believe it is critical that every believer is equipped to tell something like this summary of the gospel. Words matter. Granted, the way you love and listen to your friends is a genuine sign of God’s Kingdom. But our deeds don’t interpret themselves—especially in a culture of distraction and deceit. The Gospel may be more than a spoken message, but it is not less. Rote learning the five circles—pictures and all – removes fuzzy-thinking and religious jargon, ensuring the good news is clear to communicate in a way that makes sense to those with post-Christian attitude but pre-Christian understanding.

Generally with friends outside the church, I’ll ask God to show me how their stories connect to the Epic Story: I’ll listen closely, and as they share deeper things about their life I’ll place what they’re talking about within one of the five circles. Loving the beauty of views from a mountain peak?—yes, this world is designed for good. Lost your job through institutional mismanagement?—yes, this world is not the way it’s supposed to be. Frustrated with how you treat your kids and want to find a new way?—yes, you can be restored for better and bring healing rather than hurt. It’s individual, corporate, and cosmic. In summary form this sounds trite. In reality, however, God’s Spirit freely directs as I ask genuine questions to delve deeper into that circle of the Epic Story, and make connections forward and backward so they can see their lives as within a coherent narrative. It’s no coincidence that our testimony is a mini-version of this epic.

“For this is your story. It’s our story. It’s God’s Big Story”

More recently I’ve partnered with James Alley – a graphic designer – to create a youth version called “The Big Story” (thebigstory.org.au). He’s used this in art workshops in high schools where students share how their story connects to the Big Story as they cut out and graff stencils. I’ve run dozens of talks with schools and churches combining evangelism and apologetics. We explore the question of “What story am I living in?” suggesting that the Bible offers a Director’s angle on the world. I tell the Big Story, and then students use post-it-notes to place their questions and objections onto one of the five circles – be it science, suffering, hell, whatever. A picture gets at the guttural level, and for many of these kids may be the only open channel to receive the good news. We then take a solid hour to place their questions within the story, constantly reinforcing the Gospel in a way that engages both their head and their heart.

I’ll let James share in his own words how this approach has guided his personal evangelism:
I’ve used an illustrated “Big Story” a few times in different situations. One stand out time was with a guy I met skating. We got talking about God and after trying to communicate the gospel with him I invited him to come to my studio and check out a comic version I was working on. He was keen so we headed to the studio and I took him through the illustrated “Big Story”. The artwork has a boldness and edginess to it, unusual for church visuals and he liked that. It also explores some darker aspects of life graphically. He engaged really quickly with the images and the ideas they represented. He was linking the Gospel themes together more cognitively than when I was just talking to him. We went through each scene and he nodded along, asking questions and commenting on the story. At the scene illustrating that our response to reconciliation involves creative mission—it’s a picture of a snake being crushed by a guitar—a big grin broke out on his face. He said he loved that idea. At the end he remarked, “See that makes sense! I’ve been to church before and nothing they say makes sense—but I understand this!”

We had a big chat all afternoon and the framework of the Big Story became an anchor to the conversation. We kept focused by tying things back to scenes from the illustrated story. He ended up praying with me and opening up and being raw and honest with God about some really painful personal experiences. He had a significant moment of connection with his Creator. By using illustrative images we can convey big concepts simply and have a good reference point for conversation. It works the same way a powerful illustration does in a sermon. It defines abstract theological concepts in creative and meaningful ways. In a culture saturated with competitive visual stimulus the Big Story needs to be represented with clarity and effectiveness to emphasise the story’s relevance.

This Gospel truly is God’s total answer to humanity’s total need, so every aspect of life – from a broken relationship, through collapsing economies, to a planet overwhelmed by natural disaster—offers a connection point for the gospel. There is good news beyond the pearly gates. So, give this approach a go. Next time a natural opportunity opens to share the gospel, try framing it around the five circles. And if it’s any help, check out a booklet version of the Epic Story at issuu.com/nikanddaveabroad/docs/epic_story, or contact [email protected]

God bless as you announce God’s reign. And let’s share this Epic Story freely in a world desperate for genuinely good news.

“Good news beyond thy pearly gates” by Dave Benson. prac12. Dave  lectures in evangelism and apologetics at Malyon College, and is a PhD candidate in Practical Theology at University of Queensland, considering the place of religious texts in public education. His heart is to see the Church bridge the divide to a culture post-Christian in attitude, but pre-Christian in understanding.