Would you consider yourself evangelistic? Honestly, not many would. In our extremely skeptical world where there’s an abundance of worldviews, trying to get someone to repent and believe in Jesus is a daunting task. With us this week to talk about evangelism in a skeptical world is Dr. Sam Chan. Not only does Sam help us see how things like contextualization, cultural hermeneutics, and storytelling can help your evangelism, but he also shares with us some of his own stories. And for those who have a fear of evangelism, Sam provides some good advice. Don’t miss this important conversation.


 

Who is Our Guest?

Dr. Sam Chan is a cultural analyst, theologian, public speaker, author, medical doctor, and karaoke buddy. Sam was born in Hong Kong, grew up and lives in Australia, studied medicine at the University of Sydney, and did his PhD in Theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Chicago, USA.


Episode Links

Sam’s book (that our conversation was based on) is called Evangelism in a Skeptical World: How To Make The Unbelievable News About Jesus More Believable.

Also, check out Sam’s blog – espressotheology.com.

Read It

Isaac:

With me today is Dr. Sam Chan. Sam is a theologian. He’s a preacher, author, evangelist (not done), ethicist, cultural analyst and medical doctor. It’s great to have you with us today, Sam.

Sam:

Good to be here, Isaac. Thanks for having me.

Isaac:

Absolutely. I should let our listeners know, if you’ve been listening with us for a while, that Sam is our first Australian guest. I just want to say, Sam, that’s a big privilege.

Sam:

Oh, it’s a pleasure and we’ve worked out, because of the international dateline, I’m in the future. I’m actually tomorrow. I’m one day ahead of you.

Isaac:

That is incredible. My brain does not fathom that.

Sam:

I know. You should ask me what the share market prices are going to do tomorrow.

Isaac:

That’s true.

Sam:

I can tell you whether they go up or down. I know. Wouldn’t it be good if it did work that way?

Isaac:

Too bad. Too bad. Sam, let me just ask first. I don’t really know you. A lot of people might not know you. Who are you? Maybe a little bit of a short testimony.

Sam:

Yeah, sure. I was born in Hong Kong. But as a baby, my parents moved to Australia, so I grew up in Australia. But then I did graduate and PhD studies in Chicago at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, went back to Sydney and then worked teaching (you guys call it seminary) theology, ethics, preaching and evangelism. Somewhere in that journey, I also was a doctor before I went to seminary.

These days I’m bi-vocational. I spend time in Christian ministry giving talks about Jesus, especially to the non-believing public, but also, I work one day a week as a doctor, as a surgical assistant. All I do is hold the leg for the surgeon to operate on. A trained monkey could do what I do. The nurses look at the surgeon and think, “Yeah, I can see how that took six years of medical school.” They look at me and think, “How on earth does that take six years of medical school?” That is me, the surgical assistant.

Isaac:

That’s awesome. That’s really good. How did you come to faith? I guess you just grew up in a Christian home?

Sam:

Yes. I grew up in a Christian home, so I knew about Jesus for as long as I can remember. For those people who grew up in Christian home, that would sound quite familiar. But there are certain key moments in your life. I would say one key moment was when I was about 16, we had a chaplain at our school and he got us systematically reading the Bible, and I got to read the Book of Romans properly, start to finish. I think that’s when justification finally clicked.

Even so, if you grew up in a church, you go to Sunday school, I think I still thought it was salvation by works until I was 16 and this guy opened up the Book of Romans for me. That was a really, really key moment.

Another key moment would be when I was in my late 20s working as a doctor, and I had to make a decision: “Do I stay in full-time medicine?” or, I had opportunities to use giftings to preach and teach about Jesus as well. I thought, “You can worship God as a doctor,” but I had this opportunity. I had to really struggle with “Where is my identity and status? Is it in being a doctor or can I let that go and just find my identity and status in Jesus?” Again, it comes back to the Book of Romans. Jesus is perfect, so I don’t have to pretend to be perfect. He’s my status. He’s my successor. I don’t have to look for it in all the wrong places. They will be the key moments in my life.

Isaac:

That’s really helpful. Thank you for sharing that. Sam, I recently came across your newer book now, Evangelism in a Skeptical World: How to Make the Unbelievable News about Jesus More Believable. When I came across it, I think it was in an email popup from a book publisher. But it excited me because I really do sense a lack of evangelism in my own life and also in the life of my peers. I just don’t really see it happening a lot. Maybe it’s happening behind closed doors but I’m not seeing it really publicly. The title of your book explains in a sense what you’re writing about. Perhaps you can just tell us why you’ve written this book on evangelism now.

Sam:

Yes, it’s a provocative title but it captures how all Christians feel because we’re in this dilemma. It’s in our DNA to want to tell our friends about Jesus. But at the same time, we don’t feel equipped. When well-meaning pastors say, “Tell your friends about Jesus,” we feel like we would if we could because deep down we sense that. But the tools and methods we were taught 10 or 20 years just don’t have that same bite or traction now because the world has changed.

I say we’re 21st century, post-Christian, post-reached, post-church, so a lot of things don’t work anymore. Then I thought, because I used to teach in a seminary with a big missiology department, “Why don’t we pretend the Western world is unreached? What tools, what methods would a missiologist apply if they had to be missionaries and evangelize Canada, North America, Australia, the UK and Europe? What would we do for our Western world?” Then I applied all the tools of missiology, contextualization, cultural analysis, storytelling and applied it to our Western world. Then rather than see our changed world as a threat to evangelism, see it as a bright new world with new opportunities to try things we’ve never tried before.

Isaac:

That’s so good. I want to get into some of those specific tools in a moment. You mentioned just a few seconds ago about the old ways. I think for many Millennials, and perhaps others as well, the “traditional” forms of evangelism that we saw in the ’50s, ’60s or so – for a lot of us we actually don’t know what those were! I’m wondering if you could explain what they were and why they don’t work in today’s context.

Sam:

Yes, I am old enough (this staggers people), I am old enough to have done university campus evangelism both in the 20th century and the 21st century.

I was in the university campus in the 1980s. That blows people away. I used to go around with a set of talks where I could prove Christianity was true on university campuses. They really, really worked well in the 1980s and the 1990s but there was a shift in the 2000s. I still remember being in Missouri, USA (or Missourahas they say in Missouri) with the same sort of talks, and the audience could not have been more bored, more disengaged, and, I saw more eye rolls that day. I thought something has changed.

I talked to my PhD supervisor, Graham Cole, at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and we broke it all down. In the 20th century, it was much more evidence-based. People wanted proof, “Prove to me the Bible is true. Prove to me Jesus rose from the dead.” Whereas in the 21st century, it’s much more about looking for meaning, purpose, authenticity, what is real, what works. It’s a pragmatic form of truth.

Also, Timothy Keller explains this really, really well. In the 20th century, the Baby Boomers, believe it or not, were quite duty-bound and believed in traditions and honour. They had laws they had to obey. Part of evangelism was to prove to them that you had broken laws. If you ask them why they will go to heaven, they will say, “Because I’m a good person.” Part of evangelism was to demonstrate and say that, “No, you’re not good. You’ve broken a law. You’ve broken all the laws. You’re not going to heaven. You need Jesus.”

But in the 21st century, people don’t believe in laws. They’re arbitrary, cruel social constructs imposed upon us by authority figures. We evangelize them, our friends, we prove to them we’re the bad guys, we’re the oppressors. We’re trying to impose arbitrary laws upon them, play power games. Instead, their narrative is, “I need to be real. I need to be true to myself. I need to be brave enough to ignore what other people tell me (e.g. the church), and just be who I really, really am.” If you’d ask them why God would let them in heaven, they’d say, “Why wouldn’t God let me into heaven? He has to accept me for who I am. If he won’t accept me for who I am, I don’t think I want to be with this God anyway.” It’s a very different thing.

In the 20th century, it’s hard to believe but believe it or not, the people were way more “churched” than we give them credit for. I remember when I was a boy in Sunday school in a class of about ten children, there were only like two Christians and eight were non-Christians because non-Christian parents would send their kids to Sunday school so they could pick up values and religion. The non-Christian generation in the 20th century was way more churched than we give them credit for. Someone like a Billy Graham could come up and do a crusade and give them a 20-minute Bible talk, and there was enough foundation for them to understand, and they could push them to a “tada” moment. “Do you want to give your life to Christ?” And they would.

But now we’re so post-churched, so post-reached. There’s just not enough of a biblical framework for people to even understand what we say in a 20-minute Bible talk. Now it’s much more of a journey into belief where bit by bit the pieces fall into place and there’s this moment where they arrive. God does miracles. People will convert in a 20-minute talk I’m sure. But if you ask most people why they believe, they’ll say, “That 20-minute talk came at the end of a two or three-year journey into belief.”

Isaac:

That’s so good. Thank you for going into detail there. I really enjoyed that. Pretty much you’re telling me though, in a sense, that it would be a miracle if I brought in my Four Spiritual Laws tract into a university campus today and just gave it to someone, and they got saved. It’s not going to have the same effect.

Sam:

Yes, totally. Again, God will do miracles, but you’ll be almost working despite your Four Spiritual Laws tracts, not because of that. My PhD supervisor, Graham Cole, again big shout out to him, he says, “The very opening premise, there are laws that govern the universe. They won’t even give you that opening premise.”

What we forget for most of the evangelism tracts in the 20th century, the very first line actually began with common ground where they would nod their heads and say, “Yes, there are laws that govern the universe.” Or the Bridge to Life tract would be say, “You’re a good person. You want to be good. You want to get to God.” Whereas people won’t give you that opening premise now. They’re not trying to be good, trying to get to God as in the Bridge to Life. And they don’t believe in laws that govern the universe as per Four Spiritual Laws.

Isaac:

That’s so good. Now, Sam, you addressed in your book things like contextualization, cultural hermeneutics and storytelling in reference, obviously, to evangelism. I’m wondering if you could give us just a brief explanation of how those things work. Again, we don’t have tons of time so just in a brief snapshot and then how they’re applied to evangelism.

Sam:

Yeah, contextualization. I think Timothy Keller sums it up the best. You got to enter their storyline first and then challenge their storyline and then give them Jesus to fulfill their storyline. Get them nodding their heads first. We see it with Paul in Athens in Acts 17. He’s distressed by their idols and he could have come in like Jesus did with the whip in the temple. He could have come in saying, “You’re obeying idols. You’re wrong. You’ve broken all the commandments.” Instead he enters their storyline and says, “You have a lot of idols,” and they would have nodded their heads and said, “Yes, we do.” “You are very religious.” They would go, “Yes, we are.” He’s got them nodding their heads.

Then he challenges their storyline, “But you have an idol whose name you don’t know.” Then he gives them Jesus to fulfill that storyline, “Well, let me tell you about the God you don’t know who you should be worshiping.”

We could do the same with our postmodern Western friends. We could say something like, “You’re looking for meaning.” They would go, “Yes, we are.” Then we could challenge it by saying, “Well, you’re just atoms and molecules, another species of life on this planet that any talk of meaning, purpose and hope is really your arbitrary social construct. If there’s a God who gives us a bigger storyline to live for and someone else to live for, e.g. Jesus, now you do have the meaning, purpose and hope that you’re looking for.”

Or you could enter their storyline and say, “You’re looking for freedom.” They would say, “Yes, we are. We are looking for freedom.” Then you could challenge it. “But you’re not free. Whatever you live for owns you and destroys you. It’s making you less happy.” Then you could give them Jesus. “Jesus says, ‘The truth will set you free.’ That’s because with Jesus we get to be who God wants us and made us to be. Now we’re truly free.” That’s how you enter and contextualize to someone’s storyline.

Isaac:

That’s so good. As you say that though, Sam, I’m thinking, how do you keep, in a sense, up to date with the storyline of those that aren’t holding your same Christian worldview?

Sam:

When I used to teach at the seminary, I had to read the canon of Christian authors because my students always want to know what I thought of Carson or Vanhoozer. But now I’m interacting in a very evangelistic ministry. I had to know the canon of non-Christian authors. What are my non-Christian friends reading?

Because I work one day a week as a doctor, the anesthesiologist is always reading a book. I hate to break it to you but while you’re asleep in operation, the anesthesiologist is not sweating over your monitor. He or she is actually either doing a crossword or reading a book. So, I then ask the anesthesiologist, “What are you reading?” And I find out what the non-Christians are reading.

I get into podcasts. I love This American Life. I love The Moth. I like Freakonomics. The Gimlet Media podcast canon, I get into. Then I look at the New York top 10 bestseller list and see what people like that are reading, like Jon Ronson, So You’ve Been Shamed. David Brooks. Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind. Karen Armstrong, Fields of Blood. Bit by bit you start working out- because they all reference each other.

Here’s the other thing. I subscribed to The New Yorker for one year and, I don’t know anyone who reads The New Yorker. The articles are so long. The cartoons, I hate to say it, they are not funny. I don’t get the cartoons. Anyone who says they read The New Yorker and they like the cartoons, they’re pretending to be high-brow. They are bluffing. I canceled the subscription. I just have a pile of New Yorkers stacked up on my desk unread just letting me feel bad. I just want to put it out there. Anyone who says they read The New Yorker is pretending. You do not have to read The New Yorker to stay in touch.

Isaac:

Good. Okay. That’s good. Actually, you know what though? Sam, I appreciate what you just said there, not just about The New Yorker but everything because it’s very practical. I like that. That’s actually really helpful.

As we’re approaching the end of our conversation, I’m wondering if we can just look at you and your own life here. Can you think of an evangelistic moment in your life when you perhaps were faced with sharing the gospel with someone and you were either in fear, in doubt or you weren’t confident? I’m just wondering what happened.

Sam:

Oh, wow. I got two extremes in my evangelistic world. I have Uber rides where I’ve got 20 minutes to share the gospel to a stranger and, believe it or not, that always goes way better than you think it would. But the scary ones were when I used to be a flatmate with three non-Christian doctors. You’re stuck with them. It’s going to be really, really awkward if you share the gospel with them and they don’t want to believe. That really was where you had to invest time and demonstrate a lifestyle of two to three years. That was even more scary. Then eventually they would actually ask, “So what does a Christian believe?” I reckon my heart was racing faster at those moments than it would have been sharing the gospel with an Uber driver.

I still remember to this day how I shared it. I said to my friend, “You know how you and I are both single right now and we’re just going from rental accommodation to rental accommodation and we’re just sitting here on a Friday night lonely, single, feeling sorry for ourselves, listening to jazz and the blues? Really deep down we just want to meet a special someone and finally be able to settle down, stop wandering in a place we will call home.” I said, “That is what Christianity is like. There is a God who loves us, who made us. We’re wandering. We’re restless because we haven’t settled down with him. But if we come to him, he sent his son Jesus to bring us to him, we can settle down with God in a place he calls home.”

I think that was the scariest but the most special moment of evangelism for me. My friend didn’t reject it, but he just let it settle. But months and years later, he came to faith. I think that was the special and most scary moment.

Who would have thought it’s with your flatmates and your friends and family that’s most scary, whereas Uber drivers and people next to you on a plane aren’t scary because you’re not going to see them again? It really, really doesn’t matter.

Isaac:

Absolutely. That’s good. Thank you for sharing that. Sam, from your studies in the Bible and in culture that you’ve done for your book, but also just to your ministry, what would you say is your best response to a young adult Christian who doesn’t engage with evangelism because they’re in this fear of confronting someone with this? Maybe they have the fear of man.

Sam:

Yes. Well, I say, break it down into baby steps. I have the same fear when I see a pile of dirty dishes in the sink and it just looks too global, too big, and my wife says, “Break it down into steps. Start with a fork. Do the cup. Bit by bit.” You say, “Evangelism, it’s too global. It’s too scary.” Just break it down into baby steps. Don’t worry about how you will tell your friend about Jesus. Just think, “Can I take my friend out for coffee?” Ask them, “Let’s do coffee.” Coffee is a safe invitation. It’s public space. You’re only going to talk about the weather and the sport. It’s 10 or 20 minutes but you do that often enough.

Then do a meal like lunch or dinner together somehow and bit by bit … That’s a private space. The conversations now move to values, worldviews. You have one or two hours. Then we get to worldviews. Ask them questions like “How were you raised? What religion did your parents have?” Get them talking and just listen and listen and listen without trying to work out how to respond, how to get your story in. Sooner or later they will say to you, “How were you raised? What’s your religion?” Then you can share your story. They can’t argue against your story. And then if they listen to your story, you can say, “Hey, just while I’ve got you, can I share a story about Jesus?”

I love telling the story of Jesus turning water into wine. That’s become my favourite one because no one has a category for that story, not even Christians. I say, “The guests had enough to drink. They were drunk, and he gives them more wine. In Australia, that’s illegal. You lose your liquor license if you did that. But he’s the Second Person of the Trinity, the Son of God giving people more wine. Why would he do that?” People have no answer. I say, break it down to baby steps.

If I get that far, I say, “Well, why would Jesus turn water into wine?” I say, “Because he’s actually trying to give us an image of what life with him would be like both in this life and the life that comes. If you think that by following Jesus you will miss out, it’s the opposite. By not following Jesus, you will miss out.”

I don’t know. I just find that a really seamless way to enter the gospel. With an Uber driver, that’s 20 minutes. But if it’s friends or family, well, I can understand how you do coffee a few times, do a few meals and you’re just investing more time. That’s why I argue in my book that hospitality is actually a key component. We’ve itemized evangelism into, “How do I tell my friends about Jesus? How do I get the courage to do this at a lunchtime talk?” No, no, no. Think about hospitality first because it’s everywhere in the Bible. Suddenly you realize, “Wow, for evangelism to work, it actually presupposes hospitality.” Begin with hospitality and see where you can go from there.

Isaac:

Yeah. That’s huge. Evangelism doesn’t start with just going to your friend and saying, “Hey, let me talk to you about Jesus.” It starts with the hospitality. I think that’s crucial. That’s key.

The last question, Sam, is, should we be thinking of evangelism as a way of life or more as a specific task for a period of time, if you know what I mean? In church and youth groups you hear things like, “We’re going to do evangelism!” But, shouldn’t I be thinking about it all the time, as a way of life?

Sam:

Yeah, it’s definitely a lifestyle change. The analogy I give is, every New Year’s Eve we all make the same New Year’s resolution. This year, I’m going to get fit. This is the year I’m going to get fit. I’m going to eat less. I’m going to exercise more. We sign up for a gym. We get up at 5:00 in the morning. We go for a run. And it stops after a few weeks because it’s unsustainable. It was an event we shoehorned into our life. But fitness needs to become a lifestyle change and evangelism is the same. It can’t be events that we shoehorn into our life by our church calendar. It is those things, but it can’t only be those things. You need a lifestyle DNA change where you become evangelistic. It just becomes how you live, think and move. It’s just your lifestyle. You become evangelistic.

Isaac:

What would you say is the one thing or the first step to make evangelism a lifestyle?

Sam:

I say, merge your universes. As Christians, we have two universes of friends: a universe of Christian friends and a universe of non-Christian friends. We keep them separate. So, deliberately and proactively find a way to merge your universes. Match-make your non-Christian friends with your Christian friends and the gospel become more believable as your non-Christians have more and more Christians in their life. Tonight, if you want to invite someone over to watch sports on TV, think about, well, how can I get a non-Christian and a Christian in a room at the same time watching sports with me? I say, merge your universes in creative ways to do hospitality.

Isaac:

That’s so good. Well, thank you so much, Sam, for your time and your wisdom today. It’s been so good. If you’re listening and you’re interested in what Sam has been sharing, then you should go pick up his new book, Evangelism in a Skeptical World. I know you can find it on Amazon and I can also post the proper links on the episode podcast page.

Also, check out espressotheology.com where Sam blogs and also citybibleforum.org in which Sam is a speaker. Anyways, thanks again, Sam, and I hope to talk to you again.

Sam:

Oh, thank you so much for having me, Isaac. That was a blast or a “hoot” as you might say.

Isaac:

I don’t know if we say hoot in Canada.

Sam:

Don’t you?

Isaac:

We’ll just go with that.

Sam:

Someone somewhere says it.