The following review was written by Andy McLean, Editor of The Gospel Project for Students
Jonathan K. Dodson. The Unbelievable Gospel: Say Something Worth Believing. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2014. 226pp. $16.99
While there have certainly been books on the market in recent years that touch on the topic of living on mission and the importance of sharing the gospel with others, I haven’t seen too many self-described as a book on evangelism. In talking about the term itself, Jonathan Dodson agrees by saying that “Evangelism has become a byword…fallen to the wayside in Christian vocabulary” (11).
The thesis of Dodson’s book, as he states, is “to recover a believable evangelism, one that moves beyond the cultural and personal barriers we have erected in contemporary evangelism to rediscover the power of the biblical gospel” (14). To that end, Dodson lays out his case by first giving a brief reason as to why people find the gospel unbelievable, followed by a detailed cultural analysis of four distinct evangelistic practices that are common to the North American context. After showing exactly where these practices fall short in today’s context, Dodson moves on to discuss a way forward by 1) gaining a fresh vision of the gospel, 2) handling the gospel in its different forms, and 3) speaking the gospel in cultural key. In the remaining chapters, Dodson offers a practical section that presents a number of various gospel metaphors that, as he describes, can be used in evangelistic conversations; metaphors like acceptance, hope, intimacy, tolerance, approval, and community.
From my own experience with this genre, evangelism books have either tried to 1) motivate toward the practice of evangelism—whether by encouragement or rebuke—2) prescribe a certain way evangelism should be conducted—a methodology to be followed, or 3) a combination of the two. Dodson’s book, however, departs from this template in a couple of respects. First, it is not prescribing an evangelistic strategy per se, but does provide an extensive critique of various strategies that have been used in the past, and are still being used today. Whether it is the Impersonal, Preachy, Intolerant, or Uninformed Witness that we have all become accustomed to, Dodson spends a significant portion of time giving a cultural analysis into how each fails to fruitfully engage the contemporary landscape with the gospel.
As a part of this general cultural critique, one of the things that I appreciated most was the apologetic content that was incorporated into the discussion. Not only is it rare to hear robust apologetic content in a book about evangelism; it is even rarer to hear how apologetic content can be related to gospel-centered theology. For whatever reasons, many people tend to bifurcate between the discipline of apologetics and gospel-centeredness, thinking that the former has all to do with prepackaged rational arguments that are void of special revelation, whereas the latter is rooted in the text of Scripture and independent of human reason. This has long been the caricature of some forms of apologetics, especially within the reformed tradition. However, this is simply a false dilemma. Evangelical theology has been incredibly helped by apologetics—and its sister discipline, philosophy of religion—in recent decades, especially in light of the cultural milieu in which we find ourselves in. In commenting on the helpfulness of apologetics in general, Dodson goes so far as to say, “Apologetics enable the gospel story…to be heard. It reveals the inner coherence of Christianity and its intellectual credibility, and it offers an existentially satisfying purpose for anyone who will trust in Christ” (92).
Another thing that I appreciated about Dodson’s approach was his encouragement that “good evangelism isn’t an all-or-nothing endeavor” (47). While some would be of the persuasion that an evangelistic conversation must include a presentation of the gospel, Dodson discerns that for many within our culture today, a presentation of the gospel—that Jesus died on the cross for one’s sins—can be completely abstract and impersonal if not contextualized to the individual. This thinking is helpful in at least two ways. First, it relieves Christians of the unwarranted pressure of thinking they have to seal the deal every time they engage in a spiritual conversation by leading someone to make a decision for Christ. While the ultimate desire may be for one to come to a saving knowledge of God, it is unrealistic to expect that salvation will occur during every encounter. Instead, the Christian should, as Dodson suggests, attempt to steer the conversation towards the heart, helping the individual overcome intellectual obstacles, see hidden heart idols, and understand overall how the person and work of Christ makes a difference to one’s life.
In addition to that, this mindset also helps believers become more personal in their interactions with others. Opposed to believing that one must seal the deal, believers are now in a position to authentically engage in meaningful dialogue without unwarranted stress. They are now able to listen, with a critical and discerning ear, to the various worldviews espoused before articulating a response that is uniquely situated for the other person. They are capable of not only avoiding the evangelistic defeaters mentioned throughout the book, but they are equipped to better direct their responses to the needs of the listener.
While one may wish that The Unbelievable Gospel addressed additional concerns related to an evangelical witness in today’s context, overall the book is overwhelmingly helpful, and stands out in the genre of evangelism.
**This review was adapted from the same review found at The Gospel Coalition
You can purchase a Lifeway Reader version of The Unbelievable Gospel here.