Finding Common Ground

Evangelism for the 1990s

Some months ago, a well-known media figure-we’ll call him Tom-invited me to dinner. “I don’t believe in God,” Tom told me straight out. “But tell me what you believe.”

So I started in-not realizing I was about to learn a hard lesson in what evangelism means for the 1990s.

I began telling my testimony, but Tom cut me off. “I know your story,” he said. “Obviously Jesus worked for you.” And he told about a friend who was into New Age spirituality.

“Crystals, channeling-it worked for her,” Tom said. “Just like your Jesus.”

No no, I tried to explain. Jesus is an historical person who actually lived and died. But Tom shrugged it off: His friend’s guru is a real person, too.

So I switched gears. Tom had suffered some health problems. Had he ever wondered about life after death? Again he cut me off. “Heaven is a myth invented in primitive times,” he declared. “Today we know humans are just another species of animal. When they die, that’s the end.”

I switched to Scripture, but Tom held up his hand. “I’ve studied the Bible, ” he said, “wonderful collection of ancient fables.” I argued for the historical validity of the Bible, but he still wasn’t buying.

By now I had been working nearly an hour without finding a chink in Tom’s armor. As I fumbled with my fork, an idea popped to mind. “Have you seen Woody Allen’s movie, ‘Crimes and Misdemeanors’?” I asked.

Yes, he had. It’s about a doctor who hires a killer to murder his mistress. Afterward he is haunted by guilt. His Jewish father had taught him that God sees all and will surely bring justice.

But the doctor’s crime is never discovered.

Eventually he decides that there is no justice, that life is a Darwinian struggle where the ruthless come out on top. “When we do wrong, is that our only choice?” I asked Tom. “Either live tormented by guilt-or else kill our conscience and live like beasts?”

For the first time, Tom was thoughtful, picking at his food. I went on to Leo Tolstoy’s novel War and Peace, where the central character cries out, “Why is it that I know what is right, but do what is wrong?”

I ended with the book of Romans, which teaches that try as we might, we cannot run from the voice of conscience. Though he said he wasn’t ready to make a decision, Tom listened as I told him of Christ’s atoning work on the cross.

I don’t know what will happen to Tom; clearly the Hound of Heaven is after him. But I do know that without Woody Allen and Tolstoy, I would never have found common ground to discuss spiritual matters.

It used to be that most Americans knew the Bible, and evangelists could simply call them to repent and return. But today most people don’t understand biblical terms or concepts.

The Word of God still has power to convict, of course. But we first have to get the chance to be heard. We need to find common ground to engage people’s attention.

This is one of the greatest challenges facing evangelicals in the 1990s, and it’s a topic I write about in my book The Body. I’ll have more to say about it tomorrow, here on this station.


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