Book Review: “The Unbelievable Gospel” by Jonathan K. Dodson

The story is told that someone once criticized DL Moody about how he shared the Gospel with non-believers. Moody asked the woman how she does it. When she responded that she doesn’t, Moody is quoted as saying, “I prefer my way of sharing the Gospel to your way of not sharing the Gospel.” This always hit me hard, because the area of evangelism has been a weak spot in my Christian walk for all my life. This is a shameful thing to admit, especially for someone who’s spent years as a Bible teacher. I don’t pursue opportunities to have Gospel conversations with people, even people whom I’ve known for years.

So the idea of a book on evangelism tends to fill me with preemptive guilt, a bit of dread, and no small amount of defensiveness. I brace myself for the inevitable conviction that follows even the most loving and gentle teaching on the subject.

The Unbelievable Gospel by Jonathan K. Dodson is a book that both succeeds and fails in the ways it challenges believers to share their faith.

Despite the title, this is not simply another “The (Adjective) Gospel” book in a long line of such titles. This short book by Dodson, the pastor/planter of City Life Church in Austin, TX, tackles the issue of how our belief in the Gospel can fuel and focus how we share our message. Rather than rote memorization of gospel presentations, Dodson writes, “our whole understanding of evangelism needs to change–our motivations, our methods, and even our message” (p. 29).  [I should hasten to add that Dodson doesn’t change the essence of the Gospel at all; his understanding of the Gospel is very sound.]

The Unbelievable Gospel (TUG) is broken down into three sections: “Defeaters: Reasons Not to Share,” “ReEvangelization: Rediscovering the Gospel,” and “Metaphors: Good News to Those…”  Let me start by addressing the second and third sections.

What Worked for Me

The “Re-Evangelization” section takes on the task that Jerry Bridges would call “preaching the Gospel to yourself.”  Dodson argues very rightly that our sharing of the good news of Jesus Christ is born out of a continually refreshed and refreshing reminder of what Jesus has done for us. When we meditate and focus on our own redemption and new life in Christ, this will spring forth in how we speak of Him to others, including non-believers.

This was probably my favorite section of the book. Dodson discusses taking a fresh look at what the Gospel means for us and others, thinking about how to apply it and communicate it in different cultural contexts, and how different facets of the Gospel are connection points to what the unsaved people around us are experiencing. This is true contextualization; understanding what is going on in the life of the people we meet, and seeing how the true Gospel (not some manipulated or misshapen version of it) is the answer to what they’re facing.

In Section 3, Dodson uses stories to demonstrate how different “gospel metaphors” (as he calls them), such as adoption and redemption, can be particularly meaningful to people going through different circumstances. I thought this was also very strong, for the most part. Dodson demonstrates that it’s important to listen to lost people, ask good questions, and get to know them.  This isn’t merely fact-finding for the purpose of figuring out an “angle,” but it is sincere listening that comes from a sincere compassion for people. This characteristic is one of Jesus’ defining features in the Gospels: he loved people, had compassion for them, and met them where they were in order to share truth with them.

One odd thing about these two sections, though, is that Dodson seems to have an aversion to, or at least a bit of a distaste for, the idea of “doctrine.” He argues that “Jesus (not doctrine) is the focus of the Scriptures” (p. 113), which is true in a sense. Several times, he takes pains to differentiate between “mere doctrine” and the Gospel metaphors he uses. This strikes me odd, since the “Gospel metaphors” are justification, adoption, redepmtion, new creation, and union with Christ. Maybe I’m mistaken, but aren’t these generally considered…Christian doctrines? In this, Dodson falls into the bad habit of demonizing good words that have unfairly bad reputations, presumably because using the words positively would be misunderstood by people who are prejudiced against things like “doctrine.” (That’s a whole ‘nother blog post.)

So in Parts 2 and 3, Dodson does a fine job of articulating the beauty of the Christian Gospel, and how believers can wisely and carefully articulate that to non-believers.

What Didn’t Work for Me

That first part, though. Oof.

This review is actually a few weeks later than I meant it to be. Part of the reason is because I almost didn’t finish the book several times. The first part of the book, the section on “Defeaters” that makes up the first 100 pages or so of the book, was brutal. And not brutal in a “wow, I’m so convicted” way.

I understand what Dodson’s trying to do in Part 1. He’s describing reasons why Christians don’t share their faith.  But instead of doing so in a balanced, pastoral, generous way, Dodson seems to set up straw men and broad-brush arguments.  He argues in Chapter 1:

The pressure we feel to share the Gospel doesn’t translate into loving concern we may genuinely have for them. Instead, our compulsion bleeds through, coming across as a pressure sale, and people feel like a means to an end, a project. Even when what we say is true and we have good intentions, the way we say it can make people wish we weren’t talking.

Can this statement be fair in some cases? Yes it can. But what Dodson calls “compulsion” or a “pressure sale,” others may call “urgency” or “evangelistic zeal.” In Part 1, Dodson argues that people won’t listen to drive-by evangelism that’s not grounded in relationship (though he seems to contradict this in Chapter 11)–but that’s not what the record of Scripture bears out. In Acts 2, thousands of people who presumably have no relationship to Peter are cut to the heart by a clear Gospel message. Paul moved from town to town preaching. Yes he spent time to listen and discuss and reason, but these people weren’t his friends. He didn’t live in Corinth or Ephesus for 2-3 years, “learning the city,” before he opened his mouth.

I’m not arguing that building relationships doesn’t help you know and sincerely love lost people. But I think this concept of “lifestyle evangelism” that waits years before speaking of Jesus and His Gospel is well-meaning but wrong-headed, because underneath it is the assumption that we have all the time in the world in order to build relationship.  On the contrary, Paul says that we should think and speak and live in a way that shows we understand the end is at hand. This means speaking up.

Speaking quickly and speaking lovingly is not an either/or proposition. Some of Dodson’s writing in the first part of TUG seems to put these two ideas in contrast.

Another struggle I had with Part 1 was how Dodson would make statements that were true on one level but way off on another.  In Chapter 2, he argues that good evangelism takes time: “Getting to the heart is a process, not a one-time event” (p. 48). Yes, that is true in some sense, but again, does Scripture show this? It seems that Jesus, Peter, Stephen, and Paul (to name a few examples) had times of Christian witness that got to the heart of their hearers in a one-time event.  The issue here, and in other places in Part One, is that Dodson’s wording and terminology are imprecise enough to be frustrating and possibly misunderstood. (I think I’ll discuss his use of the word “disciple” in a future post.)

Look, rather than detail every question or issue I had with the first part of  TUG (my margins are all scribbled over), I’ll just say this: prophetic writing, when it comes to discussing the sins of God’s people, is a powerful and important thing. But it felt, through the first 100 pages of TUG, that Dodson was taking easy potshots. All street preachers are crazed, hellfire-and-damnation jerks. All workplace evangelists are hypocritical or high-pressure or canned-presentation-with-no-love. This may not be a totally-fair reading, but this is how it felt. Just piles and heaps of assumptions, stereotypes, and broad strokes. Frankly, it felt like one of the cool kids talking about how uncool the rest of us are for not doing things their way. I don’t think that’s what Dodson was trying to do, at all. But that was how the tone read to me.  However, by the time the book hit the midway point, Dodson leveled out and turned his focus on the thing that mattered, and from that point on, with few exceptions, the book sang.

And I’ll reiterate: Dodson’s method of doing evangelism is still better than my methods of not doing it. So I’m not writing this critique from a place of “I do it better.” I’m just trying to think through some of the underlying beliefs that Dodson articulates, and I find them unconvincing and/or wrongly-based.

Conclusion

So, in closing: The Unbelievable Gospel is an uneven book. The pastoral and teaching aspects of it are solid and edifying, across the board.  I really, really liked the middle section, especially. But the prophetic, fault-finding aspects of it felt frustrating and unfair. In an effort to be rightly convicting, the criticisms felt cheap and easy, and the tone just rang false.

That said, let me end with the following quote from Chapter 1 of TUG that is probably my favorite from the book (emphasis mine):

It’s not enough for us to see eternity in the balance; eternal math isn’t enough to keep the evangelistic heart pumping. We must see Jesus, over and over again, as the source and goal of God’s work, and we must look to Him as the renewing power of new creation. Jesus is our motivation for evangelism, and the Father is counting us to count on Christ, more than anything else, and entrust our evangelistic record to Him. Don’t count on methods, conversions, cultural savvy, or your church. Count on Christ, deeply, and you will communicate Christ freely.

Amen and amen.

[Thanks to Matthew Sims for providing a copy of the book for review.]

Advertisements

4 thoughts on “Book Review: “The Unbelievable Gospel” by Jonathan K. Dodson

  1. Hi Dave,
    Thank you for taking the time to read my book, reflect seriously, and write a review. I’m glad to hear that the second and third sections were helpful and encouraging to you, and genuinely hope you are stirred to believe and share the gospel more with those estranged from Christ.

    All Witnessing is Doctrinal

    I thought I’d give a brief response to a couple of your critiques. For the record, I love doctrine. My bookshelves are filled with theology books, and I’ve studied Christian doctrine for years. The concern about doctrine I’m trying to express (if ineffecitively) is the “doctrinaire” attitude that Christians _can_ have it witnessing, and the radical focus on getting across doctrinal information with indifference to the person. All doctrine should be personal since it arises from a loving, tri-personal God and his desire to communicate with his creation. But, as you point out, we can’t avoid doctrine in witnessing. All witnessing is doctrinal. I aver that the doctrine should be sound and personal. It sounds like I could improve those sections, so thanks for drawing that out.

    Good point on the conflict in getting to the heart versus a one-time event preaching. In my mind, what solves this apparent conflict is that, in context, I was talking about getting to the heart in a one-to-one conversation, not in preaching. Clearly, the Spirit can “get to the heart” anytime he wants to.

    Defeaters

    Regarding the defeaters section, I’m certainly not a cool kid saying everyone does it wrong. Goodness, I’m 40 years old, father to three, and not cool. I knew the defeaters would ruffle feathers, but was encouraged when older, wiser saints like Robert Coleman and Bill Hull said it was humble writing.

    What can be interpreted as “cool kid” writing, and I can understand why someone might think that, is actually me trying to give voice to modern, American culture. Like it or not, these are the perceptions of evangelicals. Some of the them stick, some of them don’t. Whether we like it or not preachy, impersonal, intolerant witnessing is the popular impression of evangelism. Where it is true, we need to repent and change. So, I’m trying to show that some of us do it, and it creates cultural noise, even theological error, that we need to aware of when sharing the gospel. I’m advocating that our theological drive be matched with personal love.

    This Isn’t a Relational Evangelism Book

    I’d like to say up front that this isn’t meant to be a relational evangelism book, but a culturally discerning look at evangelism, which has a strong relational critique. I’m advocating cultural and personal understanding in our gospel communication, whether thats on the town square, in the pulpit, or in a personal conversation. I probably need to clarify that in the book too.

    I wholeheartedly agree with you when you say there were many that Peter and Paul didn’t have relationship with and they preached the gospel to them anyway (clearly), and that we must have room for that in our evangelism. I do preach “impersonal” messages almost every Sunday in Austin, and yet I work hard to communicate the gsopel in cultural idiom and pastoral application that is in the vernacular of our city, and the creative urbanites who live in Austin.

    In the book, I talk about how we should be prepared to talk about the gospel at the drop of a hat, because of the urgency of the gospel. We talk about what we are taken with. If we are taken with Jesus, we will talk about him, sometimes for five minutes, other times for hours. I’ve done it in seconds on an elevator. We follow the prompting of the Spirit, not relational timelines.

    I’m honored you took the time to interact with the book and hope some of these comments are helpful.

    Kindly,

    Jonathan Dodson

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s