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Blog / Evangelism in a Skeptical World: An Interview with Sam Chan

Evangelism in a Skeptical World: An Interview with Sam Chan

Sam ChanHow can everyday Christians best share the gospel in today’s skeptical world? With the rise of Bible illiteracy and the view that the Bible is irrelevant, how does a Christian begin to communicate their love for Scripture and the gospel message it contains? How can you get past people’s defensive posture toward Christianity so they can seriously consider the claims of Jesus Christ?

Bible Gateway interviewed Sam Chan (@drsamchan) about his book, Evangelism in a Skeptical World: How to Make the Unbelievable News About Jesus More Believable (Zondervan, 2018).

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What is evangelism?

Sam Chan: Does running a church soccer team qualify as evangelism? Or what about a playgroup for parents with young children? Or is evangelism only what happens in the 20-minute monologue from a guest speaker at an evangelistic church service?

Tim Keller explains how there are different models of evangelism in the Bible: sometimes it’s a logical presentation of ideas—for example, Paul reasoning with Lydia (Acts 16:13-15). But, sometimes it’s an event with powerful spiritual impact—Paul casting out the evil spirit from the servant girl (Acts 16:16-21). And sometimes it’s through stories of changed lives—Paul’s model of his own life to the jailer (Acts 16:22-34).

In the end, there will be a diversity of ways that we can communicate the gospel to our friends. It’s not the model or method that define evangelism, it’s the gospel message itself.

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What is the gospel?

Sam Chan: It’s the “good news” of God saving his people and judging his enemies by sending Jesus Christ. But, even here, the Bible writers have a diversity of ways of summarising this (for example, John 3:16; Rom. 1:1-6; 1:16-17; 10:9; 1 Cor. 1:23; 15:1-4; 2 Cor. 5:20-21; Phil. 2:5-11; 1 Tim. 3:16; 2 Tim. 2:8).

When I have to give my own quick summary of the gospel, I use an outline, which I learned from Tim Keller. It’s called Manger, Cross, and King. My main points will be: “Jesus, the Son of God, came to us as a human. But the most amazing thing he did was to die for us on a cross. And one day Jesus will come again to set up his kingdom on earth.”

What are some 20th century methods of evangelism that no longer work in the 21st century?

Sam Chan: It might be a bit harsh to say that they “no longer work”—but it’s true that they “no longer work as effectively” as they used to.

First, if I pull out a tract and read it to my non-Christian friends, they don’t have enough biblical foundation for the tract to make any sense to them.

Second, my 21st century friends no longer believe in duty or laws. They believe them to be social constructs imposed upon them by authority figures—especially by those in religion! So if I pull out Four Spiritual Laws or Bridge to Life it confirms their worst fears that I, the Christian, am the bad guy in their social narrative.

Third, the defeater beliefs against Christianity have changed. When I was on university campuses in the 20th century, the questions were related to proof. But, now, in the 21st century, the questions are related to God’s character—how can a loving God send people to hell? Why can’t God accept me for who I am?

How should the Bible and its message be presented to people who don’t believe absolute truth exists?

Sam Chan: God’s gospel is absolutely true for all peoples, all times, all ages. Regardless of whether or not we want to accept it (Rom. 1:16-17; 1 Cor. 1:18-25). But if our non-Christian friends don’t believe in absolute truth, the Bible gives us many complementary options to connect with them.

First, tell stories about Jesus. Lately, my favorite story has been Jesus turning water into wine (John 2:1-12). Stories present Jesus as a person to trust, rather than as a propositional truth. If you also want to do this, check out and take it from there!

Second, I appeal to a different set of biblical metaphors—for example, the shame-honor model of sin. I tell them that there’s a God who loves them but they’ve failed to worship him. This is Paul’s strategy in Lystra and Athens (Acts 14:15-17; 17:24-31).

Third, use wisdom as an entry point. Appeal to Ecclesiastes and Proverbs and demonstrate the Bible’s “worldly wisdom”—for example, in our family, relationships, work, and leisure. If they see that we have a way that’s liveable, then they’ll also realize we have a truth that’s believable. For example, Paul appeals to his way of life, as well as the gospel truths that he spoke, as evidence for the gospel (1 Thess. 1:5b).

What are plausibility structures and why are they important in evangelism?

Sam Chan: When I was in Australia, I believed that rugby was the toughest, most brutal sport on planet earth. I believed it as a God-given truth! The proof was the fact that rugby players wore no helmets.

But, when I lived in Chicago, my USA friends (Thomas Wang—I’m looking at you!) persuaded me that NFL was even more brutal, because they wore helmets. Look at the helmet on helmet hits. After a while, I believed my USA friends.

Why did I change my belief? Because I changed from one community to another, and I swapped one set of “plausibility structures” for another.

The term “plausibility structures” comes from Peter L. Berger. It refers to the powerful role that society plays in belief. We believe what our trusted friends believe. We shape the evidence to fit our plausibility structures, not the other way around.

Notice how this works in 1 Corinthians. Paul refers to the gospel—“Christ died for sins” (1:28; 15:3-4)—which is absolutely true. But then he appeals to the Corinthians’ plausibility structures—that is, people that they know have also seen Jesus risen (15:5-8)—which makes the gospel more plausible.

This means, when we evangelize, we should both present the truth of the gospel, but also acknowledge the part community plays in forming beliefs. In the past, we’ve made evangelism a solo project—we go by ourselves to tell our friends about Jesus. But we need to also introduce our non-Christian friends to our Christian friends so they can be part of a community of believers. This way, their plausibility structures will also shift.

What can a Christian say when asked how can a loving God allow suffering?

Sam Chan: At a pastoral level, we should provide comfort. Perhaps show them passages from the Bible, where the writers also ask why God can allow such suffering (for example, Job 30; Psalm 10; 13; 22; 42:9-10; 43; 44:9-26; 74; 88; Jer. 20:7-18; Hab. 1:1-4; Rev 6:9-11). But, just importantly (if not more!), be there for them and let them talk while we listen. Weep with them and support them.

Don’t try to give neat answers. By trying to say why God has allowed suffering, we may be theologically wrong or pastorally insensitive (Job 42:7; Luke 13:1-5; John 9:1-3).

But, at an apologetic level we can say that, counter-intuitively, our pain implies that there is a loving God—who is the standard for good and bad. And it implies that he’s also a powerful God—who ought to do something about our suffering. Otherwise why else are we crying out to this God?

But that’s just it. If God is loving and powerful, we’re going to have to trust that this God has a loving and powerful reason for our suffering. But how can I know if I can trust this to be true? Because even God’s own Son Jesus suffered alongside with us—as part of God’s purpose for us and the universe (Eph. 1:7-10; Col. 1:19-20).

But there’s another chapter still to come. One day, Jesus will come again to right all wrongs, and wipe away every tear (Rev. 21:1-4). If we trust and follow Jesus, then we can be part of this final chapter. But, in the meantime, our suffering is part of the journey we take to get there (Rom. 8:18-30; Phil. 1:29-30).

What do you mean by the term “evangelistic levers”?

Sam Chan: The journey from non-belief to belief will usually go through several stages: hostile, open, considering, trying it out, entry-level acceptance, switching, and loyal.

As evangelists, we can use “levers” to move our friends from one stage to the next. For example, social forces (for example, they have friends who are Christians who often invite them for dinner) might be the lever that moves them from hostile to open.

Felt needs (for example, they need a kids vacation club) might be the lever that moves them from open to considering. Easily accessible events (for example, a church carols night) might be the lever that moves them from considering to trying out Christianity.

Finding belonging (for example, joining the church community) might be the lever that moves them from trying out to entry-level acceptance of Christianity. Discovering wisdom (for example, from a good Bible talk) might be the lever that moves them from entry-level acceptance to switching over.

And finally, behaving as a Christian (for example, reading the Bible, praying, serving the church) might be the lever that moves them to becoming loyal to Jesus. This is the moment, where we might say it all “clicks” and they understand the gospel—that is, the need to commit to Jesus to be saved. They can’t just belong. They can’t just behave. But they also have to believe in Jesus.

What do you want your book to accomplish?

Sam Chan: First, an aha moment where we understand, “Oh, so that’s why it’s so hard to tell my friends about Jesus.” Evangelism in a Skeptical World will explain how our world has changed, and why the methods we once used to tell our friends about Jesus no longer seem to work so well. That’s why it’s no longer a case of, “Just tell them about Jesus!”

But, second, an “Oh I can do that” moment. My book will apply the principles and skills of missiology to our post-reached Western world. The methods recommended in the book have been field tested and they work. They find traction in our post-Christian world, and the message gets past the defensive posture of our non-Christian friends.

What is a favorite Bible passage of yours and why?

Sam Chan: The story of the woman washing Jesus’ feet (Luke 7:36-50). It’s a message of comfort. No matter how much we’ve sinned and shamed God (v. 37), Jesus will restore and forgive us (vv. 41-42). Our final blessing is “peace” from God himself. This is the existential cry of every human heart—peace!—and it’s to be found in being forgiven by Jesus (vv. 48-50).

It’s also a message of rebuke. We can become self-righteous, like the Pharisee. We don’t think we need to be forgiven for anything at all. When that happens, our hearts stop loving (v. 47).

But, it’s also a message about Jesus. He went to eat with a Pharisee (v. 36). Jesus loved everyone—whether they were a shameful sinner (the woman) or a self-righteous jerk (the Pharisee). And here’s where it hits home for us. Jesus loves us and forgives us, not because of how wonderful we are, but because we need him just as much as the shameful sinner and self-righteous Pharisee.

What are your thoughts about Bible Gateway and/or the Bible Gateway App?

Sam Chan: I write a blog at Everytime I reference the Bible, I link it to the Bible Gateway site. It’s a convenient way to integrate Bible passages with my posts.

I also grew up with printed Bibles. Each Bible would last me only a few years before it got worn out and fell apart. That means, I got to go through many versions. When I was a child, I had a KJV. In High School, I had a Good News Bible. At University, I used the RSV. In seminary, I used the NIV. And now when I do storytelling, I see what the ESV, The Message, and the NLT say!

So I love how Bible Gateway gives me access to so many different versions at any one time. I also like how I’m not going to wear out the Bible, like I used to. And I especially like how, if I’m reading from a device, I can read at night without having to find a desklamp.

Evangelism in a Skeptical World is published by HarperCollins Christian Publishing, Inc., the parent company of Bible Gateway.

Bio: Sam Chan (PhD, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School; MD, University of Sydney) is a public evangelist with City Bible Forum in Sydney, Australia where he regularly shares the gospel with high school students, city workers, doctors, and lawyers. He speaks at conferences around the world on the topics of ethics, story-telling, apologetics, and the practice of evangelism in a post-Christian culture.

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Filed under Books, Evangelism, Interviews