Sunday, February 26, 2017

Marks of the Messenger by J Mack Stiles (Book Review #2 of 2017)



Marks of the Messenger: Knowing, Living, and Speaking the Gospel

I'd heard (via podcast) Stiles preach at churches in Kentucky and the Middle East before coming across this book at a local Goodwill. Like all of the 9Marks books, this is succinct and thought-provoking. It is not an anti-evangelism book but Stiles is against the mentality that most efforts toward evangelism have cultivated. This is not a how-to guide with steps on what to say and do or scripts to follow-- you're not selling insurance. Stiles begins with encouraging the reader to ask "Christian, who do you want to be?" rather than "What do you want to do?" (p. 17). Moving from focusing on "doing" to "being" changed his life and ultimately led to moving his family to the Middle East. "Acting without a Biblical understanding of who Jesus wants us to be is the reason so many become unhealth in their spiritual lives, producing unhealthy disciples and unhealthy churches" (p. 18).

Programs and pragmatism (likely driven by a focus on numbers as growth, IMO) have created a performance mentality that has replaced Gospel-centered focus of who we are in Christ. "Pragmatic evangelism counts: converts, members, programs but rarely counts faithfulness..." Evangelism becomes a way to fill seats or lead someone to a conclusion/decision rather than Jesus. We focus on methods rather than being who we are meant to be in Christ. "Play jazz if you want, but play to glorify God in and of itself, not to do evangelism." "People don't come to faith because of the excellence of our presentation or because we provided the perfect circumstance...(but) because God draws them" (p. 77). "The ultimate mark of conversion...is not walking an aisle, but picking up a cross" (Dever).

Stiles cautions evangelists against "assuming the Gospel," or assuming basic biblical literacy or true understanding of who Jesus is. Test: "Could you have preached that sermon if Christ had not died on the cross?" Does the message connect us with the identify of who we are or rather focus on doing more? It depends less on you than your pride wants to admit.

Stiles tells a powerful story of leading a group of youth on a trip to Guatemala where they come across the place of a massacre of local Christians, which suddenly identifies for them the lost parents of the orphans they have been ministering to in the nearby village. The natural questions lead to "what can we do?" but Stiles again notes that what matters is understanding who we are to be in the midst of suffering, persecution, and injustice. A sociologist researching Guatemala found that Christian social justice movements, initially well-intentioned, resulted in murder. Advocacy, aid and social programs "upholds the gospel... but it is not the gospel, and it is not equal to the gospel." The mayor of a village explains that hearing the real gospel-- how Jesus died to save them from their sins and was resurrected proving it was enough -- remarkably changed the lives of many men in the area and "did more to eliminate hunger than fish farms or crop rotation ever did. We must never forget that the gospel brings more long-term social good than any governmental program ever developed." The gospel is not me-centered and God is not in the business of making everything as we think it should be.

Stiles encourages the reader to practice "the gospel in a minute." I would second that but add that you need to practice it (and your testimony) in the simplest English possible to reach the widest audience. I recently did that in ESL training and found it helpful--particularly if you're a language learner and are familiar with what the top 1,000 words are in a given language. Stiles also encourages prayer, out of a normal habit as we're encouraged by the Apostle Paul, but also for opportunities and wisdom.

Apologetics and arguments take up a lot of Christians' study and training, but "the best way to demonstrate that Jesus is from the Father and that we are his followers is not through method or techniques or apologetics. It's through loving, unified community among believers" (ie: just as Jesus prayed for)(p. 105). Being united in love, as we're supposed to be, does more to invite people to Jesus than anything we could formulate or memorize as a script.

My criticism of the book are that the examples of evangelism in given from Stiles' own life come largely from people who already acknowledge God and reject secular humanism and are already exploring the idea of Jesus-- ie: Muslims and Hindu immigrants in the Middle East who visit his church. Example: He leads an Indian man to faith after the man's entire family had come to faith and passed a Bible on to him, which he was already exploring. He's debating Muslims who at least agree with him on the existence of Jesus. There's less insight for loving and speaking to a rigid atheist who believes in a multiverse.

Stiles gains points for putting his personal email in the book with an invitation to contact him. (Would that every author would do that.) He also has the Kentucky connection working in his favor in my review.

4 stars out of 5.

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