NEW ORLEANS -- In today's postmodern milieu, Will McRaney is taking a fresh look at the timeless principles of personal evangelism.
McRaney, associate professor of evangelism at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, is the author of "The Art of Personal Evangelism: Sharing Jesus with a Changing Culture," released during the summer by Broadman & Holman, the publishing house of LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention.
In the new book, the former pastor and church planter underscores the ongoing imperative of evangelism amid a postmodern culture.
"The only way out of the plateau and decline in our churches is going to be through people effectively communicating the Gospel to their friends and neighbors," McRaney said.
In the face of a radically changing culture and static church growth, McRaney suggests that new growth will take more than good worship services and dynamic programs or church growth methods; the church must equip all believers to go into their communities and share their faith to see Kingdom growth.
McRaney began writing the book because he and professor friends needed a comprehensive book for personal evangelism courses from more of a postmodern perspective. Several good books were written about personal evangelism in the late 1980s, but none of them adequately address new issues stemming from a radically changing culture that processes truth differently.
"The big issue for me is how can we communicate the Gospel in a way that it makes sense to whomever we are talking to," he said. "Some of our modern approaches are not going to connect well with postmodern people."
Methods such as the Four Spiritual Laws developed by the late Bill Bright of Campus Crusade for Christ worked well with people of the modern mindset, McRaney noted, explaining that logic was the starting point for processing truth during modernity, therefore the logical approach was effective.
Postmodern thinkers have a different starting point, the prof said. Instead of logic, they begin with feelings and emotions. McRaney said both groups are trying to discover what is real and true, but they approach their search from different starting points.
"I think one of the most helpful things in the book is a comparison of our historical approaches in modernity with postmodernity through charts," McRaney said. "The old ways are not wrong; they just connect to a certain audience."
Rather than responding to logical evangelistic appeals, he said, postmodern people need to see a consistent Christian life lived out before them to prove its reality.
"Now our testimony matters more, our life, not just our communicated testimony," McRaney said. "It is harder for a people today to distinguish between the message and the messenger. The credibility of the message is tied to the credibility of the messenger from the lost person's perspective."
While The Art of Personal Evangelism is not primarily focused on methodology, McRaney does include a section filled with practical helps and tips. The focus of this section is on communication and overcoming obstacles to witnessing.
"The key skill for personal evangelism now is knowing how to ask good questions," McRaney said.
When someone shares a curious religious belief with McRaney, he often responds, "That's interesting, how did you come to that conclusion?" By asking such questions, he gets them talking about their beliefs. Often, people will realize the problems with their beliefs as they talk -- and they actually can help the witness know where to begin in sharing the Gospel, he said.
"This takes the pressure to have all the answers off of us," he said. "We allow them to discover the holes in their own views and they are more receptive to what we have to say."
In his book, McRaney insists that it is harder to separate evangelism from discipleship in today's culture. Leading someone to faith can take longer and require more of a time investment. Gone are the days of quick, "efficient" evangelism.
"Dealing with lost people is not convenient or clean," he said. "If we are going to connect with people, we have to walk alongside them through their discovery."
McRaney writes that Christians must treat people with value in their evangelistic outreach. If people today sense something other than value and respect, they will likely form a negative view of Christianity.
"Sometimes our approaches have unintentionally been impersonal when we have the most personal message," he said. "There has sometimes been a disconnect between our message and our delivery."
"Effective" evangelism today is a much longer process because people have fewer beliefs in common with Christians than in the past. McRaney says the believer may have to first win the lost person to the idea of one God before sharing the Gospel.
"Today, when a person tells you he believes in God you know almost nothing," he said. "When a person tells you he is a Christian you know only a little more."
Because of the confusion about what it means to be a Christian, McRaney also deals with the essentials of what a person must believe to be a follower of Christ.
McRaney lays out a scriptural case for evangelism that proves to be foundational to the rest of the book. In this section, he provides biblical teachings on God's role and the Holy Spirit's role as well as the believer's role in evangelism.
While primarily written for seminary students, McRaney believes the book, as a thorough treatment of personal evangelism in a short, practical format, will be helpful for anyone serious about sharing the Gospel message. In fact, McRaney had a number of laypeople review the book before it was published to make sure it would connect with that audience.
"I think the approach offered in this book will give hope to some who have become discouraged and disengaged from evangelism and also give them hands-on helps so they can reengage the lost," he said.