Book Reviews

Book Review - Paul and the Gift

Book Review 

Paul and the Gift. John Barclay. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans 2015 (656 pp.)

John Barclay’s Paul and the Gift is the most significant contribution in Pauline theology since E. P. Sanders’s Paul and Palestinian Judaism (1977). That’s a big call en the proliferation of books in the past 40 years amidst a ferocious debate on Pauline theology; not the least being

N. T. Wright’s monumental Paul and the Faithfulness of God. What sets Barclay’s work apart is that he offers an approach that may make the debate less polarised and move scholarship beyond the present impasse. His approach to Paul is fresh, bold and incisive, while his thesis is possessed of rigorous logic, clear methodology and great clarity. The result is a reading of Romans and Galatians which is coherent, consistent and compelling.

The premise of the book is that modern conception of “grace” – as “a gift given without expectation of return” (unreciprocated) is a recent cultural product that is very much at odds with Greco-Roman and Jewish assumptions about gift-giving. In particular, ancient conceptions of gift were never free from the expectation of reciprocation. Not only is Paul’s theology of grace incorrectly read through this modernist lens, but the exegesis of key Pauline texts and the theology that is constructed upon it lacks sufficient nuance to represent him properly.

Far from being a singular concept Barclay examines the cultural dimension of gift exchange and finds that grace is a multi-faceted idea that can be understood (or “perfected”) in six different ways:

  • Superabundance – the abundance and/or permanence of the gift;
  • Singularity – the giver is characterised by this trait alone, without any corresponding concern for justice/ judgement;
  • Priority – the giver initiates the giving without any prior action on the part of the recipient;
  • Incongruity – the gift bears no relation to the worthiness of the recipient;
  • Efficacy – the gift achieves its purpose;
  • Non-circularity – there is no expectation of reciprocity (69).

Given the number of meanings that can be attached to grace Barclay examines more than a dozen theologians in order to observe which aspects they highlight and why they stress those particular facets. Luther offers the richest interpretation of grace, perfecting five of the six aspects

– superabundance, singularity (to a large extent), priority, incongruity and non-circularity; only efficacy is absent in Luther’s theology. His emphasis on non-circularity is especially significant because it gives Luther’s theology its particular character. As Barclay writes, “Against all possible misunderstandings, Luther insists again and again that these works will result from faith … but he refused to allow that they are integral to faith or to justification lest they become again a necessary means to salvation … Stripped of this conditionality, believers act out of love for God, not from self-concern” (114). As we will see, it is this understanding of grace, the non-circularity of the gift, that Barclay will claim is absent in Pauline theology.

While both Luther and Calvin emphasise the superabundance and incongruence of grace, along with the priority of God in salvation they differ in respect of non-circulatory. As Barclay explains, “Calvin’s task — and considerable achievement — is to position a life of good works within the scheme of salvation, without making these gifts instrumental in obtaining or ‘meriting’ grace, that is, without compromising the priority and incongruity of grace” (124). The purpose of salvation is regeneration (124), therefore Calvin maintains the strong prospect of moral progress (sanctification) (127). Grace “incites” the believers will towards obedience. Thus efficacy of grace is a major emphasis, as the Spirit graciously works to bring about sanctification in the believer’s life (129). However, Calvin does not perfect the non-circularity of the gift. As Barclay quotes Calvin, “In all covenants of his mercy the Lord requires of his servants in return uprightness and sanctity of life” (Institutes, III.17.5). Importantly for Calvin, “the believers’ return to God, which arises from God’s grace, is never instrumental in acquiring initial or subsequent grace from God. Nonetheless, believers’ active commitment to holiness is a necessary sign of the grace that activates their work” (130). Calvin expects the circulation of love towards the neighbour as part of their return to God.

Since the 1970s the New Perspective on Paul (NPP) has challenged the Reformed consensus on Paul, in particular the characterisation of first-century Judaism as a religion of works, as opposed to Christianity with its emphasis on grace. According to NPP scholars like James Dunn, “works of the Law” were not performed in Judaism to gain divine favour, but were “badges” of belonging to the people of God. The problem with Judaism was not its understanding of grace, but its insistence that believers were marked by circumcision, food laws and Sabbath observance and not faith in Christ. Because faith in Christ and not works of the Law is the marker of being “in” salvation is open to all without (ethnic) distinction, and reconciliation among believers, especially Jews and Gentiles, is the major implication of the gospel (cf. Gal 3:21). The “righteousness of God” (Rom 1:17), is not the alien righteousness of Christ imputed to the believer, but God’s own faithfulness to the Abrahamic covenant in bringing salvation to all the nations while remaining true to Israel. According to E. P. Sanders Paul was in agreement with Judaism that “works are the condition of remaining ‘in,’ but they do not earn salvation” (157). This schema highlights the priority (and probably the superabundance) of grace, but its insistance that works are necessary for remaining ‘in’ indicates that non-circularity does not figure.

The NPP has been received with alarm from those who see it undermining the Reformers’ emphasis on grace. Barclay explains this angst: “if salvation is ‘by grace alone’… it is not sufficient that it is merely prior: it must be incongruous with the work of the recipient (even at the final judgement) and efficacious in one form or another (through the work of the Spirit) (169. Emphasis added).”

However, Barclay makes the vital point in response to this critique that they have assumed “a particular definition of ‘grace’… and little attempt is made to distinguish between the different meanings of the term or (in our terms) the different perfections of this motif” (169). It is here that Barclay’s work offers the possibility of exciting new insight, applying his six perfections of grace to gain a more nuanced understating of Pauline theology in the hope of moving beyond the simple dichotomies that have developed.

However, before we get to Paul, Barclay examines in detail five Jewish texts from the Second Temple period (530BC to AD70) that reflect on the beneficence of God. What he discovers is that “grace is everywhere in the theology of Second Temple Judaism, but not everywhere the same” (565). Surprisingly perhaps, Paul’s answers “stand in close proximity” to these voices, though with his own unique perspective (328). Where Paul is distinctive is not in his belief in a gracious God, but in the significance of the “Christ-event,” its implications for Gentile mission and his emphasis on the incongruous nature of the mercy of God.

In his final section Barclay proceeds to exegete closely Galatians and Romans. He hopes that the preceding 328 pages of work will allow him to do so wary of preconceptions concerning the meaning of grace, and in particular, allow him to dispense with the modern Western notion of grace as “pure” gift that is given with no strings attached. Barclay’s exegesis is scintillating, providing clarity to the structure and argument of these letters that is rare. He is at pains to provide an explanation that gives equal weight to every section and every verse, not sublimating those which do not sit comfortably into his reconstruction of Paul’s argument. As a result — and this is the real benefit of this whole volume — we are able to see the argument of these letters, the theology of Paul and these important doctrines with far greater precision and nuance than before.

So what did he find concerning grace? In both Galatians and Romans he finds that “Paul figures God’s gift or favour as incongruous with the worth of its recipients.” Paul’s emphasis on the incongruity of God’s gift is seen, for example, where Paul argues,

The righteousness of God is revealed in Christ in the justification of sinners (3:21-26); Christ does not for the good, but for the ungodly (5:6-8). Paul parades not the match but the mismatch between the act of God and the value or condition of its human beneficiaries: divine faithfulness is displayed in human faithlessness (3:1-8), life is created out of human death (4:16-22) (490).

Paul “explores the incongruity of grace, which he relates to the Christ-event as the definitive enactment of God’s love for the unlovely, and to the Gentile mission, where the gifts of God ignore ethnic differentials of worth and Torah based definitions of value (‘righteousness’)” (565–566).

Because everyone without distinction, including the Jews, are unworthy of grace we receive this gift irrespective of worth, meaning that it belongs to no one race and is for every person regardless of ethnicity.

If incongruity is radicalised by Paul and the preeminent way he understands grace, what of the other perfections? Barclay argues that grace in Paul is not non-circular. That is, there is an expectation of reciprocity in God’s gift of Christ. “God’s grace is designed to produce obedience, lives that perform, by heart-inscription, the intent of the Law” (492). God intends to transform the human condition as he brings about the “obedience of faith” (Rom 1:5) which is the life created through God’s incongruous gift. God judges sinners according to their obedience that arises out of faith and not their ethnicity. Importantly, Barclay adds, “it is the act of God that produces the necessary human obedience … This power is incongruous in its impact on sinful human material, but its transformative results are finally congruous with the last judgement of God” (467). Moreover, the good work that leads to eternal life “is an act of divine power, an incongruous gift to sinful humanity whose transformative effects will be evident at the judgement” (473).

Some will protest that grace with reciprocity is not grace at all; leaving an approach that is not sufficiently reformed and opens the door to works. However, this is where Barclay’s taxonomy and historical perspective are so useful. His view of Paul is largely at odds with Luther (and also modern notions of gift requiring no reciprocity), but entirely consistent with Calvin’s reading of grace. It is reformed in promoting the priority of grace, its efficacy and, most of all, its incongruity. Where it differs is in respect of singularity and noncircularity, which makes it different to Luther, but not unreformed.

Barclay entertains the hope that his approach might bridge the NPP and Reformed view of Paul providing a basis for some kind of consensus. My view is that his approach is too similar to that of the NPP (closer than Barclay seems prepared to admit) to form a bridge. His understanding of “works of the law” may be broader than Sanders’, and his analysis of Second Temple Judaism far more nuanced, but in both of these he remains well inside the NPP camp. His understanding of the righteousness of God as subjective, and his apparent rejection of imputation also place him in the NPP orbit. Like the NPP he interprets Paul against the background of the Gentile mission, and understands the doctrine of justification as being more about the constitution of the people of God than personal salvation. This approach is a considerable step forward in overcoming many of the objections that have been levelled at the NPP, and his taxonomy clarifies several aspects of the debate, but it cannot be understood or represented as a “third-way” or “bridge” between the various perspectives.

It is not necessary to read every one of the 656 pages of Paul and the Gift. The one hundred page analysis of Second Temple texts can be missed, and the excellent summary chapter read instead. The same could be said for the historical survey – except that he offers such a helpful refresher of historical theology that it is a worthwhile read. Moreover, this is not a dry book of purely academic interest. Pastors and lay people will find a great deal of fresh and accessible material that will stimulate their thinking on key Reformation doctrines and greatly enhance their preaching – especially of the Reformation, Romans and Galatians.

Tim Foster, Victoria

Book Review - Spiritual Friendship

Spiritual Friendship - Finding love in the Church as a celibate Gay Christian
Wesley Hill  Brazos Press, 2015

It is not very often that I would say that a book is deeply moving, but this one is both powerful and profound.

I’ve been thinking for quite a while that as much as we need to defend biblical orthodoxy with regard to human sexuality we also need to say a lot more than that. Wes Hill is among a group of courageous people who have been willing to share their struggle and their responses to being same sex attracted and celibate. With regard to this, Vaughan Roberts and Ed Shaw also come to mind.

Wes was in Melbourne last year and was the main speaker at a very well attended pastoral forum run by Ridley College. He also spoke at three large public lectures. Wes lectures in New Testament at Trinity School for Ministry in Pittsburgh and is pursing ordination in the Anglican Church. He lives with a married couple and is the godfather to their first daughter.

Wes offers a fresh and unique exploration of ‘friendship’ and takes us to surprising places and people along the way. Wes, as with his first book ‘Washed and Waiting’ is remarkably honest about his own vulnerabilities and struggles. Here is a real person exploring what it means for him to be faithful to God when it involves the challenges of being celibate. It is rare to read a book that is as frank about the pain involved in that predicament. Wes explores friendship as an idea and responds to a range of thinkers over the centuries in relation to this important area in each of our lives. He delves into biblical, theological and historical insights along the way. Hill explores what it is to be involved in committed friendships and to find true friendship in the context of a Christian community.

The book is broken into two parts.  Part One looks at the background and biblical/theological issues and Part Two focuses on the living out of friendship today, especially for same sex attracted believers who accept that they will remain celibate.  Chapter 1 looks at the weak nature of friendship in western culture. Chapter 2 explores how friendship can be expressed in a committed way. Chapter 3 looks at the scriptural and theological underpinnings for our practice of friendship. Does Jesus death and resurrection transform friendship? Chapter 4 looks at the intersection between erotic love and friendship. Chapter 5 asks what it means to cultivate committed friendships and Chapter 6 explores how we can pursue and nurture friendships in the church today.
‘Friendship is a good and godly love in it’s own right, just as worthy of attention, nurture and respect as any other form of Christian affection. That’s what the Christian tradition has said. And that’s what I want to say - from a fresh angle of vision – in this book.

Wes Hill will challenge you as well as help you to think about these issues in unique and very helpful ways. His is a prophetic voice in the church today and he offers hope and positive ways forward for those who are same sex attracted and looking for love and companionship. I strongly recommend this book.

Stephen Hale

Book Review - In Search of Japan’s Hidden Christians

In Search of Japan’s Hidden Christians - A Story of Suppression, Secrecy and Survival
John Dougill  Tuttle, 2012

I had the valuable opportunity to visit Japan during my long service leave, and experience the great beauty, energy, hospitality, enterprise, food, culture and courtesy of Japan and the Japanese. I enjoyed having a go at a bit of rudimentary Japanese, and being humoured by the locals as I tried. Approached well, visiting another country is a mind-and-heart-expanding moment, and I really wonder at how a short trip can make a big impact on your view of the world and your place in it, and it is good to learn something about other peoples and places.

Naturally, I was interested in the history of the gospel and the church in Japan. You probably know that Christians make up only a small percentage of Japan’s population, and that Japan has never embraced the gospel in a big way as a culture – Christian affiliation has never been large nationally. And if you are a movie-goer, you may have been to see the film Silence, which is now showing. Silence is a movie adaptation of a novel by the Japanese Catholic author Shusaku Endo, directed by Martin Scorsese, which is set in the period after the Tokugawa shogunate banned Christianity in 1614. Since hundreds of thousands of Japanese had become Christians by this time through the work of Catholic missionaries, this ban, and the consequent ruthless suppression backed by torture and executions, forced Japanese Christians, and the few committed Western missionaries who decided to remain, into hiding. Japan’s Hidden Christians passed down their faith secretly for seven generations, until in 1854, when Japan was forced to open again to the outside world, Western incomers were amazed to discover these Hidden Christians, who had remained loyal to their faith in secret, while concealing this from the hostile authorities.
I did not know about the film Silence, or about the Hidden Christians until I came across In Search of Japan’s Hidden Christians by John Dougill in a bookshop in Kyoto. I was facinated and bought it immmediately and read it in the last week of our trip. Dougill, an Englishman who is a professor at a Buddhist university in Kyoto, is not a Christian, but writes with great sympathy and interest the story of the arrival of Catholic missionaries, their work and its successes and setbacks among the Japanese of all classes, the way the authorities turned against Christianity and the West, and the subsequent suppression, resistance and eventual complete submersion of Christian life and witness into a secret practice. It is a confronting and sad story to see the progress of faith in Christ so beaten down, yet holding on tenaciously, desparately.

The expulsion of missionaries from China did not stop the growth of the gospel there, but in Japan, the Hidden Christians did not see comparable growth of the gospel. They survived, but did not thrive, it seems. They retained the prayers and ceremonies they were taught, and the church organisation they developed in the missionary phase, but some did not necessarily understand all the prayers they said, and it seems to me that the Hidden Christianity was devout, tenacious and courageous, but tragically impoverished (even disfigured at points) for all that. Of course the Lord knows those who are his, and he is the one who sustains faith in the midst of trials, and a great proportion of the Hidden Christians did emerge to join the churches that were re-established after religious toleration was achieved. Overall it is a great testimony to the depth of loyalty and commitment the gospel won in the 60 years it had to establish itself before the ban. Although we might have wished for a little longer for that work to go further.

Dougill’s book is a personal exploration of a compelling piece of history. He weaves his own travels and reflections into his telling of the story, giving the book elements of travelogue and journal. This makes it an accessible read, without taking away its main task of being a historical account for the general reader. This book might prove to be a doorway to further reading for those who open its pages.

Ben Underwood

Book Review - The Controversy over the Safe Schools Program – Finding the Sensible Centre

The Controversy over the Safe Schools Program – Finding the Sensible Centre
Patrick Parkinson, Sydney Law School Legal Studies Research Paper No. 16/83 Sept 16

Patrick Parkinson is Professor of Law at Sydney University. At the time of the Louden Review he and Professor Kim Oates wrote a lengthy letter to Professor Louden about the research basis for statistics presented in the Safe Schools Program. Unfortunately the Review had to be completed in a short time and “No independent review of the veracity of the statistics cited in this document was undertaken.”

Parkinson’s paper is a critical review of some important aspects of the Safe Schools Program, especially of the research data.
The abstract includes an outline of the scope of the paper:

“This paper seeks to draw attention to various problems in the Safe Schools materials which ought to be rectified if a program like this is to continue to be offered in schools. First, the materials present statistics on same-sex attraction and transgender prevalence that have no valid scientific basis. Secondly, they present sexual orientation as fixed when for school-aged adolescents it is very volatile, and many same-sex attractions are transitory. Thirdly, they present gender as fluid when for about 99.5% of the population, there is complete congruence between sexual characteristics and gender identity. Fourthly, they promote gender transitioning without the need for any medical and psychological guidance and even without parental knowledge or consent. Finally, they offer potentially misleading legal advice to teachers.”

It is refreshing to read a rational discussion of these matters. Parkinson notes, “When a social issue becomes a contested matter politically, or support for, or opposition to, a program is seen as a marker of ideological identity, it is hard to have a rational discussion. Yet a rational discussion is badly needed about the Safe Schools program, based upon evidence.”

One of the values of this paper is that it reports on a wide variety of peer-reviewed research related to statistics and assertions in the Safe Schools material.  Having a collection of data of this kind, in itself, is a great help to those who would like to know reliable information about the numbers of same-sex attracted and other people.

Parkinson begins with a review of the Safe Schools Program, the extent to which it has actually been taken up (not much), and what is really mandated, in Victoria at least. He then clearly and helpfully discusses the five areas noted above. His view is that just about all the statistics are significantly exaggerated and have no valid basis in science. The ideas of fixed sexual orientation and gender fluidity are very helpfully discussed. Parkinson rightly identifies the origins of some of these ideas in philosophy and describes them as  “now quite a widespread belief system, especially in parts of the western world. This belief system is deeply held by some, and has many characteristics of being a religious belief.”

His comments on the fluidity of sexual identity in the period around puberty are very helpful. It seems to me that some of the reported methods of obtaining data by asking children which gender they felt attracted to, for example, was asking questions that weren’t the questions of young people of that age. Not just statistics but methodology also was a problem.

Overall the paper is a reasoned and careful critique, not only of the Safe Schools Program, but of significant aspects of the broader gender and sexual orientation discussion. He also identifies worrying extensions of the unreliable data and belief systems into policies and statements by government education departments.

At a wider level the issues discussed are not just, or even primarily, about valid research data. The issues concern idealogical identities that are not really based in science. In some ways it reminds me of Emma Kowal’s “Trapped in the Gap” which discusses the gap between the ideology of those who want to “close the gap” of indigenous health and the actual reality of a gap that is not closing. Part of her discussion concerns reforming identities. Maybe the ideology of gender and sexual identity may change under the pressure of reality and true data. Or a miracle may happen. In the meantime this is a very helpful and informative paper that ought to be widely read.

Dale Appleby [This paper can be downloaded without charge from the Social Science Research Network Electronic Library at: http://ssrn.com/abstract=2839084]

Book Review - Making Property Serve Mission

Making Property Serve Mission: Rethinking the Church’s Buildings for the 21st Century
Fred Batterton Clifton Hill, 2016

Sometimes I imagine a conversation between friends from different countries or ministry contexts. This book appeals to me as a conversation between three good friends: mission; parish ministry; and buildings.

Mission has been a long term interest. Mostly global mission, but I see the same missiological principles as relevant and valuable for local mission. Another friend, Parish ministry, has been the context for most of my ministry, and God’s church is central to the mission of God’s people. Buildings are an old friend because my father was a builder and I spent many early summers in his employ. These friends have come into conversation in my role as Archdeacon of Essendon, in the inner North West of Melbourne. Melbourne archdeacons are seeking to help parishes to think missionally. In this endeavour I will be recommending Making Property Serve Mission as a great resource to consider the potential missional purpose of our buildings.

Making Property Serve Mission looks at the buildings and land accumulated by the Christian Church and asks, is property enabling the mission of the Church in the twenty-first century? If so, how are churches achieving this aim, and if not, what should be done?

I keep wanting to describe this as ‘a great little book’, except that it is not little. It is comprehensive, rich in Biblical and theological perspectives. Fred Batterton is an architect, but like many of that profession, a serious thinker. He asks great questions. His first question sets up the rest of the book.
The Christian Church is one of the largest property owners in the world. It has some of the world’s finest architecture as well as some of its simplest buildings, but are they serving the purpose of the church in the 21st century?

The purpose of the church is God’s purpose, and that purpose is missional, centring on the gospel of Jesus Christ. Batterton has a robust ecclesiology, and readily admits that Jesus’ call to his disciples, as church, had little to do with buildings. Early churches met in borrowed spaces. However Batterton also sees the possibility of a ‘three way relationship between God, people and place’ The Jerusalem temple was clearly meant to proclaim truth about God. For example, it was to remind people of the possibility of forgiveness.

Batterton explores opportunities that church property can offer.

My own local church congregation, St Augustine’s Moreland, meets in a former Salvation Army building on a major thoroughfare, Sydney Road in Coburg. We have recently given the front of the building a facelift which includes a very contemporary mural with a cross as the central motif. We see our focus in Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. However, even though we value our ancient origins and being established in Christ, we seek to see ourselves as also alive to the present and hopeful for the future. One reason for our mural is that people could not find our church. Hopefully they will find us and consider our message as relevant today. When I visited nearby businesses on Sydney Road just before Christmas the mural was a cause for comment and gave me gospel opportunities.

My son-in-law is Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral, a gracious landmark in Melbourne city.1  My wife also serves in the 9am congregation. Cathedral clergy comment on the way the building can assist evangelism and underline theological truth. Cathedral guides and written signage draw visitors’ attention to the theological significance of features. For example, the baptism font is an occasion to speak of the sacrament’s gospel meaning.

Do our properties enable the mission of today’s Church? Making Property Serve Mission helps us to reflect on how our churches achieve this aim, and if not, what should be done?

Batterton’s book addresses all building types. It contains frequently asked questions and is relevant to different denominations and churchmanship. Sections include:

  • Define your core business
  • How property can serve mission
  • Evaluate your assets and opportunities
  • Where to find help
  • Design considerations
  • How to pay for it
  • Getting traction to proceed

He also has good material on frequently asked questions and troubleshooting.

Richard Giles also commends the book and asks the question ‘Do we own our property’, or ‘does our property own us’? He goes on to comment, ‘This is a question all churches should ask themselves regularly.’ Making Property Serve Mission can assist churches to investigate this important issue. If you are considering a building project, refurbishment or upgrade buy this book. It should be in the library of every Archdeacon who is concerned with people, property and mission.

Mission and buildings are, at times, seen as competitors, chasing a share of the church budget, rather than friends who can help one another. Making Property Serve Mission demonstrates how buildings can become tools for mission.

Making Property Serve Mission is available in paperback and various e-book formats.

Len Firth


1 Its iconic status came to recent prominence when it was one of three buildings targeted by a planned terrorist attack at Christmas 2016.

Book Review - Questioning Evangelism

Questioning Evangelism - Engaging People’s Hearts the Way Jesus Did
Randy Newman, Kregel Publications: 2004

When I became a new Christian I was taught to memorise a gospel presentation that I could share with my friends to explain the Christian message to them. I was enthusiastic and followed the advice …….and proceeded to spoil a few good friendships through my eagerness to convert them! In every conversation when there was the slightest hint of spiritual openness, I tried to ‘get them over the line’ and to pray ‘the sinners prayer’. There was nothing wrong with my motivation nor with my learning a gospel presentation but there was a good reason why it didn’t ‘work’ with most of my friends.

You see, we no longer live in a time or culture where a simple proposition of gospel truth will convince most people. The plausibility structures required to assent to the truth of the gospel: an acceptance of absolute truth, of reliable historical record, of trust in institutions like the church, of the existence of God - these have been dismantled. This means that our presentation isn’t immediately ‘plausible’ to them. In most cases, we need to do a lot more groundwork before we can present an invitation to faith. The summary style gospel presentation is ideal when a person is receptive and ready for it, but most people simply aren’t.  (Think of the ENGELS scale (see below) – it probably doesn’t go low enough in its scale when describing someone far from God but it still has lots to teach us about pitching our message and manner appropriately for where a person is at spiritually.)

Part of our ground work involves helping people to see that the ideas upon which they are building their lives are wrong. Ideas such as ‘I decide what’s true’, ‘all religions are the same’, ‘religion poisons everything’, ‘there’s no such thing as sin’, ‘God is dead’, ‘anything is ok as long as its not harmful’ – these are the ideas we need to dismantle to pave the way for genuine gospel conversations.

How do we do that? Well first we need to listen to our friends, to find out what they believe and to start to question why they believe what they do. Armed with simple questions such as ‘really?’, “why do you believe that?”, “Can you explain that for me? I don’t see how that can be true…” will help us to do this.
The next time you have a conversation with a friend, try to hold back from telling them what you think. Really. (I know this is hard for most of us!) Instead, listen well, reflect back what they are saying, ask probing questions and be happy to have gotten to know them a bit better and to have left the door open for another conversation the next time you meet with them. This way, sooner rather than later we may find that we are able to question what they think and at some point that they ask us what we believe and why….

The greatest encouragement for this approach comes from Jesus who so often used questions to nudge people further along towards the kingdom. Check out Mark 10:17-22 and ask yourself why Jesus didn’t simply tell the rich young ruler to put his faith in him or to follow him.

These ideas all come from a great book that explains how to ask probing questions in conversation with our friends. It’s called “Questioning Evangelism” by Randy Newman. Kregel Publications: 2004. It would be a great book to use in your parish in training people in personal evangelism using a questioning approach. Newman points out that questions aren’t everything, i.e. we still need to be able to explain our faith and to answer questions and to live out our faith visibly…but questions are a necessary and underused tool for evangelism.
Tracy Lauersen