The Unbelievable Gospel: Say Something Worth Believing

The Unbelievable Gospel: Say Something Worth Believing

by Jonathan K. Dodson


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In The Unbelievable Gospel pastor Jonathan Dodson diagnoses the evangelistic paralysis of the modern church, pinpointing the reasons people don’t share their faith today and offering a desperately needed solution. Showing readers how to utilize the rich gospel metaphors found in Scripture and how to communicate a gospel worth believing--one that speaks to the heart-felt needs of diverse individuals--Dodson connects the gospel to the real issues people face each day by speaking to both the head and the heart.

Filled with stories that reveal the long road of relational evangelism and guidance on how to listen to others well, The Unbelievable Gospel is a much-needed resource that will benefit both individuals and churches. Included are study questions for training and group discussion.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780310516699
Publisher: Zondervan
Publication date: 09/23/2014
Pages: 240
Product dimensions: 8.30(w) x 5.40(h) x 0.70(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

Read an Excerpt

The Unbelievable Gospel

Say Something Worth Believing

By Jonathan K. Dodson


Copyright © 2014 Jonathan Dodson
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-310-51669-9



I'm not an evangelist. I haven't led thousands to Christ. There won't be a long receiving line of eternal souls waiting to thank me at the golden gates of the New Jerusalem.

This used to bother me. I grew up in an evangelical household in the deep pinewoods of East Texas, where revivals were announced in advance. The church marquee announced the date and the evangelist came to town. The goal was to invite your friends to come hear the preacher. He would preach and people would come to Jesus.

Altar calls have a long history in East Texas, locally known as the "buckle" of the Bible Belt. My grandfather, a godly man and a faithful Baptist preacher, led many down the aisle by calling them to bow a head, slip up a hand, or come to the front to make a decision to follow Jesus. Although I did not personally respond to God's stunning offer in Christ in this way, the call was still clear when I heard the gospel at a young age, and my grandfather was there a few weeks later to baptize me when I went public with my faith.

Wind the clock forward a few decades. After those East Texas revivals of my youth, I had the opportunity to travel the globe telling people about Jesus. But as much as I tried to leave Texas, I found myself drawn back (much to my surprise). Together with my wife, we planted a church in Austin, the countercultural capital of our conservative state. Some call Austin "the hole in the Bible Belt." It has a religious outer rim and a countercultural urban core. It's a "weird" and wired city. Until his recent death, Leslie Cochran, an elderly homeless man with a boob job and a tutu, was the unofficial icon of the city. Austin hosts offices for many tech firms: Dell Computers, AMD, Apple, Google, Dropbox, just to name a few. It's a city that teems with creativity, a counterculture attitude, and remarkable subcultural diversity. Though most of Texas leans to the right, Austin is a "blue dot in a red state."

Austin is where I live. It is the city where I labor to embody and communicate the gospel every day. We moved to Austin to plant the gospel and to plead with God to grow a church. At that time, my wife was pregnant with our second child, Ellie. Today, in addition to our own children, we have been blessed to welcome a new community of spiritual children as well. But critical to that process has been learning how to effectively and appropriately evangelize. After all, we didn't move across the country, from Boston to Austin, just to recycle Christians from other churches. We came to Austin because it's a decidedly non-Christian city, and we want to serve its people and bring them fantastic news about Jesus. That meant we needed to know the city, love the city, and engage the city in meaningful and discerning ways.

I studied anthropology in college, so I knew I had a lot to learn about the diverse subcultures of Austin. We studied. We observed. We conversed. And in our research, we learned that 76 percent of the city's urban core finds the gospel of Jesus unbelievable. This was a helpful, humbling, and inspiring discovery. Aware that we were living with resistant, not just "unchurched" people, we knew that evangelism was needed, but in a way far different from the altar calls of my youth.


During our first year in the city one person—one single individual—came to know Christ. It was a small success, but soon, even that seemed short-lived. Soon after he professed his faith and for the next four years, it looked as if our initial convert had walked away from his new faith. Thankfully, today he is back in church and is thriving in Christ. Still ... one person in a city of 1.7 million? In one year? Not a great start.

I found some comfort in our poor track record by telling myself that we hadn't really started our church yet. We were still in that learning phase: transitioning into the city, studying the culture, and hosting a small group of people in our home once a week. So it really wasn't fair to start counting yet. Right? Our small group of people grew into a community, and together we rediscovered the mission of God. We got to know our neighbors and engaged the city in ways that visibly demonstrated the love of Christ and offered the hope of the gospel. The number of non-Christians in our circles steadily increased. Still, after two years of ministry in Austin, we had only baptized one new disciple. We had gone to Austin hoping to reach hundreds, if not thousands of people.

One person. I was discouraged. I felt like I was failing.

As the years passed, we saw a few more people respond. We were now averaging about three to five baptisms a year. And yet, new questions arose in my mind. Were we doing enough? Did our "conversion rate" justify the costs, personal and financial, that we had made in planting the church? Was it worth it to relocate our family and deal with the intense spiritual warfare we were under? Most of all, I wondered: If I was leading our church correctly, equipping our people well, shouldn't we be seeing more results? Was I doing something wrong?

I felt a vague evangelistic pressure. Perhaps you can relate. I'm not sure where it comes from, but it entered my atmosphere in my early twenties. Back then, everywhere I went, an evangelistic cloud seemed to follow me. Preoccupied with the eternal destiny of others, I frequently felt compelled to share the gospel, and if I missed an opportunity I had a sense lightning would strike. Guilt traveled down my spine whenever I wimped out and didn't share. Avoiding an opportunity on an airplane was especially unforgivable. Captive audience, right?

I don't want you to get the wrong picture. I enjoyed having conversations about Jesus with people, dipping below the surface small talk into the deep things of life. I wasn't forcing canned presentations on people. I wasn't a doomsday prophet standing on a street corner. But I always felt this inner compulsion, everywhere I went, a continual pressure to share my faith.

In one sense, this was a good thing. After all, we should expect to feel some desire to share our faith. If Christians really believe what Jesus taught—that a fiery eternity awaits unbelievers but eternal life is available to those who believe—then not sharing the rescuing grace of God with others is cruel. Atheist Penn Jillette of illusionist duo Penn and Teller frames this dilemma in stark terms:

If you believe that there's a heaven and a hell, and people could be going to hell or not getting eternal life, and you think that it's not really worth telling them this because it would make it socially awkward ... how much do you have to hate somebody to not proselytize? How much do you have to hate somebody to believe everlasting life is possible and not tell them that?

Did you catch the zinger at the end there? Penn points out that not sharing the gospel with others is tantamount to hate. Jesus clearly taught us to love our neighbor, the stranger, and even our enemy. And Paul says that "Christ's love compels us" to plead with others to be reconciled to God (2 Corinthians 5:14, 20 NIV). Even non-Christians understand this urgency. Consider the words of Ezra Koenig, front man of the band Vampire Weekend: "We know the fire awaits unbelievers ... Want a little grace but who's going to say a little grace for me?" If the gospel is true, fire awaits unbelievers unless they receive grace. If Christians believe this, shouldn't we embrace the pressure to extend that grace to them? Isn't this pressure a good thing?

Well, yes and no. While it is good to want to share your faith, to tell others the good news about Jesus and what he has done for them, in many cases that pressure we feel to evangelize isn't good, especially when it drives us to manipulate others or to try to force a conversion.


Have you ever been on the other end of a "pressure sale"? A new insurance policy, refrigerator, car, or home, perhaps? How did it make you feel? You probably felt used, a means to an end. Or maybe you felt objectified, subhuman. You had the sense that the salesman didn't really care about you. He wasn't interested in your good—he just wanted to close the deal. That's how people sometimes feel when they are on the receiving end of our evangelistic efforts. They feel like they are a means to the end of our spiritual profit, like we are just trying to close a deal.

Several years ago, my wife worked in door-to-door sales for Yellow Book advertising. It was a miserable experience. Day after day, door after door, she was cussed out, mocked, and rejected. After three months of this, I told her to quit. I made it clear that we'd do whatever we had to do to scrape our living expenses together, but this job just wasn't worth the cost. Why was she so disliked by everyone? I can assure you it had nothing to do with her personally. My wife is a gregarious, joyful person and would have gotten along great with most of the people she was meeting, if the circumstances had been different. But she was soundly rejected, even hated, because everyone on the other side of the door was assuming a pressure sale. They immediately knew that they were a means to an end—and they despised it. They felt the pressure as soon as she opened her mouth, often cutting her off before she could even get started.

That's exactly how many people feel when we begin sharing our faith with them. The pressure we feel to share the gospel doesn't translate into the 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.


So what's wrong with pressure evangelism? Just about everything. For starters, it reveals that we have the wrong motivation. When we talk with others, we aren't sharing out of a sense of freedom, loving others out of the overflow of our peace and contentment in Christ. We are evangelizing to prove ourselves out of a misguided sense that the eternal destiny of others is ultimately dependent on our efforts. In the end, it isn't love that compels us. The pressure to perform, to make the sale, presses down so hard on our hearts and minds that it distorts our message. We act and speak in unnatural ways. Often, we sound as if we don't really believe what we are saying. The gospel we share is unbelievable.

There are several, common ways of evangelizing that have been popular over the past few decades. My point in sharing these is not to disparage them or suggest they haven't been used by God. In fact, for each of these examples, the message is actually true in content, but disregards the context. As my Bible interpretation professor in seminary said, "Context is king." In most contexts today, evangelistic techniques tend to feel canned. In Evangelism Explosion, for example, you need to memorize an outline. With the Four Spiritual Laws you often end up reading from a tract and turning the pages. Most of these past efforts were focused on nailing a presentation, not on understanding a person. And this priority—to get the message out there and be heard—tends to make others feel like they are a project. To be fair, this was never the intended goal of these evangelistic tools, and I'm sure there are many people who are still able to use them effectively. But in my experience, the most common result is a canned presentation, one that doesn't really communicate God's good news in a believable way.

While I am deeply indebted to Campus Crusade for Christ (now Cru) for many things, I recoil at some of my evangelistic training. Eager to grow in my faith, I went on a summer project in Santa Cruz, California, where we rented the Peter Pan Motel for the summer. Fortunately, the staff arrived ahead of time to clean up the needles and condoms out of the rooms. What was a bastion of darkness, over the summer, was transformed into a beacon of light. I loved a lot of what we got to do, though I'll admit working for the Dipper Diner, in my polyester blue-and-white striped uniform, topped by a matching restaurant blue hat, was a bit humbling.

I think most of us feared the impending "Beach Evangelism" each time it rolled around. We were charged with creating a scene on the beach to "draw people in," and then, after cracking smiles with strangers, we were told to spin out and share the Four Spiritual Laws with them, taking them through the little paper tract tucked away in our back pocket. I reluctantly participated in our massive, attractional game of tug-of-war, but afterward just roamed the beach with my buddy. We connected with some folks playing beach volleyball, and we hung out with one guy in particular. Eventually the conversation turned to spiritual things. I kept the tract in my back pocket and just tried to relate Christ to what this guy was facing in life. Remarkably, he said he was interested in knowing Jesus and being rescued from his sins. We prayed with him as he repented and put his faith in Jesus. We encouraged him to get connected with a church and never saw him again. My buddy turned to me and said: "Man, I didn't know you could do that. You didn't even use the Four Spiritual Laws." I responded by saying, "If we had whipped out that tract, we would have lost the guy's attention right away."

Why do I share this story? Not to slam Cru. Like I said, I've learned a lot from them, evangelistic boldness in particular, and I even included my campus director, Jerry McCune, in the acknowledgments. I share this story to emphasize the point that evangelism doesn't have to be mechanical; it can be intuitive and relational. It doesn't have to be pressure-driven and event-oriented. Listening to people's stories, we can discern how to best share the gospel with them in a natural, relatable way. We don't have to fit an evangelistic mold.

While we can critique various approaches and methods, it isn't always the methods themselves that are to blame for pressure evangelism. We have a choice. Certain tools and trainings may create fertile soil for pressure evangelism, but its motivational roots run deep into our hearts, where we are preoccupied with what others think of us. Because we desire the approval of our spiritual mentors, our peers, and even God, we end up evangelizing to impress. We're like the teenager who works tremendously hard at a sport he doesn't even like, just to get the approval of his parents. We try to earn our acceptance by performing for the reward of approval. When we evangelize in this way, we are trying to earn the unearnable favor of the Father.

As a result, our gospel isn't believable. Why? Because our motivations don't line up with our beliefs. We aren't practicing what we preach. We may tell others that the Father loves them perfectly, that our salvation is based on Christ's performance and not our own, and yet we are still motivated by a desire to earn God's favor. As a church planter I was discouraged, in part because I wasn't measuring up to my own evangelistic standards. Instead of relying on God's sovereign grace, I felt the pressure to perform, to get higher numbers, to justify myself. If our church grew more rapidly through conversions, I could feel good about myself, about my performance. In these moments, my worth was slipping from the sure and treasured place of Christ, to the unwavering and idolatrous place of self. I preferred manufactured approval over the enduring approval of our heavenly Father.

When our evangelism is motivated by approval, "moments" of evangelistic opportunity devolve into something like this: "If I don't do this, I'm gonna regret it" (performance), instead of thinking, "I can see this person needs the hope of the gospel, and I can't wait to extend it" (love). The motivation of performance and the idol of approval short-circuit the motivation of love. Is it any surprise that people find our evangelism unbelievable? People are sacrificed on the altar of our efforts to gain God's approval through our performance.


Excerpted from The Unbelievable Gospel by Jonathan K. Dodson. Copyright © 2014 Jonathan Dodson. Excerpted by permission of ZONDERVAN.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Part I: Evangelistic Defeaters
1. Preachy
2. Impersonal
3. Intolerant
4. Condescending
5. Shallow
6. Political
7. Uninformed

Part II: Re-­evangelizing the Evangelized
8. Gospel Clarity: Unity in Meaning
9. Gospel Metaphors: A Diversity of Graces
10. Re---evangelized: Rediscovering the Goodness of the News

Part III: Good News to the…
11. To the Rejected
12. To the Tolerant
13. To the Weary
14. To the Wounded
15. To the Successful
16. To the Hip
17. To the Thoughtful

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

Jonathan Dodson gives thoughtful counsel on how to communicate the gospel to our secular culture today. He is right on target. He is honest. This is evangelism for the twenty-first century---and for all centuries, for that matter! -- Robert E. Coleman, Distinguished Professor of Evangelism and Discipleship at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, and author of The Master Plan of Evangelism

How did it happen that the gospel we preach has been rejected as bad news by our culture? In The Unbelievable Gospel, Jonathan Dodson opens up this puzzle. Reading it gave me confidence, liberated my imagination, and gave me a pathway to an evangelism that lives the gospel as well as tells it. It is a stunningly clarifying book. -- David Fitch, Lindner Chair of Evangelical Theology, Northern Seminary, and author of Prodigal Christianity

What is unbelievable about The Unbelievable Gospel is that its message is so needed and we haven’t had a well-written practical book on it until now. Jonathan Dodson really cares about how the church is talking to the world. He has demonstrated as much in his personal life, especially how he continued to hold his own feet to the fire in the first years of his church. He would not accept numeric church growth as success, for he had higher standards. His genuine humility comes through as he tells the church what it needs to hear and how it can talk to the world so they will listen. The contents of this work could educate and set free a congregation to communicate the gospel effectively with the people they care about. -- Bill Hull, author of The Disciple-Making Pastor, Christlike, The Disciple-Making Church, and The Complete Book of Discipleship

The gospel does not change, but we must always be attentive to how we can best communicate it afresh to each generation. Jonathan Dodson in The Unbelievable Gospel demonstrates, once again, that he is one of the church’s leading thinkers in knowing how to present the gospel effectively in an increasingly postmodern world. I highly recommend it! -- Timothy C. Tennent, President, Asbury Theological Seminary, Professor of World Christianity

If you are passionate about the gospel but despair at the difficulty of communicating the good news of Jesus in the urban, creative contexts of the West, then The Unbelievable Gospel is for you. A compelling and empowering guide to sharing faith today. -- Mark Sayers, Red Church in Melbourne, Über, and author of The Road Trip That Changed the World and Facing Leviathan

There is no doubt that we need to rethink much about the way we have shared the gospel in America. So much of our evangelism bears false witness to the very gospel we seek to promote. Jonathan’s thoughtful and well-researched book provides both a great antidote and good guidance at the same time. Anyone interested in the integrity of the gospel and how it is communicated should read this book. -- Alan Hirsch, Founder of Forge Missional Training Network and Future Travelers; award-winning author of numerous books, including Untamed and Right Here Right Now

There is always a need to communicate the unchanging gospel using language and forms that can be understood by emerging generations. If you have a passion to share the good news of Jesus, this book is for you. -- Darrin Patrick, lead pastor of The Journey; vice president of Acts 29; chaplain to the St. Louis Cardinals; author of The Dude’s Guide to Manhood

Over the past decade, I’ve sifted through boatloads of books related to spreading the message of Christ’s gospel. I have poured slowly through the most popular books on the subject, but have always found myself longing for something more. The Unbelievable Gospel contains what my heart has been yearning for: an evangelistic manifesto that every Christian should read. It is the best evangelism book I’ve ever read, by far. -- Matt Brown, evangelist, author of Awakening: Why the Next Great Move of God Is Right under Our Nose, founder of Think Eternity

All of us encounter not-yet Christians on a daily basis, and for one reason or another, we often fail to engage these people with the greatest story ever told: the gospel. We each come to the table with reasons for not sharing Jesus. Jonathan brilliantly gives us a soul-check and reminds us that evangelism can be winsome and fun when done with a heart transfixed by the person of Jesus and his work in the world. For those of us without the gift of evangelism, Jonathan encourages us that, yes, we can indeed share a believable gospel---not because of who we are or what we do, but because of what our great Savior has done for us. -- Laurie Fortunak Nichols, editor of the Evangelvision blog, director of communications at the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College, and managing editor for Evangelical Missions Quarterly

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