DeYoung vs. Claiborne: A New Gospel or Pre-evangelism?

“I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God made it grow” (1 Cor 3:6).

Kevin DeYoung has written a response HERE to a letter to unbelievers, written by Shaine Claiborne and published in Esquire.  DeYoung believes there is a “New Gospel” being propagated out there that is watered down, misleading and leaving out the more offensive truths of the Gospel such as sin, repentance, hell, etc. He sounds the alarm of such soft-pedaling of the true Gospel and warns people of folks preaching this so-called “New Gospel.”

While there are indeed many people who do water down the true Gospel and preach a more culturally acceptable message, I believe DeYoung is confusing categories and ignores the difference between pre-evangelism and evangelism. Justin Taylor admits so much saying, “I know Claiborne would say what he wrote is just pre-evangelism, but I think Kevin’s points are spot on and well worth considering carefully.”Many of the people he accuses of preaching a New Gospel are actually only strategically engaged in the hard, long work of pre-evangelism and the Gospel they do eventually preach and believe is the Old Gospel with sin, repentance, hellfire and the rest.

So what is pre-evangelism?

As I understand it, it is the wise, discerning, bridge-building process of beginning a relationship and conversation with a skeptic in the hopes of neutralizing the surface by acknowledging and addressing some of the personal barriers they have preventing them from giving the Gospel and Christian faith a fair hearing. Depending on our personal upbringing, our education, our experience with Christians, temperament, intellectual orientation, etc. will factor into how open a person is to hearing and responding to the Gospel. Some people have significant barriers raised up: perhaps they were raised in a close-minded church that disallowed free thinking; perhaps they are a biology major at the university and believe all Christians are Young Earthers and cannot reconcile it with their views of science; perhaps they are politically liberal but believe Christian = conservative Republican; perhaps they have 100 serious intellectual doubts and have never met an apologetically trained Christian with reasonable answers to their doubts; and so on.

I like to think of people living on a spectrum from (-10 to +10) with “0” being neutral toward any religious belief. A person at “0” will openly listen to the Gospel message and give the Christian faith a fair hearing. A person in the negative numbers has certain resistance and presuppositions that predispose them toward unbelief and negative reaction to evangelistic efforts. A person near +10 is leaning toward a faith decision and very open to discussing and wrestling with the claims and demands of the Gospel. This is the pre-evangelism spectrum I believe should be taken into consideration in our evangelistic conversations with friends, neighbors and, sometimes strangers. Our goal in engaging hardcore skeptics is not to “seal the deal” in one shot, but rather to move them more and more Godward with every loving exchange.

This entire line of thinking of course raises a another set of significant questions for me. Isn’t the “new birth” or “conversion experience” a supernatural work of God? If so, why bother with all of this human strategizing and pre-evangelism stuff? Really, how mystical and supernatural are conversation experiences? Or are such “spiritual awakenings” more natural and human than we like to sometimes admit? How much rests on God’s power and how much rests on our evangelistic methods?

I believe Christians are divided at this point. Some Christians firmly believe that they merely preach the Gospel clearly and the Spirit does ALL the work of convicting, awakening, saving etc. There is much Scriptural support for this view. Read the evangelistic approach of Paul in many instances. Yet, others (myself included) tend to think this “spiritual awakening” (which I myself experienced in college) is a much more complex combination of God’s Spirit working through our human faculties. I believe God worksthroughour thinking faculties, opening our mind, overcoming intellectual obstacles, doubts and pride, and leading us to faith. God typically uses human communicators, powerful human testimonies, wise and gentle messengers, trusting relationships, etc. to accomplish this transformative moment.

This is a big dividing line. Because if we believe it’s all God, then we don’t need to carefully strategize and worry about building bridges, establishing a relationship of trust, breaking down intellectual/sociological barriers in their mind, apologizing for the track record of the church, etc. in our sharing of the Gospel. In other words, if you fall in the former camp pre-evangelism isn’t really necessary at all. God just “awakens” faith by the power of his saving will. Period.

On the other hand, if you believe the messenger plays a more significant role in the evangelism and proclamation process, then you can’t take the “easier” road above. You have to actually entertain their preconceptions and help skeptics see that they haven’t rejected Christ at all but rather they have rejected a sad caricature, a straw man version, Christ’s hypocritical followers, intellectually shallow Christians, etc. They haven’t necessarily rejected Christ. They have barriers and we shouldn’t assume they’re all self-created and a matter of their own pride or hard-heartedness. Are we willing to get into their story before we expect them to join ours?

I would submit that evangelizing western materialistic anti-organized religion, anti-authoritarian, sophisticated American skeptics from the university demands much pre-evangelism. I call it breaking down walls before you start building something with them.  However, if there is a fair challenge to such advocates of “pre-evangelism” it is this: When, if ever, do they actually get to a clear articulation of the full gospel — hellfire and all?

Remember the concept of moving people from (-10) to (+10)? I believe this is crucial. I believe the DeYoungs out there tend to believe (a) every heart is either at “0” to begin with so just hit ’em with the truth, (b) they believe they are in the negatives and resistant to the gospel because of their own pride and sin, or (c) all such talk is ultimately useless since the only factor that matters whether God has elected an individual for salvation from the foundation of the world. I just don’t believe this accurately captures the complexities of the human free will, God’s decision to work through the human faculties and condition, the task God has given believers to be His messengers and the very natural processes at work within the human heart in moving from rebellion and doubt to repentance and faith.

I wish they were right. It would relieve me of a lot of pressure and responsibility to lovingly and strategically lead those who far away closer to Christ. Our job isn’t to convict them of sin and “seal the deal.” Our job is to commit to a process of pre-evangelistic conversations and relationship with people in the negatives in hopes of moving them ever more Godward to the positive side of the spectrum.

The question is: If through much toil and hours of conversation we only see them move from -10 to -8, have we failed as messengers of Christ? You’ll have to answer that for yourself. My prayer is that God will bring someone else into their life later in their journey who will move them a bit further and by God’s grace maybe 4 or 5 people later they will reach +10 and finally surrender their life to Christ.

QUESTIONS: What do you think of the concept of “pre-evangelism”? How do the supernatural and natural combine in the mysterious moment of “conversion” or “new birth”? What is the balance between God’s role and our role in leading people to saving faith?

One thought on “DeYoung vs. Claiborne: A New Gospel or Pre-evangelism?”

  1. I just read Kevin DeYoung’s article that linked to this one. I appreciate the counter discussion you provide. I find DeYoung a bit more persuasive, but not greatly so.

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