What We Can Learn from Unlikely Converts – The Gospel Coalition

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Collin Hansen: I don’t know that any religious conversion is more unlikely than another. After all, we’re only born again because a perfect man who is God died on a cross and rose from the dead on the third day. That’s not a likely story. We’re all equally dead in our transgressions before Jesus saves us. But I know what Randy Newman means in his new book, Unlikely Converts: Improbable Stories of Faith and What They Teach Us About Evangelism, published by Kregel.

Collin Hansen: We all know someone who’d really surprise us if he or she professed faith in Jesus Christ, and Randy’s book draws lessons for our evangelism from those stories. Newman is a senior teaching fellow with the CS Lewis Institute in Washington, D.C., author of the bestselling Questioning Evangelism, and veteran of more than 30 years in campus ministry. Randy writes that coming to Christ takes time, that people tend to come to faith communally, that they come to faith variously, and that nothing is too difficult for God. And he joins me now on Gospelbound to discuss more observations from these unlikely converts as we seek to share Christ in a contentious age. Thank you for joining me, Randy.

Randy Newman: Oh, it’s great to be with you. Thanks for the opportunity.

Collin Hansen: Randy, how likely were you to convert?

Randy Newman: Well, that’s a great place to start. I mean, I guess pretty unlikely. I came from a Jewish background, and I really didn’t hear much at all about Jesus other than we don’t believe in him. And I got invited down to a church youth group by a friend simply because it was fun and he told me the girls were cute, so that’s why I went. And my first hearing of the gospel was just met with, no that’s irrelevant to me. I’m Jewish, we just don’t do that. And it was a three-and-a-half- or four-year process from that starting point to when in sophomore year in college it all came together. But yes, I would, humanly speaking, I would put it certainly in the unlikely category.

Collin Hansen: Do you find that the more unlikely converts make better evangelists or is that not true? A coincidence? What do you think?

Randy Newman: Yeah, I think so, although I can’t say that I’ve studied it enough thoroughly to say. I do think when people have had the story that was arresting or unlikely or, oh my goodness I can’t believe I came from such a very, very different starting point, that it does embolden us to be able to talk to people because there’s a certain sense of, well, I mean, I’m not just looking at it humanly speaking, I’m looking at it through the lens of my own experience and also the reality of the scripture. So, I think that does help, although there’s so many other factors, I think about people being bold in evangelism.

Collin Hansen: When you undertook a more systematic review of many, many, many conversion stories, when you looked back on your own story, what were some of those elements that you found that maybe felt unique to you at the time, but turned out to be maybe a bit paradigmatic in some ways of how God seems to work in conversion?

Randy Newman: Oh, good, yeah. Well, that whole thing that for many people, it’s a gradual incremental process was certainly my story. Another finding when I was interviewing all these people was that there were so many different voices or different people who spoke into the process. It wasn’t just one, one-on-one conversation with one particular close friend. I mean, there are those central characters, but as I look back at my story, and as I listened to these many stories that I heard, oh, they heard it here and then they heard it repeated here. And then they heard it from very different kinds of people, older people, younger people, married people, single people, different races. And I think that that is a crucial component of evangelism that we often leave out or ignore or don’t recognize.

Randy Newman: When I started looking back at my own story, after hearing some of these stories, I remembered people who spoke in or were used by the Lord that I had totally completely forgotten about. One of my favorites was I was working at my father’s gas station a long time ago, back when people came out from the gas station to pump gas for you, can you imagine? Some of the listeners will have to look it up on the History channel, but so there was this guy who I was pumping gas in his car, and I was looking in the back window of his car and saw all of these tracts and booklets. He gave me one that I then went into the gas station and read from cover to cover.

Randy Newman: And that’s when I think I started understanding the gospel. It was still years after that, that I actually became a believer, but I never saw that guy’s face. All I saw was his left arm as he handed me money and a magazine or something. But I now think back about it, and he was one of the most crucial players in the whole story.

Collin Hansen: You allude in the book, Randy, that we don’t live in a time when most people are positively predisposed to the gospel. But that suggested a follow-up question, which is, has there ever been a time when people have been positively predisposed to the gospel? That’s not a gotcha question, it could be, yes there are actually some maybe common-grace reasons that make people less likely now than say blank period of time.

Randy Newman: Well, it’s all in the category of the gospel has always been a stumbling block and it has always been a minority point of perspective. But I do think in our culture that there is a hostility in our culture right now in our moment that wasn’t this hot 20 years ago or even 10 years ago. So, I do think things were different. Again, we’re always looking at that from the human perspective, from God’s perspective, that’s not any more difficult.

Randy Newman: But I don’t remember too much training in evangelism 20 years ago, 30 years ago that said, now, listen, when people get angry, here’s what you need to do. I think now that’s pretty important part of the preparation and training. We should almost assume there are going to be a lot of people who will find out they we’re Christian and they will immediately jump to, oh, you’re bigoted, you’re narrow-minded, you’re homophobic, et cetera. And it comes with not just intellectual obstacles, but some pretty strong emotional ones.

Collin Hansen: Yeah. So we identify the sexual element there I suppose, we would also say that the lack of baseline, moral formation to a law, would that also be a change perhaps in the last generation or generation and a half? There’s not necessarily the same base-level assumption of conviction that we’ve perhaps fallen short to some kind of external standard?

Randy Newman: Yeah, I think so. I think there was a time, not all that long ago when I would say a majority of people thought, yeah, there’s right and wrong and if I violate it, I feel guilty. I think that the percentage of people who feel that way or think that way has gone down, the assumptions about morality and sexuality are certainly very different. I mean, I did campus ministry for a very long time. I would say the first 20 years of campus ministry, college students who were having sex knew that, man I probably shouldn’t do that, but I want to. Now, I would say the majority would say, well, of course I am. I mean, that’s just natural. It’s weird not to. So, those are different people that we’re talking to.

Collin Hansen: I actually think Randy, we may have transitioned to a new level, which is now they’re not having sex because they’re scared about consent, and they’re scared about abuse and they are so distracted by their devices and social media and things like that. That was one of the challenges. I was just talking to a friend who does campus ministry in the Northeast, and he said, I mean, the biggest change between when he and I were in college, is that I mean, there would have been people having sex and there wouldn’t necessarily have been that kind of conviction, but now it’s just not even happening anymore because those circumstances have changed so much. So, the only constant there is change.

Collin Hansen: One of those differences you identify is that non-Christians now feel like they have the upper hand on us intellectually, which probably that’s probably been true for, I don’t know, maybe a century. It could be longer than that, but now also morally have the upper hand. That seems new. Explain what you mean by that change in that upper hand.

Randy Newman: Yeah, and I think it is a change. The moral upper hand they feel is that they’re not judgmental, we are, and that’s the worst sin. That is the cardinal sin. They don’t judge or tell anybody that they’re wrong, we do a whole lot of that. And they also feel, I think, a moral superiority because they’re tolerant and open-minded of a lot of different perspectives, a lot of different paths and religions get to heaven. We believe there’s only one way, and that in their mind is, well, first of all, they think it’s intellectually ridiculous and impossible to defend, but it’s also morally wrong. It’s bad.

Randy Newman: It’s not just, we disagree with you, it’s, we’re good for society, you’re bad for society. By the way, I feel like I have to jump in and say, what I kept finding though, is it was like the obstacle seemed to be bigger and bigger, and yet that didn’t stop the gospel from going through. I mean, the gospel is no less powerful than it has always been. And so, that’s what makes the story so amazing, I think.

Collin Hansen: Right. Well, that’s what we’ll get to some questions here where you really do seem to counter a lot of the assumptions that I brought in about evangelism and apologetics today. Let me follow up on that question though. What you’re describing there is both interesting and concerning and at the same time transparently foolish, because what you’re describing is judgmental attitudes. What you’re describing is moral evaluations there. So, I mean, wouldn’t that just be easy to flip right around and say, well, no, you’re not upset about being judgmental, you’re just upset that I don’t share your same judgments. You’re judging me. I mean, does that not create some level of neutrality, at least?

Randy Newman: Well, I think it can, and that is the device or technique that we, as Christians need to develop. I think I refer to it in the book about leveling the playing field. We need to show people, listen, we’re both intolerant on some level, we’re both judging to some level. And so then what we need to do is compare our intolerances. So, from the Christian perspective, it’s easy to see that, hey, wait a minute, you’re condemning me for being judgmental in a very judgemental way. You’re condemning me for being self-righteous in an amazingly self-righteous way. So, the first stage I think, is for us to help train Christians to see that.

Randy Newman: The second is in the conversations to try to show that to people. And I haven’t found that to be easy. I find that you point it out and then you have to point it out again, and they have to say it a different way. And because when people, when they finally start getting it, oh, I’m being self-righteous, it’s pretty earthshaking for them because losing that upper hand is quite destabilizing for them.

Collin Hansen: Well, one of the people who listen to this podcast and read my work know the influence of Jonathan Haidt’s social psychology on me, and this reminds me of this is more or less just trying to level the playing field at the level of rational attitudes, which really are not how most people truly function. So, a lot of the evangelistic conversations we have are at that rational level where we have to get down into the intuitive tribal level where most people operate. So, what you’re talking about there, I presume is leveling the playing field by shaking them up so that their rational defenses will fall. So that then we can start speaking heart to heart, to them about why they truly feel this way.

Collin Hansen: We’re talking basically here about forms of pre-evangelism. And you have a high regard in this book for pre-evangelism, not just as some cop-out for somebody who doesn’t want to call for repentance and faith. Do you think there’s more of a need today for pre evangelism perhaps then when you started out in college ministry?

Randy Newman: Oh yes, very much so. Very much so, because there was a time where the starting point was just further along. You could say to someone, have you ever thought about having a personal relationship with God? And the God that came to their mind was the one you were talking about and the notion that you could have a personal relationship with this God was a category they already had or at least it made sense. And today you have to go further back and listen, when I say the word God, here’s who I’m talking about. So, I do think there has always been a need for pre-evangelism, and I do think it’s more necessary today in more situations.

Randy Newman: But I quickly want to add, this isn’t a brand new thing that just came into being since Francis Schaeffer. I marvel at the difference between the way Paul preached in Acts 17 than the way he preached in Acts 13. In Acts 13, he was in a Jewish synagogue and they already knew that the scriptures were authoritative. They knew the God Paul was talking about. On Mars Hill in Acts 17, he had to start further back and say, listen, here’s the God I’m talking about. And I think what Jesus did in his conversation with the woman at the well in John four is I’m talking about water. I’m talking about a kind of water that if you could drink this water, you’d never be thirsty again. He still got a long way to go before he’s talking about substitutionary atonement on the cross.

Collin Hansen: Yeah, no, I think that’s really helpful that even as we talk about the constant being change, still where we go back to is the scripture. That’s the premise of this Gospelbound podcast, that even as we’re bounding forward in hope, we’re looking backward as we’re always tied to that same message that saved then and continues to save now. Before I start to ask you to correct some of my other notions that I apparently had wrong, I want to ask one more bit of a downer question here.

Randy Newman: Oh, good.

Collin Hansen: I’m sure over the course of decades of college ministry, you’ve seen your share of students who seemed at one point to follow Jesus passionately even as evangelists, grow up and drift away from the faith. I’m wondering if you’ve observed any common threads in those stories.

Randy Newman: That is a downer, thanks.

Collin Hansen: We’re getting there, Randy.

Randy Newman: Common threads, well, I think a fair amount of it can be seenI don’t want this to sound like it’s cold analysis because it’s deeply painful. It really is. But, I do think we can see it from the different seeds that Jesus talked about in the parable of the sower. And so the cares of this world choking, that persecution coming. The persecution today it’s real, it’s there. It is subtle, but I think for a lot of college students and then maybe even more so, maybe it’s even more outside of college because in college, for Christians who get involved in a Christian ministry there is a protection there.

Randy Newman: When they graduate and they’re out in the working world, it’s tougher to find. And even if they’re part of a really great church, somehow the church seems like in a separate category of their life than where they work and where they do social things and where they live. On the college campus, there was a little bit more, I don’t know, cohesion. So, I think it’s really tough to be a young single Christian now and holding firm to biblical morality and the exclusivity of the gospel. And it’s easier to hold firm when you’re 40, 50, 60 years old and you’ve been walking with the Lord for a while. As a new person, new outside of college in the working world, the pressures are pretty intense.

Collin Hansen: Yeah. Our church adds several hundred members a year, and our elders do the membership interviews. And our average age is within the mid- to late-20s in the church and the stories are very common. Now, these are the positive stories. I’m not seeing the deconversion stories, I’m seeing the positive ones, but they almost always have a couple of things in common. One of them is that the college years were formative for them either because they really strayed away from what they had grown up with in a religious household and a Christian household, or because it was a place where they really began to see their faith as their own or where they came to a brand new faith there with that separate from family. But then that’s the first side, the formative enroll the college years.

Collin Hansen: But the second side is very few of them jump straight from college to I’m now a member of this church. There’s almost always a time of, and then I moved here and I started to lose my way and I did some things I shouldn’t have done. I didn’t live up to my commitments, but now I’m resolving to join this church to get back in touch with that. Or sometimes it’s a relationship that brings them back. Sometimes it’s just conviction. Sometimes they ended up in another church, a bigger seeker church, and that helped them. And then they came over to our church from there. But anyway, so I’m seeing the positive side of that, but you can only assume how many other cases of people who never do make it back, or at least don’t make it back soon.

Randy Newman: Yeah. Again, this is painful, but what I did see in talking to a lot of people, there was this recurring theme of, I strayed away, at first it was a whole lot of fun and then after a while it was, oh, this is really empty. This is really hollow. Yeah, I’m involved in a whole lot of relationships, but I’m not finding anything meaningful. Yeah, isn’t it great to find new drinks to get drunk, but after a while it’s drunk. So, I think some people have to come, well, hopefully not all the way to the end of the rope, but getting close to say, you know what, this didn’t come through with all that I thought it was going to come through with.

Collin Hansen: Yeah. So, let’s start while you begin to tear down some of my assumptions that I had. One of them is you are not that impressed or worried about moralistic therapeutic deism. So, I’ve written a lot about this over the last decade-plus about the transformation in American youth and this new religion that Christian Smith and others have written about moralistic therapeutic deism, you don’t seem very worried about it. You think it’s pretty pathetic and hollow and people, I mean, it’s much easier to show them how Christianity is better in that atmosphere. Is that right? Did I summarize that accurately?

Randy Newman: I think so. Yeah. I’m not negative on it. I just thought …

Collin Hansen: Well, we should all be negative about moralistic therapeutic deism, it’s just a matter of, you just seem to be more hopeful about the opportunities for the gospel in that atmosphere. You don’t seem to be very worried about how it’s wiping up Christianity.

Randy Newman: No, that was actually a surprise for me. I mean, when I was doing the research project I put together, I’m going to look for this. I’m going to try to see if people really sound like they hold to this. And so, one of the things is, well, if they do, they’re not really holding to it all that strongly or with conviction. And it’s not quite as clean as that. I mean, moralistic therapeutic deism, and that sounds like a really concise coherent system and it just wasn’t for a whole lot of people.

Randy Newman: But, the good news in it was it wasn’t such … I think when a lot of Christians hear about when they first learn that term, moralistic therapeutic deism, they go, man, how in the world are we going to get through to that? And I did too. And yet what I found was, it didn’t push back very well. I think it has a real emptiness to it that when people started hearing gospel transformation in other people’s lives, when they saw a graciousness or a kindness or a confidence in their Christian friends, that seemed to have a greater power.

Collin Hansen: That’s encouraging. Now, there were several cases of this where you really pushed back on something in a helpful way to something I’ve been teaching other people about or that I’ve been reading about. Let’s give another example of this: you seem to say that it’s okay to debate Christian views on sex while working backward from those debates toward the resurrection. Now, I have been telling people the opposite of not getting bogged down in debates about sex, to focus on the resurrection instead. But I appear to be wrong on that, because you seem to indicate that the conversations about sex open up some avenues for fruitful discussion to show how the Christian view is superior or more fulfilling. But go ahead and describe it in your own words.

Randy Newman: Well, by the way, I’m so very thankful you’ve invited me on the podcast in light of all these objections you had.

Collin Hansen: I like to be shown wrong. That’s the whole point of what we’re doing on this. If I’m wrong, I want to know it. I don’t want to go and teach people the wrong thing.

Randy Newman: Well, a whole lot of my training was stay away from those really tough issues like sexuality and abortion or whatever. That’s not the central issue, just when people raise those questions say, well, what I’d rather talk to you about is Jesus and the resurrection. And what I found in listening to people’s stories where that’s not how they reported it. Now, it is more important for us to talk about Jesus and the resurrection and that’s where we want to get to for sure. But it’s not a total, oh, let’s not talk about that. It’s let’s talk about that, and then use that as a way of showing that Jesus and the resurrection is really what we need to talk about.

Randy Newman: So, if people are talking about sexuality, well, then let’s talk about it. And what we want to do is get to where we say, there is a biblical view about sexuality, and I know that a lot of people in our society have rejected it, but I still think there’s some great merit to it. And here’s why, because the one who is behind it is not just. . . . It’s not just a different rule book. These insights about who we are as a person come from a personal God who came as Jesus and died and rose again. So it’s not, I don’t know how to describe it. It’s not like we make a U-turn from the topic of sexuality. We go into it. That’s not the main topic, but we’re using it as a platform to move to the gospel.

Collin Hansen: Well, it just occurred to me now, Randy, as you were talking that when I look at those reports, I’m going to be this weekend interviewing I think, six new members for our church and I’ve been doing this dozens of times. It seems like one of the most helpful things in the conversion process is to be doing things with a boyfriend or a girlfriend that you wish you hadn’t been doing, especially because you realized it was pretty empty. And that a relationship with Christ is far better than whatever that pathetic relationship was that fell apart and wrecked your world. So, I guess that’s confirming what you’re talking about right there as well, that they seem to be more open to the gospel precisely because of their experience with different ethics. And they seem to be attracted to Christianity in part, because not only, I think what you described here, is they have to see both as true and also as beautiful, is that right? Is that how you describe-

Randy Newman: Yes, yes, yes. And so, I think a lot of people are expecting us to be angry or harsh, or you need to cut that out. First of all, that doesn’t work very well, and bigger is that’s not the way the Scriptures come across. And so, I mean, Jesus talking to that woman at the well, he dared to raise the questions about her five husbands and the man she’s living with, but he did it graciously and kindly out of concern. And so, I think part of that leveling the playing field, going back to that theme is when we respond with disagreement or we respond with correction or the gospel is a better way and we do it with kindness, people can say, now, wait a minute. I don’t know if I have a category for this. I have a category for agreement and kindness and disagreement and anger, you’re disagreeing with me and it seems like you really care about me. And so that, I mean, I wrote a whole chapter on kindness because I just kept hearing that theme in really profound ways. And so, that’s a very important part of reaching out today.

Collin Hansen: I’ve got a couple more questions with Randy Newman, author of Unlikely Converts: Improbable Stories of Faith and What They Teach Us About Evangelism. Let’s talk about one of the other misconceptions you’ve cleared up for me. I seem to be wrong that we should be building some trust before talking to people directly about Jesus. Now, I’m all for it, I mean, I don’t ever want to tell somebody to not talk about Jesus, but I’ve been talking about how in this age of information, it seems that it’s very easy to just add to the noise and thus there needs to, in many cases, be a level of credibility attached to the messenger. At least that just seems to be my experience.

Collin Hansen: But you point out a number of cases where somebody just jumps straight to talk about Jesus and wow, God works. Again, not that I should be surprised by that by biblical expectations, it just hasn’t often been my experience. Tell us more.

Randy Newman: Well, I wouldn’t say that you’re wrong, that we should seek to try to develop trust and a close relationship. I think that is our goal. We want to do that. I just don’t want to go so far as to say it’s an absolute non-negotiable requirement every single time, because I heard too many stories of people hearing the gospel from a total stranger who had not earned the right to be heard, who had not developed trust. And the gospel is self-authenticating and the power of the Scriptures go through.

Randy Newman: So, of course we do. We want to let our speech be gracious seasoned with salt as Colossians four says, we want to become all things to all people. We want to pave the way with gentleness and grace, like graciousness and reverence as first Peter three says. But, if we’re holding back this idea of, okay, well, I’ve got to make sure that I’ve developed this relationship enough, how will we ever know? How will we ever know when it’s enough? And again, I just heard stories, when I was doing the interview, I’m sure I looked like an idiot because people would say, well, and this person said this to me and I would say, “So wait, wait, hold on, hold on. They said what?” And I would say, okay, that really couldn’t have worked. Could it? I mean, that just seems so blunt.

Randy Newman: I mean, there was one story where this young woman was standing outside the back of her house, smoking her cigarette because her mother wouldn’t let her smoke in the house and her next-door neighbor comes out and invites her to a Bible study. And I said, “Wait, wait, wait, hold on, okay. So, that’s not the first thing she said, was it? Did she say, would you like to come to . . .” “Yeah, that was the first words I heard out of her mouth, would you like to come to our Bible study?” I said, “Now, wait a minute. You had some kind of relationship with her before, right?” “No. I mean, I’d seen her, she was my next-door neighbor and we waved to each other, but I never heard her voice until she invited me to a Bible study.”

Randy Newman: And again, I’m beyond belief, I said, “All right, but how did she word it? I mean, how did she craft? Didn’t she first start with hi, how are you? How’s your day?” No, nothing. Well, how did she word this invitation? And this young woman just looked at me with like, duh, she said, well, she said, would you like to come to our Bible study? I mean, there was no smoothness or developing trust or whatever. Now again, some people need to work on sounding more kind and more gracious and gentle, but I just, I want to be careful that we don’t hold back, hold back, hold back until there’s some magic moment because God is not dependent on that.

Collin Hansen: Oh, amen. Reminds me also of why I’m grateful for my background in Cru and some of that training and evangelism. And I recognize some of your teaching there as well. So maybe you’ve already said it, but this’ll be a chance for you to reiterate in my last question, you have just one thing, Randy, to say to a local church about evangelism, what’s that one message you want to share with them?

Randy Newman: Oh my. Well remember it’s a supernatural process. So, it’s not just two people talking to each other, it’s two people talking to each other under the sovereignty of God. And so, when people remember it’s supernatural and God is at work, I’m not saying it’s easy, but it’s more likely to succeed because of God’s power and the power of his Word.

Collin Hansen: Yeah. Amen. That’s a very helpful book, Unlikely Converts: Improbable Stories of Faith and What They Teach Us About Evangelism. It’s my hope, Randy, that as many people listen to this podcast and pick up the book that they’ll be bold to invite their next-door neighbors to a Bible study. Thanks for joining me on Gospelbound, Randy.

Randy Newman: Thanks so much. I enjoyed it.

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