Telling the True Story

Interview with James Choung

Christians are often filled with anxiety when they think about evangelism. James Choung, author of True Story (IVP), believes that they’re anxious for good reason: they feel like they’re only giving people a partial gospel, one that’s more concerned with the sweet by-and-by than the ugly here-and-now. We invited James to speak with about making the Good News great again. James, there are literally hundreds of books out there that deal with evangelism. What on earth possessed you to write another one?

James: I didn’t even know there were hundreds of evangelism books! Now I’m nervous. More seriously, in Christian literature as a whole, there seems to be a huge gap. On one hand, there are a lot of books that focus on particular skills. These are books that focus on our evangelistic actions, like doing acts of service or making friends so that people will become curious about the Christian faith. On the other hand, there are evangelistic books that focus on our lifestyle, so that we can become the kinds of Christians that others will want to learn from or be like.

But I found that most evangelism books only give a scant chapter on how to communicate the Christian message itself, as if it were assumed. And yes, there are other more theological books that deal with Jesus’ core message, but they aren’t evangelism books that help a Christian communicate the gospel message effectively. So readers are left with a thick book in their hands, and still trying to figure out a way to share the faith in a simple—but not overly simplistic—way. How do we find a gospel presentation that is, as Einstein said, “as simple as possible, but not simpler”?

So this book was written to address this gap. True Story coverIt’s about the Christian message itself, but tries to take the entire biblical story—and ultimately the kingdom of God—and present it in a simple and effective way. You mention in your introduction that the “good news” of the gospel often didn’t feel like good news when you were sharing it with friends in college. Did you feel you were giving the wrong message, or was it just incomplete? Why does the gospel message so often not feel like “good news” to us?

James: To tell you the truth, I didn’t think I was giving the wrong message at the time. I thought it was the truth—just unpopular and irrelevant. I assumed it was right and complete, without really checking to see what Jesus said the gospel was. I felt like I was giving a shot of medicine to someone who didn’t want it, but I still felt like they sorely needed it.

I still think the gospel is needed in the world. But it often doesn’t feel like good news to our friends. The way I was taught to share the faith, I had to make people feel bad about themselves first, make them feel like sinners. Then I could come in with the “good news.” I had to create demand that wasn’t there, like a manipulative commercial. But even then, the good news didn’t feel relevant: “So, if I fall short of the standards of a God I don’t believe in, then I’ll be separated from him forever?” That doesn’t seem so bad to many of our friends. What seems offensive is how arbitrary it all sounds. “How can you claim to have the lock on truth?” they ask. And it seems so otherworldly. It seems to have nothing to do with our present lives, but only about our outcome when we die. So it feels offensive and irrelevant. Traditionally Christians have thought about evangelism in terms of explaining (however simply) certain theological facts and realities. Do you think Christians have a tendency to underestimate the importance of relationship when it comes to evangelism?

James: Actually, I don’t think so. No matter what stereotypes might be out there about Christians, I think that most Christians value relationships immensely. And that’s why they’re shy in talking with others. If we don’t really think we have good news to offer to our friends, why risk the relationship? We value it so much. So it’s precisely because we value the friendship that we hesitate to open our mouths, at least on the surface. It can be said that we don’t really care about the person if we aren’t willing to share the very center and purposes of our lives. But on the surface, I believe that most Christians value relationship quite highly, especially among the younger generations. And it makes them skittish to share a gospel that will sound shallow or disingenuous. The main concern of your book seems to be the evangelical church’s tendency to present a faith that’s “only concerned about the eternal destination of a soul after death” and that “ignores broken relationships and societal injustices.” How have we gotten to this point?

James: That’s a great question with no easy answer. If you allow me to paint huge overgeneralizations, I would say that the divorce between spirituality and social action happened near the turn of the twentieth century. Modernism and science were waging their full-scale assault on faith, and the more liberal Christians embraced modernism, science and, in particular, a critique of the authority of scripture. But they still kept the social activism, because that was obviously good for all.

Fundamentalists reacted by holding tightly to scripture and spirituality, no matter what the prevailing culture was saying around them, but in return they divorced themselves from the greater society. Thus, they retreated into their Christian churches, clubs, radio stations, schools and bookstores, and waited for Christ’s return. Evangelicals emerged out of this stream of fundamentalism. As Rick Warren says, liberals took the body and evangelicals took the soul.

This is the great divorce of modern Christianity. Both sides were doing what they thought was best, but each lost a key part of what it means to be a Christian.

After the lines were drawn to divide the camps, anything that smelled of social justice was dubbed liberal and anything that emphasized scripture was dubbed backward, and thus it continues to the present day. But we’re starting to see the light, with more and more people embracing the strengths of what the other stream offers. And hopefully, these streams will pour into a mighty river that will refresh the church as a whole. You obviously consider storytelling to be an important component in how we as human beings understand and interpret our world: your book is actually written as a fictional narrative. Why is “story” important to us? Why do you think it’s important for evangelism? Why hasn’t the church really embraced this in the past (or have they)?

James: Science may be able to answer the questions of “how?” but it can never answer the questions of “why?” Purpose and meaning have always been in the realm of the storyteller. Stories ground us with a sense of identity, and then help shape how we see the world. In the past, mythologies and histories helped ground a people to a certain land and culture. Now, this power is given to movie directors and authors—the artists of the day.

So story has to be integral in our evangelism. Of course, apologetics and propositions have their place. But in the postmodern milieu, the very concept of truth has been shaken to the core. Universal truths are exchanged for local truths—and these local truths are often told in stories instead of logical arguments. If we’re talking about first-order questions about the meaning and purpose of life to rising generations, we need to share our story and how it connects to the Big Story.

I think the Church has always embraced story, but it hasn’t always acknowledged it. In our Christian calendar, we acknowledge the wonderful story of Jesus’ incarnation, his death and resurrection—almost every church does. And it’s the Big Story that we connect with. Other than the story of the Fall, Genesis is not typically the book many of us think about when we consider evangelism. For you, however, Genesis is obviously key. What is the message in Genesis that you want people to hear?

James: If we’re talking about stories, Genesis tells the larger story. It presents the very worldview for every Christian. It’s so foundational, and much more than just a textbook to understand the origin of the world. In the first twelve chapters, you’re dealing with themes like the creation of the universe, purpose of life, environment, gender, race, ethnicity, culture, sin, family, marriage, temptation, guilt, shame, oppression and violence—the reader gets to see how all of this stuff started. Genesis starts the Big Story. The first few chapters describe how God designed the world for good, but how it was damaged by evil. Genesis paints this better than any other passage in scripture. Then we go to the New Testament to catch a sense of God’s plan to restore the world for better, and how we are now called to be sent together to heal. Your book contains an illustration (based on four circles) that can be used in conversations with others [see the video presentation]. It’s quite different from the traditional “bridge diagram.” Why did you feel the need to create a new one? Why do you think diagrams are helpful?

James: If there are hundreds of books on evangelism, there have to be more on the kingdom of God. Jesus talked about that more than any other subject in the Gospels. And yet, when I shared my faith with my friends, I’d always go back to the bridge diagram. I baffled myself, but even with everything I was learning, I always defaulted back.

I think it’s because it serves as a modern-day icon. Icons that hung in older churches helped pre-literate Christians understand the gospel. Icons are memorable, so the images stick in our head. Likewise, the bridge diagram shows up in our heads, and shapes our conversation about the faith. So I don’t think diagrams are like magic wands that will help our friends start a relationship with Jesus; I think they can actually be clumsy and ineffective if used poorly. But diagrams remind us of what the gospel is. They stick in our minds, even if we don’t share the diagram itself with our friends. And I wanted to provide a simple alternative that would encompass the greater biblical story and give a fuller picture of the kingdom of God. If Christians have this diagram in their head as they share, they can communicate the plot lines for the “big story.” I felt that we needed a new diagram if we were ever going to help most Christians think of a bigger picture of the gospel. For today’s student generation, how important do you think issues of racism, ethnic conflict, poverty, the environment, and materialism are when it comes to their considering the gospel? How good a job would you say the church has done to address these issues?

James: Generation X, the previous student generation, craved community so badly that they made it an end in and of itself. If we were in an intimate community where people knew us—really knew us—then that was good enough. We didn’t have to do anything for the world, but we could enjoy our own tribe immensely.

The current student generation—the Millennials—however, are much more civic-minded. They want to volunteer and are concerned with the needs in the world. They’re optimistic too: they really think they can change the world. So these issues are their issues, and a gospel that doesn’t address the evils in our world today will feel shallow and irrelevant.

The Church is growing in its understanding of these things, but we’re just getting started. I’m excited about the Church’s growing concern for the environment, sex trafficking and the AIDS pandemic, and if we can continue to think and pray about the greatest social injustices and evils in our day and systemically address each one in Jesus’ name, there will be great hope for the world—for both Christians and our friends alike. You had a line in your book that really stuck with me: “Is there a possibility that we Christians aren’t living out our faith not despite—but precisely because of—what we’ve been taught?” That really shook me up! Can you elaborate on that a bit?

James: If Christians have been taught a gospel that is concerned only about the afterlife and the preparation of an individual’s soul to get there, then the entire practice of faith will surround this idea. They don’t have to care about the have-nots in the world. It almost gives them great license: you’re fully forgiven, so why not go ahead and enjoy the good life at the expense of others? You will still be welcomed into heaven with open arms. This kind of theology is really, really scary—not just for the world, but also for our souls.

But if our gospel is bigger, wider and more global—as big as the kingdom of God was meant to be—then that will at least give a different picture of what a Christian could be. Instead of just waiting for heaven from our pews, we really could be more transformational, missional and communal in our understanding of our faith, and thus seek to bless not just the people in the church, but also those beyond its walls.

More about James Choung’s book True Story can be found at the InterVarsity Press website. There is also a companion booklet called Based on a True Story. Be sure to visit James Choung’s website and blog for more.