The context and content of evangelism

I recently wrote a review for the Gospel Coalition website of Randy Newman’s forthcoming book, Bringing the Gospel Home: Witnessing to Family Members, Close Friends, and Others Who Know You Well, Crossway, April 2011. I’m going to post two or three extracts that particularly caught my eye. Here’s the first:

A few years ago, The Washington Post conducted a social experiment in what they called “context, perception, and priorities.” They arranged for Joshua Bell, one of the finest violinists of all time, to play classical masterpieces at a Washington subway stop during rush hour. They wanted to see if anyone would recognize the world-famous virtuoso and stop and listen. They caught the entire episode on video.

For close to an hour, Bell performed great works of the violin repertoire—Bach’s “Chaconne” from Partita No. 2, Schubert’s “Ave Maria,” Ponce’s “Estrellita,” and more—on a violin handcrafted by Antonio Stradivari, valued at over 3.5 million dollars. More than a thousand people walked by without even glancing in his direction. A few paused for a moment, and several people tossed loose change into his open violin case. (He collected a total of $32.17. Yes, some people gave him pennies!) Only one person recognized the star who, just a few nights later, would accept the Avery Fisher Prize for being the best classical musician in America.

The Post writer and his colleagues had to admit their hypothesis was wrong. They had anticipated that, despite the stress of rush hour and the noise of the trains, beauty would transcend.

You can imagine how people interpreted this experiment. “We’re too busy today.” “We don’t take time for beauty.” “We have become musically illiterate.” “We need more funding for the arts.”

But Gene Weingarten, the Post writer covering the story, had a different take. He saw the problem as one of context. People expect a virtuoso when they pay large amounts of money to sit in beautiful concert halls where the lights are dimmed and the background noises are deliberately eliminated.

But in a subway, at rush hour, with irreducible noise, you don’t expect Joshua Bell. You might not even want him! Weingarten concluded, “He was, in short, art without a frame.” It was the context that shaped “what happened—or, more precisely, what didn’t happen …”

In a similar way, we sometimes present our gospel-masterpiece in a context that belies our message. We speak of measureless love, unmerited grace, and infinite goodness but our tone of voice, demeanour, and lifestyles convey the exact opposite. We want people to quiet their hearts so they can hear the music of the gospel, but we’re performing in a context of judgmentalism. We want them to feel loved by God, but they feel unloved by us. We want them to be amazed by grace, but they can’t get past the smell of condemnation.

Perhaps we need to work on the context as well as the content of our evangelism. (128-129)

Bringing the Gospel Home can be pre-ordered here from and


6 thoughts on “The context and content of evangelism

  1. Pingback: The Context of Evangelism | Church Sports Outreach | Sports Ministry | Recreation Ministry

  2. Hi Tim,

    Very helpful. Love the example.

    And on that point…..isn’t it often the case that those who are so strong on the doctrines of grace seem to become ‘doctrine police’ and judgemental of those don’t believe what they believe. It kind of discredits the doctrines they so proudly and proficiently profess (did you like my 3 P’s?). Surely grace should make us gracious!? Surely our acceptance of our helpless waywardness, except for the mercy of God, should make us accepting of those who we think are ‘wayward’?


  3. Pingback: we need to work on the context as well as the content of our evangelism « standing and waiting

  4. No disagreements here – very helpful picture. Just wondering about the danger of overemphasising this idea when we transfer it into our methodology at the expense of the even more fundamental “many are called, few are chosen” principle…? In other words, helpful context or not, we must never lose sight of the fact that God has people in ‘any’ context whom he has ordained for salvation and ‘will’ use our evangelism, however awkward, to call them in an effectual manner. Of course none of this is an excuse for being sloppy and ignoring key considerations like context or working hard at bringing out the beauty of Christ in the gospel in a meaningful way but perhaps a caveat would be in order?

  5. Sorry – just realised “Tim C” is probably a misleading name to comment with on this particular blog! ;-)

    P.S. Really enjoyed “Total Church” and gave a glowing review of it in my church planting class last week here at WTS :-)

  6. Great post Tim, Lots to think about. I wonder if another implication here is that, just as the violinist maybe needs to change his approach if he wants to bless people in the subway, so too us Christians can do wiv being better equipped to share the gospel in the street. I’m thinking of a 2 pronged approach. The first prong is a loving Christian community that shares the gospel message with people in the context of being a loving Christian community. The second prong is Christians who are able to share the gospel wiv people on the street with the hustle and bustle going on around them, seeing their heart issues and pointing them to Christ.

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