Discerning Reader Editorial Review
Reviewed 10/07/2009 by Trevin Wax.
Recommended. A classic and helpful (if imperfect) guide to biblical evangelism.
Paul E. Little’s book How to Give Away Your Faith was first published in 1966, a few years before the popular evangelist was killed in a tragic car accident. Since his untimely death, his wife Marie has overseen two revisions of Little’s book (1988, 2008). It is sometimes described as “the classic guide to evangelism,” perhaps because of the way in which the book addresses practical issues surrounding personal evangelism.
Little begins his book by challenging his readers to take a good look at the world in which we live. One may wonder why a book on evangelism begins with a brief analysis of Western culture. Little gives the answer to that question by insisting that Christians should know both their Bibles and the people around them (24). We should be attentive not only to the big-picture problems in our world, but also to the issues being faced by the person next door.
Little believes there are two essential ingredients for faith: initial commitment (conversion) and love and obedience to Jesus (33-4). Obedience is a sign that we have true faith in Jesus Christ, and this obedience includes our evangelistic efforts.
In the second chapter, Little describes the effective ambassador of Jesus Christ. He dispels some of the myths surrounding evangelism, including the attempts of some to express an artificial enthusiasm or the doubts of others as to whether or not they can engage in evangelism if they have moral imperfections (42-49).
Little challenges us to use our personalities and talents in order to be “diplomats,” and this diplomatic role implies that we must have non-Christian friends. “If we are serious about representing Christ, we need to think through how we can be the best friends possible to non-Christians,” he writes (49).
Little offers us a number of suggestions in how to cultivate these friendships:
• sharing mealtimes,
• participating in new activities,
• and getting to know the people in our neighborhoods (49-52).
Next, Little shows us how to go about witnessing by pointing to Jesus as our primary example. He analyzes Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4, and puts forth some basic, practical principles for evangelism.
These… are our eight principles: meet and know non-Christians personally; establish a mutual interest in conversation; arouse a person’s interest by life and word; gear explanations to people’s receptiveness and readiness for more; accept and even compliment rather than condemn; stay on the track; and persevere to the destination (75).
How to Give Away Your Faith is filled with the practical insight from an experienced personal evangelist. One chapter seeks to help Christians overcome some of the social barriers that sometimes put them in awkward positions.
• How should Christians respond to those who use profanity?
• How can Christians give thanks before meals when sharing them with non-Christians?
According to Little, the “guideline for a right attitude in hurdling social barriers should be the ambassador’s goal: to get close enough to gain a hearing for the message of reconciliation through Jesus Christ.” (80) Little shows how this single-mindedness can help us overcome some of the more difficult social situations.
The central section of How to Give Away Your Faith focuses primarily upon the message that Christians are to proclaim as well as the reasons why Christians believe that message to be objectively true. Little writes:
Ambassadors communicate a message. Many Christians are ineffective ambassadors because they’re not sure of the content of their message and are unable to communicate it clearly to others (92).
In defining the gospel, Little turns the spotlight onto Jesus:
The gospel… is Jesus Christ himself – who he is, what he has done, and how he can be known in personal experience (94).
From there, he sketches some of the basic facts that give a framework for our thinking. These facts include the identity of Jesus Christ, his diagnosis of human nature, the fact and meaning of his crucifixion and resurrection, and how one becomes a Christian (95-101). These basic facts can be incorporated into a variety of gospel presentations.
The rest of the book focuses on training in apologetics, the relevance of Jesus Christ for a number of societal issues, the effect of worldliness upon evangelism, and how Christians can continually cultivate a passion for personal evangelism.
Little recognizes that evangelism is connected to other vital aspects of the Christian faith, including discipleship and personal holiness. Therefore, he deals with these other subjects, since they affect evangelistic practice.
There is much to appreciate in Little’s book. Readers will sense Little’s experience in personal evangelism. The strength of this manual lies in the practical nature of Little’s insights. His directions are borne out of experience and passion, not merely theory and academics.
It is encouraging to see that Little makes room for tough questions regarding the Christian faith. One of the reasons some people give for their lack of evangelism is that they feel ill-equipped to answer tough questions.
Little offers some preliminary answers to hard questions about Christianity. These answers point us in the right direction and whet readers’ appetites for going deeper into understanding why we believe what we believe. Likewise, Little’s emphasis on apologetics keeps him from basing reasons for belief solely in the experience of believers. He clearly believes that Christians will have a conversion experience that results in a personal relationship with Jesus as Lord. But he does not allow this experience to overshadow the objective truths of Christianity. He wisely avoids making his case for Christianity’s truthfulness by appealing to subjective religious experience, a mistake made by many today.
Also helpful is the way that Little delineates the biblical truths about Jesus and thus holds the spotlight on Jesus, not the personal testimony of the evangelist.
How to Give Away Your Faith is a helpful volume in many ways. Still, there are a couple of sections that could be strengthened.
First, it was good to see Little emphasizing the importance of Christ’s resurrection. (Some evangelistic strategies focus on the cross to the exclusion of the empty tomb.) Unfortunately, his unpacking of the resurrection’s meaning is somewhat reductionistic. According to Little, Christ’s resurrection proves his divinity, and it means we can have a personal relationship with Jesus today (98).
Both of these statements about the resurrection are true. But the Gospels and the preaching of the apostle Paul lead us to a richer understanding of the resurrection, one that goes beyond mere apologetic proofs for the deity of Christ and leads us to the biblical teaching of God’s kingdom community.
Resurrection morning is the start of God’s new creation – the kingdom of God being inaugurated now, even as it has not yet come in its fullness. The disciples experience the power of Christ’s resurrection, not merely so that their relationship with the living Savior can continue, but also that they may form the people of God, the new humanity, a beloved community of faith that has been “reborn” and now serves as the sign of the wondrous future that God has in store for the whole cosmos.
The reductionist understanding of the resurrection creates the next problem for Little’s proposal: the local church is mentioned merely as “follow up” (104-8). Thus, the creation of the community of resurrection faith is not seen as central to the gospel presentation itself.
To his credit, Little emphasizes the need for local church participation. Yet, he clearly views the church as a little more than a place for fellowship with like-minded believers. There is little sense in this book that the creation of the ekklesia was one of the primary intentions of the atonement.
How to Give Away Your Faith shines light on both the strength and weakness of the evangelical approach to personal evangelism. Its strength lies in its emphasis on personal salvation and individual conversion. Its weakness lies in its relegation of the doctrine of the church to “follow up,” an evangelical tendency which generates the unfortunate situation in which people make decisions for Christ but fail to see the importance (indeed necessity) of being incorporated into a local manifestation of Christ’s body. The church is seen as an afterthought, something to follow up with after individual salvation has taken place instead of being seen as the central platform for God’s grace to flow out to the wider world.
How to Give Away Your Faith is one of the better books on evangelism that I have come across. Filled with practical insights and spiritual fervor, Paul Little’s book continues to resonate with audiences today. Despite a couple of flaws indicative of the atmosphere of evangelicalism in Little’s day, the book contains engaging examples and motivational insights into the nature of the Great Commission and our responsibility to fulfill it.