Book Review: Marks of the Messenger

It’s been a pretty busy 2 weeks for me, so I haven’t been able to post with the normal regularity.  I did, however, want to post a brief review of a book I just finished up written by J. Mack Stiles entitled, Marks of the Messenger.  Most books on evangelism tend to either focus on the message or the methods that the evangelist must say or do.  These generally tend to reduce the Gospel message down to a tract-like message or emphasize pragmatic, results driven means of delivering that message, which Stiles says results in “an evangelism that is twisted and deformed.”  In his book, the focus rests squarely on the shoulders of the “messenger”.  Simply put, this is a much needed book.

The last 30-50 years have been highlighted in this country with a surge in emphasizing the Great Commission, particularly overseas.  While no doubt God has done many wondrous works in the sacrificial lives of missionaries in spreading the Gospel, there have also been many well-intentioned, though knowledge lacking, efforts that have presented an incomplete or incorrect Gospel.  In Romans 10:2, referring to his kinsmen of the flesh, Paul says they have “zeal for God, but not according to knowledge”.  This passage seems to best summarize many of the errant missionary efforts that have taken place.  I’ve often wrestled with the question myself, who should be a missionary?  Just anyone who “feels led”?  The young college student who barely has a grasp of the Gospel themselves?  Is anyone just to jump up one day and take off in any direction and wherever they end up is where God was “leading”?  These questions that I had are ones that get answered in this book.  In his first chapter, “Don’t Peddle the Gospel”, Stiles offers the following summary on this zealous approach by asking an important question, “So why have people jumped into action, in this case evangelistic action, before being people of faith?”  To which he offers, “Maybe it’s because they can.  We have not been watchful enough about the conditions of people’s hearts before we ask them to act, because with the right method or program, the condition of a person’s heart isn’t that important.  We have become pragmatists.”  Summarizing this “pragmatic evangelism” Stiles concludes that it counts, “converts, members, programs, but rarely counts faithfulness to the message or the faithfulness of the messenger.”

In his second chapter, “Students of the Message”, Stiles details the importance of Gospel study and understanding the message of evangelism.  This is where I think it’s important to make the distinction about who we send forth as missionaries and evangelists.  While it’s true, every Christian is to be a witness for Christ and share the Gospel, not everyone is adequately equipped with sufficient knowledge of the message they are charged with sharing and this is to their own detriment.  In this chapter we are encouraged to take the time to study and understand the Gospel message to avoid spreading a false Gospel. 

“Don’t assume the Gospel”.  That’s the subtitle to Chapter 3, “On your Guard” and it was probably one of the most helpful points for me in this book.  Stiles begins this chapter by recounting the story of Kevin Roose, a writer posing as a believer at Liberty University who participated in campus activities, Bible studies, prayer meetings, etc. all in research for his book detailing the lives of evangelicals.  In short, he played the part and talked the talk, but it was all an act in an effort to publish his book.  Roose’s story took a profound turn when he met an agnostic on campus and that student confessed that he was not a Christian and said that most people on campus just “assume you are Christian.”  To this Stiles says, assuming the Gospel is the first step in losing the Gospel and he outlines 4 helpful steps. 1) The Gospel is Accepted 2) The Gospel is Assumed 3) The Gospel is Confused 4) The Gospel is Lost.  Assuming is the first step in losing it.  Think about that.  Don’t assume because someone is sitting beside you in Church they are a Christian.  Don’t assume just because a person volunteers to run a Church program or is zealous about overseas missions that they are a believer.  Because if they aren’t, it leads to Gospel confusion, and the next step is the Gospel lost.  This is precisely what is happening overseas and is quite epidemic in our own country.  Depending on the poll you follow, upwards of 83% of Americans identify themselves as “Christian”.  83%!?!  If that were truly the case, wouldn’t we be the most God-fearing, God-honoring, God-loving country on the planet?  But this isn’t the case, as should be evident to anyone, America is on a moral decline.  Why?  Assuming the Gospel.  It’s assumed that 83% are Christians.  It’s assumed that the person next to you in Sunday service is truly a believer.  It’s time to stop assuming the Gospel and start proclaiming the Gospel.

J. Mack Stiles challenges his readers to walk the talk in chapter 4 and in chapter 5 he focuses on an oft-confused aspect of the Gospel, social change.  So many zealous evangelicals today confuse social change, social action, or social justice with the Gospel.  He rightly asserts the following, “For years Christians have separated social action and the gospel message.  Yet to separate the gospel message and social action is to assume that the gospel doesn’t produce social change.  But the gospel brings social change in and of itself.” (emphasis his)  This is where it seems so many “social justice Christians” go awry.  While it’s wrong to leave off the social aspect of Christianity, i.e. helping the poor, needy, orphans, and elderly, it’s equally wrong (arguably even more so!) to leave off the Gospel from social action.  Preaching the Gospel will bring about social change, but preaching social change is Gospel-less and therefore powerless.

In chapter 6 of this book, the author takes time to explain the nature of conversion and its impact in the life of the believer.  In other words, a change will be necessarily brought about by the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer and good spiritual fruit will be the evidence.  While not only describing conversion as a work of God in the hearts of hearers of the Gospel, Stiles points out those man-made methods which are so commonly used to “generate conversion”, apart from God’s work.  Chapter 7 is an important chapter for any faithful witness of the Gospel, namely the required boldness it takes.  J. Mack Stiles offers biblical encouragement for believers to share their faith, centered around Proverbs 29:25 “The fear of man lays a snare, but whoever trusts in the LORD is safe.”

In chapter 8, subtitled “Mistaking the World’s love for God’s Love”, Mr. Stiles offers a helpful discussion on God’s love.  Much like what we discussed here in Lady Gaga, Rob Bell, and Misunderstanding the Love of God, this chapter highlights the confusion that so many have concerning God’s love and offers the following helpful warning, “If we only speak of God’s love while forsaking God’s other attributes (such as holiness, righteousness, and justice), we are tailoring God to a popular image, an idol really, and not the God of the Bible.”

In bringing his book to a close, chapter 9 highlights the importance of the Church and the love that Christians are to show to one another.  Interestingly, this chapter included a list of “16 ways to demonstrate love and unity in the Church and in doing so become a healthy evangelist”.  Highlights from this list include the practice of church discipline, discipleship, respect and reverence for the church, prayer, and reading helpful books such as C.J. Mahaney’s Humility (which I have not read, so cannot recommend) and Mark Dever’s  9 Marks of a Healthy Church (which I plan to read and review here).  Stiles concludes his book with a few actions steps for being a healthy evangelist: 1. Body check, i.e. is anything holding you back, 2. Prayer for those who don’t know Christ 3. Plan, i.e. think through where you’ll be what your doing for witnessing opportunities 4. Think through issues 5. Prepare or practice the Gospel in a minute (God, Man, Christ, Response) 6. Get started 7. Gather, i.e. events, Bible study, prayer groups, etc. 8. Serve 9. Speak of Jesus 10. Pursue 11. Invite.

Marks of the Messenger is a short, well-written, and easy to understand book.  Yet it is profound and timely for a generation of Gospel assumers and Gospel confusers.  This is one of those books that should be required reading for all those in ministry, whether it be the Sunday School teacher, the open-air preacher, or the country church pastor.  You can purchase this book by following the Amazon link below or by using the Recommended Reading tab above.

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