Book Review – Dickson, J., The Best Kept Secret of Christian Mission

104 Book Dickson Promoting the GospelJohn calls it Christian mission. I prefer to describe what he speaks about in this book as evangelism. This is my favourite book on evangelism.

John Dickson is the author and he is one contemporary scholar who is willing to stand up for his faith in the gospel and boldly proclaim it. He has a very good understanding of the gospel and knows how to apply it for people’s salvation.

  • Link: Amazon
  • Length: 240
  • Difficulty: Easy-Popular
  • Topic: Evangelism, Mission, Gospel
  • Audience: Mainstream Christians
  • Published: 2011

In this book he gives a great many valuable tips in how to go about evangelism individually and corporately.

In his own words;

“A central aim of this book, then, is to show just how all encompassing is the Bible’s call to be involved in God’s mission. I hope and pray that what follows will inspire you to see everything you do in life as a tool in God’s hands for the benefit of those who don’t yet know Christ.” (Loc 258 of 3524)

I highly recommend this book to get a better understanding of what the gospel is and how to apply it so that not yet Christians can be saved.

This post is one of my book reviews.

Contents – Overview

Main points

There is so much to say about the book. But I cannot say it all. What I will do is give one, sometimes two memorable quotes from each chapter to give you an insight about what he discusses.

Introduction Confessions of an Evangelist

At the start of the book John shares when he first became a believe he was on fire for Christ. He very easily shared his faith with unbelievers. Sadly this all changed when he was taught how evangelise people.

“Suddenly, my joy and ability at passing on the faith evaporated. I had previously delighted in sharing Christ with others, but now it seemed a burden: a burden on my emotions as I felt the weight of the moment I had been trained for, on my memory as I tried to recall all of the points of the gospel and, perhaps most of all, on my poor unsuspecting evangelistic “targets”.

This enthusiastic, natural promoter of Christ had been transformed into a nervous and unnerving “Bible-thumper”.

I do not blame the course itself. Many Christians around the world have been helped by this and other programs. I still see a place for evangelistic and apologetic training. But I suspect the way the course was run in my church, combined with my overeager personality, left me with several unhealthy perspectives on what it means to promote Christ to others. I have since discovered just how common these perspectives are in modern church circles.” (Loc 154 of 3524)

He lists and explains some of the unhelpful outcomes he picked up as a result of learning to share the gospel in this particular way.

  • The Curse of Self-Consciousness
  • The Gospel “Download”
  • Reducing the Gospel
  • Underestimating the Mission

Chapter 1 The One and the Many

In the first chapter John gives his primary reason why people should be involved in Christian mission and evangelism.

“Here we arrive at the fundamental equation of mission, the driving force behind all our efforts to bring the news of the one true Lord to our friends and neighbours: If there is one Lord to whom all people belong and owe their allegiance, the people of that Lord must promote this reality everywhere. Monotheism and mission are intimately related. The existence of just one God makes our mission to the many essential.” (Loc 375 of 3524)

To proclaim the one true Lord to our friends and neighbours.

Chapter 2 The Many and the One

John is very well aware we live in a pluralistic culture. Many gods and faiths are proclaimed. In this so called age of ‘tolerance’, many are encouraged to think all religions are pretty much the same and lead to God.

“Popular pluralism is the pluralism you meet in the café, the workplace and sometimes even over morning tea after church. It basically states that all religions teach essentially the same thing. Sure, they differ on what name to give God (Yahweh, Allah) or how to approach him in prayer, but basically they agree on the big issues—God’s existence, the afterlife, the need for human kindness and so on.

The basic problem with popular pluralism is that in trying to affirm all religions, it pays close attention to none of them.

For the most part, the great religious traditions of the world make claims that are entirely at odds with each other. Superficially, they agree—most of them, for instance, say prayers—but at the more basic level they tend to refute each other.” (Loc 495 of 3524)

Chapter 3 Following the “Friend of Sinners”

John then turns to Jesus. John knows the meaning of key terms in the bible and applies them appropriately.

“One of the most striking aspects of Jesus’ ministry in its first-century Palestinian setting was his regular socialising with people classed “sinners”.“Sinners” were those in Jewish society who lived outside the laws of the Old Testament as interpreted by the rabbis. They were not all prostitutes and thieves—that would be a caricature. They could just as easily be wealthy businessmen who neglected going to synagogue and/or did business with the occupying Romans (tax collectors, for instance). They were, if you like, the “unreligious” in a strictly religious society. Social interaction with sinners (and with Gentiles) was religiously prohibited in Jesus’ day.” (Loc 630 of 3524)

Soon afterward he looks deeper at Jesus’ motives behind his action. He considers what Jesus intended to communicate by associating with sinners. What he intended to communicate to the wider public.

“Jesus’ mission is stated perfectly here: “to seek and to save what was lost”.

Through his preaching Jesus declared that salvation,

through his death and resurrection (just one week later) he would accomplish that salvation, and

through the generosity of his social life he embodied that salvation.

Jesus’ friendship with sinners gave people a tangible sign of the welcoming grace of God. His questionable dining habits were not merely an attempt to buck the system of his day; they were an illustration of the fellowship with sinners God so keenly desires. To preempt where I am heading, this is the mission to which we are called. Our entire life, including our social life, should demonstrate the Lord’s desire to have fellowship with sinners.” (Loc 662 of 3524)

Amen. Question is, does our social life demonstrate the same? What steps do we need to take?

Chapter 4 The Hidden Mission

What is the most important thing you can do when involved in evangelism and why?

“I asked Glenda what she put her “success” down to. Without blinking she answered, “Prayer. We prayed earnestly, regularly and specifically for your school, and the Lord in his grace answered us.” As an evangelist who is sometimes tempted to think too highly of skill, style and creativity in evangelism, her words were (and are) a salient reminder that the “harvest” is the Lord’s, not mine.

The most basic gospel-promoting task, therefore, is not evangelism; it is prayer to the Lord of the harvest.” (Loc 835 of 3524)

We pray because we depend on God to reveal himself to those we speak to. If God is not working in people’s hearts and minds nothing will happen.

Chapter 5 Partners for Life

Partnership in the gospel.

“WE HAD JUST FINISHED a month of singing and speaking throughout Darwin and around the Northern Territory of Australia. The band I used to sing for—called In the Silence—had enjoyed wonderful opportunities to tell the gospel in song and word in high schools, detention centres, aboriginal stations and the one and only Mindil Beach Market (you have to have been there to appreciate that opportunity). Now we were racing in convoy down the Stuart Highway for similar gospel opportunities a few days later in Melbourne over 3000 km away. About 100 km from Coober Pedy, two-thirds of the way to our destination, our four ton truck, packed with PA system, lights and our instruments, blew its engine—totally blew its engine. The truck had to be hauled to Adelaide 800 km away.

We had no money.

The ten of us (band, crew and spouses) were already struggling from month to month, living partly off random gifts, partly off what churches could afford to pay us for the week-long missions we conducted and partly off album sales.

We would have needed an instant No.1 hit to pay for this little disaster.” (Loc 1067 of 3524)

In this chapter John describes the one off gift that turned this little disaster around and enabled them to go on preaching the gospel to many in Northern Territory Australia. Financial giving supports gospel ministry.

Chapter 6 Being the Light of the World

In this chapter John speaks about the value of good works in evangelism.

“Whether Philo’s version of events-which obviously does not appear in Genesis 39-was a pious tradition of his time or his own invention, the point is that this influential Jewish figure believed that the godly life could convert pagans to the true worship of God. Philo appears to be using this story to encourage his first-century Jewish readership-who, like Joseph, were living in Egypt (Alexandria)-to follow the patriarch’s good example.

Biblical scholar Scott McKnight, who is generally reluctant to affirm any ancient Jewish interest in mission, nevertheless agrees that the good deeds of Jews in this period had a powerful effect on those around them:“This form of converting Gentiles,” he says, “is a consistent feature of the evidence and probably formed the very backbone for the majority of conversions to Judaism.” (Loc 1292 of 3524)

Scot McKnight and John Dickson share the same understanding of the gospel. I was encouraged to see John quote Scot in this book.

Good works must be done for their own sake, in obedience to the Lord.

God’s grace proclaimed in the gospel finds its essential outcome in the godly life of those who believe the gospel. Nevertheless, it is precisely because good deeds are an essential fruit of the gospel that they so powerfully promote the gospel.” (Loc 1370 of 3524)

We need more people encouraging Christians to do good works. They have great value and future reward.

Chapter 7 Being Beautiful

John continues with a similar theme. Here he looks at Christian character and behaviour playing a significant role in people’s conversion.

Humanly speaking, hearing the gospel is the necessary and sufficient cause of faith in Christ.

It is necessary inasmuch as people cannot put their faith in Jesus without first learning the gospel about him. It is sufficient in that the gospel can bring people to faith all on its own—it needs no other factor (other than the work of the Holy Spirit).

However, none of this means that hearing the gospel is the only cause of faith, or even that it is always the primary cause of faith.

Other factors (on the human side of the equation) will frequently play a minor or major role in winning people over to the One revealed in the gospel.” (Loc 1425 of 3524)

I still remember this quote and it is how I now read 1 Peter 3.

Chapter 8 What Is the Gospel?

John leaves it to chapter 8 before he goes into detail answering the controversial question – ‘what is the gospel?’ He will quote from the usual passages and this is one of his summary quotes.

“The gospel message is not a set of theological ideas that can be detached from the events that gave these ideas definitive expression. Nor is the gospel a simple narrative devoid of theological content.

One without the other is not the gospel. To recount Jesus’ words and deeds without explaining their significance for our salvation is not what the Bible means by “telling the gospel”.

Then again, to explain the doctrines of salvation without recounting the broad events of Jesus’ life as contained in the Gospels is not telling the gospel either.

The gospel message is the grand news about how God’s coming kingdom has been glimpsed and opened up to a sinful world in the birth, teaching, miracles, death, and resurrection of God’s Son, the Messiah, who will one day return to overthrow evil and consummate the kingdom for eternity. This is the content of the Gospels; this is the content of the gospel message.” (Loc 1861 of 3524)

Personally I believe the gospel is the story of Jesus. The narrative of his birth, life, ministry, death, resurrection, appearances and coming return to judge. I don’t believe it is necessary to communicate the saving significance of these events for it to be the gospel as John says here. I’m more flexible, I believe the story can be applied many ways, including describing the significance of these events for salvation, but not limited to.

That being said, I love his definition because he insists both story and salvation are important for communicating the gospel. He argues for a wonderful midpoint between people like Scot McKnight and Tom Wright with the typical soterian (salvation) gospel proclaimed in most reformed / protestant churches today (e.g. Piper, Keller and Carson).

John’s midpoint would allow people like myself and the reformed types to work together in Christian ministry.

Chapter 9 The Few and the Many

11 And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, 12 to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ (Eph 4.11-12)

In this chapter John goes into some detail distinguishing evangelists from Christians with other gifts

“God’s Word does not teach that every Christian is an evangelist. Yes, we must all be open about Christ, answering for our faith whenever opportunity invites-and let me personally urge readers to take whatever opportunities the Lord provides.

But this is not what Chester and these lads were (and are) doing on a near daily basis. Some of God’s people go beyond the passing, conversational “bites” about the gospel hopefully common to us all. They pursue a focused ministry of outlining the whole gospel to others.

They are the evangelists.” (Loc 2105 of 3524)

He then gives some helpful points helping us to identify those with this particular passion and gift.

“Let me offer four tips for picking the evangelist. Two are simple guesses; the others are grounded in the Bible itself.

First, I assume that evangelists will be marked by a keen desire to tell the gospel to others. …

Second, I assume that most evangelists will relate well to those who do not yet believe. ….

Third, and importantly, an evangelist will be a mature Christian. …

Finally, and perhaps most obviously, an evangelist will be clear with the gospel.“ (Loc 2233 of 3524)

  • Are you an evangelist? Use your gift.
  • Do you know one? Pray for them.
  • Do you want to be one? Lust after the gift.

Chapter 10 Heralds Together

How can groups of people proclaim the gospel together? In this chapter John gives us one idea how.

“In light of Psalm 96, 1 Peter 2:9 and 1 Corinthians 14:23-26, we have to conclude that what happens in church can, by its very nature, be a powerful promotion of the gospel. Our songs, our creeds, our prayers, our sermons, our testimonies and perhaps even the “weekly notices”are all announcements of the wonders of God. As such, they not only inspire the regulars; they can also help visitors realise what believing in Christ is all about.” (Loc 2538 of 3524)

It’s been a long long time since I’ve had church outside where everyday people can see.

Chapter 11 The Apt Reply

What are some of the tricky questions and challenges you have been approached with?

“Today, a great range of criticisms of Christian faith and practice will require an apologia. Biblical views on sexuality are frequently criticised in the media and queried by our friends. The conduct and statements of church leaders (past and present) are occasionally scrutinised and judged hypocritical. Faith in God is sometimes characterised as mindless in an age of science or groundless in view of the world’s suffering.

Are we willing to stand up for the faith in such settings?

Peter says, “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone.” It is in this context that I think we should all consider putting ourselves through some kind of apologetic/evangelistic training-something that helps us bring the gospel to bear on people’s modern questions.” (Loc 2679 of 3524)

John acknowledges it is easy to be quiet in public and not let people know of our faith. In this chapter he gives some helpful tips for sharing Christ, without having to give the person a brain dump of everything we think they should know in one hit.

“But such intentional quietness is unnatural and forced, and it requires serious reconsideration. While I would not advocate strategically forcing God-words back into daily conversation, I would propose that we decide to allow our faith to rise back to the surface where it belongs. We should let what is real within us find verbal expression without, regardless of who is listening. In this context, I have always been struck by what an Australian colleague of mine, Stephen Abbott, author of ‘Everyday Evangelism’, calls “God-talk”.

God-talk is brief, casual, passing references to the faith in everyday conversation.

It is not necessarily designed to initiate conversations about Christianity; it is simply part of being a relaxed and natural Christian. It is a refusal to participate in the corporate inferiority complex that plagues many in our churches.” (Loc 2726 of 3524)

‘God-talk’. Have you described some aspect of your faith with a not yet Christian recently?

Chapter 12 A Year in the Life of the Gospel

In this last chapter John puts it all together into one worked example to help us see what evangelism can look like.

“I WANT TO FINISH by telling you a story. Unlike the numerous anecdotes scattered throughout the book so far, what follows is fictional in the details. It is an amalgam of a hundred different stories of faith I have heard over the years, crafted to illustrate the major themes of The Best Kept Secret of Christian Mission. As you read, I ask you to look out for examples of all of the gospel promoting activities discussed throughout the book: flexible social relationships, financial support of the gospel, prayer, good works, the praise of God in church, answering for the faith and, of course, the work of evangelists.” (Loc 2847 of 3524)

The example helps us see a larger perspective and where we can fit in.

Appendix 1 Gospel Bites

This is a very helpful appendix. In it he applies his understanding of the gospel as the narrative of Jesus to the task of evangelism. He calls it ‘Gospel Bites’ because he rightly does not see the need to communicate the whole story in one hit. Rather he draws upon one aspect of the gospel story to point people to Jesus, bit by bit.

“IN WHAT FOLLOWS I want to illustrate how understanding the gospel as presented in chapter 8 might affect the way we talk about the faith with those who don’t believe. If the gospel basically corresponds to the account of Jesus’ life found in the Gospels, it follows that talking about the narrative of Christ will be a natural way of communicating our beliefs to friends and family. I want to suggest that the sayings and deeds of Jesus, recorded in the Gospels, offer a rich source of answers for many of the most common questions put to us by people who don’t share our faith. Briefly recounting something relevant Jesus said or did can provide our questioners not only with a satisfying answer, but also with an important glimpse into the substance of our faith, Jesus himself. The fact that Jesus is still highly regarded in wider society means that such “gospel bites”, as you might call them, are particularly helpful in our current context.” (Loc 3034 of 3524)

He gives some examples of how to use the gospel to answer various questions and how to speak about common issues in life.

  • A Question about Sin and Forgiveness
  • A Criticism of Self-Righteousness
  • A Comment about Being the “Religious Type”
  • The Claim of “Being Good”
  • The Issue of Pluralism
  • The Problem of Pain and Suffering

Appendix 2 A Modern Retelling of the Gospel

The second appendix gives a much broader understanding and telling of the gospel.

“WHAT FOLLOWS IS AN ATTEMPT to outline the gospel more fully. I have written this appendix as if speaking to an unbeliever. I don’t expect anyone to use these words in their own gospel conversations or even to follow the logical steps I take below. I am simply illustrating what it might look like in a modern context to explain what the New Testament calls “the gospel”: the news about how God has opened his kingdom to sinners through the life, teaching, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.” (Loc 3150 of 3524)

He structures his message with these main points.

  • God of Common Sense
  • Whose God?
  • Healer
  • Teacher
  • Judge
  • Saviour
  • LORD
  • Epilogue: Portrait of a Christian

Notice how many points he devotes to talking about Jesus?


Virtually every chapter begins with an engaging story related to the point of the chapter. The book is really easy and enjoyable to read.

The book is full of scripture. He gives numerous support for the majority of what he says from the bible. I suspect the chapters could easily be turned into bible studies.

John Dickson is a historian. He uses his knowledge of first century Judaism to show the similarities between early Jewish and Christian methods of declaring the one true God. He is also switched on to the culture around him. His pointers help us engage with the twenty first century, our people in our time.

I heartily recommend this book to any and every Christian. In particular Christian leaders who want to encourage those under them to share the gospel and be involved in evangelism.

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