ecently, in celebration of its fiftieth anniversary, Christianity Today drew up a list of the fifty books that have exercised the greatest influence on evangelicalism in the last fifty years. The magazine went through a similar exercise ten years ago, when the editors concluded that “one author’s books indisputably affected American evangelicals during this period more than…those of any of the other authors mentioned.” “I mean,” wrote the author, “of course, C.S. Lewis.” Of course. Who else?
Not that the impact of Lewis has been limited to evangelicalism. C.S. Lewis holds sway among mere Christians everywhere. At the same time Christianity Today was celebrating its birthday, another publication was rightly advertising Lewis as “an ally we all trust,” Protestants, Catholics, and Orthodox alike.
The marriage of British erudition to American consumerism has produced a marketing sensation. As one writer whimsically observed in The Virginia Quarterly Review,
…[T]he Lewis devotee (and there are many, judging from the sales figures) could, upon rising, don his C.S. Lewis sweatshirt, ascertain the date from his C.S. Lewis calendar, make coffee wearing his C.S. Lewis apron and drink it from his C.S. Lewis mug, offer devotion to his Maker in the words of C.S. Lewis, and meditate on what C.S. Lewis had done on that date, before setting off to work or school with his C.S. Lewis tote bag filled with C.S. Lewis books.
Just how influential has C.S. Lewis been? One way to answer that question would be to quantify the sale of his books. The numbers are impressive. As many as one hundred Lewis-related titles are in print at any given time. Roughly two million copies of his works are sold every year in the United States and the United Kingdom. According to one estimate, Lewis is the best-selling Christian author of all time, with some forty million copies in print altogether. He may also be the most frequently quoted Christian author of all time.
The trouble with statistics is that, although they can lie, they cannot tell stories. The important thing about C.S. Lewis is not how many people have read him, but the extent to which reading him has become a life-transforming experience. Popularity is not the same thing as influence; C.S. Lewis has had both.
C.S. Lewis is usually considered to have had a substantial influence on atheists, agnostics, and other unbelievers. In the first critical study of his thought, Chad Walsh identified him as the Apostle to the Skeptics. One often sees references to the “numerous” or even “countless” people whom C.S. Lewis has brought to faith in Jesus Christ. To cite just one example, the evangelist Stephen F. Olford speaks of knowing “not just scores, but hundreds of intellectual people…[who] have come to Christ subsequent to reading [Mere Christianity].”
Although the influence of C.S. Lewis is widely assumed, it has never been adequately documented. My purpose in this article is to describe the effectiveness of his work as an evangelist. Some questions one might like to answer—such as “How many souls did Lewis help to save?”—are necessarily unanswerable. But among the questions that can be answered there are one or two surprises. For one thing, C.S. Lewis was not very aggressive at personal evangelism. For another, he seems to have been more gifted at internal evangelism (within the church) than at external evangelism (outside the church). In other words, he has been more successful at keeping people in the kingdom than ushering them in to begin with. Yet there are some valuable lessons to be learned from the evangelism of C.S. Lewis. His life is a portrait of the winsome evangelist: gifted in teaching, persuasive in writing, fervent in prayer, and thorough in discipling.
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