Evangelism has become more and more challenging as our culture has become less and less moored to its Christian heritage. The old ways of thinking, and the old ways of doing “outreach” and “evangelism” do not connect with most people today (and even less so here in New England). Here is the material that the men discussed in our first session at the men’s retreat. It is an effort to help us understand how to think and approach evangelism among people who do not know truth, and who no longer think of the church as a place that provides a “positive influence” in their life.
What Do You Think of When You Hear “Evangelism”
We got a flavor for what you think at the last family meeting. When we asked for feedback on what we might pursue in the future, most of the suggestions were either programs to be administered impersonally, from a distance (like Operation Christmas Child, public service events, etc.), or things that might better be classified as advertising (e.g. Home Show, Cornish Fair, Radio spots, etc.). While all those are good, and we will likely pursue some of them, these are somewhat impersonal and occasional events. Moreover, they involve engaging strangers (if they involve engaging people at all).
Ron Bennett of Navigators probably assesses the mindset of the church in general (from chapter 19 of “Telling the Truth,” edited by D. A. Caron, p. 270-271).
Ask people what they associate with the word evangelism or evangelist and you get answers such as “pushy,” “used-car salesman,” “televangelis,” “door-to-door salesperson,” “Crusades,” and so forth…
…The church that takes evangelism seriously usually schedules some event that will bring in a well-known speaker who proclaims the gospel as a church men’s breakfast or women’s luncheon or couple’s potluck. Only a few members actually invite their neighbors (most don’t know their neighbors), so the audience is made up of regular church attendees with a few relatives who are in town for the weekend. Those who come enjoy seeing their church friends again for the third time that week…
…Frequently when I ask church leaders about their plan for evangelism, I am told of their strategy of hiring a pastor of evangelism. One senior pastor said, “Our evangelism will take off when we can afford to hire someone gifted in evangelism who will set the pace for the rest of us.” This is code for, “I hope to get this monkey off my back and get back to the teaching that I love.”
Gifted in evangelism! I have met some who may be so gifted, but not many. Most evangelism seminars that I have attended were taught by those gifted in evangelism. I have gone away feeling inadequate, guilty, and frustrated. I try for a few days to act like them, but eventually I return to the real me and the seminar notes return to the shelf.
In workshops I have given on the subject, I frequently ask for a show of hands of those who think they are gifted in evangelism. In one seminar, seven out of the seventy said they were. Out of those seven, four had not shared their faith with anyone in the past two years. Of the remaining three, two had shared their faith only once. The response is never higher than 10 percent, and that from a crowd that is interested in the subject. Actually, I find that most people don’t want to be gifted in evangelism. Moreover, most people don’t even want to sit next to people who are gifted in evangelism! Regardless of the percentage of gifted evangelists in any church, there are not enough to build a strategy around. They are an inadequate model. We need models that connect with the other 90 percent of the body if we are to impact our world for Christ.
I appreciate his brutally honest assessment of how many Christians think. He begins by noting that for many Christians (and non-Christians) evangelism is a scary word, packed with misconceptions and historical baggage. Door-to-door, crusades, street evangelism, revival/tent meetings, fire and brimstone – these are all things we would be very uncomfortable inviting our family, neighbors and co-workers to. More recently it has been concerts, coffee houses, bazaars, craft-days, car-washes – things that are easier to participate in (and invite others to), but that have limited aim and effectiveness.
The question is this: Do ANY of these relate generally and effectively in a society like ours that has very little (and increasingly less) appreciation or familiarity with traditional Christianity?
Did you see Bennett’s conclusion: “We need models that connect [lost people] with the other 90 percent of the body if we are to impact our world for Christ.”People used to think, “I could use a little religion in my life,” and those were the standard ways they could get some. People don’t think the first thought, and they can’t relate to the old methods and means (which were mostly acceptable and effective at one point). So what directions should we be thinking and heading?
People, not Programs! Culture, not Curriculum!
We must have a genuine love for people–lost, unbelieving people. And our love for people must be strong enough that we take the time to understand them, and think compassionately and empathetically about how best to communicate the truth of the gospel to them. What kinds of things do we need to understand and change our thinking about?
First, we need to recognize that we live in a “Post-Christian, Postmodern culture.” Our world is increasingly oblivious to the moral and ethical moorings this country (and God’s world in general) was founded upon and designed to reflect. I have bumped up against some striking examples in the past decade. One funny one was the time my wife met someone who didn’t know what a pastor was. Just hearing the word “pastor” conjured up images of cult leader in a 30 year old woman.
Just this past week I was listening to a panel discussion on NPR interacting on the topic of “sexting” (which is the word used to describe young people texting nude or sexually explicit pictures to others. In almost every state this is illegal for minors, not to mention lewd and immodest. That amazing thing was that every member of the panel agreed with the assertion that “this may be illegal, but it is not a moral issue.” I was shocked that the concept of illegal, something legally enforced as a “right or wrong” issue in society, could be so easily severed from the concept of “moral.” Especially given the nature of the issue being discussed.
This is only a illustration of the broader reality that religious terms like sin, salvation, holiness, hell, atonement, forgiveness are foreign or loosely defined terms for most people today. You can’t just use them with the assumption that people know what they mean, or that they agree with your definition. But even beyond the use of terms, simply identifying as a Christian can open you up to misunderstanding. Many people view Christians as increasingly “out of touch” with today’s culture, and unable to speak relevantly to the issues facing the day. In fact, Nick Wood observed at our meeting that we aren’t just perceived as “out of touch,” we are often the ones being accused of being “unloving,” “unkind,” “hateful,” or “hypocritical” just for speaking out against sinful lifestyles, the gay marriage issue, abortion, or any number of other matters.
Christians do believe in truth. Many matters, correctly so, are defined as black and white, right or wrong. In society today this is simply not the way people think. What is “true” or “right” for one person may be different for another. They often view any assertion of absolute truth with profound skepticism. More and more, they see believing in moral absolutes as an archaic way to think. If you try to discuss these issues you will also find that Postmodern people do not value rational, logical arguments. It is not about learning and being “persuaded” about what is right, wrong, good or bad. For many people today, the dialogue is more important than the conclusion. Life is a journey. If your journey is working for you, then it is good. And the more it reflects a measure of anti-establishment, the better. There is no biblical, ethical and moral framework that is commonly accepted in our culture. There is little common ground.
These prevailing philosophies can get in the way of effective evangelism. They help explain why the old ways of “programming” evangelism don’t work very well any more (and especially in New England). Someone getting up in front and “talking AT you” is not how postmodern people like to learn. The skeptic does not want a lecture. The postmodern way is increasingly leaning toward learning by doing. Participation and discovery are more important than principle, and principles are harder to get across apart from practical discovery.
This should give us pause, and inspire some challenging and valid questions. Like, isn’t “the message preached” God’s way. There is a sense in which this is how God has ordained the message to go forth through speaking to others.
Romans 10:14 — How then will they call on Him in whom they have not believed? How will they believe in Him whom they have not heard? And how will they hear without a preacher?
At the same time, the proclamation doesn’t HAVE to be the masses; it can (and we suggest increasingly MUST) be to individuals, by individuals. Some might argue that “preaching” was the method in the gospels and Acts. But careful and thorough investigation will show Jesus being VERY creative and personal in His methods and approach. He “personalized” the message for many using parables, illustrations, object lessons, etc. He engaged and involved the hearer, often in physical ways (feeding, fishing, sowing, serving, etc.) in order to get His lesson across. He was a Master at the science and art of communication. We need to be better at this too. We need to at least as good as possible, and be always seeking to learn, grow, and improve our communication skills. I think we would all agree, the missionary must first learn the language of the people they desire to reach. To not do so would be a miserable error.
That means the most effective “proclaimer” is not going to be a “preacher” speaking to strangers from a pulpit. People’s values demand that the message is delivered in a receivable manner. Genuinely persuasive interaction with others MUST be personal if it is going to be effective (this is even true for pulpit ministry, by the way).
How do we go about personally, compassionately, empathetically, and truthfully communicating the truth of the gospel with others?
Some Suggestions for Personal, Compassionate Gospel Ministry
Some of these are from Susan Hecht’s chapter in the book mentioned earlier, “Telling the Truth.” She writes chapter 17, entitled “Faithfully Relating to Unbelievers in a Relational Age.” I found it very helpful.
(1) Personally inquire and learn where people are at spiritually, emotionally, socially and intellectually. What motivates them? How do they view life? What discourages them? What problems are they facing?
(2) Compassionately evaluate how they got there. Why do they believe what they believe? Why do they solve problems the way they do? Was it instruction, experience, failure, influence of others? These things make a big difference in how we interact with them.
(3) Demonstrate understanding about life. The Bible has categories for explaining and describing life and its joys and sorrows. It also very often does not TRY to explain life and its sorrows (Job, Lamentations, Psalms). Empathy involves being willing to admit there are often not easy answers to life’s dilemmas. But this is also a biblical worldview.
(4) Persuasion ultimately must involve articulating these things. As we do, we must do it in a way they understand. We might need to define terms that have an obvious meaning to us (like “sin” or “forgiveness”). But this is not a theology lecture. It is a persuasive discussion, one that leads them in an investigation of truth.
(5) Be less about “religion” and more about “relationship.” This is a better context and springboard for “gospel,” which is the real goal.
(6) Honesty and genuineness are very important. Don’t hide the fact that you desire everyone to find the joy you know to be true by believing and following Christ. Hiding that agenda will hurt you. But you must ALSO clearly exhibit the goal to love them, serve them, see their greatest good in other practical ways, regardless of whether you are able to “convert” them. Forge long-term friendships, without moral compromise.
Evangelism must NOT be an impersonal and occasional activity. It must be a WAY OF LIFE. It must be LESS about the program or the event, and more about the people and the relationships we have with them. We must be a part of a community, with unbelievers (in the world, but not of the world), displaying a life and speaking the Word in a way that makes Christ attractive and understandable.
This will involve a transformation in the way we think in the church. In order to impact our secular culture for Christ, we must first change our “evangelism culture” in the church.
Can We Really Change “Our Culture” in the Church?
We have done a lot to create a culture of discipling, encouraging, counseling in our church. This has been a slow but effective transformation. As we have said before, we are thrilled at the amount of involvement we have with people at the church. Almost everyone is involved somewhere in personal ministry (Home Fellowship, one-on-one discipleship, Sunday ABF or ministry teams).
Our conclusion: “Evangelism is about people, not programs.” It is about relationships, not “event planning” or “community outreaches.” It is about understanding our culture, not implementing the best curriculum. Most of all, it is about knowing, loving, serving and speaking truth to real human beings in the context of real life. This is about individual Christians being faithful, not the church event planners being on the ball. Everyone can build relationships and lovingly speak into other’s lives.
There are examples of EVERY kind of gospel ministry in Scripture. There is a place for bold proclamation in the market place. There is a place for personal gospel ministry “in the market” and “at the well” with others. This public or personal ministry must be case-specific and molded to the situation. The way Paul preached in Athens (Acts 17) was not the same way John the Baptist preached to the Jews (Matthew 3). It should be as narrow as the gospel, and as broad as the audience.
It should also follow the example of Jesus. Jesus was first and foremost, a very personal disciple-maker. He chose 12 to “be with Him” as He preached and performed miracles. They got to live with Him, observe Him up close, and then were sent out to imitate and duplicate what He was doing. The vast majority of His works and miracles were compassionately performed for the benefit of those who did not appreciate them and would ultimately reject Him. We should be willing to do the same, simply because we share in the mercy and compassion of Jesus. Jesus was very personal in His dealings with Nicodemus, the woman at the well, and in the calling of some of the disciples (Nathaniel).
It should follow the example of the Apostles. It can be bold and courageous, and still geared to the situation (like Paul in Athens, Acts 17; or in the synagogue; or before the magistrates). Paul was preaching publicly and from house to house.
Acts 20:20–21 — …I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable, and teaching you publicly and from house to house, solemnly testifying to both Jews and Greeks of repentance toward God and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ.
But it can also be empathetic. Paul was willing to become all things to all people so that some might be saved. To do this, he had to get to know people personally, and he had to make personal and sacrificial choices to love and identify with them.
1 Corinthians 9:20–22 — To the Jews I became as a Jew, so that I might win Jews; to those who are under the Law, as under the Law though not being myself under the Law, so that I might win those who are under the Law; to those who are without law, as without law, though not being without the law of God but under the law of Christ, so that I might win those who are without law.To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak; I have become all things to all men, so that I may by all means save some.
Our encouragement and hope is that the members of Christ Community Church catch the vision that the most effective evangelism is the kind that flows out of your personal relationships. Effective evangelism is you speaking personally to people you know and are engaged in real meaningful relationships with. The church will continue to have events and programs that establish our place in the community as a compassionate and caring body. The church will continue to provide public meetings and opportunities that contribute to the overall mission of gospel proclamation. But these programs need to be a complement to what you are doing personally, not a replacement for that. Church programs won’t fulfill FOR you, the personal responsibility YOU have to be an ambassador for Christ.
So let’s all try to think PERSONAL, and not get our minds stuck on PROGRAMS as the only, or even best way, to take the message of the gospel to a lost and dying world.