Since I am in my 36th year of vocational youth ministry, I can respond to this question from the scope of my own experience. Evangelism was the primary focus of my early youth ministry efforts. To give more context to my evangelistic journey, see my September 7, 2010, Slant33 post. In the late ’70s and through the ’80s I gave little thought to any theological implications concerning the hard-hitting, strong-armed, manipulative, bait-and-switch, hellfire tactics I engaged in to get kids “saved.” Throughout the 1990s, this style of evangelism became increasingly disturbing, not only to me but also to hundreds of youth workers in my social network.
There are many reasons the practice of evangelism and the posture toward evangelism have changed so much in the last three decades. I’d like to think the primary reason for the change in my thinking about evangelism has been driven by deeper theological reflection concerning soteriology and ecclesiology. What does it mean to experience salvation? What role does becoming a disciple of Jesus Christ play in evangelism and salvation? How is evangelism connected to church? How does our society view proselytizing? What role does apologetics play in evangelism? How do we define apologetics in our current culture? These questions are really important, and the answers to these questions have dramatically impacted the issue of how evangelism is taught and practiced.
I strongly believe that the gospel, which means “good news,” has been defined and communicated in ways that has led to the good news not being genuinely and intuitively perceived as good news by most people outside the church. One of the reasons for this negative reaction has been the framing of the proclamation of our story of the gospel around a primary emphasis on how wicked and sinful human beings are.
We mistakenly corrupt the good news by starting the story of humanity in Genesis 3, with the fall. Yes, human beings are broken, but the story of humanity begins in Genesis 1, with God creating human beings in the image of God. Let’s tell the whole story! The idea that we have to place a hyper focus on our sinfulness in order to get people to respond to our evangelistic techniques does not work in our culture.
Several months ago I was verbally assaulted in a coffee shop by a young man involved in a college ministry who wanted to evangelize me. He started by asking if he could ask me a few questions that wouldn’t take more than “a couple minutes” of my time. His first question was, “Are you a good person?” I knew immediately where this was going. I replied, “Yes, I think I’m a good person.” He asked me if I was married. “Yes, for 35 years to my best friend.” His next question was, “Have you ever cheated on your wife?”
I told him that I found his question, 30 seconds into our conversation, to be quite inappropriate and personal. For the sake of the conversation, I explained to him that my wife is the only woman I have ever been intimate with. He then proceeded to find a variety of ways to prove that I really was a bad person who certainly had lusted after other women and was therefore an adulterer (based on Jesus’ Beatitudes) who had no hope unless I prayed a prayer that he had written up, ready for vile sinners to recite. This came with the promise that I wouldn’t have to spend eternity in hell.
Being the fatherly person I’ve become and because of my love for college-age young people, I spent more than an hour engaging in a theological and biblical discussion with him. His head was spinning, but I could tell that his heart was opening to imagine a more Christian way to share and live the good news. He had been assigned to travel a half hour away from his church to do evangelism. I explained to him that he was in the neighborhood of my church community and that we were engaged deeply with people on a regular basis. I asked him if he were to lead someone to Jesus Christ, would he come back to build a relationship and disciple the new convert, or would that be the last time he would see that person? He acknowledged that he was only focused on getting people to “pray the prayer.”
This zealous, well-intentioned young man wanted to get people to believe what he believed about salvation, sin, and Jesus Christ. This methodology focuses on the progression of Believe, behave, and belong. If we can just get people to believe the gospel, they will begin behaving properly, and eventually they can belong to our churches.
When I think about how evangelism has changed in the last three decades, I think that the progression of Believe-Behave-Belong has shifted to Belong-Behave-Believe. God has instituted the church to bear witness to the glory of God and (like Israel) be a blessing to the world. Evangelism happens quite naturally when we are entrenched in faith communities that are actively caught up in cooperating with God’s compelling work of restoration—restoration between people and God; between people and their own brokenness; between people and other people; and restoration of all creation.
As our God invites us into the divine fellowship of the Trinity, so we should invite people to join us in community. In my church, we are intentional about being actively engaged in our community and inviting people to come join us, even before they believe or really know what to believe. In fact, they often actually begin behaving like Christians before they really grasp (believe) what it means to be a Christian. We engage in activities of justice that people want to participate in. We also embody hospitality. We throw parties and tell stories of love, life, transformation, and hope. Evangelism happens naturally when God’s people live astonishing lives as people of crucifixion and resurrection. We must recapture the essence of the gospel story that is truly good news for all who hear and see it.
Recently I have seen the following quote used frequently in blogs and books. This description of Christians, written in the late second or early third century, is found in the Epistle to Diognetus.
“For the Christians are distinguished from other people neither by country, nor language, nor the customs which they observe. For they neither inhabit cities of their own, nor employ a peculiar form of speech, nor lead a life, which is marked out by any singularity. The course of conduct, which they follow, has not been devised by any speculation or deliberation of inquisitive people; nor do they, like some, proclaim themselves the advocates of any merely human doctrines. But, inhabiting Greek as well as barbarian cities, according as the lot of each of them has determined, and following the customs of the natives in respect to clothing, food, and the rest of their ordinary conduct, they display to us their wonderful and confessedly striking way of life. They dwell in their own countries, but simply as sojourners. As citizens, they share in all things with others, and yet endure all things as if foreigners.”1
This quote is consistent with the narrative in the book of Acts that describes Christians as a community of people who do astonishing things. The citizens of Jerusalem viewed Christians favorably because they were generous people who demonstrated love and concern for their neighbors along with proclaiming the great good news. As a result, people were being added to the church every day. Christians who are lovers of people and bearers of a story that is perceived as good news by those outside Christianity create a compelling environment for evangelism. Embodied Christianity creates a portal to salvation and the church.
1 Translated by Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, Ante-Nicene Church Library, Edinburgh 1867, Volume 1, pg. 307.
My post originally appeared in Slant33, republished here by permission.