Evangelism is something many Christians are trying to recover from. The word stirs up memories of a bygone era—Christendom—where rehearsed presentations, awkward door-to-door witnessing, a steady flow of tracts, and conversions in revival-like settings were commonplace. As American culture becomes increasingly fragmented and secularized, these forms of evangelism create an impediment to the gospel. Wave after wave of rationalistic, rehearsed (and at times coerced and confrontational) evangelism inoculates, if not antagonizes, the broader culture. The gospel is slowly associated with forceful Christians who are information-driven, looking to get Jesus off their chest. As a result, evangelism is viewed as an attempt to recruit converts, not love your neighbor. In response, Hollywood has taken up its own evangelistic message in documentaries like Jesus Camp and Philomena and films like There Will Be Blood, Saved! and Believe Me. The public has been disaffected by our evangelism.
Learning A New Language
What should evangelism look like after Christendom? To answer that question, we must recognize that twentieth-century American evangelism worked because the culture was largely familiar with Christianity. It included many assumptions, such as the brute fact of absolute truth, the existence of heaven and hell (or God for that matter), and a widely held notion that sin keeps us from God. We can no longer assume this understanding. The cultural shift away from Christianity has resulted in a loss of theological vocabulary. People don’t understand what we are saying. It’s as if we are speaking a foreign language.
Many Christian teachings and assumptions are fuzzy, even questionable to those outside the faith. Calling people to “repent and believe in Jesus” is typically misconstrued as “stop doing bad things, start doing good things (like Jesus did), and God will save you.” This, of course, has nothing to do with the gospel and leaves us disconnected from our culture. There is a considerable gap between the gospel communicator and the receptor culture. This gap is filled with all sorts of things that prevent effective gospel witness, including theological misunderstandings, politicized Christianity, bigoted religion, and unbelievable forms of evangelism. How can we cut through the cultural confusion in order to communicate a clear, winsome gospel message? Like missionaries in a foreign country, we inhabit a new mission field. We need to relearn the language, discover redemptive analogies, and reacquaint people with the true Christian story.
How the News is Good
A fundamental question in evangelism is often overlooked: “How is the gospel good news to those we evangelize?”
Not what is the good news, but how is our news good for others? Christians are often proficient at rehearsing the information of the gospel, but we often lack the ability to relate the gospel to the lives of others. If we are to overcome obstacles to evangelism, we must be able to answer this question: “What does the death and resurrection of a first-century Jewish messiah have to do with twenty-first-century people?”
How does the gospel transform the self-righteous do-gooder, the skeptical urbanite, the distant spouse, the successful professional, and the strung-out addict?
Getting to a Believable Gospel
We need to recover a believable evangelism, one that moves beyond the cultural and personal barriers we have erected in contemporary evangelism to rediscover the power of the biblical gospel. What makes the gospel believable? Rather than a one-size-fits-all message, we need to hold the gospel up to the light and see its various gospel metaphors—justification, union with Christ, redemption, adoption, and new creation—in light of various cultural identities and longings. These metaphors can function like redemptive analogies. If we listen to people long enough, we will uncover deep gospel longings, that manifest uniquely in secular culture, and call people to turn and put their faith in only one who can fulfill those longings. Here are a few examples.
1. Seekers of Acceptance
One of the greatest needs people have today is to be accepted, to know they are welcome and won’t be rejected. This is particularly true in entrepreneurial or honor and shame cultures. People who are driven to perform well in school, work, and family life are often seeking acceptance from themselves or others. Though they may try to deny or hide it, these kinds of people often carry a sense of shame, a fear that they will be found out, rejected, and judged when they fall short. Urban professionals worship in the temple of the city, students bow before the almighty “A,” and families strive to live up to a cultural dream. Eventually people fail to find acceptance through these things, no matter how successful they become.
To those seeking acceptance, justification promises perfect acceptance before a holy God through his unique Son, Jesus Christ. Justification can bring tremendous relief and joy to those seeking acceptance.
2. Seekers of Hope
The metaphor of new creation can be especially compelling for people who are longing for a new start in life. People whose lives have been littered with failure, scarred by abuse, humbled through suffering, darkened by depression, or ruined by addiction need the hope of becoming a new creation.
To those seeking hope, new creation exiles the old life and welcomes a new life through faith in Christ, shedding a bright ray of hope into the heart of the hopeless.
3. Seekers of Intimacy
Our search for intimacy in relationships never ends. Even the best friendship or marriage isn’t enough for our insatiable demand to be noticed, loved, and cared for. We all want a place where we can be ourselves and know that we are accepted. We want relationships that are secure, where we feel safe to share our innermost thoughts and darkest struggles. This is especially true of the person practicing serial monogamy, stuck in a broken marriage, or the celibate, lonely single.
To those seeking intimacy, union with Christ promises entrance into the most intimate, loving, unbreakable, fulfilling relationship known to humanity, bringing deep healing and joy to those seeking intimacy.
4. Seekers of Tolerance
Many people seek tolerance. Some don’t know the difference between classical and new tolerance.1 That alone can be an illuminating conversation that deepens mutual respect and admiration between people. Others will not like the exclusive claims that Christianity makes. However, before scoffing at their perspective or trying to crush their worldview, ask questions to get on the inside of their perspective and appreciate their views. They often have good reasons or difficult stories attached to their objections. Respectful dialogue can go a long way in over-turning bigoted impressions of Christianity. In fact, it will open doors that would otherwise remain closed.
To those seeking tolerance, the atonement offers a redemptive tolerance that gives progressive people an opportunity to experience grace and forgiveness in a way that doesn’t demean other faiths, which can be very liberating.
Different Perspectives, Same Eternal Gospel
These gospel metaphors offer different perspectives on the eternal gospel, which when applied to the deep longings of people, awaken belief, hope, faith, and love. Gospel metaphors account for the depth, complexity, and power of the gospel, helping us answer not just the “what” of the gospel, but the “how.”
In order for our evangelism to be believable, it must be biblical. So when we communicate the gospel of grace, we must necessarily draw on biblical truths, stories, and images. If we stop there, however, we will fail to communicate effectively how the gospel is good news for others. Like good counselors, we must listen to others well to know how to effectively communicate the unsearchable riches of Christ in a way that speaks to their unique life story.
1. Old or “classical” tolerance holds the belief that other opinions have a right to exist. The new tolerance is the belief that all opinions are equally valid or true.↩
Jonathan K. Dodson (MDiv; ThM) serves as a pastor of City Life Church in Austin, Texas. He is the author of Gospel-Centered Discipleship, Unbelievable Gospel, and Raised? He has discipled men and women abroad and at home for almost two decades, taking great delight in communicating the gospel and seeing Christ formed in others. Twitter: @Jonathan_Dodson
Jonathan’s new book is The Unbelievable Gospel: Say Something Worth Believing (resource website here). You can also get his free ebook “Four Reasons Not to Share Your Faith.”