In the Huffington Post, writer Cindy Brandt recently declared she “kissed evangelism goodbye.”1 Many have joined her in the break up. According to one survey, two out of every three active Christians today have all but abandoned evangelism. In slight contrast, another study noted marginal rises in evangelism but concluded, “we need a lot more evangelizing going on . . . ”2 Regardless of how the statistics shake out, many people find evangelism hard.
Good Reasons Not to Witness
The typical evangelical response to an ebb in evangelism is to beat the evangelistic drum louder. Leaders preach the Great Commission more, tell us to value comfort less, and ask us to consider the cost by “considering people’s eternal destiny.” But appeals to guilt, sacrifice, and an “eternal perspective,” even if biblical, often fall on deaf ears. These responses are superficial. They don’t explore the intricacies of intellectual objections or the depths of human motivation to consider why people are disillusioned or unmotivated to share their faith.
The fact is people often have really good reasons for not evangelizing. Some of those reasons include the evangelists. The popular impression of evangelism isn’t positive—impersonal and uncaring, preachy and self-righteous, bigoted and hateful. None of those impressions would stick with Jesus. If we are going to experience a renaissance of evangelism, we must stop beating the drums long enough to hear evangelistic concerns. Some of the concerns include treating people less like projects and more like persons, distinguishing evangelism from proselytizing, and valuing others’ perspectives instead of rejecting them out of hand. These concerns, if heeded, can lead to greater compassion and evangelistic wisdom for gospel communication.
However, evangelistic concerns can quickly turn into evangelistic defeaters. Good concerns to not come across as impersonal, preachy, intolerant, or shallow can defeat us from sharing good news. As a result, people don’t get to hear about the victorious work of Christ to defeat sin, death, and evil to make all things new. They miss the opportunity to understand the difference between religion, relativism, and the gospel. In the moment of evangelistic opportunity, these defeaters keep us from discussing the fantastic news about Jesus. How do we defeat the defeaters in order to communicate the person-liberating, sin-forgiving, life-renewing, love-imparting, world-altering news about Jesus?
There is a defeater underneath the defeaters—fear of what others think of us. “The fear of man is a snare but the one who trusts in the Lord is safe” (Proverbs 18:25). We can avoid all the evangelistic pitfalls and still refuse to speak about Christ because we are afraid of what people will think about us. Therefore, both evangelized Christians and insufficiently evangelized cultures need a fresh preaching of the gospel. To do this, I commend gospel metaphors—personally discerning and culturally sensitive ways to communicate grace. People are seeking good things in the wrong places: intimacy, tolerance, approval. The gospel offers all of this in a profound, redemptive way.
Our search for intimacy is in relationships seems to never end. Even the best friendship or marriage inst 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.
When we begin to discern that a person is seeking intimacy, we can explain that, through union with Christ, people can enter into the most intimate, loving, unbreakable, fulfilling relationship known to humanity, which can bring deep healing and joy.
Many people are seeking tolerance. Some don’t know the difference between classical and new tolerance. Old tolerance says every belief has a right to exist. New tolerance says every belief is equally true. Classical tolerance is spot on. New tolerance is inconsistent. This discussion 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. Build bridges not walls. 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 can open doors that would remain closed otherwise.
Getting to know someone who values tolerance, you might share that, through redemption, Jesus offers a redemptive tolerance that gives progressive people an opportunity to experience grace and forgiveness in a way that doesn’t demean other faiths. This can be very liberating.
The thoughts and opinions of parents matter to their children. What my dad and mom thought about me as I was growing up meant a lot. Their thoughts and opinions could crush or lift me in a moment. We are made for approval, and though our parents are often the first ones to give this (or withhold it from us), the truth is that we seek this approval from others all the time.
As you get to know someone, you might pick up that they need to hear the gospel of adoption, that God the Father offers an undying approval in his Son Jesus. This is unlike the undulating approval of others. This can radically change people’s view of God, and thrill them with the hope of a Father’s love.
Don’t kiss your evangelism goodbye; just give it a facelift.
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1. “How I Kissed Evangelism Goodbye” August 11, 2014 http://www.huffingtonpost.com/cindy-brandt/how-i-kissed-evangelism-g_b_5667662.html↩
2. Ed Stetzer, “The State of Evangelism” May 12, 2014 http://www.christianitytoday.com/edstetzer/2014/may/state-of-evangelism.html?paging=off↩
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.”