Reluctant evangelists

March 12th, 2019

Evangelism is a word that many of us, particularly United Methodists, tend to avoid. It’s a term that evokes experiences with judgmental zealots, single-topic (“get saved”) preachers, and people who push their beliefs on others. It only makes sense, if you’ve had a negative experience with evangelism, that you probably avoid it. Millennials in particular are sensitive to the beliefs of people with other faiths and the potentially offensive nature of proselytizing.

Recently, I ran across a job description for a company seeking a “social media evangelist.” I found it ironic that a culture that avoids this practice has now co-opted the word for other uses. Yet Paul’s question in his letter to the Roman church two thousand years ago remains relevant: “And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them?” (Romans 10:14, NIV). If I’m not afraid to tell you about the fabulous new restaurant I found last week, why would I be reticent to tell you of the One who changed my life?

A recent study by the Barna Group, a research company focused on the intersection of faith and culture, confirms the reluctance many of us have about sharing our spiritual experiences. In its report, “Reviving Evangelism,” Barna explains that practicing Christian millennials are especially conflicted about evangelism, with almost half agreeing with the statement, “It is wrong to share one’s personal beliefs with someone of a different faith in hopes that they will one day share the same faith.” However, this same generation believes that being a witness about Jesus is important (96%) and they report feeling equipped to share their faith with other people (73%). In contrast, smaller percentages of older practicing Christians feel it’s wrong to share their faith (27% for Gen X and 19% and 20% for boomers and elders, respectively), but these older groups also report less confidence in being “gifted at sharing my faith” (66% for Gen X, 59% for boomers, and 56% for elders).

Barna defines millennials as those currently ages 20–34, Gen X as 35–53, boomers as 54–72, and elders as 73+.

Cultural sensitivities

Christianity Today chose to headline its coverage of the Barna report with the statement, “Half of Millennial Christians Say It’s Wrong to Evangelize.” I have to wonder, though, if that headline is truly accurate. It could be instead that millennials have a different definition of evangelism and its goal. According to the report, 94% of millennials believe that “the best thing that could ever happen to someone is for them to come to know Jesus.”

Yet the world that millennials were born into is much bigger and more complex than that of their elders. Millennial Christians report an average of four close friends or family members who practice a different faith. By comparison, their boomer parents and grandparents have just one. Millennials’ faith in Christ is very important to them, but maintaining authentic relationships with a diverse group of friends is also important.

I’ve observed this dichotomy in my own millennial children. My kids and their friends don’t think it’s “wrong to share their faith,” but they prefer that these conversations happen naturally and under the right circumstances. In some ways, they are more reliant on the Holy Spirit to guide them toward the right opportunity. Also, unlike me, they didn’t grow up in an environment where discussing faith was focused on converting others to Christianity. Christianity Today’s headline could just as easily read, “Millennial Christians Can See the Beauty in Your Faith Tradition While Also Loving Jesus and His Teachings.”

What is the good news?

Sensitivity to cultural differences doesn’t change the following:

1. Jesus commissioned us to “go and make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19);
2. This world is desperate for hope and meaning; and
3. Sharing your experiences of God’s grace and Christ’s peace in your life can transform another person.

However, the reality is that old-school approaches to evangelism don’t work in today’s world. Both unchurched and lapsed Christians are seeking authenticity, not tracts and tent revivals. As pointed out at the Alpha USA Conference in January 2019, non-Christians don’t need to know that Christianity is right or true; they want to know that it’s good.

According to the Craig Springer, Alpha USA executive director, evangelism needs to undergo three shifts:
1. From proclamation to conversation. Jesus’ ministry was conversation-based. In the Gospels, Jesus asked 370 questions, was asked 183 questions, but only directly answered three. Our culture is searching and longing for conversations without judgment, but we aren’t engaging the questions being asked.
2. From explanation to experience. Language about a “God-shaped void” and detailed explanations of theology don’t resonate well with today’s non-Christians. They aren’t necessarily searching for God, but they are searching for meaning and purpose. In this context, how can we share the reality and power of God’s presence?
3. From discord to unity. The unchurched see our lack of unity, which is the biggest influence on their church involvement. The larger Christian church has an uphill battle to fight perceptions of being beholden to political power and hypocrisy.

The “Reviving Evangelism” report reminds us that making disciples isn’t the same thing as demographic dominance or survival; it’s about sharing the good news of God’s boundless love as expressed in Jesus. The report says, “Cultural decline and fragmentation cannot threaten the existence or integrity of the Church as a gospel community, but the failure to share our faith certainly can.”

This final quotation by author David Augsburger was shared at the Alpha Conference and became a profound frame of reference for evangelism: “Being listened to is so close to being loved that the average person cannot tell the difference.” Listening and loving are at times the easiest things in the world and at times the hardest. Our teacher, the Christ whom we seek to imitate, excelled at both.

Be sure to check out FaithLink, a weekly downloadable discussion guide for classes and small groups.

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