Evangelism After the Bible Belt: Why Sharing Christ is Both Easier and Harder in a Post-Christian culture
Evangelism is the one topic that is guaranteed to get the most amens in church and yet produces the most fear and guilt in those of us called to share the good news of the gospel. And today, in an increasingly post-Christian culture, the job of fulfilling the Great Commission seems more impossible than it was a generation ago. But there is good news for Christians: the same Holy Spirit who empowered the first century church and breathed life into every generation of the Church since is still active today. God is not surprised by your Muslim neighbors, your gay coworkers, and your stubbornly atheist sibling. And he is calling you to be the very announcement of the gospel to them.
So how do we do this? Three things must happen to a follower of Jesus to motivate him to become a bearer of good news in his circle of influence:
1) Enraptured by Jesus
It strikes me that Jesus’ words to the disciples in Matthew 28 don’t necessarily emphasize the “go”, but the word “teach.” Most Greek scholars agree that go is sort of an English construction designed to help us understand Jesus’ words. The emphasis is on the teaching part. Jesus assumed the disciples would go and tell. After all, they’d just witnessed the bodily resurrection of the Son of God. Nobody experiences that and doesn’t tell someone.
In a sense we are all evangelists. Even the most introverted person can quickly get animated if the subject is right. Think back on your last few conversations. What dominated those conversations? Perhaps a good experience, like attending a conference, going on vacation, or with someone who served you in a surprisingly good way. I’m guessing you didn’t have to be prompted to retell your story to those close to you.
It works this way with negative experiences as well. Take your car to a repair shop and if they don’t treat you well, you are likely to tell five of your closest friends not to patronize that establishment. And so it goes. You’re an evangelist of the things that matter most to you.
The reason Christians don’t evangelize is not primarily fear or timidity. It’s because we have lost our first love. We’ve forgotten the wonder of that first experience with Christ, when His love flooded our hearts and we were not the same. We’ve moved past the gospel and it’s become as stale as that 15-year old living room chair. It’s part of the decoration, part of the things we are used to seeing.
So the way back to a heart for evangelism is not another pulpit-pounding message from the pastor. It’s not another guilt-inducing Christian book. The way back is to fall in love with the gospel once again. Because when you experience Christ, you can’t help but tell someone.
2) Embedded in the Community
There is an easy tendency among Christians to gather with other Christians. This is good. There is a need for us to develop rich, deep, lasting friendships with our brothers and sisters in the Lord. Furthermore, the life of the church, this Spirit-knit unity brings God glory and shows the world a glimpse of the world to come.
And yet we must recognize that if we are to be God’s instrument in bringing the gospel to the nations, we must embed ourselves in the very communities he’s called us to reach. But we must do more than this. We must fall in love with our communities and with the people of our communities.
This sounds good in an article like this, but it can get messy, even challenging our biases and prejudices. Immigration has brought a wave of new ethnic minorities, changing the color and feel of our neighborhoods. It’s tempting to view this as a threat to our way of life, but if we’re motivated by the gospel, we have changing demographics as a Spirit-directed, God-sent opportunity for us to reach the nations. The nations are coming to our doorsteps. Will we have open hands or a closed fists?
Our calling as evangelists will also require us to build deep friendships with people who might be living in ways that violate our biblical values. We don’t have to condone sin, but if we keep our neighbors at an arm’s length, if we don’t invest our time, resources, and affections, we’ll never get close enough for them to see Jesus in us. We need to embody what it means to love our neighbors as ourselves.
We can’t do evangelism from a distance. Instead, we must commit ourselves to know and love people, to build relationships that lead to gospel conversations. We have to learn how to love people with whom we disagree.
3) Equipped with a Fuller Gospel
There was a time when tried and true methods, utilizing a few key verses from the New Testament were all it took to lead a person to Christ. Most targets for evangelism had a background in church or at least a working knowledge of Christianity. But today our cities are filled with people hailing from all kinds of religious backgrounds, whose knowledge of and trust for the Bible is minimal.
This can intimidate us. And yet I think it presents us a terrific opportunity to share the whole story of the gospel, from Creation to Consummation. Many have an idea of what they think the Bible says and why they disagree with it. But few have actually engaged it’s compelling story. The Bible makes a powerful claim and gripping narrative—one that answers the deepest questions of human life and experience.
As a lifelong Christian, I used to be intimidated by conversations with people from other religious background. It seemed all the tools I had were useless with someone who doesn’t accept Scripture as the Word of God. But once I started studying and personalizing the story of the Bible afresh—the thin, red line of salvation that runs from Genesis to Revelation—I was arrested anew by the fullness of the gospel.
Evangelism becomes a joy, really, when we recognize God’s role and our own role. It’s not my job to convert the human heart. That’s work only a sovereign God can do through His Spirit. But it is my job to faithfully, joyfully, share the good news of the gospel to those who have not yet heard.
This we can do, not out of guilt, but from a deep reservoir of grace.
This originally appeared in Deacon Magazine.