The other day I attended an evangelism training. The advance promise was that I would be provided with a simple and effective process for sharing the Gospel with unbelievers. I have to admit that I was excited about the prospect. I was excited because I happen to be a church planter, growing a non-traditional church from our offices above a brewery in a gentrifying part of our city. I want to see people from all walks of life and every conceivable background come to know the life, love, and transforming grace of Jesus Christ.
But my enthusiasm was tempered by my experience. In my short foray into church planting I have found that leading people to Christ is a long road with many twists and turns. I’m also skeptical of formulas. I find that life is messy and people are complicated. Rarely do people fall into neat categories when you really press past superficial conversation. Still, I’m always open to anything that might help me share the Gospel in new and effective ways.
The underlying premise of evangelism is that we are all hungry for “good news.” The Teacher of Ecclesiastes 3.11 reminds us that “God has set eternity in the human heart.” The weight of this eternity, I believe, awakens us to the hope of something beyond our experience and comprehension. There’s more to our lives than our world has to offer. Christ is the fulfillment of our longing.
So it was with cautious expectation that I attended my evangelism training. Right off the bat I started to experience little red flags. First, the presenter introduced himself as a former (and incredibly successful) vacuum cleaner salesman. No lie. But it wasn’t his sales background that ultimately raised doubt in my mind, it was his process for evangelism.
The gentleman, who has led many people to Christ, shared with us his simple and effective technique. So simple is his presentation that it can be related with five fingers on one hand. It goes like this:
Thumb Question: If, God forbid, you died in the next 24 hours do you know where you would spend eternity? Presuming the response is “Heaven,” one follows up with another question;
Index Finger Question: If you found yourself standing at the gates of heaven and God asked you, “Why should I let you into my heaven,” how would you respond?
Invariably, we were informed, unbelievers will respond with some form of the classic, “because I’m a good person.” Ah, yes! Now we may swoop in with the coup de grâce.
- Everyone has sinned, even just a little bit.
- God is just and holy and cannot let sin into his heaven (leaving you out).
- Jesus took our sin so that, if we accept him, we can go to heaven.
All that’s left is to lead the prayer. Easy Peasy. But is it?
There was a sinking suspicion, something I couldn’t quite place, that the process wouldn’t have the desired effect in my context. So I decided to try it out. I’m often wrong and I can’t argue with the evangelist stories of conversions. If this worked the way he described I promised myself (and God) that I would go door-to-door sharing the good news exactly how I’d been taught.
For my unflappable subject I chose my office’s office manager, a young gay African-American man who loves spirituality, is passionate about community development, and is one of the most genuine and unassuming people I know. Better still, he’s a friend, an unbeliever, and a really good sport. So I asked my friend, “Hey R, I just came from an evangelism training, you’re not a Christian right?” He confirmed his status as “non-Christian” and, after explaining what “evangelism” is, he agreed to let me try out what I’d learned on him. Like I said, good sport.
Things immediately went off the rails. I started with my thumb: If, God forbid R, you died in the next 24 hours do you know where you would spend eternity?” R thought it over for a second and responded like this:
“Well, I kind of think that I would go on living in the thoughts of the ones who love me. But not like ‘I’ll live on in their memories.’ I mean, I’ll really live. So long as they remember me I will live on in some spiritual way.”
And that’s when I recognized my earlier misgiving. My friend R didn’t believe in “heaven.” There’s no way I could have expected that! He had no anxiety whatsoever of “not getting there.” He carried no existential guilt, no sense of impending doom, no concept of “sin” as understood in the Christian imagination. He loved his family, loved his boyfriend, loved his friends and he simply didn’t want to be forgotten.
And that leads me to a very important question facing us today. Because I don’t think my friend is all that unique. I believe he represents a growing generation that has not grown up in a Christian worldview with the standard smattering of Biblical literacy and Christian cosmology. And so, with that in mind, I have a question for all of us: What’s so “good” about the “Good News” today?
Because the Gospel is, in fact, Good News for this and every generation. And the Gospel never changes. But people’s perceptions of their needs do change. To be clear, fundamentally, we all share similar needs. But the way those needs get expressed, their hopes, fears, longings, and anxieties are shaped by their cultures and histories. If God has placed “eternity in the human heart,” then eternity must interact with hearts as they are, not as we might want them to be. To presuppose a commitment to Christian views or values may well be asking too much. And it is likely to lead to misunderstanding and mutual frustration.
This point is well established in Craig A. Carter’s work Rethinking Christ and Culture in which he reexamines H. Richard Niebuhr’s classic contribution to the subject of the church and culture. Carter argues that Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture is “based on a very large, general background assumption: the theory of Christendom, which is taken for granted by both author and readers.” (p. 14). The problem with Niebuhr’s thesis, Carter argues, is that Christendom is no longer a viable reality. Secular pluralism is our emerging reality. And even in the most stalwart holdovers, church attendance continues to decline and the “Nones” are a growing phenomenon.
But “secularism,” Carter points out, “has no positive program, no coherent philosophy, and no answers to the basic questions of law, ethics, and meaning” (p. 22). It is in these circumstances that many are asking how the church can continue to influence culture. But this is fundamentally the wrong question. The critical question is “how is the Gospel Good News for people and communities today?”
To this may be added more probing questions: What are the questions people are asking today? What is the intersection between felt need and the Good News of Jesus Christ? It may not be the Romans Road, the Four Spiritual Laws, or some other quick and easy presentation of “sin, sacrifice, and salvation.” Our “conversions” may not transpire as quickly as they have in the past nor should we expect folks to flock to our churches and happily hand over their ten percent to our ministries. And that, in itself, will require the creation of new and dynamic models of evangelism and discipleship. Ringing clearly throughout our work may well be a question for us all: “Are we willing to let God meet people at their point of need instead of at the point of our expectations?”