Recovering a Vital Function – Part 1: The Cultural Shift

by Mark Frost –

Evangelism. There, I said it. How does that make you feel? Frightened? Guilty? Confused? Maybe even a bit embarrassed? Most of us who claim to be Christians feel some level of responsibility to share our faith with others; after all, Jesus’ final instruction to “go into all the world and preach the gospel” still rings in our ears. But our practice of evangelism has atrophied to a shocking degree, at least in the brotherhood of which I am a part.

The typical church I serve as an interim minister is significantly smaller than it once was. One or two entire generations are largely absent from its ranks. The aging membership is just beginning to wake up to the fact that, without a significant influx of newer, younger members, the church’s days are numbered. These churches, for the most part, are doing a great job of caring for one another as the Scriptures instruct. Many are performing admirable works of service in their communities. And not a few engage in heartfelt, inspiring worship. But genuine evangelistic outreach is largely absent and has been missing for a long, long time. Even when they were growing, most of these churches excelled mainly in attracting existing believers away from neighboring congregations. Genuine conversion of unbelievers was relatively rare even in their heyday. For these churches, there is no more crucial challenge than that of recovering a passion for evangelistic outreach.

In this series of posts, I will share my thoughts on what happened to our fervor for evangelism and then call attention to a story in the Bible that may help us reframe the process of sharing the gospel in a secular culture. The diagnosis and prescriptions offered here come from my own subjective observations. I claim no special expertise, nor do I have hard data to back up my observations. My intent is simply to raise some issues for further consideration and discussion.

…genuine evangelistic outreach is largely absent and has been missing for a long, long time. Even when they were growing, most of these churches excelled mainly in attracting existing believers away from neighboring congregations.

First, we must ask why we have lost our passion for evangelism. In part, I believe it’s because the nature of the evangelistic challenge has changed. When I was growing up, I was taught that virtually everyone who was not a part of our isolated group was lost and thus was a fitting candidate for evangelistic witness.  Although, in the Bible belt communities where we lived, the majority of these “lost sinners” shared our love for God, our biblically-shaped worldview, and our conviction that the only way to salvation is through faith in Jesus. What separated them from us—and from salvation itself, in our estimation—were differing doctrinal understandings. So with regard to these people, the task of evangelism was simply a matter of winning a religious argument. Once we convinced them that their interpretation of the Scriptures was inferior to ours, we had made a “convert” and the task of evangelism was complete.

A secondary field for evangelism in those days consisted of people who had been raised in church and who understood biblical teaching well enough, but had either never made a commitment or had lapsed in their Christian practice. Leading these souls to commitment (or re-commitment) was certainly a godly pursuit, but we were still dealing with people shared our presuppositions and spoke our language.

Because we lack a means of speaking about our faith in a way that feels authentic, we shy away from the task altogether.

But the world has changed—radically so. A rising tide of secularism has left many of our neighbors with a worldview that is radically different from ours. They do not understand or speak our faith-based language. Many of them view our religious practice as a curious vestige of days long past: something that has little relevance for the “real world,” as they see it. Even among “religious folks,” a syncretistic mix of new-age mysticism and positive-thinking motivational philosophy seems to have claimed the greatest number of adherents. As a result, we have come to see the number of those who share our core Christian commitments dwindle markedly. Surrounded by a sea of worldliness, we tend to view those rare individuals as valued friends, if not brothers—doctrinal disagreements notwithstanding. We have begun to doubt the “lostness” of those who share our love for Scripture and commitment to Jesus as Lord (rightfully so, in my humble opinion). So we do not seek to “evangelize” them. But neither do we seek to evangelize the secularized masses around us. Since we have not learned how to speak about spiritual matters in terms that connect with them, fear and intimidation keep our voices silent.

Another damper on our evangelistic enthusiasm has been our discomfort with some of the typical methodology for sharing our faith. In the past, much of the material used to train believers in evangelism has borrowed heavily from the vocabulary of the sales field: prospects, resistance, closing the sale, etc. For those of us who are not gifted or inclined to excel as salespersons, this is intimidating and smacks of manipulation. Because we lack a means of speaking about our faith in a way that feels authentic, we shy away from the task altogether.

I believe there is a way for us to recover our passion for evangelism and to share our witness effectively in a secular culture. In the posts to follow, I will be using a story from the book of Acts to shed light on how we might be able to communicate the gospel—naturally and respectfully—to people who do not share our church culture.

 

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