Effective evangelism in the 21st century
By Alvin Reid
What freaks you out? What might happen to you that would create immediate panic? According to Gallup, a snake will do it for most folks. Among a list of common phobias, snakes ranked first for Americans at 51 percent, with public speaking (40 percent) and heights (36 percent) close behind.
Fear comes in many forms. For many, the word evangelism conjures up all kinds of negative images. Just the mention of the E-word can make many Christians cringe.
Unfortunately, many believers freak out about sharing their faith. I know Christians who would rather wrap their hands around a snake than talk to their neighbor about Jesus.
Some of the most common anxieties about evangelism are fear of rejection, fear of losing a friendship, and feelings of inadequacy. Some people worry they won’t be prepared to answer someone’s questions about God or salvation. Others fear offending the person they’re talking to.
There are many reasons a lot of us get freaked out about witnessing, especially in today’s postmodern and politically correct climate.
We live in a society teeming with people who live outside our churched world. People don’t seem to know or care about the good news found in Jesus. They don’t know the great redemptive story of the Bible. And they live their lives oblivious to the good news that means everything to us.
It’s easy to freak out in a culture that is increasingly antagonistic toward the church and indifferent to the gospel.
What if I gave you a different perspective? What if I told you the fact that you are alive and know Jesus today is neither accidental nor incidental, but that God has placed you and me in this time and place for such a time as this?
As I talk with unchurched people regularly, I’m convinced Christians today live in an incredible time to talk with people. Most people are interested in spiritual conversations, but they understand the gospel less than at any time in American history. What a great time to be alive!
Did you know 47 percent of unchurched people say they would discuss matters of religion freely with someone? Another 31 percent say they would listen to spiritual information.
I have good news. The unchurched can be reached. I see it regularly. It’s true. But we won’t reach the unchurched with a nice church sign inviting them to come on Sunday.
How can we share Christ with the unchurched today? It’s simple: one conversation at a time. Here are some reminders for Christians to help alleviate their fears.
1. Think less of giving a presentation and more of having a conversation.
In the LifeWay Research study, 47 percent of the unchurched said they would freely discuss religious beliefs with someone who wants to talk about them. And 79 percent said if a friend truly valued faith personally, they wouldn’t mind the friend talking about it. I see this all time.
Lost people are more amazed at our silence than offended by our message! You may feel insecure giving a presentation to someone, but all of us—extroverts and introverts—have conversations every day.
Learning to talk about Jesus in everyday conversations not only communicates the gospel more effectively to the unchurched but also helps us to share Jesus without being self-conscious about it.
2. Tell them the great story of the gospel more than listing propositions.
Only 10 percent of the unchurched surveyed say they think daily about heaven and life after death. And 43 percent say they never do. I’m so grateful God gives us eternal life through Jesus. But He also gives us joy in our daily lives.
When asked if there is an ultimate purpose in life, 70 percent of the unchurched agree. You and I know the only way to find that purpose is through Jesus.
Most of us think of the gospel in its essence: the announcement of good news found in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. But in a world that doesn’t know the biblical story, it’s vital we also share the good news as the epic story it is.
When I witness, I like to share Christ by connecting our conversation to the great story of Scripture—from creation to the fall, from our rescue in Christ to our hope of restoration.
This allows me to connect the story of God’s redemption to everyday life. One way I do this is by showing how movie plotlines relate to the gospel with young adults. Look for ways to have conversations with the unchurched about their ultimate purpose in life and God’s plan for all of us.
3. Connect the story to their everyday life experiences.
In everyday conversations, people talk about their pain or their passion. When we talk about these things, it allows me to relate their story (and mine) to the gospel story.
If we talk about pain, I talk about the obvious brokenness in our world through sin, and I point them to the hope we have in Christ’s work on the cross and the resurrection.
If we talk about their passion—their hopes, dreams, or plans—I point them to God’s great design in creation and how He put those desires in our hearts when He made us in His image.
4. Start in their worldview, not yours.
I don’t find people are any less interested in talking about spiritual things today than 25 years ago. I do find that people know the Bible less now than then. We can’t assume the people we meet know what we know about the Bible.
Like Jesus in John 4 with the woman at the well (starting with water at the well), or Peter in Acts 2 with a Jewish audience (starting with Messianic hope), or Paul at Mars Hill in Acts 17 with philosophers (starting with a common belief in creation), we would do well to start with people’s own beliefs when sharing Christ.
Every person has been created in the image of God and—though lost—can see truth. In conversations we can start with what they see and talk them to the gospel.
This includes thinking less of trying to prove Christianity intellectually and more of showing the change Christ makes. Most unchurched people I meet aren’t asking whether you can prove Christianity—they are asking whether you can live it.
5. Don’t just invite them to church—invite them into your lives and your community.
We live in a world connected like never before yet lacking in real community. The young professionals ministry at my church has seen authentic community as a huge part of our effectiveness.
Unchurched people were asked whether they’d be likely to attend if someone they knew invited them to activities sponsored by a local Christian church. They were most likely to attend events that had a strong connection to their communities.
The findings, shown on the facing page, confirm what I see as I interact with unchurched people personally. When we show them how our faith in Jesus makes a difference in our communities and our everyday lives, they are more interested.
The unchurched today are less concerned about the afterlife and more focused on dealing with an overloaded, too-busy society. When we show and share how our relationship with Jesus brings joy in our everyday lives, the people we know who aren’t in our churches will take notice.
Don’t buy the negative rhetoric: Our society has not suddenly plunged into an abyss of secularism and atheism, leaving a culture of spiritually walking dead with no interest in the claims of Christ. You and I live in a mission field. Life is a mission trip—take it, and start today!
ALVIN REID is senior professor of Evangelism and Student Ministry at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, North Carolina, and author of Sharing Jesus Without Freaking Out.