The Need to Overhaul Our Evangelism Paradigms
Something is missing today in our approach to evangelism. Methods and tools used in the sixties and seventies don’t have the impact they once did. Our models for evangelism need an overhaul. While proclaiming the Gospel may be relatively simple, getting to that proclamation is not. Worse yet, we now live at a time when people may think we are evil for believing there is only one way to heaven. As a result, it’s imperative that we modify our existing models to include other elements necessary for success. Such a paradigm shift is needed for at least three reasons.
First, there is less and less interest in the Gospel message itself. Consequently, Christians today find their traditional approaches to evangelism somewhat limiting. It was common 30 to 40 years ago to use a simple tract to share the Gospel with others, especially on college campuses. Many baby boomers were won to Christ back in their youth because someone shared the Gospel with them in this way. Today it is much more difficult to reach people by just sharing a simple four-point Gospel presentation. This is true of people in the East or West.
The director for a large Christian ministry on a campus in the US once confessed to me (David), “Only on a good day do I help someone take a step closer to Christ.” Expectations have changed, even among college workers in the last 30 years. A former seminary student of mine in Singapore suggested that something is missing in our approach to reaching students in the East. She said, “As a campus ministry staff person, I am trained in using a simple Gospel presentation and some apologetic skills, but I have problems trying to integrate them during evangelism. When people indicate that they are not interested, I can only ask them for the reason and then invite them for an evangelistic Bible study or share my personal testimony.” She felt limited in her ability to reach students with the training she had received in evangelism, especially with those who were not yet ready to hear about Christ.
A former country evangelism director for a large college ministry in Asia confessed how the training we gave her and her staff have helped her to be successful, now that she is back in the workplace. After using some traditional approaches in witnessing to her colleagues and seeing some resistance, she remembered what she had learned and, as a result, saw greater spiritual openness. “The more I thought about what happened,” she said to us, “the more I realized that in today’s generation, people would generally not give Christians a full uninterrupted ten minutes to share the Gospel with them. It is more likely that we share the Gospel through injecting it into normal conversations of everyday life.”
We are not advocating that we get rid of all the evangelistic tools we’ve used in the past. God can and does use these tools with those who have some receptivity to the Gospel. What is needed today, however, is a tool that can supplement what we already know about evangelism, especially when presenting the Gospel to those who are indifferent, skeptical, or even hostile to the claims of Christ. Not everyone is at the same point in their openness to the Gospel, and we need to use different approaches depending on someone’s spiritual openness.
The second reason we need to develop a new model of evangelism is that the world we live in has changed in ways that often create barriers to the Gospel. The world today can be characterized by a rejection of moral absolutes, a deep religious skepticism, and an indifference or outright rejection of objective truth.
The Rejection of Moral Absolutes. Sheryl Crow’s song, “Every Day Is a Winding Road,” sums up the situation well in these words: “These are the days that anything goes.”1 We live in a different world than our parents did, a different world with a different and relativistic value system. Unfortunately, our young people have discarded many of the moral values that make up the fabric of our society. This rejection of moral beliefs has caused some major repercussions to our effectiveness in evangelism.
Cultural anthropologist Gene Veith says, “It is hard to proclaim the forgiveness of sins to people who believe that, since morality is relative, they have no sins to forgive … It is not the lunatic fringe rejecting the very concept of (absolute) truth, but two-thirds of the American people.”2 Another has said, “As we approach the twenty-first century, it does not take a rocket scientist to recognize that our entire culture is in trouble. We are staring down the barrel of a loaded gun, and we can no longer afford to act like it’s loaded with blanks.”3
One of the characters in Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s classic novel The Brothers Karamazov contends that if there is no God, everything is permitted. Unfortunately, this pervasive perspective has led to many serious consequences. Newspapers remind us daily of the painful repercussions of a culture teetering toward not only financial bankruptcy but more importantly moral bankruptcy.
It is especially difficult to share Christ with those who have been brought up in an atmosphere of relativism. An increasing number of non-Christians regard our message as irrelevant, judgmental, or no better than any other perspective. As a result, many in our culture are pre-disposed to not even give the message of Christ a hearing. This makes our task in evangelism more difficult than ever. Those who have been inoculated against the very concept of ultimate truth may be indifferent to the “Good News” if they do not realize there is such a thing as “bad news.” Consequently, we must defend the concept of absolute truth as we try to explain more clearly to those we witness to why we believe that Christianity is true and other religions are false.
But it is not just the irreligious we need to worry about today. Even many church people are having a difficult time swallowing the idea that absolute truth exists. More Bible-believing, self-described “evangelical Christians” than ever before now think there are ways to heaven other than Jesus.4 Some who call themselves Christians also have a hard time believing that God’s standard for reconciliation is perfection (Matthew 5:48; James 2:10), a standard impossible for any human to attain. Rather than seeing this as a motivation to embrace the cross of Christ and His atonement for our sins, many will lower God’s standards and try to convince themselves that if their good deeds outweigh their bad, this will create a big enough crack to allow them through the door of heaven.
Skepticism Toward Truth. We also live in a world that is becoming increasingly more skeptical about objective truth, especially religious truth. This skepticism is especially prevalent in the academic community. We must follow the lead of the biblical men of Issachar, “who understood the times and knew what Israel should do” (1 Chronicles 12:32). Part of understanding the times we live in is to realize that people generally do not take at face value what we say is true, especially if it is religious truth. It is common to believe that something cannot be known to be true unless it can be verified through the scientific method of repeated observations. Furthermore, a great number claim that we can’t come to any conclusion about any religious truth.
This skeptical disposition has led many to question whether we can really know that what was said about Jesus actually happened 2000 years ago. After I gave a student some evidence for Christ’s resurrection, he said, “If I were living at the time of Christ, I could make decisions about who Jesus is, but it’s been 2000 years. So, we cannot really make decisions like that anymore.”
In the last ten years, with the onslaught of books, movies, and documentaries such as The Da Vinci Code, The Gospel of Judas, and The Lost Tomb of Jesus, and with the resurgence of atheism in our culture, skepticism about the history of the Christian faith is at an all-time high. In general, people in the first century did not have the obstacles that we have 2000 years later to believe what the New Testament writers recorded about the life of Christ. Even some non-Christian writers at that time acknowledged that Jesus was a wonder worker.5
The apostles and disciples also did not have to prove the existence of God or the possibility of miracles to their Jewish and god-fearing Greek audiences; most of them already believed in a theistic God. They also believed that something miraculous happened as evidenced by the empty tomb. This was common knowledge of the time.
Nonbelievers nowadays struggle with the question, “Can we know truth at all, even if it does exist?” Some people today deny that we can even know historical truths of recent times, such as the Holocaust, even though there are still people alive who survived Nazi prison camps.6 This overarching skepticism of reality itself in our society has made our task of evangelism more difficult in this new millennium. I remember one day trying to witness to a college student who was trying to convince me he didn’t even exist. So I wasn’t surprised that he had difficulty taking seriously anything the Bible had to say about him or about Jesus.
An Indifference Toward Truth. Our society has not only rejected truth and moral absolutes and developed a deep skepticism, especially regarding religious matters, but it has also developed indifference toward truth in general. The main problem in evangelism today is the “ever-increasing number of people who are simply not interested in hearing about Jesus because they are quite happy with their own views.”7 As a result, some will say, “It’s nice for you that you believe in truth,” or “It’s nice that it works for you, but it doesn’t work for me or mean anything to me. It may certainly be true for you, but not for me.”8
One international student said, “I agree with the point that religion is good for society … but what that religion is is not that important. It’s better to have people believe in something, rather than nothing. After I came to the US, I found that people who believe in God are generally better off than those who believe in nothing. But it has nothing to do with the existence of God. It’s a kind of social psychology.”
These events should be no surprise to those who believe the words of Paul in 2 Timothy 4:3–4, “For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths.” This was true in the first century, but it is even truer today. As the moral fabric of our society deteriorates, we will need to do more to supplement our evangelism just to get a hearing.
These are global changes. The sad truth is that the tsunami of postmodernism is sweeping from the West to the East with devastating impact. Today Eastern and Western cultures are looking more and more alike and losing their distinctions in an increasingly pluralistic world.
A former seminary student in the East, who is a college worker at a church in Singapore, sent the following urgent email one day about her difficulties in witnessing to college students.
Many students [in Singapore] don’t think that there is a standard of right and wrong. Rather, they believe that this is up to the individual. This means they do hold a standard of right and wrong themselves, but they feel that each person’s standard of right and wrong differs from the other. Personally, I feel stuck as to how to proceed on with the conversation. It’s like saying that this food is nice for me but may not be nice for you. They relegate the standard of right and wrong to personal preference. I find that I’m shaken. Not in terms of my faith, but in terms of how to answer such questions.
It is clear that our approach needs an overhaul. Is the church ready to respond to these postmodern influences, especially in the way it goes about doing evangelism today?
Third, the world’s perspective on those who believe in an absolute truth has also made our task more daunting. Not only do we live in a world characterized by a rejection of moral absolutes, deep skepticism, and an indifference to or rejection of truth, there is also intolerance toward those who claim to know the truth. For us as Christians to claim that Jesus is the only way to God sounds arrogant and intolerant to our non-Christian postmodern friends.9 We are considered arrogant to even proclaim that we know the truth. Worse, it proves that we claim to be better than others or at the very least that we are intolerant of other beliefs.
If you add up all these factors, it is clear that our evangelistic task today is more daunting than ever before. It is also clear that our approach to evangelism in the new millennium needs to be repackaged to be more effective. Specifically, we need to add a new element to more effectively communicate the Gospel to this postmodern generation. This essential element to be added is pre-evangelism, or what we call here conversational pre-evangelism.
David Geisler and Norman Geisler, Conversational Evangelism: How to Listen and Speak so You Can Be Heard (Eugene, OR: Harvest House Publishers, 2014), 19–25.