“Well,” the teen said after thinking only for a moment, “I’d like to talk about evangelism.”
I was with a group of young people—ages 19-35—and I had asked what issues of faith they’d like to discuss.
“Yes,” someone else said, “Like how do we balance evangelism with respect for other faiths?”
“Exactly. Who am I to tell someone what to believe?”
“And how do we know we are right?”
Lesson learned (again): Don’t ask millennials what they want to discuss unless you are ready to field their questions. The good news is you don’t have to have all the answers; otherwise I would have been utterly stymied that evening. Luckily, post-modern young adults are looking less for absolutes than for engagement.
I shy away from making statements like, “Back in my day . . . .” But seriously, back in my day, I didn’t know many people who didn’t believe pretty much exactly like I did. There were a few—a Jewish girl at school, my catholic uncle—but overall, the people in my life were Protestants, the majority Southern Baptists. I didn’t have much outside resistance to my faith in Jesus Christ and what little I did have was actually somewhat welcome to a Southern Baptist girl with a call to proselytize. Seriously, at the height of my adolescence, I could walk you down the Roman Road, lead you down the aisle during the first stanza of Just As I Am, have you repeat the sinner’s prayer after me, and cry tears of joyful relief when I proclaimed you saved from the fires of eternal damnation.
Things are a little different in 2015 than they were in 1975. The world is much smaller and ideas that were foreign then are now fodder for coffee shop chats. In the multicultural and pluralistic 21st Century, many Christians aren’t sure how to respond to the great commission Jesus gives in Matthew 28:18-20.
Like I said, I don’t have the answers. But I do think there is a place for evangelism today. First of all, we should be able to share the joys of following Christ without being disrespectful to people of other faiths.
Think about it. We share other joys without being offensive. For example, do you hesitate to tell someone about a movie you saw and liked? Imagine if we Christians guarded movie suggestions like we do our faith stories. Let’s say you saw the movie Inside Out (which you totally should because it is awesome). After seeing it, you run into some friends and you start to suggest the movie, but you stop yourself. Maybe they don’t care for movies; maybe they prefer live theater. Do they like animation or could they be opposed to such frivolities? Has someone already recommended Inside Out to them and how was that recommendation received?
Additionally, we don’t haul those same friends back to the theater, force them to pay the ticket price, and make sure they go see the film. We just say something like, “For me, the experience was a good one. Maybe it would be for you as well.” And we go on our merry way. Later, we could say, “So, did you go see the movie?” and then a dialogue might begin that could lead to relationship.
So don’t be afraid to tell people that following Christ brings you joy if the opportunity arises. That isn’t being disrespectful; it’s being conversational.
The risk, of course, is that when you are discussing things about which you feel passionate, it is easy to become dogmatic. Given the right circumstances, most of us can get a little bossy. We all have our issues. Yours might be the risks of artificial sweeteners or the benefits of organic produce. It might be the plight of the small business or the need for affordable health care. Me, I can become downright inflexible when it comes to the importance of supporting public educators. On subjects such as these, we are generally quite happy to tell people what we think they should believe and for that matter, how they should act.
But you know (and I do too), that regardless of the strength of our convictions or the volume of our voices, folks don’t want to be told what to do. Rarely does anyone change behavior or thought process because of someone else’s insistence. No, change usually happens slowly (sometimes almost imperceptibly) over time, and within relationship. So, we can just stop telling people what to believe—whether about standardized testing or about Jesus Christ; it doesn’t work anyway.
This mindset also helps with the issue of who is right and who is wrong. If we could embrace the idea of sharing our stories without the compulsion to be right all the time, I think we might see real relationships forming across what would have been intractable barriers. Instead of entering into debates, we could enter conversations. If winning were no longer an objective, we could allow ourselves a little vulnerability. How freeing would that be? We could say things like, “Sometimes I doubt,” and “Maybe I’m wrong,” or “I’m not sure.” Friends, hear the good news: God will still be God even if we utter those words. God can survive our questions; God’s been doing that for millennia. Frankly, I thank God prefers we be a little less sure of ourselves. It makes us lean not unto our own understanding.
That’s a little of what I think about evangelism today. What about you? How would you have responded to these questions?
*This piece was first published on July 26, 2015, by Baptist News Global (formerly Associated Baptist Press). I’m delighted to be associated with this great organization and am honored to be among the gifted writers and thinkers featured there. Watch for my BNG column, appearing monthly at baptistnews.com.