By Daniel Darling
“We are Muslims,” my neighbor told me after I knocked on his door to greet him a few days after his family moved into our neighborhood. “There are some things we hold dear to us,” he explained. “I hope you understand.”
Our families have since become friends, and he and I have engaged in some meaningful conversations about religion. His presence in our Bible-belt city, bursting with immigrant growth from several countries, is a reminder that our communities look vastly different, in every way, from the communities of our parents. Some followers of Christ see this new reality—what some are calling a post-Christian era—as a threat to our way of life. But seen through Great Commission lenses, the rising opposition to Christianity and the influx of other religions presents us with a fresh opportunity to do what we should have been doing all along: sharing the gospel story with new audiences.
What does evangelism look like for Christians in the West in the 21st century? The gospel message is still the same. The mandate to make Jesus known hasn’t changed. And the power of the Holy Spirit to change lives hasn’t abated.
What must change is the way Christians apply the gospel to the culture to which we are called. This means we not only must reconcile ourselves to our new status as a minority, we must embrace the people God is sending into our spheres of influence, forging deep and lasting relationships that allow gospel opportunities. But what does this look like?
I’d like to offer three ways faithful Christian witness must change:
1. We must change our audience assumptions.
Effective 20th century evangelism methods assumed a basic Protestant or Catholic understanding of the Bible. Even those who rejected the gospel understood what they were rejecting. So our arguments were typically law versus grace. The goal of the evangelist was to convince people that their trust in their religion or good works or churchgoing was not enough to save them. They, like the Pharisees of Jesus’ day, needed to see their depravity and utter need for a Savior.
Today the need of the lost has not changed, but their understanding has. We are no longer talking to lapsed Lutherans or nominal Catholics. We’re no longer evangelizing Christmas and Easter Anglicans. The people in our neighborhoods and offices and supermarkets are most likely beginning with a different basis. They may be aggressively secular, Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, or Sikh.
In some ways this makes the job of conversion more difficult. No longer can we simply offer them a few memorized verses from the Gospel of John or Romans. Methods that worked in previous generations—Four Spiritual Laws, Romans Road, Evangelism Explosion—may be ineffective. Instead, we must introduce people to the entire gospel narrative: from creation to the fall to redemption to the second coming.
In another sense, this new paradigm offers us the opportunity to tell the whole, beautiful, cosmic gospel story instead of a truncated one. It guards us against selling fire insurance to an audience that is dubious about the existence of the fire. The gospel, patiently and beautifully retold to fresh ears, is now cast as a countercultural vision for people desperately longing for a new story.
2. We must change our expectations.
Evangelism has never been an easy proposition, but the time from proclamation to conversion may have been shorter in an era where people had a basic understanding of Christianity but were confused about grace. The Holy Spirit is still alive and at work, of course, but he may choose to work through the intentional building of friendships over a period of time. I think of my father’s conversion through the ministry of Billy Graham. Raised as a nominal Christian, he walked forward one day at a Crusade and decided to give his life to Christ. He was already aware of Christ, the Bible, and Heaven, but had never connected that the gospel was for him until he heard Graham share the message.
This can and will happen in our day, but more than likely the decisions to follow Jesus will come over a period of time. I believe God will save my Muslim neighbor, but it didn’t happen the first time I shared about the Christian faith. He didn’t drop to his knees in repentance. He’s still entrenched in his Muslim worldview.
This means ministers, church leaders, lay leaders, and all Christians should both raise their expectations for evangelism and also lower them. We should raise the expectations because evangelism should no longer be relegated to “that thing we do once a week” but a way of life. The gospel is not something we tack onto the end of an awkward conversation—the gospel is the conversation. It’s not the slipping of a tract underneath a server’s tip. It’s not the passive-aggressive pasting of Bible verses on a computer screen in the cubicle.
Instead, evangelism becomes natural, a response to the countercultural way in which we live our lives. It is seeing every opportunity as a gospel opportunity. Every conversation as a gospel conversation. Every sphere of life under the lordship of Christ.
This also means that we need to lower our short-term expectations, with understanding that the soil in which people are trying plant may be less fertile than in previous generations. We will need to prepare ourselves to know that guiding people toward Christ will take much time and effort and investment.
3. We must commit to rich, deep, long-term relationships with unbelievers.
Obeying the Great Commission in an era where Christianity is less acceptable to the masses means Christians will need to invest deeply in long-term relationships with unbelievers. Our friendships are not a means to an end. Christian theology teaches us to treat every human with worth and dignity, because each was created in the image of God.
Christians need to recover the lost art of neighboring. We live in an increasingly fractured, connected-but-lonely world. By serving and loving the people God has put in our sphere of influence, we show the world a glimpse of the kingdom of God. The gospel we believe will be increasingly countercultural, but it always has been.
For some who encounter the gospel through our lives, it will be sweet relief. For others, a stumbling block. Our job is not to “close the deal” but to faithfully live out the gospel by our deeds and our words, by praxis and by proclamation.
We can do this with joy, knowing that Christ will fulfill his promise to build his church by calling out people from every tribe and nation. The same Spirit who empowered the Christian movement in the first century is at work today, calling, regenerating, and saving. And we are the people God is calling to be his witnesses in this generation.
Daniel Darling is a freelance writer in Hermitage, Tennessee.