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Culture and Evangelism

Many of our staff probably recall hearing Dr. Bright observe that most people are ready and willing to respond in faith when they hear the gospel presented to them simply and clearly. This could be considered the “Bright Doctrine” of evangelism and has informed much of Campus Crusade’s evangelistic strategy throughout our history. The authors of this paper assume that Dr. Bright was correct in this, in a particular context, at a particular time. But our experience on campus in the U.S. over the last several years suggests that a change has taken place. Indeed, the clear majority of students hold to worldviews that makes faith in the gospel unlikely.

In light of this, we are persuaded that while Campus Crusade should continue to simply and clearly communicate the gospel to the minority who are ready to respond in faith, it will be increasingly valuable to develop new expertise in helping the majority move toward readiness.

In order to develop this expertise, we need to learn from those who are more experienced in graciously confronting gospel-incompatible worldviews. In preparation for this paper we have read a number of books by people with such expertise. Among the books read were unChristian by David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons, Evangelism Made Slightly Less Difficult by Nick Pollard, Finding Common Ground by Tim Downs, and The Reason for God by Tim Keller. In this paper we will summarize the lessons learned from these authors and suggest applications for Campus Crusade moving forward.

In unChristian, David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons take a hard look at our current 16-to-29-year-old American culture (which parallels our collegiate audience). Fundamentally, Christianity has a stunning image problem with this audience.

One “Outsider” summed it up well: “Christianity has become bloated with blind followers who would rather repeat slogans than actually feel true compassion … [it] has become marketed and streamlined into a juggernaut of fear-mongering that has lost its own heart.” Whether true or false, this is their perception. And perception matters.

The book is structured around Six Broad Perceptions that 16-to-29-year-old Outsiders have of current American Christianity.  Christians are seen as . . .

1. Hypocritical. The authors note that there is little lifestyle difference between those claiming to be Christians and Outsiders. Their studies show that (when asked to record their behavior over the past 30 days) Christians are just as likely as Outsiders to gamble, view pornography, steal, fight or abuse another, get drunk, use an illegal drug, seek revenge, or slander someone. Frankly, we project a false “got-it-together” image, and Outsiders are sensitive to our inconsistent lifestyles.

A suggested solution lies in wholesale transparency among Christians. Perhaps even an apology to the world around us.

2. Uncaring (while overly focused on getting others “saved”). We’re seen as door-knocking Mormons, interested only in others’ conversions, but not in their lives. So, we’re considered insincere. Part of this problem is that we believe old myths about evangelistic effectiveness, such as:

The best methods are those that reach the most people at once. No. The reality is that the most effective methods are relationship-based. Significantly, 71% of young Christians say it was an individual who was most responsible for their decision to follow Christ.

Anything that brings someone to Jesus is worth doing. No. The reality is that there is much collateral damage in our mass-evangelism. Some efforts create 3-10 times more negative response (e.g. a church mailing videos to every home in a community). If we create more barriers with outsiders because of our tactics, we’re not being good stewards of the gospel. How we share the gospel is as important as actually sharing it.

3. Anti-homosexual. This is the big issue among Outsiders, where we’re seen as most out-of-touch and negative. Our perceived hostility toward homosexuals has become synonymous with the Christian faith. A huge number of Outsiders, 91%, say “anti-homosexual” accurately describes current Christianity. Whenever you introduce yourself to a young Outsider, this is their first assumption about you.

Determining right and wrong in this generation is done in the context of friendships, not just the words of scripture. And this relates to homosexuality, when young people have friends who are gay. In contrast to relationship-based acceptance, we’re perceived to have a special hatred for homosexuality. Addressing this within our collegiate culture will take special care and precision.

4. Sheltered (out of touch with reality, old-fashioned, cocooned). Current Christianity is seen as lacking vitality, out-of-step with an ever-changing culture, an exclusive club with a special jargon. (Ironically, Jesus is the path to a dynamic, vital life.)

We cannot retreat from our culture. A solution lies in the dual pursuit among Christians to pursue both purity and proximity (to Outsiders) simultaneously.

5. Too Political (i.e. Republican). Christians are associated with right-wing, Republican politics (which is currently in decline). In a game of “word association,” Outsiders named George Bush (before Billy Graham or even Jesus) as the first person they thought of to the word “Christian.” A Republican politician.

The authors ask: is it possible that if the Religious Right had done things differently over the past 30 years, that Christians would be thought of as anti-poverty or pro-environment or pro-fidelity or anti–violence, instead of anti-homosexual, judgmental, hypocritical or insensitive?

6. Judgmental. An Outsider observed, “Christians talk about hating sin and loving sinners, but the way they go about things, they might as well call it what it is. They hate the sin and the sinner.” Simply put, many Outsiders picture Christians as haters.

Our assessment (from unChristian) is that the message of Christ is tied directly to the character of his messengers. Where we are weak, our message is impotent. If Christ is an appealing leader to follow but his followers are an uncaring-hypocritical band, then Christ Himself becomes remarkably unappealing and moot to this generation. Like never before, believers are the only Bible that Outsiders are reading. And currently, they don’t find the book interesting.

While attempting to deconstruct their worldviews, it is apparent we should also help them deconstruct their view of us. Their current view of Christians (hypocritical, uncaring, anti-homosexual, overly political, sheltered, and judgmental) creates an un-jumpable high hurdle. To have any chance at reaching this audience in a comprehensive way, we must take the hurdles off the track, and make this a different kind of race. A first step would be considering how we could become more transparent and honest in our lives, and to apologize to Outsiders for our inauthentic image.

A second application is that not all evangelism is worth doing. In our effort to “move the ball down the field” in evangelism, certain plays that regularly lose yardage should be abandoned. For example, some “mass evangelistic efforts” create more collateral damage to the cause (like spamming your campus with an evangelistic email, or perhaps mailing Jesus videos to everyone in your community). Efforts outside the bounds of relationships must be careful not to misshape an already delicate reputation we have with Outsiders. In short, we should be good stewards of the reputation of God as well as of the message entrusted to us.

Evangelism Made Slightly Less Difficult
In Evangelism Made Slightly Less Difficult, Nick Pollard observes that there is broad variance among people’s openness to respond to the gospel message in faith. Some are ready to become Christians, some are nearly ready but have questions and doubts, and some are interested but don’t know where to begin. Organizationally, we are already skilled at helping people in each of these groups come to know Christ. But the fourth and largest category consists of those who simply are not interested. It is this group that we must learn to reach for Christ.

Speaking of this fourth group, Pollard acknowledges this goal, “If people are currently comfortable with their non-Christian worldview, we need to know how to help them become uncomfortable with it so that they may become interested in looking at Jesus.” He calls this “Positive Deconstruction.”

In Positive Deconstruction, an evangelist walks through four steps:

• First, he identifies the worldview being espoused.

• Second, he analyzes the worldview according to the three standard philosophical tests of truth:

Does it cohere?

Does it correspond with reality?

Does it work?

• Third, he affirms the truth in the otherwise faulty worldview.

• Fourth, he discovers the error.

Positive Deconstruction doesn’t sound much like evangelism, at least not to Campus Crusade ears, but Pollard argues that we need to rethink our goals in evangelism. He states:

Sometimes well meaning Christians ask me, “How many people were converted?” But that is the wrong question, and I’m afraid it shows how out of touch they are with today’s generation. Many of the Christians I am seeking to help day by day are nowhere near ready to become Christians. Nor do they even want to hear about Jesus. . .With these people, my immediate goal is not to see them become Christians. Nor is it even to see them take one step closer to Jesus; often we are not quite in that ballpark either. My goal is just to help them take one step further away from their current worldview.

One thing that is attractive in Pollard’s approach is his emphasis on being gracious and humble while helping someone evaluate their worldviews. His evangelistic approach is based on a particular model of education. Avoiding both a didactic (dogmatic) method in which the teacher affirms that they know the truth, and a critical (relativistic) method in which the teacher helps the student find the truth that is true for them, he describes a different model of education based on the Christian view of knowledge. To quote him at some length:

It is evident that the Christian cannot be a relativist, because one of the central claims of Christ is that he actually is the truth. We cannot formulate truth for ourselves; truth is something that God creates and reveals. At the same time a Christian cannot be a dogmatist since God has not fully revealed all his truth to us. Indeed our understanding of what he has revealed is limited and flawed by our finite and sinful minds.

In this model then, the teacher communicates to the student her understanding of God’s revealed truth. This approach has similarities to the didactic model, but is not in any way dogmatic. For the teacher recognizes that her understanding is incomplete and could be faulty. Therefore she invites the student to join her in critically assessing both his own understanding of truth and hers.

This approach also has similarities to the critical method, but it is not in any way relativistic. The goal of the critique is not to formulate subjective truth, but to discovers God’s revealed truth more accurately.

He concludes, “The application of this Christian model of education to evangelism is fairly obvious. I am not there just to tell people straight that they are wrong, but to raise questions with them and to invite them to raise questions with me. We are engaging together in a search for a greater understanding of truth.”

The goal of this approach is not converts, at least not initially. Rather it is to help them, “discover for themselves the inadequacy of their adopted worldview so that they will then want to hear about Jesus.”

If our staff can learn how to positively deconstruct worldviews and learn to train our students to do the same, we will be much better positioned to reach every student on every campus –  in particular the majority who presently hold gospel-incompatible worldviews. If we don’t develop this expertise, we risk being effective only with an ever-shrinking slice of our campuses.

Finding Common Ground
In Finding Common Ground, Tim Downs argues that believers have two distinct functions in preaching the gospel: sowing seeds and reaping the harvest. It is the role of the believer to observe cultural indicators to determine which approach to take.  Downs observes there were seasons where people were more responsive to the gospel, like the 1950’s and 1960’s. These times were clearly “harvest times” and were preceded by seasons of “sowing.” He also notices that current cultural indicators seem to point to a greater need for sowing and that during these seasons people are less likely to respond to the gospel than they are during harvest times. He clarifies the different values of sowing and harvesting as follows:

The sower works to create an atmosphere–a soil, if you will–that is conducive to the growth of the gospel. If the sower does his work well–what Jesus referred to as “the hard work”– then the harvester may find an abundant harvest awaiting him. If the sower doesn’t do his job, the harvester may find himself casting his pearls before swine.

Harvesting is a concise, direct presentation of the gospel and an attempt to move a person to a point of decision about Christ in a relatively short period of time. Harvesting is what we picture when we think of traditional evangelism, and most evangelism programs and training workshops teach a harvesting model. When Jesus sent out his disciples into the mission fields, he made it clear that he was sending them out to harvest.

Downs recognizes that we are experiencing fewer converts to Christianity within our current culture. For churches and parachurch groups alike, there is a thinning harvest. So, in an attempt to recapture the glory of past harvests, we have recruited more harvesters into the field to work hard and long hours to reclaim the harvest. He suggests that a better response would be to spend energy understanding the soil and sowing the seed.  To quote him:

What can we do? Those of us in harvesting positions–church and parachurch workers–must rethink our concept of “true ministry.” We have come to believe that there are only two kinds of Christians: the harvesters and the disobedient. We must begin to teach, with great urgency, that every Christian everywhere is a laborer. We must tell them that every laborer should learn to reap, and that God will call some to exclusively exercise this role–but everyone can learn to sow right now, right where they are.

In short, we must revalue the role of the sower. We must encourage a new generation of Christian sowers that their work matters to God, that we are true partners in ministry, and that the fate of future harvests depends on their efforts. Instead of endlessly exhorting them to join us in our role of harvesting, we must equip them to fulfill their role, a role that God has given them, so that one day the sower and the harvester can be glad together.

Another valuable insight we need to consider is that when we only value harvesting, we will only initiate with those who are more likely to be responsive to the gospel–the fruit we perceive to be ripe. When fewer people are responsive, or ripe, or ready, we will do evangelism less. Furthermore, we will avoid reaching out to groups like feminists, evolutionists, Hindus, etc., since they are (or are perceived to be) particularly unripe.

In light of all this, it is important that we value sowing (despite its slow process), and not just attempt to find the quick conversions that comes with the harvest.

The Reason for God
In his book, The Reason for God, Tim Keller models the approach advocated by Pollard and Downs in a manner designed to overcome the negative perceptions researched by Kinnaman and Lyons. The book is divided into two sections: “The Leap of Doubt” and “The Reasons for Faith.” In the first section (to which we will limit ourselves here), Keller observes seven fundamental problems unbelievers in our cultural context often have with Christianity. He also offers some very artful, thoughtful, and gracious responses that could form the basis for a training tool if we could extract them and format them for greater transferability.

Detailing his responses is beyond the scope of this paper. Instead, to highlight the need to expand our skill set, we will list the seven objections with corresponding comments made by unbelievers who hold them.

1. There can’t be just one true religion.

“How could there be just one true faith?” asked Blair, a twenty-four-year-old woman living in Manhattan. “It’s arrogant to say your religion is superior and try to convert everyone else to it. Surely all religions are equally good and valid for meeting the needs of their particular followers.”

“Religious exclusivity is not just narrow–it’s dangerous,” added Geoff, a twenty-something British man also living in New York City. “Religion has led to untold strife, division, and conflict. It may be the greatest enemy of peace in the world. If Christians continue to insist that they have ‘the truth’–and if other religions do this as well–the world will never know peace.”

2. How could a good God allow suffering?

“I just don’t believe the God of Christianity exists,” said Hillary, an undergrad English major. “God allows terrible suffering in the world. So he might be either all-powerful but not good enough to end evil and suffering, or else he might be all-good but not powerful enough to end evil and suffering. Either way, the all-good, all-powerful God of the Bible couldn’t exist.”

“This isn’t a philosophical issue to me,” added Rob, Hillary’s boyfriend. “This is personal. I won’t believe in a God who allows suffering, even if he, she, or it exists. Maybe God exists. Maybe not. But if he does, he can’t be trusted.”

3. Christianity is a straightjacket.

“Christians believe that they have the absolute truth that everyone else has to believe–or else,” said Keith, a young artist living in Brooklyn. “That attitude endangers everyone’s freedom.”

“Yes,” agreed Chloe, another young artist. “A ‘one-Truth-fits-all’ approach is just too confining. The Christians I know don’t seem to have freedom to think for themselves. I believe each individual must determine truth for him- or herself.”

4. The church is responsible for so much injustice.

“I have to doubt any religion that has so many fanatics and hypocrites,” insisted Helen, a law student. “There are so many people who are not religious at all who are more kind and even more moral than many of the Christians I know.”

“The church has a history of supporting injustice, of destroying culture,” responded Jessica, another law student. “If Christianity is the true religion, how could this be?”

5. How can a loving God send people to Hell?

“I doubt the existence of a judgmental God who requires blood to pacify his wrath,” said a frowning Hartmut, a graduate student from Germany. “Someone had to die before the Christian God would pardon us. But why can’t he just forgive? And then there’s all those places in the Old Testament where God commands that people be slaughtered.”

“All that is troubling, I agree,” responded Josie, who worked for an art gallery in Soho. “But I have even more of a problem with the doctrine of Hell. The only God that is believable to me is a God of love. The Bible’s God is no more than a primitive deity who must be appeased with pain and suffering.”

6. Science has disproved Christianity.

“My scientific training makes it difficult, if not impossible to accept the teachings of Christianity,” said Thomas, a young Asian medical resident. “As a believer in evolution, I can’t accept the Bible’s pre-scientific accounts of the origin of life.”

“And the Bible is filled with accounts of miracles,” added Michelle, a med student. “They simply couldn’t have happened.”

7. You can’t take the Bible literally.

“I see much of the Bible’s teaching as historically inaccurate,” said Charles, an investment banker. “We can’t be sure the Bible’s account of events is what really happened.”

“I’m sure you are right, Charles,” answered Jaclyn, a woman working in finance. “But my biggest problem with the Bible is that it is culturally obsolete. Much of the Bible’s social teaching (for example, about women) is socially regressive. So it is impossible to accept the Bible as the complete authority Christians think it is.”

These are the views held by the majority of the students on our campuses. Learning how to respectfully and effectively address these objections may be among the most important developmental steps for our staff and student evangelists.

If our strategies to communicate the gospel are based on the assumption that the majority already holds to a gospel-compatible worldview, when in fact they do not, then we will find ourselves increasingly marginalized and ineffective. Not only will it hurt our ability to reach the lost, but we will have difficulty recruiting believing students to our cause when they find our methodologies more costly than helpful with the majority of their unbelieving peers.

These books about Culture and Evangelism persuade us that it may be valuable to:

• Learn to respectfully deconstruct the various beliefs students hold which make belief in the gospel unlikely, in such a way that they come to question their own beliefs.

• Work to change student’s perceptions of Christians, through humble, loving interactions, apologizing where necessary.

• Carefully steward God’s reputation, as well as the gospel message, being thoughtful about the collateral damage our methods may produce.

• Value the role of the sower, champion sowing activities, and develop sowing skills despite the lack of immediate fruit they will produce.

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