Here we are. You’ve made it (and so have I) to the final part of my evangelism series. This is the good stuff.
Over the past 6,790 words (but who’s counting), we’ve looked at free lunch evangelism, funnel evangelism, and friendship evangelism. Today, we’re thinking about what faithful evangelism looks like in the 21st century. And it’s gonna be a long one!
But before we start, a question…
What is the key to evangelism in the 21st Century?
This is a question I’ve been asking myself for the past few years. Here are ten potential answers…
- Hospitality – Steve Childers
- Engaging the next generation – Nicky Gumbel
- Word and deed ministry together (not one without the other) – Tim Keller
- Network evangelism (it’s a lifestyle) – Tony Merida
- Intellectual evangelism (sending every Christian to seminary) – Arthur Jones
- Belong, believe, become – Eddie Cole
- Getting out of the church and onto the streets – Bob Stamps
- Personal, small groups, and events – Rebecca Pippert and Bishop Kwashi
- Stories (instead of preaching) – Eric Hatfield
- Adopting a posture of embrace before others – Kimberly Reisman
That’s a lot of keys! And I’m sure they are all useful for opening different doors. But which one is the master key? The key that opens all the doors.
That is the question we want answered.
There are loads of different Christian leaders, promoting loads of different evangelistic strategies and approaches. But who’s right? Who should we listen to?
Eddie Cole says people need to belong to our church community first, then they’ll start believing somewhere down the line. Bob Stamps says, “We’re living in post-Christendom, they’re not gonna come to church anymore!”
Do we need to grab the attention of the next generation with some sort of spectacular one-off live experience? Or is the answer to create a giant funnel of regular events and courses for people to travel through? Perhaps, we should focus primarily on developing lifestyles of hospitality and befriending people?
Or maybe it’s all about social media. This is the 21st century after all! Does anybody on the staff team know how to use TikTok? Maybe we should hire a social media pastor. What is the key to evangelism in the 21st century? Can somebody please tell me, because I’m getting a headache.
Take a deep breath.
Close all of those tabs you just opened.
Count to ten.
I think we’re asking the wrong question
This series is entitled “21st Century Evangelism Strategies” but, personally, I’ve had enough of ‘strategies’. I’m only too aware that my thinking over the past few years has been way too focused on ‘strategies’.
And I have a feeling I’m not the only one. Our churches are busy, busy, busy trying to put into place all of these different strategies for evangelism.
So, if “what is the key to evangelism in the 21st century?” is the wrong question, what’s the right question? Well, I think it’s something like this…
What does faithful evangelism look like in the 21st century?
That’s the question we’ll be trying to answer throughout the rest of this article. First, let’s figure out what is (and isn’t) faithful/biblical evangelism. Second, we can mull over how best to apply that to the 21st century.
What is (and isn’t) faithful evangelism
We read in Luke 1:19…
“I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I was sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news.”
God sent Gabriel to Zechariah to tell him good news. Literally, to evangelise him. Evangelism is “the announcement of good news”, specifically, the good news of Jesus Christ. That is faithful Christian evangelism.
With that simple definition under our belt, it should be fairly straightforward to work out what is and isn’t faithful evangelism. If the gospel is being announced, it’s evangelism. If something else is happening, it’s not.
A free weekly table tennis club, held in a church, where Christians build genuine friendships with non-Christians… isn’t evangelism. I’m not saying it’s a bad thing to do. I’m simply saying it isn’t evangelism.
The same is true of English language classes, toddler groups, and international cafés. Again, I’m not saying the church should stop doing these things. I’m just saying we shouldn’t think of them as evangelism.
A free church BBQ for the local community isn’t really an “evangelistic” event – not if there’s “zero ‘Christian’ content”. It’s a lovely thing to do. But it isn’t evangelism. Maybe it’s “outreach”. What actually is “outreach”?
Evangelism vs outreach
The terms evangelism and outreach are often used interchangeably, but Christian blogger Tim Challies defines them differently…
“Evangelism is primarily a message, while outreach is primarily an action.”
Challies goes on to say…
“We often feel that we have fulfilled the Lord’s command to preach the gospel through evangelism when, in reality, we have been involved in outreach.”
You may disagree but, personally, I find Tim’s distinction helpful. It stops us from thinking we’re doing evangelism when we’re actually doing something else. Our free church BBQ is outreach, not evangelism. The same goes for the weekly toddler group. You get the idea.
“Plus a short gospel talk”
But what about our church’s imaginary upcoming wine tasting event? Does that count as biblical or faithful evangelism? After all, it says on the flyer…
“You are invited to an evening of wine tasting, live music, plus a short gospel talk.”
- Does the 10-minute gospel talk make the whole evening “evangelism”?
- What if it was only a 5-minute talk? Or a 1-minute talk?
- What percentage of an event needs to be spent announcing the gospel in order to make it an “evangelistic” event?
- Does the “evangelism” begin when the speaker stands up and then stop when he sits down?
These are genuine questions. I’m not sure what the answers are.
I’ve discussed evangelism and these sorts of evangelistic events with quite a few people over the past month. Despite their varying ages and church backgrounds, the general tone of the conversations have been the same…
What we’re currently doing doesn’t seem to be working.
Non-Christians are still coming along to some of our events, but we’re seeing hardly any of them putting their faith in Jesus.
We all seem to agree that holding up a sign that says “Repent or Perish”, whilst completely biblical (Luke 13:1-5), probably isn’t the most effective way to announce the gospel.
And that leads us on (finally) to the bit we’ve all been waiting for. So…
What are the most effective ways to announce the good news of Jesus Christ in 2020?
Before we get into it, I want to point out again that I’m trying to promote principles over strategies – or at least principles before strategies. If we’re all super clear on the principles of faithful evangelism, we’ll find it much easier to make decisions about which specific strategies to use.
And the principles really haven’t changed over the last 2,000 years. Here they are…
- Focus on Jesus
- Start with Jesus
- Tell everyone about Jesus
1. Focus on Jesus
The free-lunch evangelism fallacy is that non-Christians aren’t interested in Jesus and therefore we need to use something else as evangelistic bait.
We end up with “evangelistic” events where the focus is very much on the sports quiz, or the wine-tasting, or whatever other activity we’ve chosen. The “short gospel talk” certainly isn’t the focus of the evening.
But does that matter? I think it does!
For starters, these events actually put off the majority of people simply because their hobbies and interests don’t align with whatever activity is on offer. But aside from that, ask yourself, what kind of unspoken message are we conveying by treating the gospel in this way?
It reminds me of a J.John quote my dad told me…
“If you want to share the gospel with confidence, you have to have confidence in the gospel.”
Jesus is not a timeshare…
Do we have confidence in the gospel? Whenever I’m at a “free lunch” evangelistic event, I don’t feel like we do. I feel more like we’re trying to sell a timeshare.
Nobody wants to buy a timeshare. If buying a timeshare was such a great idea, the salespeople wouldn’t have to lure unsuspecting holidaymakers into their pitch with the promise of freebies! Surely the same goes for telling people about Jesus.
By focusing on something else, it’s as if we’re admitting that “Jesus really isn’t that great, but if we can hook you in with something else then perhaps we’ll find a way to talk you into becoming a Christian.”
…Jesus is good news!
This is what we believe, right? But is this how we act? Does our evangelistic event give off this message?
If Jesus really is “the very best news you could ever hear” then why do we need something else to act as the “selling point”? Shouldn’t Jesus be the focus of our evangelistic event? You’d assume so, wouldn’t you?
We need to have confidence in the gospel of Jesus. Personally, I think we need to go “full-on” Jesus. Put Jesus on absolutely everything. We want people in our area to know that…
- Our church is all about Jesus
- We think Jesus is the best
So, when we put on evangelistic events they need to be about Jesus. The general gist of the invitation must be, “Come and hear about Jesus“. We can’t expect non-Christians to be interested in Jesus if it doesn’t even appear to them that we’re interested in Jesus!
Jesus is not irrelevant…
I’ve heard it said that non-Christians think Jesus is irrelevant to 21st-century life. The typical next question is… if that’s true, how do we make Jesus relevant?
Let’s start with what we shouldn’t do. We shouldn’t just stick a gospel talk in the middle of an unrelated activity we think people might enjoy.
If we host a two-hour truffle-making workshop with a short 10-minute gospel talk in the middle, then the focus of the evening is clearly the truffle-making. By design, we’ve turned the Jesus bit into an irrelevant distraction!
The whole structure of our evangelistic event needs to announce the relevance and importance of Jesus. And there are loads of ways to do that, provided we put the focus squarely on Jesus.
…Jesus is King!
In fact, he’s the King of kings and Lord of lords.
To say Jesus is irrelevant would be like saying Donald Trump is irrelevant. It’s ridiculous. You might not like Trump, but you can’t claim he’s irrelevant. And he’s just the president of a country. Jesus is the President of presidents!
I think too often we put ourselves on the backfoot unnecessarily.
“Oh no! People think Jesus is irrelevant in 2020. How can we change their minds? What can we possibly do to make Jesus appear relevant in the 21st century?”
Kanye West simply says, Jesus is King.
Jesus is relevant, and always will be relevant, because he is the forever King of everything and everyone. And to those who disagree, to those who don’t believe that Jesus is King, Kanye has this to say…
“People who don’t believe are walking dead. They are asleep. And this is the awakening.”
I don’t think we necessarily need to be quite that blunt. But that is what we need to believe. We have the truth. We have the good news. And it’s all about Jesus. We need to have confidence in the gospel.
So that’s principle #1; focus on Jesus. It sounds obvious and yet a lot of the time we seem to focus our evangelistic efforts on all sorts of other stuff, with Jesus as a 10-minute add-on. When we focus on these other things, we’re only reinforcing assumptions that Jesus can’t be that good or that relevant today. Because if he was, surely he’d be the focus!
2. Start with Jesus
The funnel evangelism fallacy is that non-Christians need to be warmed up to Jesus slowly and therefore we need to start with “zero ‘Christian’ content”.
In threshold one of InterVarsity’s Five Thresholds they say…
“People today often start in a place of skepticism or distrust towards Christians.“
Now that could well be true. But the assumption here is that in the past people didn’t start in a place of scepticism or distrust towards Christians. That things are different in the 21st century and therefore we need a different approach. A softer approach. We need “pre-evangelism“. We can’t just start with Jesus.
Where to start?
I’m not saying Jesus needs to be the very first word out of our mouths. I’m just saying we should want him there in our first evangelistic conversation or church event. We don’t need to create a funnel. We don’t need to save him for Level 4. We can start with Jesus.
Just look at the example of Paul in Acts 17…
“So Paul, standing in the midst of the Areopagus, said: “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription, ‘To the unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.”
He starts with them, the people he’s speaking to, and what they already know. He then goes on to talk of God the creator and how he is totally different to their idols of gold or silver or stone. But he ends with this…
The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”
He certainly doesn’t waste much time before getting to Jesus!
And we’re told there was a mixture of responses. Some mocked. Others said, “We’ll hear you again about this.” But some joined him and believed! They heard him announce the gospel once and that was enough. They didn’t need to be warmed up by a free BBQ or a weekly football social.
This is actually a great relief. Faithful evangelism is actually much simpler than we’ve made it out to be. We don’t need to be strategic about when to introduce Jesus into the equation. We don’t need flow charts or funnels. We just need to tell people about Jesus.
Evangelism before apologetics
BBQs and 5-a-side football aren’t the only ways we try to warm non-Christians up before we get to Jesus. I’ve noticed that a lot of church guest events tend to skew more towards apologetics than evangelism.
But aren’t evangelism and apologetics basically the same thing? I found the following quote from Mack Stiles helpful…
“A housewife meeting with a friend over coffee may be evangelizing, while a brilliant Christian apologist speaking to thousands in a church sanctuary may not be. Few see it this way, but that’s because we have false understandings of what evangelism is. Defending the faith is a fine thing to do, but it is easy to give apologetics for Christianity without explaining the gospel—and we cannot evangelize without the gospel.”
If evangelism is “the announcement of the gospel”, we can define apologetics as “the defense against objections to the gospel”.
Again, I’m not saying we should stop doing apologetics. But it often feels like we’ve got the order the wrong way round. As if first, we need to answer every possible objection a non-Christian may have with the gospel. And then, once we’ve done that (and convinced them we’re sensible/rational people), then we can actually tell them the gospel.
So, you book a high-flying Christian speaker for a men’s guest event, but he ends up spending more time defending why he’s a Christian than actually sharing the good news of Jesus.
I remember asking the guy sitting next to me at church if he was planning on bringing anyone along to the upcoming men’s event. He replied he’d been hoping to get his non-believing dad along, but his dad had never even mentioned evolution before and the last thing he wanted to do was give him another objection to Christianity!
So that’s principle #2; start with Jesus. We don’t need to try and be clever by saving Jesus for a later “phase” of the process or drip-feeding him in slowly. And if we do start by announcing the gospel to someone and they come back with an objection, well that’s ok. That seems like a great time to tackle whatever specific objection they may have.
3. Tell everyone about Jesus
The friendship evangelism fallacy is that non-Christians need to hear the gospel from a friend they trust. So, either focus primarily on telling your friends about Jesus, or perhaps actively go and make some new friends so that in the future you can tell them about Jesus.
Personally, I think this is the most prevalent evangelism fallacy in 21st-century Christianity.
The blurb to Sam Chan’s book ‘Evangelism in a Skeptical World’ starts like this…
“Most Christians already know that they should be telling their friends about Jesus.”
Now, I’m not trying to have a go at Sam Chan’s book. I haven’t read it, but it’s probably very helpful. Rather, my point is this…
It’s become so normal to talk about evangelism as “telling your friends about Jesus” that I doubt many people even gave a second thought to the blurb starting in that way.
It’s as if we all have some sort of ‘Great Commission’ filter or converter installed in our brains. So when we read Matthew 28v19…
“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations”
What we actually hear Jesus saying to us is…
“Go therefore and make disciples of all your friends”
But that isn’t what he said!
Why the focus on our “friends”?
We all grew up being told not to talk to strangers – and rightly so. But as Margeret Manning writes perhaps it’s “a rule we learned too well”.
In the 21st century, at least in the West, starting a conversation with a stranger is practically viewed as anti-social behaviour. It’s normal for 50 people to sit in a tube carriage for 20 minutes and nobody to even make eye contact!
In general, we do only talk to people we know. So it makes sense that our evangelistic efforts have naturally become focused on our friends. But again, that isn’t what Jesus commanded us to do.
Here are four statements I’ve heard from people consciously (or unconsciously) promoting friendship evangelism…
1. “You might be the only Christian they know”
I’ve heard this said a lot to try and encourage believers to tell their friends about Jesus. And, of course, we should be praying for and looking for opportunities to tell our friends about Jesus, but again this type of thinking assumes that people need to hear about Jesus from someone they know.
2. “Jesus befriended unbelievers”
Unsurprisingly, Jesus is often used as an example for our evangelism. And it’s true that Jesus spent plenty of time with unbelievers, engaged in friendly conversations with them, and even ate plenty of meals with them. But I don’t remember Jesus joining a 1st-century running club and spending months trying to develop genuine friendships with the other members so that he could tell them the good news a bit later on.
3. “It’s difficult to witness to complete strangers”
According to Tony Miano, one of the great misnomers of friendship evangelism is the idea that it’s easier to witness to someone you know. In reality, we often find it most difficult to talk about Jesus with our non-believing family and closest friends. Especially if they’ve already told us, very politely, that they’re not interested in Christianity. The truth is, it can be pretty difficult witnessing to anyone.
4. “Pick three non-Christian friends to pray for”
I’ve encouraged people in my bible study group to do this. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with it. But God hasn’t promised to save Dave, Sally and Michelle. We pray that he will. But we don’t want to turn them into our own personal evangelism project. To have them “in the incubator” – as it’s been said. And we especially don’t want to do that to the exclusion of everyone else in the world!
We need to give everyone the opportunity to hear the good news about Jesus. It’s a universal message. Everyone needs to hear it.
And Jesus seems to say to his disciples, “Go and tell some people about me. If they won’t listen, go and find some other people to tell.”
Rather than, “Find a group of people. Spend some time befriending them. And then keep trying to tell them the gospel until they believe.”
The gospel is not just for our friends, the gospel is for everyone. Therefore, tell everyone…
Or at least invite everyone!
Jonathan Parnell says, “Not everyone will believe the gospel, but everyone should be invited”.
I think we should definitely apply that to our church’s evangelistic events and courses. We need to make sure we’re trying to invite everyone (in our local area) and not just friends of current church members.
This is one of the reasons I’ve warmed to the idea of door-to-door. You can’t deny that going door-to-door in your local area or parish is a great way to reach everyone. I think we should flyer more often. And there are definitely many more creative things we can do with that.
When it comes to actual door knocking, I think I prefer an opt-in rather than an opt-out approach – but I’ll save that for another post.
And we should advertise our evangelistic events widely, making use of community sites such as Meetup and Nextdoor. It’s probably a good idea to put something in the local newspapers and magazines too. And there’s no harm in making a giant banner or sign to hang outside your church building either.
As another side point, network evangelism leads us to tell the gospel to people just like us. So, over time our churches naturally become more and more homogeneous. Everyone starts to look the same, talk the same, think the same.
This doesn’t strike me as a good thing. Apparently, some people actually think it is – I just started reading about the “homogenous unit principle“. But there’s no time for that now.
So that’s principle #3; tell everyone about Jesus (or at least invite everyone). It sounds so obvious, and yet we don’t seem to be doing it! A focus on passive friendship evangelism excludes so many people from hearing the good news. And on a practical level, it makes it much more likely that our next Christianity Explored course will be close to empty.
Questions to ask before announcing your next evangelistic event
Well done for making it this far and reading over 10,000 words of my ramblings about evangelism. I hope you found them helpful. My prayer is that God would reveal to you how best to approach faithful evangelism in your specific situation and context.
To finish, here are four questions you might like to ask yourself before you announce your next evangelistic event or strategy…
- Does this evangelistic event announce the good news of Jesus?
- Is Jesus the focus, the centre, the main “selling point” of this evangelistic event?
- What percentage of our time/money/energy will be spent not announcing the good news of Jesus?
- How will we advertise this evangelistic event so that as many people as possible will have the opportunity to hear the good news of Jesus?