Turn or burn: The death of evangelism
Over the last few years, Christian youth work has stepped up to plug myriad gaps caused by statutory cutbacks. While we’ve gained credibility and a whole swath of new opportunities, have we lost our heart? Have we missed the point? Youth for Christ’s national director Neil O’Boyle thinks so…
We live in curious times. There’s a whole heap of Christians, including those in some form of leadership, who will happily use social media to express their excitement for an upcoming episode of Game of Thrones or Vikings, which, while full of rich plotting, contain explicit scenes of nudity. The thing is, those same Christians increasingly shudder at the word ‘evangelism’ as if it were offensive or an invitation to a seedy activity. We appear to promote values once shunned and frown upon practices previously encouraged. As the national director for an evangelistic youth organisation you won’t find me tweeting about a popular raunchy TV series but you will find me challenging the movement I serve to ensure that evangelism is at the forefront of what we do.
Look, I get it; evangelism is not ‘sexy’. To some it’s possibly distasteful if not downright offensive. While I can respect that view, Jesus was really clear on this: he told us to go and make disciples (Matthew 28), preach the gospel (Mark 16) and be his witnesses (Acts 1). So why has evangelism been taken off the Church’s to-do list? There are two possible answers to this: either we have a warped image of evangelism or we have lost confidence in sharing the gospel in our current cultural climate. Let’s be honest, we would rather keep quiet than do something - or anything for that matter - which might offend.
Let me give you an example: at a recent family gathering I was asked if I really believed in the afterlife. ‘Absolutely!’ I stated. At this point, the culturally sensitive part of me wanted to leave it there but I didn’t and went on to share, ‘I also believe in heaven and hell.’ It was at this moment that I had crossed the line separating what is permissible and what is unacceptable in every day conversation.
Relativism dictates that we must tolerate everything except that which is intolerant. So a statement which implies some people are included in and others are excluded from the afterlife party is intolerant: everyone should be included otherwise it needs to be banned and shut down. Talking about heaven and hell in this context is therefore a huge ‘no-no’ today.
In fact, I would suggest that relativism has had a significant impact on evangelism over the last 25 years. Evangelistic practices of old would communicate that, ‘Jesus is the way, the truth and the life and no one gets to the father except through him.’ This is an excluding statement; it is intolerant of other faiths and people of no faith. It grates against our current culture. Our response to this has been to throw evangelism out of the window because of its lack of cultural sensitivity, and instead we have embraced ‘mission’ as our new expression. We quote the great commandment as our strategic objective: ‘love God, love others’. We go about doing mission in our communities by loving God and loving others, we just don’t necessarily tell people that we love God. We are nice people who are accepting, tolerant and caring. There is nothing wrong with that, nothing at all. Except, from an evangelistic point of view, people may not realise that we are Christians with a life-changing message. Let’s be honest: mission that does not declare Jesus is not evangelistic - how can it be? It doesn’t mean it’s wrong:;to mis-quote Catchphrase: it’s good, but it’s not evangelistic.
The awkward, alienating gospel
You are probably reaching the conclusion that I am a hardcore evangelical who wants us all to stand on street corners preaching about hell and eternal damnation, while alienating Christians from society. Nothing could be further from the truth; I am an evangelical, and what I want is for us to effectively and deliberately talk about Jesus. How we do that is a different issue altogether but I do not believe we should ever seek to offend or force our views on others.
At college, as an enthusiastic young Christian, I was asked to give a lecture on the leisure industry in the UK and I used it as a means to preach the gospel to my classmates (it took some ‘clever’ twisting to connect the two subjects). It was a complete train wreck, not to mention inappropriate. I became an instant social outcast: nobody wanted to talk to me or have anything to do with me. I had stepped across the unacceptable line. I’d done the awkward, alienating gospel rant and it didn’t work. Vowing never to preach again, I put my head down and focused on my journey with God, committing to an hour of prayer a day, reading my Bible, being held to account by others for the way I lived. By the end of my time at college my classmates had long forgotten my rocky start and were curious to know about my values because they saw something different about me. I had many more opportunities to share Jesus by living as a disciple rather than a preacher.
Christians often cannot share Jesus because they have had no real experience of Jesus to be able to share
The Christian apologist Ravi Zacharias claims, ‘Young people today listen with their eyes and think with their hearts.’ If that really is the case, then authenticity and integrity are critical, because nobody cares about our well-rehearsed explanations of our faith - rather they care about how we live out our lives and respond to them as people. Eventually they will want to hear our claims to truth once we have proved ourselves to be real and accepting.
It’s all Greek to me
Which leads me to the matter of discipleship: Jesus tells us to go and make disciples. The Greek word for disciple is Μαθητής (Mathetes), translated into English it is most closely related to the word ‘apprentice’. An apprentice is somebody who is learning a trade. It would therefore seem that Jesus is asking us to go and make apprentices – learners – of the faith. Long before someone responds to the gospel, they may have been exposed to a Christian living out their faith, demonstrating what it means to follow Jesus. The observer (knowingly or unknowingly) is learning about the faith from that Christian.
The word ‘Christian’ in Greek literally translates as ‘Christ One’. It was not the first expression used for those who followed Jesus, the first term was ‘people of the way’ (Acts 9:2, 24:14). A disciple (apprentice) of Jesus was therefore someone who was learning the way of Jesus. That is significant because it also means we are called to show and tell other people about the ways of Jesus.
Now, it’s possible that I appear to be contradicting myself here: advocating that we live as witnesses rather than proclaiming the gospel. While I do believe we should be witnesses, I am also very much for declaring the gospel in front of unchurched audiences: I do more than my fair share and am delighted for the opportunity (though never on street corners or in college lectures). The Message Trust’s recent Higher Tour, which filled Manchester Arenas with young people, proved that there is still a very strong case for evangelistic events.
So what am I really trying to say? Let me get to the heart of the matter: I believe evangelism has less to do with methods and far more to do with our connectivity to Jesus. As Jesus left the upper room and was on his way with the disciples to the garden of Gethsemane in John 15, he passed through a vineyard and called his disciples to gather around. Pointing out a nearby vine, he said: ‘Guys, I am the vine and you are the branches. On your own as a branch you cannot produce fruit, in fact, unless you are connected to me (the vine) you will wither away and die. Only by being connected to the vine can you produce fruit. Only by being connected to me can you make a difference.’ (My paraphrase of John 15:1-5).
If we are not connected to Jesus, our methods, in many ways, will be completely irrelevant - we simply won’t produce fruit or make a difference. If we are not spending time in his presence, reading the Bible, being filled with the Spirit, belonging to a fellowship and being challenged by other Christians then we can only give of ourselves ,which will come to very little. Jesus is the power source that brings about transformation in our lives and in other peoples’ lives. If we are not plugged into the power then we will be ineffective in our evangelism because we ourselves are not being discipled.
If we want to make a difference within our communities then there are two issues we need to resolve: firstly, our own discipleship journey and secondly, the intentionality of sharing Jesus. John Stott boldly suggested that Christians often cannot share Jesus because they have had no real experience of Jesus to be able to share! We cannot give what we do not have.
The end of youth ‘ministry’
My reflection on youth ministry within the UK is that a portion of it is simply not ministry. Is it possible that a number of Christian organisations and some churches have become solid secular youth work providers? There is significant funding available as the Government reduces its own locally-based services, but such funding often comes with restrictions that prevent us talking about Jesus. The Church and Christian agencies are now the greatest providers of youth work across the nation, but the combination of cultural relativism and the lost art of discipleship could mean that our output in certain environments is more about acts of kindness and professionalism, rather than about sharing Jesus in the belief that he truly transforms a person’s life.
It is not my intention to offend, nor is it to make sweeping judgements, and from this point onwards I will most likely retreat to keeping my views within the organisation that I serve (YFC). Youth for Christ is on a journey of transformation. We are focusing on our own discipleship walk and our evangelistic intent. How our staff and volunteers share Jesus is for them to determine within their own context, based on their own connectivity to Jesus and the strategic opportunities he provides them with at the grassroot level. We also remain committed to empowering the Church to raise up young people who are passionately in love with Jesus who go on to share their faith.
The theologian and apologist Alister McGrath has challenged the Church to remember that the gospel is just as relevant today as it has ever been: the problem is never with the gospel but the way we share it. If we do not live authentic lives which are connected to Jesus, yet still proclaim the gospel then people will not be able to see past our lifestyles to hear our message, but if we live authentic Christ-like lives and we do not actually intentionally seek to declare Jesus, then as Romans 10, asks ‘How will people know if they are not told?’
I recognise that my thoughts will not please everybody and some would rather label me an out-dated conservative evangelical (which I suspect I am). So, before you dismiss my views entirely, look through the fluff to what I am really trying to express: that the world needs us to fall more and more in love with Jesus, the fruit of which will impact our communities through our actions and our declaration - it’s that simple, and equally that difficult.