During a recent haircut, my barber began to talk about how he and his male partner are Christians and attend church. I was thankful for the opportunity to discuss Christianity with him, and the conversation left me with a distinct impression: I can assume very little in my evangelism. I am often guilty of overestimating the level to which I am on the same page as my conversation partners, and Christians reading this article could share their own similar experiences. The post-Christian, secularizing culture around us means that we can no longer assume certain things in our evangelism. Consider three examples.
- Don’t Assume Biblical Literacy
Christians can no longer assume biblical literacy in our evangelism. When Indiana Jones referenced the Ten Commandments and received blank stares in “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” he sarcastically asked, “Any of you guys ever go to Sunday School?” While that line would have made a broad American audience laugh in 1981, more and more Americans today would identify with the blank stares. In some popular evangelism methods, the Ten Commandments function as an illustration of sin, but what if the person whom you are speaking with has never been to Sunday School?
While reliable statistics on biblical literacy are difficult to gather for several reasons, Lifeway Research found in 2016 that less than half of Americans have read more than several passages or stories in the Bible, and almost a quarter have read only a few sentences or less (see here). With or without these statistics, most American Christians have experienced this lack of biblical literacy firsthand in conversations with friends, coworkers, and neighbors.
In the Scriptures, Jesus is presented as the Son of David, the Lion of Judah, and the Root of Jesse, and each of those titles is rich in meaning and significance. Also, the figures of Adam, Abraham, Moses, and many others are essential to the biblical story. But Christians today will most likely not be able to assume knowledge of those concepts and people when sharing the gospel. In fact, many people may not even be familiar with the words and actions of Jesus.
However, we should not be discouraged. Paul, in his sermon at the Areopagus in Athens, powerfully proclaimed the gospel without directly appealing to the Old Testament (Acts 17:22–31). In this way, he presents a model for Christians sharing the gospel with those who have no background in the Scriptures.
Where does this leave Christians today in terms of encouraging biblical literacy? Is it just a relic of the past? Not according to the New Testament. Paul made a striking number of biblical references in his letters, even when they were to churches in predominantly Gentile areas. This means that Paul, and other early Christians, engaged in a campaign to educate converts regarding the Old Testament. Christians today would do well to follow these examples.
- Don’t Assume a Shared Vocabulary
In cross-cultural contexts, Christians are wisely wary of using terms without defining them. In a Muslim-majority culture, for example, the term “god” is synonymous with the unitary god of Islam, not the Triune God of the Old and New Testaments. Similarly, in a community-oriented culture “sin” may be primarily thought of as transgressing community norms with the consequence being a loss of standing within the community. In contrast, the Bible presents sin as primarily offending God, and the wages of sin as death (Romans 6:23).
American Christians today would do well to learn from the example of our brothers and sisters serving in cross-cultural contexts by carefully explaining our language in evangelism. While terms like faith, repentance, and sin are essential to the message of the gospel, Christians will often find that their conversation partners are unfamiliar with, or even totally misunderstand, these concepts. In fact, Christians may find that the term “god” needs to be explained. When Christians casually use theological terminology without carefully explaining it, they run the risk of turning someone away due to lack of understanding or giving someone a false sense of understanding.
In the face of this challenge, it might be tempting to jettison biblical terminology. However, this is not the example of the authors of the Bible who delved deeply into the nature of faith, repentance, sin, and many more theological concepts in their writings. Instead, Christians should commit to carefully explaining the message of the gospel with the goal of achieving shared understanding.
- Don’t Assume Christianity is the Default Religious Option
At various points, I have been able to initiate evangelistic conversations by simply asking, “Are you involved in a church?” However, I feel as if I am having more and more conversations with people for whom that question simply does not make sense because attending a Christian church is not their default religious option.
In a recent evangelistic conversation, I was told by someone, “I grew up in Christianity, then I became non-religious. But, in the past few years, I’ve been influenced by Buddhism and become interested in mindfulness and meditation. I’m feeling more open to my Christian roots because I’m having more positive experiences with religion.” As this conversation reveals, many people are open to religious experiences outside of Christianity. Furthermore, Christians cannot assume that unbelievers grasp the exclusive truth of the gospel, as many people may attempt to blend aspects of Christianity with alternate spiritual practices.
Christians, however, should not be discouraged in the face of this development. The first Christians preached the gospel in a world where Christianity was anything but the first option. Also, Christian history shows that God has saved many people out of the most unlikely backgrounds. As chronicled in The Confessions, God brought Augustine to Christianity through a string of experiments in religion and philosophy.
I have traced three things which Christians cannot assume in evangelism, but there are undoubtedly more. While these challenges might seem daunting, Christians have reason to be encouraged because we possess a message that spread throughout the Roman empire with striking speed, even though the first Christians could assume very little in their evangelism in many contexts.
Instead of being intimidated, Christians should be moved to pray and to trust that God will glorify Christ as the Holy Spirit brings people to faith and repentance. Christians should also renew their commitments to discipleship, understanding that the remedy to these challenges is not jettisoning biblical truth. We need to follow the example of Christians in previous eras by faithfully instructing converts in the Scriptures.