This article from GCI-USA Regional Pastor Randy Bloom continues our series on Worldview Conversion and Whole-Life Discipleship.
In the Western world today, Christian faith is largely marginalized. We’ve entered a post-Christian era in which traditional approaches to evangelism (a key part of whole-life discipleship) are largely ineffective. That being the case, we are challenged to answer an important question: How can we, as followers of Jesus, participate with what the Holy Spirit is doing to evangelize people who lack any semblance of a Christian worldview?
Much has been written in answer to this question, but rather than reviewing the literature, I want to share some of what I’ve learned through friendships with non-Christians. While I don’t claim to have all the answers (who does?) or to have the keenest discernment on this challenging topic, there are a number of things I’ve learned that may help us as we seek to discern and then participate in what the Spirit is doing.
What is evangelism?
Let’s start with a simple definition: Evangelism involves sharing the gospel with people and helping them respond by becoming followers of Jesus.
We probably all agree that evangelism is a process—the ongoing ministry of the Spirit as he works in the lives of people over time, relentlessly drawing them to Jesus. We are called to participate in what he is doing, but how? How do we evangelize people who have little interest in the things of God—people who are not yet asking searching questions about God? We already have relationships with some of these people, while others are merely passing acquaintances. How can we participate in what the Spirit is doing to evangelize them?
Let’s face an uncomfortable reality—as Christians, most of us are out of touch with the worldviews (beliefs, values, ideals) held by the non-Christians around us. Perhaps we’ve read some things (book knowledge), or heard some things (often biased and limited information) or gained some (limited) knowledge from our direct experience. But because we’re deeply entrenched in church life, most of us are far removed from the non-Christian world around us. While this is natural, it limits our ability to participate in Jesus’ mission to a largely post-Christian world.
The first step in evangelism is to connect with non-Christians. But doing so is a challenge for most Christians because the worldviews held by non-Christians seem strange to them. Therefore, engaging a non-Christian takes a willingness to be uncomfortable, and it also takes work—perhaps that’s why most Christians shy away from evangelism.
As Christians, we often judge (condemn) or merely dismiss those aspects of non-Christian worldviews that we don’t understand or like. If that assessment seems harsh, remember it’s how Christians are perceived by most non-Christians. So what do we do? A good place to begin is to cease separating ourselves from the non-Christian world.
This separation likely came about unintentionally as we engaged in church activities that were largely inwardly focused. The more we engaged in such activities, the more we detached from unchurched people. This led to us becoming uncomfortable in their presence, finding it difficult to relate to and engage with them. The way we reverse this unfortunate situation is by first humbly admitting that the separation exists, then stepping out of our comfort zone (sequestered behind church walls). If we don’t take these steps, it’s highly unlikely that we’ll be able to share our hope and faith with any non-Christians.
Engaging non-Christians (even those who are anti-Christian) at a personal level requires lots of patience and rather thick skin. “Going deeper” relationally with people who do not think like us, and who disagree with us on many issues, is not for spiritual “wimps.” Keep in mind that the “judgment radar” of most non-Christians is sensitively tuned. We Christians too easily fall into judgmental patterns that shut down communication with non-Christians. They hear judgment from us even when it isn’t there—it’s in our looks and tone of voice. We sometimes can’t help ourselves.
For instance, how do we react to and converse with devout Buddhists, Muslims or atheists? How do we react when someone uses foul language, makes crude remarks, or acts in other ways that contradict our Christian beliefs and values? How do we react when someone expresses support for abortion, for LGBTQ lifestyles, or for political viewpoints different from our own? We don’t have to take a compromising stand on these issues, but sometimes the way we react when presented with these worldview issues make us appear uninformed, disconnected from reality and judgmental.
As humans, our sense of personal identity is deeply bound up with our worldview—our core values, deeply held beliefs and key understandings. Because most of us have spent a good deal of time and effort thinking about such things, we tend to view criticism of our worldview as an attack on our personhood. This is true for Christians and it’s also true for non-Christians. Thus when worldviews clash, our interactions can become quite volatile. My point here is that in order to engage people who hold non-Christian worldviews, we Christians must exercise a great deal of understanding, tact and humility. We need to love our non-Christian neighbor as ourselves!
In discussions with non-Christians, referring to the Bible or to Jesus gets a bit tricky. We may assume that they are acquainted with biblical concepts or terms and have at least a basic biblical understanding with which we can address their questions or issues. But we are mistaken in that assumption. We live in a world that is now largely post-Christian—a world where most non-Christians are not only unacquainted with what Christians believe, but are apathetic or even antagonistic toward Christians. They have little interest in What Would Jesus Do? (WWJD) or other Christian platitudes. They are not interested in hearing what the Bible says. Without becoming defensive or frustrated, we have to back off and identify a basic starting point with them—asking good questions, then listening carefully.
Ask good questions, listen carefully
Many of us don’t have a good working knowledge of the many worldviews held by non-Christians. This lack of understanding underscores the need we have to ask good questions and then listen carefully to their answers in order to gain understanding concerning what they actually believe. Our preconceptions concerning their beliefs may be mistaken. So rather than jumping to unwarranted conclusions, we need to patiently and graciously seek clarity. Doing so often takes a great deal of time.
It can be difficult to listen to ideas that are not only radically different from our own, but often are illogical and fanciful. But it’s vital to take time to understand what they actually believe (some research on the side may be necessary—see the references listed at the end of this article). With that knowledge we can then identify points of connection between their worldview and ours—points of agreement that can serve as a bridge of connection, opening opportunities for us to influence their worldview in the direction of Christ. As we listen deeply, we may be amazed at what we learn, and how our own views on some things may change along the way.
The value of a silent witness
In seeking to understand the worldview of a non-Christian acquaintance, its sometimes best to ask or say nothing, taking time to develop relational credibility before bringing Jesus or the Bible into the conversation. In doing so, we need not think we’re failing to stand up for Jesus—he stands for himself just fine! We also don’t need to feel that by not speaking up we are missing an opportunity to “witness.” In our post-Christian world, a silent, nonjudgmental witness is often more effective than words. Silence is often a more powerful way to declare “the right thing.” Simply loving people—being available to them when opportunities arise—is often the best way to help non-Christians come to know Jesus. Silence may be a spiritual gift we need more of as we trust the Spirit to do his often mysterious work of evangelism.
Be ready to answer their questions
As we connect relationally with non-Christians, we’ll encounter some who, further along in their journey with Jesus, by the Spirit, are asking questions, wanting to know about God, the Christian faith and the Bible. It may be that the Spirit has led such people to us to help them unravel the tangled web of their current worldview, and are open to the simplicity, hope and joy of knowing Jesus. How can we be of help at that point? What can we do to evangelize them?
Again, we start by seeking to understand what they are currently thinking and believing. Then we look for points of commonality between those beliefs and the Christian faith. We then proceed, gently helping them see the points of illogic or futility in their current beliefs, and sharing with them the simple truths of the Christian faith: who God is, his love for them, and how they don’t have to jump through hoops to be accepted by him. This is the time to share with them a simple presentation of the gospel. It’s not a time for making profound, complex theological statements.
Remember, we are relating to people who are early in their Christian journey. They will not likely relate to language and concepts that are second-nature to us. Our challenge is to meet them where they are—to understand their questions and needs and then speak accordingly, using terms and thought-forms they understand.
I’ve been told on several occasions by non-Christians that Christian answers to difficult questions typically sound simplistic. Let’s avoid that by answering their questions in ways that share the gospel without coming across as offering simplistic solutions to complex problems. As people respond positively, we can then help them take additional steps. We can continue meeting with them one-on-one, then invite them to a gathering of church friends, a small group meeting, or a church service. The goal is to continue journeying with them.
Trust the Spirit’s work to evangelize
Every step along the way in this journey, we can trust that the Holy Spirit is at work. At some points it may seem there is little or even no progress, but keep in mind that the Spirit’s work is often unseen, even mysterious. Realize that the Spirit is the primary agent in the communication of the gospel and that he is at work in the lives of all people. We can trust him to reach people, drawing them to Jesus in his way and in his time—even those people who appear to be most resistant to his ministry. Our participation in the Holy Spirit’s ministry to evangelize people around us may extend over a very long time—even our entire lives. We need to be willing to be participants with the Spirit in his work of evangelism over the long haul. We will enjoy the process more if we trust the Spirit to work in people’s lives.
There is much more that could be said about evangelism in a post-Christian world. Hopefully this article advances the discussion. Overall, the place to start with evangelizing people who hold non-Christian or even anti-Christian worldviews is to love and respect them, even when they seem rather unlovable and resistant to the truth and logic of the gospel. I pray that we will be willing to connect with them in almost any circumstance, and to get to know them as people who are loved, forgiven and accepted by God, regardless of what they think or believe at this time.
Participating with the Spirit in evangelizing people means living incarnationally—living with them as Jesus does, by the Spirit: where they are, as they are. It means doing the hard work of laying aside our judgments, presuppositions and expectations, while seeking understanding, and while loving people unconditionally at all points of their journey. We can grow in our ability to do this as we live our life in union and communion with Christ. After all, the same Jesus who lived personally and intimately in our alienated, sin-filled world now lives in us by his evangelizing Spirit. Let us live by the Spirit, following him in evangelizing non-Christians.
- Evangelism in a Skeptical World (How to Make the Unbelievable News about Jesus More Believable) by Sam Chan
- The Sacrament of Evangelism, by Jerry Root & Stan Guthrie
- The Celtic Way of Evangelism (How Christianity Can Reach the West… Again) by George G. Hunter III
- Life-Style Evangelism (Learning to Open Your Life to Those Around You) by Joseph C. Aldrich
- FaithTalk Equipper: GCI website with resources that help congregations conduct evangelistic small groups (http://faithtalkgroups.blogspot.com/)
- GCI Resources: GCI website that addresses evangelism directly in the discipleship section (https://resources.gci.org/pathway)