12 Ways Evangelism Is Changing
You've heard it said the twenty-first century is markedly different from the twentieth. It's not only because we have terrorism scares, self-driving cars, and Facebook. Church attendance is decreasing, religious Nones are increasing, and the way people view and interact with truth has changed.
Yet many Christians and churches are evangelizing as if we are still living in the twentieth century—and failing to make the unbelievable news about Jesus more believable.
Although the essence of evangelism is the gospel—the message that Jesus Christ is Lord—the task of evangelism is our human effort of proclaiming this message. This task used to primarily mean quoting Scripture, or explaining the believability of the Christian faith through clever arguments.
Many of the principles and methods of evangelism from the twentieth century no longer work effectively today. We need new methods to communicate the timeless message of the gospel in culturally relevant ways. Author and evangelist Sam Chan shows a way forward.
His evangelism handbook Evangelism in a Skeptical World reveals at least twelve ways evangelism is changing, which we review below. But the book goes farther than that: it offers actionable advice with real-world examples to get past people’s defensive posture toward Christianity, so they can seriously consider the claims of Jesus and understand how his gospel is good news for them.
Read on to discover how effective evangelism is changing in at least twelve ways.
1) No one-size-fits-all evangelism
The twentieth century gave us some helpful ways of sharing the gospel. Unfortunately, well-meaning Christians often get stuck on one particular method. Whether tent-style crusades or crisis evangelism, some methods are believed to be the only or best way to evangelize.
Chan reminds us, however, “In the Bible, there is no single method of communicating the gospel; instead there is a variety of methods.” (16) He lists several from the New Testament:
- Parables by Jesus
- One-on-one conversations
- Discussion meetings
- Public speeches
Chan offers several common gospel presentations for your use in Evangelism in a Skeptical World. “From these,” he points out, “we can see that there is no one-size-fits-all gospel presentation. As summaries of the gospel, they all have strengths and corresponding weaknesses…[and] this indicates that we need to use a variety of gospel presentations.” (86)
2) Evangelism as a lifestyle, not a one-time activity
In the past, evangelism has been viewed as an activity we add to our lives, such as telling someone about Jesus during lunch or holding an evangelistic event. Instead, “we need to change our lives so that we live an evangelistic lifestyle, not a life with add-on bits of evangelism.” (45)
Chan illustrates with a story about three non-Christian doctor friends. His Christian friends would come over, hang out, and get to know them. When his doctor friends went out to a movie, his Christian friends were invited. After two years of relationship building, his doctor friends started coming along with him to church, eventually giving their lives to Christ.
“It took two years! That’s about how long it takes to form a network of trusted friends. That’s why I’m arguing for a lifestyle change, not just something we tack onto our lives.” (45)
3) How we share our testimony
Typically, Christian testimonies have one of two key elements of a story, but not the other: “They tell you the events, but without a grid, so it becomes a rambling incoherent sequence. Or they tell you a grid, but with no events, so it becomes an abstract, formulaic, theological presentation.” (53)
Chan outlines a new approach that combines them, so that we tell our testimony as a story:
- Introduction: I am [describe yourself], and my mission is to [state your mission]. For example, [now give an example].
- Body: So I tried to achieve my mission in these ways: [give examples]. But [now explain the problem of trying to achieve your mission without God]. For example, [now give an example].
- Bridge: But this is what Jesus has done for me. [Explain how Jesus fulfills your mission.]
- Climax: That’s when I decided [explain how you decided to follow Jesus].
- Denouement: So now [explain what living with Jesus looks like in your life now]. For example, [now give an example]. (56)
(Find more detail on this approach in Evangelism in a Skeptical World.)
4) Emphasizing salvation differently
Various evangelism methods have emphasized differing benefits from salvation: deliverance from hell, forgiveness of sins, the gift of heaven. “But Graham Cole,” Chan observes, “believes that the umbrella metaphor for all of these salvation metaphors is peace or shalom.” (84)
Peace, connecting with the ultimate existential cry of every heart. Chan explains:
Because of the curses in Genesis 3, we are not at peace with our work, our identity, our roles, the environment, our bodies, our friends, our family, and ultimately God. Today’s society has so many fractured relationships at home and work that we are longing for peace. Every aspect of our lives is affected by disharmony, disruption, and despair. Peace is the opposite of our lives. (84)
Given our twenty-first century existential angst from wars, recessions, and alienation, we should emphasize peace in our evangelism.
5) Emphasizing sin differently
We should also emphasize sin differently. Given that the Western world is moving away from the guilt model of sin, since people no longer believe in absolutes, Chan suggests we should emphasize shame when we talk about sin.
“I’ve been using the language of shame—we have ‘shamed God,’ we have ‘not been honoring God’—and the room is silent. All eyes are on me. They get it. It’s personal.” (78, 79)
He also contends it might be more helpful not to use the word sin at all. Not only because “Jesus himself often doesn’t use the word sin to describe sin.” (85) But also, “as with other words in English whose meanings have changed over time—thong, gay, dumb—we can’t expect our listeners to hear the intended meaning when we use it.” (85)
6) Adapting to a different age: postmodernity
Just as Western missionaries must adapt to the cultural customs of African tribes when sharing the gospel, so too must Western Christians adapt to the cultural customs of our new age, postmodernity.
At some stage in the last few decades, we moved away from foundationalist reasoning. And we became suspicious of metanarratives and claims of ultimate truth. We moved away from the age of modernity into the age of postmodernity. The methods of evangelism that once worked so well in the 1980s no longer had the same appeal in the 2000s. (102)
Postmoderns are asking new questions and looking for new answers. We need to adapt to this new culture in order to help them find Jesus. Helpfully, in his book Chan explains the precise differences between modernism and postmodernism to help you evangelize.
7) What persuades: from clever arguments to hospitality and life stories
While the most important question for moderns is “Is it true?”, for postmoderns what matters is “Is it real in our lives.” Which means “a postmodern person is less likely to be persuaded by our clever arguments…but they might be persuaded by our life story.” (118)
Postmoderns care whether we are living consistently and coherently with our beliefs. In other words: are we being authentically true to ourselves; do we walk the walk as well as talk the talk? Evangelism shifts, then, from propositions we assert to hospitality we practice. Not only does hospitality provide ”the space in which gospel conversations can happen in a friendly and safe environment… Hospitality also shows that the gospel is real.” (117)
"Moreover, our testimony demonstrates that the gospel works.” (118) Postmodern people are likely to accept personal testimony as valid knowledge. (118) Chan delves deeper into this in his book.
8) "Livable" leads to "believable" leads to "true"
Because postmoderns are more interested in whether something is real than if it is true, the evangelistic pedagogical method has changed.
With moderns, we used to employ the logic of Truth, Belief, Praxis. In other words:
- This is true
- If it’s true, then you must believe it
- If you believe it, now you must live it
But with postmoderns, Chan offers a better pedagogical sequence: Praxis, Belief, Truth. Which translates:
- The Christian life is livable
- If it’s livable then it’s also believable
- If it’s believable, then it’s also true
When non-Christian see how the Christian life works they will discover it is livable, leading them to see that it’s believable. “And if they see that, they might also acknowledge that it’s true.” (125)
9) Evangelism requires cultural hermeneutics
Although “Just give them the gospel” is a well-meaning Christian aphorism, Chan argues it is at best simplistic, and at worst naive. Because at its heart is the idea we don’t have to worry about culture. Yet Chan contends, “If we understand another person’s culture, then we have a better chance of being understood.” (132)
Evangelism requires cultural hermeneutics—the act and art of interpreting and understanding culture—for several other reasons:
- “The gospel will be interpreted and misinterpreted differently by each culture” (134)
- “The gospel will be applied differently in each culture” (135)
- “We ourselves as evangelists are also enculturated” (135)
Bottom line: “If we are to present the gospel to someone, we need to be educated in cultural hermeneutics. We need to be able to exegete the Bible’s culture, the culture we are seeking to reach, and our own culture.” (142) Chan teaches you how to read and reach our culture.
10) Borrow from culture to complete their storyline
Just as Paul quoted to the Athenians their own cultural texts and poets (see Acts 17:16-34), evangelism is leveraging the texts of our own culture to find common ground with people and share the gospel. Chan has found three immediate payoffs in quoting from such sources as the New York Times, Harry Potter books, and Malcom Gladwell:
- Creates immediate common ground
- Many authors of such texts are respectful of Christianity
- Many cultural texts borrow from the transcendent Christian worldview
“We can use these books to articulate and affirm our audience’s cultural storyline. And then we can show how their storyline still requires transcendence: hope, purpose, love, forgiveness, community. And then we can show how the gospel completes this storyline for them.” (275)
11) Tell the gospel with storytelling
When sharing evangelism, consider you have two different audiences with two different preferred learning styles: abstract learners are typically literate learners, preferring to read and learn from information; concrete-relational learners are oral learners, preferring to watch and listen to stories.
While neither style is better than the other and the Bible gives us biblical texts that relate to both styles, consider this: four out of five people in the Western world prefer concrete-relational learning; nine out of ten non-Westerners prefer concrete-relational learning.
"So if we wish to reach these majorities as evangelists," Chan writes, "we should communicate more for the concrete-relational learners than for the abstract learners. Moreover, the content of the gospel—which is a story—is better suited to the form of storytelling than propositional communication.” (175)
Chan not only explains why leaning into this change benefits evangelism. His book offers concrete steps to telling the gospel with stories.
12) Moving people from ‘hostile’ to ‘loyal’ through a journey to faith
Chan has a friend who wasn’t always a Christian. He compared his journey to the Christian faith to that of a buyer’s journey, identified by seven categories along a spectrum: hostile, open, considering, trying it out, entry level, switching, and loyal.
This wasn’t always the case with evangelism. In the past, it was all about gaining a commitment, then and there—often through pressure. However, evangelism has changed, and Chan argues our role as evangelists should take people through the above journey, from one group to the next:
Most people journey into the Christian faith. [Emphasis added.] Their journey consists of a series of moments rather than one key moment. Whether we like it or not, this means that people behave as a Christian first and then identify as a Christian later. They find belonging first and then believe later. Often the entry point is wisdom, and along the way they find salvation. (284)
While the content of evangelism is changeless, the methods of evangelism change precisely because our world changes. Field-tested and filled with fresh and creative insights, Evangelism in a Skeptical World equips ministry leaders, students, and everyday Christians to share the gospel in today’s skeptical world.
Explore Chan’s book today to discover ways to adapt evangelism to our changing world; connect to a post-Christian, post-churched, post-reached world; and make the unbelievable news about Jesus more believable.
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