by Gavin Matthews
There has been consternation, approaching alarm, in some Christian circles over the latest piece of research from The Barna Group into attitudes amongst younger believers. The research itself was detailed, nuanced and contained a wealth of insights into belief and practice across the church’s generations. It was however one headline-generating finding which has caused the furore: ‘Almost Half of Practicing Christian Millennials Say Evangelism Is Wrong’. 1 The implication seems to be that a whole generation of Christians see evangelism as a poisoned well, from which we are inviting people to drink.
The critical question was phrased like this: “Is it wrong to share one’s personal beliefs with someone of a different faith in hopes that they will one day share those beliefs?” Intriguingly, while only around 20% of “elders” and “baby boomers” agreed with that statement, 27% of “Generation X’s” did, along with a whopping 47% of “millennials”. 2 What are we to make of these figures which seem to suggest that evangelism is generation limited; especially as so many of the responders said that evangelism wasn’t merely “awkward”, but actually sinful?
The first thing to note is the parallel findings along with that question. These include a staggering 94% of “millennials” saying that, “the best thing that can happen to a person is for them to come to know Jesus”. Then alongside that, 96% of the same group of younger Christians said that being a witness to Jesus is an essential part of their faith! The third deeply revealing finding is that while only 11% of “elders” believe that, “if someone disagrees with you it means they are judging you”, that figure rises to 40% for millennials.
Two things seem obvious from these findings then.
The first is that the post-modern notion that all claims to truth are powerplays has eaten deeply into the life of young Christians. While older believers seem content to be disagreed with, for many of the younger generation, accepting a person means not critiquing their beliefs. The second observation flows from that, which is that when evangelism is described in institutional or abstract terms (persuading someone else to agree with your beliefs), the young recoil. However, when the questions are focused on Jesus Christ himself (that is in relational categories); millennial believers are as keen, if not keener than their forebears to witness.
What can we learn?
While an older generation can remember a time when the church in the West was culturally central, the young are learning what it means to be faithful followers of Christ from the margins. While for many older people evangelism might still look justifiable when described in terms of winning people for the group or party-line; for the marginalised millennials, such language doesn’t resonate. What does seem to stir the young however, is the experience that when we share the gospel with others, we are actually offering them Jesus.
There is then a strong sense that the younger generation have seen the powerful, institutional forms of church with which the West has become familiar, and found them wanting. That should come as no surprise to anyone who has spent much time immersed in the gospel narratives about Christ himself. Powerful institutionalised religious forces didn’t fare well in Jesus’ estimation. He was more likely to turn the tables over on their industrial-scale religious activities than apply to join the Sanhedrin. To anyone who wants to build a religious empire, following or institution, Jesus remains a problematic figure: building one in his name looks plain weird.
What then should we say about evangelism in a context where institutionalism is dead, and where almost half of the younger believers think that trying to persuade others to your point of view is judgemental and wrong?
The first thing is that there is good evangelism and bad evangelism, and our whole business is to only ever engage in the former. Taking the gospel of Christ, the message of the self-emptying, life-giving God and using it to build an empire or institution is grotesque. The true evangelist is one who gives himself like Christ did, so that other people can live. Likewise, seeking to entice colonial ‘rice-Christians’, is as much a corrupt and bribery-led affair as the prosperity-gospel salesmen on satellite TV, promising miracles for cash. If the hearer is left with the impression that our main point is “join my group”, or “send in money”; or “buy my snake-oil” this is not evangelism. If it doesn’t sound like “look at Jesus”, doesn’t proclaim the death, resurrection, power and love of Jesus, and doesn’t leave the hearer knowing that the call of the gospel is to trust in Jesus; we are right to reject it. Evangelism is about introducing people to Jesus. Full stop. Period. End of.
The second thing is that those of us who have encountered Christ did so because somebody told us about him. The 97% of millennials who replied saying that the best thing a person could experience was to come to know Jesus, did so because they have heard the gospel, believed it, and in so doing encountered the risen Christ and been changed by him. Speaking personally, I have huge feelings of gratitude towards the people who were true evangelists to me. Obviously not to the sharks and charlatans trying to build a career on the back of Jesus’ drawing power, but those who told me about Jesus and demonstrated his gracious, transforming power to me through their lives. That gratitude should motivate us to engage in real evangelism, to make sure our lives are not merely recipients of grace and the cul-de-sac where it stops, but conduits of grace through whom it flows.
Third, there is something about the experience of becoming a Christian and living for Christ which requires us to speak about him to others, simply in order to maintain any sense of internal integrity. Christ gives us a new identity, a new purpose, and a new way of seeing the world, and we simply cannot live with any coherence if we don’t speak about it but keep it bottled up within us. Many years ago, when I was a postgraduate student, I attempted to do this: to enjoy the inner comfort of Christ in my life; while outwardly avoiding the subject of faith altogether. The tension of trying to live such a life became unbearable. I think it made me unwell in fact, because I wasn’t being true to my new-self nor living an existence which was inwardly and outwardly coherent. I created a dualism in which there was a tension between my inner-experience and outward life. Evangelism, by which I mean speaking of Jesus, is necessary for the wellbeing of the Christian.
Fourth, when we are tempted to consign evangelism to the “it is wrong” category, identified by some of the Barna Group respondents, we should listen carefully to the testimonies of other Christians and hear what Jesus has done for them. When I talk to one of my friends about the life of addiction he lived before coming to Christ, I am reminded of Jesus’ restoring power in our lives and how it brings such beauty. When I talk to another friend about his debased search for pleasure, before he came to Christ, I am reminded of the destructive power of sin which Jesus overcomes. Someone spoke to me last week about the shame of pornography that scarred his life before he became a Christian, and another about the despair he felt without meaning before he found Jesus. Our churches are full of people whose lives are being rebuilt in the power of God, whose brokenness is being pieced together, and who live lives of joyful gratitude to God for his grace. Rejection of evangelism would be to simply fail to invite others into the joy of what we have.
Fifth, we need to remember that the alternatives for which people are living are flawed and hopeless. Most people today are living for god-substitutes which only-ever let them down. The never-ending treadmill of the pursuit of money, the perfect mate, the ideal children, athletic prowess, and the personal-best can be all-consuming but hardly satisfying in the longer term. Good-looks eventually give way to wrinkles that the strongest Botox cannot inflate; athletic success becomes harder and harder to sustain, and the lover-of money becomes a slave to the next-deal. The pursuit of pleasure is superseded by the law of diminishing returns: the man’s first sexual conquest he will remember forever, but he can’t honestly remember the difference between the 78th and the 79th. The porn-addict was once happy with a tawdry magazine from the late-night garage but the same thrill now requires an escalating diet of hard-core online depravity. The proud-parent bases their identity, hopes, and aspirations on their idealised children and then collapses when the children rebel against the weight of expectation. The point is that people have at the centre of their lives things which are either dreadful, or just unworthy. In all these cases, evangelism isn’t ‘sinful’, it is simply the sharing of the experience that there is something better: someone worth living for. Evangelism is the offer of a saviour who will not disappoint, who gives more than he demands, and can carry the weight of the high-office of being the very centre of our lives.
Sixth, as anyone knows who has sought to get involved in genuine Jesus-focused evangelism, it draws us personally closer to Christ himself. Jesus is our life, and knowing him is really the point of it all. Strangely, it is in talking about him to others that we find ourselves spiritually nourished in him; more confident in him, and more aware of his presence. I once asked the missionary pioneer Simon Guillebaud why we don’t experience miracles in the church in the West like they do in Burundi. His reply was that they don’t experience the power of God in the church, it only happens when they go outside the church, on mission. Evangelism is challenging, it’s not easy, it makes us vulnerable, and it is in that Christ-dependent, prayer-focused space, that we encounter Christ afresh. The point really seems to be that Jesus is the great evangelist himself, and he isn’t interested in hanging around drinking comfortable cups of tea with Christians, but wants to go out on mission. So, if we want to encounter him, that is where he will be. That of course, fits perfectly with the parable he told of the lost sheep. The good shepherd leaves the 99 safe sheep to pursue the lost one. If you want to live closely with this shepherd, you can’t do so by lingering where it is safe: he will be out on costly mission.
Finally, we have all seen evangelism done badly. We have seen religion misused and corrupted, and we have seen ‘evangelism’ used as a tool to recruit the vulnerable to the causes of the unworthy. The World Health Organisation reports that 2 million preventable deaths occur every year, due to diarrhoeal illness transmitted by polluted water 3 . Is water then, the most dangerous substance in the world, responsible for the death of millions of people, especially vulnerable infants? Is drinking water wrong? After all, the statistics are overwhelming: drinking water is directly responsible for countless deaths. Or to put it in the terms with which we started; is water actually ‘evil’? Of course not, water is essential, life giving, tasty and essential! Likewise, when our culture pressures us to ascribe all manner of ills to evangelism, we must be careful to distinguish between the real-thing; the Jesus-centred thing, and any corrupted, dirtied or poisoned alternative. The corrupted version might very well be evil. But the gospel of Christ, the real thing: that’s living water.