“So I will burn in hell because I don’t believe?”
That was the sarcastic, confrontational response of a man in my daughter’s Dutch language class the moment she revealed that, as a Christian, she believes in life after death. The conversation arose as part of an academic discussion on spirituality. Though my daughter explained she did not intend to judge anyone, the class erupted in a debate over whether she has the right to share her beliefs at all.
What’s wrong with this picture? If my daughter had claimed to be a Muslim or Buddhist, I suspect she would have received a more positive response.
Why are people so uncomfortable with the gospel message? In a society that encourages diversity and a free exchange of ideas, why do many lash out at Christians — often before they even hear what we have to say? In many ways, Christianity has arrived at a collision point with our postmodern culture.
HOW DID WE GET HERE?
To answer that question, we must consider the sweeping changes of the past 300 years, beginning with the Age of Enlightenment in the 18th century. This period, which elevated human reason as the highest level of authority, sought to alienate intellectual pursuits from divine influence. As breathtaking scientific discoveries captured academic imaginations in ways that eventually trickled down to the general public, people increasingly questioned the need for Christianity.
The modern age further marginalized the role of faith in society until the secular world viewed evangelism with not only skepticism but hostility.1 Many rejected as intolerant Christianity’s claims of divine truth, moral absolutes, and salvation through Christ alone. People took offense at biblical teachings that leave no room for alternative realities or contradictory paradigms.
Additionally, rapid changes in information technology and increased mobility gave rise to an interest in various Eastern religions and the adoption of secular humanism. This development challenged the traditional Judeo-Christian values upon which most of Western society was founded. Personal rights and mutual acceptance became the leading social principles.
Today’s culture shows a growing dissatisfaction even with the tolerance concept, cynically viewing it as a tool for unacceptable ideas to gain influence. According to this new, postmodern trend, tolerance is less important than dismantling absolute or relative belief systems that might make others feel uncomfortable.2
All of this should lead us to ask some healthy questions. How can the Church carry on its God-given mandate in an atmosphere filled with spiritual indifference, at best, and militant opposition, at worst? In such a cynical environment, how can Christians effectively proclaim the gospel? And how do our perceptions of evangelism differ from those outside the faith?
THE BASICS OF CHRISTIAN EVANGELISM
To answer these important questions, let us first define true evangelism. There are two main components of biblical evangelism: It contains a message and exhibits an attitude. One cannot function without the other. Evangelism that communicates the message but lacks the right attitude is a mere proselytizing tool. Evangelism must be exemplified, not just exclaimed. On the other hand, evangelism that demonstrates compassion or benevolence without proclaiming the gospel message is like a signpost that points to nothing.
No wonder John 3:16 is so powerful and meaningful. It communicates the message of salvation while simultaneously unveiling the sentiment behind it: “God so loved the world ….” God’s love set in motion His plan of salvation, and the declaration of this good news reveals His heart for humanity. Effective evangelism arises from love and is proclaimed in love.
The gospel message without the attitude of God’s love and compassion is void. It is the love of God that compels us toward proclamation. We should never forget that the Holy Spirit uses both the message and the love attitude of the gospel.
The gospel contains an uncompromising message. Jesus declared, “No one comes to the Father except through me,” and asserted that He is “the way and the truth and the life” (John 14:6).
Many other verses support this truth. The Gospel writers did not present a neutral message with an open end for interpretation. They wrote with a bias and an evangelistic mission: “But these things are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:31).
There is no ambiguity in regard to the way of salvation. It is this clear message that bothered the Jews and the Greeks of Paul’s time. Paul knew his contemporaries could not adjust the message of the Cross to fit their expectations. Through the ages, the Word never changes. Instead, it calls us to change and become like Jesus. Long before our postmodern time, Paul reflected on tolerance as it relates to the gospel but firmly concluded, “If I were still trying to please people, I would not be a servant of Christ” (Galatians 1:10).
In response to false teachers who attempted to bring the gospel closer to Judaism and make it look more acceptable, Paul insisted that any attempt to change the message would turn it into “a different gospel — which is really no gospel at all” (Galatians 1:6,7).
While the message is unequivocal, the love attitude of the gospel is all-embracing. God loves everyone and wants all people to receive salvation through Christ (1 Timothy 2:3–5). The Bible commands Christians to love others, preach the good news to all creation, and live in peace with everyone (Mark 12:31; 16:15; Hebrews 12:14). Jesus loved and welcomed all kinds of people, from lepers and tax collectors to sinners and beggars. Though religious leaders criticized Him for associating with people of bad reputation, society’s outcasts found a true friend in Jesus. He still gladly receives all who come to Him.
Romans 10:13 declares: “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” The gospel is not exclusive. God isn’t concerned with a person’s ethnicity, social status, physical appearance, religious background, or any other superficial characteristic. He invites everyone to come and receive His free gift of salvation. And He commands us to preach His message to everyone who is willing to hear it.
Even when people reject the gospel, we should love them. When they persecute us because of the message, we should forgive and continue in love. Loving others is evangelism in action, and very often it is the only thing we can do. While other religions extend acceptance only when their message is accepted, the Christian faith places no limits on compassion. Jesus’ love did not cease on the cross. Stephen’s concern for others did not end as he faced death by stoning. Burning as torches on the stake or devoured by animals for their faith, the early Christian martyrs did not stop loving and forgiving their executors. They witnessed the rejection of the message, but they all demonstrated the right attitude of the gospel — the attribute of love.
The Bible applies this principle even to the smallest unit in society: the family. To the Christian with an unbelieving spouse who has not yet accepted the message, Paul asked, “How do you know, wife, whether you will save your husband? Or how do you know, husband, whether you will save your wife?” (1 Corinthians 7:16).
Likewise, Peter said women should maintain a godly and loving attitude toward their husbands “so that, if any of them do not believe the word, they may be won over without words by the behavior of their wives” (1 Peter 3:1).
EVANGELISM AND TOLERANCE
It should be noted that the tension between evangelism and tolerance is somewhat natural because, while the two have common points, their ultimate goal is different. The goal of the tolerance movement is peace and mutual acceptance among the different segments of society. The goal of evangelism is genuine peace in the heart of the individual through reconciliation with God.
Our Western culture questions the notion of absolute truth. According to humanistic thinking, truth progresses over time as societies and beliefs change. To be politically correct, the world asks us to accept today what yesterday was considered completely wrong.
In spite of this frantic push for tolerance, politically correct policies have yet to offer any real solutions to the world’s problems. Tolerance aims to improve our diverse society by teaching people to set aside personal convictions and concepts of truth to embrace differences. However, the question of inner healing and transformation remains somehow unanswered. All human beings share the same sin nature, experience the same emotions, and ponder the same existential questions. Our eternal souls long for the truth and fulfillment only Jesus provides.
Christ calls us to take His unchanging Word to a changing world. We don’t alter the message, but we can adapt our methods. Perhaps the approach that is most in line with today’s culture is persuasion. We live in a world of diverse intellectual expressions. Art, literature, philosophy, entertainment, advertising, and technology compete for attention.
Persuasive communication invites discussion based on a respectful exchange of ideas. In this culturally familiar context, an honest conversation can emerge. Think of two elected officials with differing political affiliations meeting over coffee. Through give-and-take, they can agree to disagree, find common ground, offer ideas for consideration, and ultimately build a relationship in spite of their differences.
During his missionary journeys, the apostle Paul practiced persuasion in the synagogues, the marketplaces, and other public meeting places. Facing the philosophers in Athens (Acts 17:16–34), he respectfully used their own beliefs and writings to introduce the gospel. This method of civil persuasion did not turn into an endless and aimless conversation. It usually came to a point where the audience was offered the opportunity to make a choice without any coercion.
Paul extended respect and appealed to his listeners to respect him and consider the sincere motivation behind his message. “We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God” (2 Corinthians 5:20).
Manipulation and intimidation have no place in the gospel proclamation. These approaches convey an air of superiority, and their usage has marked the dark spots in the history of the Church. True evangelism is not a means for attaining a position of dominance over other segments of society. The Word of God is living and active; it does not compete with the propaganda methods of other religions.
Surrounded by agnostics, atheists, liberal thinkers, and people of other faiths, our task is not to withdraw from them because they are different from us but to engage in meaningful communication that reveals the gospel’s unique message of hope and the love attitude we have for each person. We have what the world so desperately needs. And so we offer it from a heart that seeks to serve others and honor God. This is the approach Paul prescribes in 2 Corinthians 5:11: “Since, then, we know what it is to fear the Lord, we try to persuade others ….”
The true gospel message appeals for a response. This leads many to the false presumption that evangelism is intolerant. After all, Jesus seeks to change hearts while the world encourages people to remain in sin and embrace self-centered living in the name of diversity. Upon hearing the simple message of salvation through Christ, an individual must choose to ignore it, accept, or reject it. There is nothing intolerant in this because it respects the rights and free will of every member of our pluralistic society.
When we communicate the gospel authentically, it does not sound very attractive. Contemporary philosophies promote the pursuit of personal gain, guided by relative values and truths, and spares the individual from too much trouble in dealing with the conscience or moral principles. Contrast that with self-denial, righteous living, and accountability to God’s Word and Spirit. The gospel message proclaims salvation from sin and the gift of eternal life, but it also calls us to personal responsibility. We must be willing to deny the old sin nature, turn aside from wrongdoing, and give our lives fully to Christ — putting His plans ahead of our own. This is a radical departure from the world’s way of doing things. Isn’t this why many of Jesus’ disciples left Him? Therefore, a biblical gospel presentation has nothing in common with the proselytizing techniques that manipulate people through attractive sales pitches. This is why the method of rational persuasion provides the best opportunity for an objective and full explanation of the message.
Efforts to silence the gospel for the sake of tolerance reveal the hypocrisy behind the haughty proponents of “diversity.” When a pluralistic society employs such tactics, it becomes an authoritarian society, where the elite determines how other people can think, speak, and act.
Recently, a group of Christian students in our city applied for permission to organize a student Christian association. The constitution of their prestigious university allows for and encourages the formation of various social student fellowships. Among others, there is a student Jewish association and an Arab-European group. Why not a Christian association? Yet the University Council refused the application, claiming Christian ethics, beliefs, and doctrines are incompatible with principles of pluralistic thinking and social tolerance. The Council recommended students revise their proposal to remove references to Christianity. The simple conclusion wasthat the proposed student Christian association could be anything other than Christian.
As disappointing as such blatant discrimination can be, fear of rejection must not lead the Church underground. God does not want us to be alienated from society. When Jesus prayed for the Church, He said: “My prayer is not that you take them out of the world …. As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world” (John 17:15,18).
Our real foe is not the culture in which we live. Instead, we battle unseen demonic forces that seek to keep people from coming to a saving knowledge of Christ (Ephesians 6:12). As sinners saved by grace, motivated by love, and inspired by faith, we can identify with the spiritually lost as we graciously and respectfully present Christ’s message of hope.
The Old Testament prophet Jonah refused to identify with the people of Nineveh. As a result, he failed to understand God’s heart. Even when he preached the message, Jonah missed the compassion and mercy behind it.
The Great Commission in Matthew 28 is not a campaign slogan we trumpet for special events. Instead, it should be a normal mode of life for Christians. Evangelism should happen wherever God’s people live and work. The literal reading of the Greek text of the Great Commission is: “As you go, make disciples ….”
When we have the heart of God and live in His will, evangelism flows from everything we do. We naturally serve the good of the people around us as Christ’s representatives in the world.3 By our gracious words and actions, our very lives become persuasive demonstrations of the gospel’s truth.
Of course, we have an obligation not only to show Jesus’ love and compassion, but also to explain it. Helping those in need is biblical. However, it’s also important to tell people why we love them, why we walk the second mile with them, why we turn the other cheek when it hurts, and why we even offer food and drink to our enemies. These gospel concepts are strange to our modern Western society. Yet they are in line with humanitarian principles many in our culture appreciate and celebrate. Indeed, there is nothing intolerant about extending kindness to everyone — even to those who are indifferent or hostile.
Of course, evangelism isn’t about human effort. Changing hearts is a supernatural work of God. Unless the Holy Spirit is involved, our plans fall flat. On the other hand, whenever a genuine move of God accompanies the preaching of the gospel, people rarely raise the issue of tolerance. When God heals the sick or frees someone from demonic bondage, or a criminal repents and turns from wickedness, people discuss whether they believe the testimony. Their focus shifts from humanistic ideals to the question of whether God exists and works in the world — and if so, what they should do about it.
Though it is natural to rejoice over those the Lord adds to His Church, the major task of evangelism is not counting numbers of converts. Rather, Christ’s followers are to preach the Word and rely on the Holy Spirit for the results. Evangelism is a spiritual activity of the Church. As such, Christians need the empowerment of the Holy Spirit to carry out this task. This is the teaching of the Book of Acts and the Epistles. Whether witnessing to a Greek, Roman, or Jewish audience, the early Christians relied on the Holy Spirit to touch the hearts and lives of their listeners. The Holy Spirit crosses cultural boundaries and communicates the heart of God to the hearts of people.
No matter what challenges we face in our changing culture, we must not strip Christ’s compassion from our ministry. Speaking the truth in love is the very foundation of Christian evangelism. Efforts to modify the message to make the gospel sound acceptable would change its distinctiveness (which a truly “tolerant” society should encourage us to maintain). At the same time, acting with an attitude other than love for the sake of securing a position of dominance or superiority robs evangelism of its power.
The history of the Church is replete with examples that prove the effectiveness of this biblical, God-centered balance. Genuine evangelism begins and ends with love, and between these two points people encounter Jesus’ life-changing message.
1. Jean Bethke Elshtain, “Do Not Be Afraid! The Call to Evangelism and Christian Intellectuals,” Word & World, 25 no. 2 (Spring 2005): 172–179.
3. K.H. Ding, “Evangelism as a Chinese Christian Sees It,” Missiology: An International Review, 11, no. 3 (July 1983): 314–316. Lecture given at the Uppsala University in Uppsala, Sweden, November 2, 1982.