Maybe you are like me in having attended dozens of evangelism training sessions over the years. I have both learned and taught the Four Spiritual Laws, The Bridge, Steps to Peace With God, Evangelism Explosion and a number of other methods and approaches. Each of these tools may have its merits, especially in focusing the content of the gospel on Jesus and a person’s response of faith in him. At least in the circles I travel in, there has been a substantial amount of talk about what we say to people. My concern lately, however, has been with the equally important issue of how we meet and relate to the people we desire to share this message with.
Along with my pastoral ministry within the church, it has been my privilege to have the opportunity to be involved in many community activities. For many years, I have also taught part-time in a couple of universities and a community college in my area where I have met literally hundreds of students from nearly every walk of life. This experience has resulted in some pretty seasoned views about how to relate to people as a genuine Christian. So, here are some things to keep in mind as you meet people who do not openly profess the Christian faith.
- First don’t assume that, because a person is not actively attending an evangelical church, he or she is automatically an unbeliever. Some Christians have become inactive in their church life or in personal walk due to a variety of circumstances, including: moving to a new city, a change of work schedule, a lapse in personal routine or spiritual discipline, a separation from an important spiritual influence, such as a parent or a much-respected Christian friend, being hurt by other Christians, etc.
Before I go on, let me speak to the issue of church category. Again, simply because a person attends a church which is not similar to yours, it does not necessarily mean that they are involved in a compromised form of Christianity. There are genuine believers in the biblical Jesus in a variety of churches, which may be somewhat different from your own.
- Secondly, when relating to those who do not profess Christian faith, don’t set up an “us and them” situation in your mind. Remember that Jesus spoke with all sorts of people without seeming to categorize them as religious or non-religious. He told some of the most unlikely people that they were very close to the Kingdom of God (Matthew 21:32), while people who were outwardly religious were told they could not even see the Kingdom unless they experienced radical inward change (John 3:3). People are generally offended by being classified and they are usually pretty quick to sense that, from your perspective, they are “outsiders”. The truth from God’s perspective is that some people we might not ever suspect are only a step or two from eternal life.
- Learn to genuinely appreciate and enjoy people for what they are. Notice I didn’t say you must accept everything about them or even befriend every person you meet. Obviously some people will be more likeable to you than others. The point is, that the first step in receiving a fair hearing as you share your faith in Jesus (as well as in expressing other values and commitments which are very dear to you), is to treat a variety of people with a common level of appreciation and respect. If you are willing to like people you meet, that usually comes across clearly to most reasonable folks. People like to be liked.
- Not everyone is reasonable. A certain percentage of people don’t have either the personality, emotional stability, mental clarity or maturity of character to give you a fair hearing. (By the way, this includes committed Christians.) There are people who are generally angry and take it out on those around them. Others may have met someone in their past whom they came to dislike intensely and who seems in their mind to be like you. There are judgmental people; cruel people; argumentative people; mean people; fearful people; manipulative people—I could go on. Just get used to the idea that, willing though you may be to like those you meet, not everyone will return the favor.
- As a professed follower of Jesus, you represent him. No one alive now has ever seen Jesus. We read about him in scripture or are taught in church and get an understanding of who he is in that way. But at the present time, his followers act as his visible body. Like it or not, as the hands and feet of Jesus, people look at you and see him. This truth speaks volumes about how we behave ourselves: how we think and speak and act. In other words, how we live as followers of Jesus is at least as important as the words we say about him or how we say them.
- When someone does show an openness to you and your faith, you may want to extend an invitation to attend a situation in which they can observe believers acting like believers under the influence of God’s word.
o An invitation to a church service is an easy entry-point. In many churches on Sunday morning, visitors are not be singled out or embarrassed, but can sit and simply observe while at the same time being exposed to scripture and the gospel.
o Perhaps a special event will be of particular interest to them. Care groups, programs for their children, women’s and men’s groups and activities, as well as youth events are all options which may meet a certain need in their life.
o Maybe the best option is to offer a chance to spend time together with you. Something as simple as a cup of coffee and some conversation for a few minutes can develop into a friendship, which can lead to a deep sharing of the Christian faith. It goes without saying that it is usually best for men to befriend men and women to befriend other women. Don’t forget that the gospel is all about transformation of life from the Kingdom of Darkness into the Kingdom of God’s beloved Son (Colossians 1:13-14). As a friend, your own story will be of great interest to them and perhaps of deep influence on them.
With these reminders clearly before us, sharing Christian faith in the postmodern culture of the Twenty-first Century does not have to be intimidating. In fact, it can be a hugely rewarding experience and a stimulus to growth in areas we may have yet to experience.
The New Age Movement is a grab-bag of many sub-groups and organizations who share common goals and concepts. The recurring link between these groups is their commitment to working for a “new age” in which spiritual consciousness and harmony will come to planet earth. Though some would take pride in using the term “new age” to describe themselves, others might use such descriptive terms as human potential, aquarian, cosmic consciousness or various types spiritualities (such as native American spirituality, feminist spirituality, etc). Certain buzz words are commonly used among New Age groups, such as: holistic, synergy, unity, oneness, global, awakening, self-actualization, networking, energy, etc.
New Agers tend to be very syncretistic, in that they adopt ideas and practices from many sources. However there are various common characteristics, including:
Open-Ended Revelation. Various books (including the Bible) may be honored and used by groups within the movement. Divine revelation is seen as personally perceived and on-going. God (or the Ultimate) may manifest itself to or through anyone. There is no single truth because truth is personal and experiential.
God. The concept of deity is much more nebulous than in Judeo-Christianity. Groups tend to see the Ultimate as an impersonal life-force, rather than as a personal being. Deity can neither be analyzed nor systematized — because God is all. As in the Star Wars Epic, the Ultimate has a “light” and a “dark” side. In other words, the New Age concept of deity is often dualistic (including both good and evil).
The Cosmos. The universe itself is a form of God. This can either mean that everything shares in the divine being, or that the universe is not fully real, existing only as a shadow of the Ultimate.
Humanity. It will be no surprise, then, that people are also seen an emanation of God. As such, people have infinite potential if they will draw on their inner divine nature and seek consciousness of union with the Ultimate.
Salvation. Though the term “salvation” is sometimes used among New Age groups it is almost never used in the gospel sense of the word: new life and cleansing through faith in Jesus. It usually carries the same significance as the term “enlightenment”, “inner awareness” or “cosmic consciousness”. The goal is to seek a profound and intuitive understanding of the “divine nature within” as the outer, unreal self is stripped away.
Jesus is usually seen as an insightful teacher or spiritual master similar to those in Hinduism, Buddhism or the ancient mystery cults. He is deity only in the sense that anyone is connected to the divine. Many of Jesus teachings are re-interpreted to fit with New Age ideas.
The Coming New Age. As the 1960s musical group, The Fifth Dimension, sang way back in the day, there is a new age coming with the dawning of the Age of Aquarius. The old Age of Pices (the fish) was the Christian era of religious doctrines which stifled true spirituality. By contrast, the new age will be one of spiritual energy and fulfilling personal experience. Linear thinking (typical of both Christianity and Modernism) is a hindrance to enlightenment. The new era will be one of intuitive thinking and freedom.
Self-Actualization. Eastern wisdom, tribal ceremony, feminine perspectives and occult practices are often the preferred methods to foster spiritual awareness. Magic, astrology, crystals, cosmic energy, etc. are used as a means to self-understanding and the releasing of potential. Reincarnation and karma are incorporated because they allow multiple opportunities to achieve these goals.
Tolerance. There is a widespread belief that all religions, philosophies and cultures are equally valid. People ought to accept and tolerate almost any concept, lifestyle or practice. The odd thing is that there are certain exceptions to this general rule. Often it is Christianity which is the target of scorn, dislike and discrimination because Christians are seen as the major obstacle to new age goals.
Dealing With the New Age. A Christian approach to dialog with people from New Age groups should focus on the core truths of the gospel, such as:
The Bible is God’s complete revelation (Hebrews 1:1-2). It is God’s loving communication with us through those he inspired to write it (2 Peter 1:20-21). Its purpose is to introduce and explain God’s perspective on the world and his plan for redeeming it. With the coming of Jesus, that plan is fulfilled and no further revelation is required.
God is a personal being who is both holy and merciful (Isaiah 6:3, Psalm 25:6). The fact that he is both holy and merciful is truly good news because he is in no way tainted with the evil and ugliness in the Cosmos, while at the same time he is willing and able to save those who are caught in the dreary and horrifying web of sin. He is also omni (all) powerful, knowing and present (Isaiah 55:9), which means he is strong enough to intervene, wise enough to be trusted and completely accessible. The best part is that he actually desires relationship with us.
The Cosmos is God’s creation, distinct from him, but certainly showing evidence of being designed and made by him (Romans 1:20). It is the perfect venue for the utter defeat of evil (Revelation 21:4).
People are made in God’s image, which means we are eternal beings, sharing a certain similarity of self-consciousness and creativity with him. Though we are not ourselves divine, people may become his children through a reversal of the faithlessness of the Garden. This happens when people trust in Jesus’ atonement and are forgiven and reconciled to God (John 1:12). The redeemed will eventually be glorified because of our union with Christ (Psalm 8:4-5).
Jesus is the business-end of the Father’s redemption. As the Second Person of the Trinity, he is divine (John 1:1-4). He is also fully human (Romans 5:17). This too is good news because his deity assures his ability to atone for the sin of the entire world while his humanity allows him to die on behalf of human beings. As a true man, he is also able to relate to our limitations (Hebrews 2:18).
A sticking point for new age people is the New Testament claim that salvation is through Jesus alone (John 14:6). They take this truth as excluding other religions. Sadly, this is exactly backwards because Jesus as the sole source of eternal life is actually tremendously good news. None of the things offered in other religions really leads to any eternal resolution of the fundamental human problem. Not everyone can attain the esoteric wisdom of Eastern philosophies. Few can devote the time to the study of rituals and incantations. Most people are stuck in whatever routines and ruts their birth and culture dictate. The New Testament gospel is simple enough for a child to grasp, yet profound enough to satisfy the most philosophic intellect. It is trans-cultural (Galatians 3:28). It is accessible to male and female. It transcends all classes and backgrounds. The practice of Christian faith can be adapted to any society or culture (Acts 10:34-35).
There is more good news because there is indeed a new age coming when Jesus returns and judges evil and the demonic powers behind it. He will set up a kingdom of truth and righteousness and peace (2 Pet 3:11-13).
The big picture is actually very simple: if the gospel is truly good news, perhaps the best approach is to simply let it be what it is: good news. We Christians may need to learn to give up our own need to prove our faith with the very kind of linear thinking many new age people find so unappealing. Letting the gospel be good news and living the good news in everyday life can be a compelling testimony to the truth we have found!
People are attracted to authenticity. Few people can resist the joy or peace or true self- acceptance that come with new life in Christ. If followers of Christ were to actually seek these qualities and learn to live in the promises of the new life they already possess, perhaps we might experience a breakthrough with those desiring a new age.
All churches and ministry organizations require periodic self-evaluation and change in order to keep up with the challenges of culture. The fact that constant change goes with ministry can be seen as a positive thing because it requires that we exercise faith in the God who has not only foreseen the changes, but has already provided solutions to the new problems and situations which arise. During those times in which ministry must be evaluated, certain fundamental questions must be addressed, including:
Is change necessary?
What types of changes should be made?
When should changes be implemented?
Who is responsible for implementing changes?
How will the need for change be communicated to the congregation or constituency?
These and other issues are among the considerations involved in positive change for more effective ministry. The following are diagnostic questions to discover what types of changes are required or desired and how these changes should take place:
What strengths do we have as a church (organization) which we can affirm and celebrate?
What major weaknesses do we have as a church (organization) which we should avoid or at least minimize?
Are there sins we must confess as a church (organization)?
What are the key church (organizational) health issues we must address?
Is the leadership unified and committed to addressing the core issues necessary for positive change or are they content to do business “as usual”?
Do the majority of our congregation (constituency) desire to address the core issues necessary for positive change or are they content to do business “as usual”?
If the people have the desire for change, do they have the will to implement needed changes?
What will be the financial, personal and morale costs for changes to be made?
What tangible benefits can the congregation (constituency) anticipate if changes are made?
What are some reasonable goals we must begin to achieve in the next six months (twelve months, eighteen months, etc)?
How should these goals be prioritized?
Under what circumstances should the timetable for goal achievement be altered?
Which existing leaders will see these goals through to completion?
What new leadership positions must be created and staffed to bring these goals to completion?
How will leadership know when goals are completed (are goals sufficiently clear and measurable)?
When should a new stage of evaluation begin to adjust to or anticipate further change for more effective ministry?
Are we proactive or reactive in dealing with change? Should that mindset change?
Modernism is the term often used for the Twentieth-Century movement, which sought a break with the traditional ideas, norms and styles of Western Civilization, and adopted innovative ways for understanding the world and human living. The term “modernism” had its specific connotations for art, music and the general world-view of the times, but in the area of religion, modernism has attempted to examine and re-define traditional belief-systems in light of contemporary values and trends. Modernism’s view of traditional religion (including the traditional understanding of Christianity) is that it is incompatible with the modern age for the following reasons:
The Vastness of the Cosmos. Argument: If a personal God exists, why would that God be concerned about a single, rather insignificant planet, such as earth? Religion, therefore, is only the human aspiration for meaning and infinity in the desperate hope that we are more than organisms on a speck in the hugeness of the universe.
Many who raise this objection probably take an atheistic or agnostic religious position, though some might opt for Deism or Pantheism.
Science has Discredited Religion. Argument: Scientific methodology offers explanations for natural phenomena which primitive people explained religiously. For example, thunder was seen by early humans as a deity beating lightning bolts his hammer, but science shows that it is caused by complex electrical processes in the atmosphere. Early man saw the harvest cycle as being related to the sexual relations of the gods. Now we know about rainfall, soil chemistry, and modern agricultural methods.
Therefore, science and technology have replaced the need for supernatural explanations. Assuming that the Cosmos is essentially a product of natural generation, nature is therefore a vast machine. Human beings are a part of that machinery, having been produced by it.
Religion can be explained psychologically. Modernism tended to explain the human religious impulse in light of naturalistic causes. Some possible modernistic explanations for the universal human religious impulse included:
Religion as a social glue. Emile Durkheim (1858-1917) saw religion as a tool, which enabled society to function harmoniously. In his view, religion provides stability through a definite moral code, which becomes formalized into law. Religion also validates authority structures, which can discourage anti-social behavior.
Religion as a tool of oppression. Karl Marx (1818-1883) called religion “the opiate of the people.” He saw it as keeping people relatively content in their place (or at least afraid to rock the boat), keeping them pacified with promises of a better life hereafter and the threats of judgment. In this view, the upper classes use religion to maintain their control and manipulate the masses.
Religion as neurosis. In The Future of an Illusion, Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) argued that religion could be explained psychologically. Freud believed that religious belief is an expression of certain deep psychological needs, such as the fear resulting from not being able to control nature. Religion assures people that someone is in control and might be persuaded to protect and guide through the uncertainties of existence. Freud saw belief in God as providing some social and psychological benefits, but felt that its downside was to keep people in an infantile state. Mature, well-adjusted people should have no need for God or religion.
Religion as a remedy for social frustration. In society, biological urges must be limited in order to achieve stability. But the repression of natural drives causes mental and emotional distress, so religion serves the function of lending authority social norms which impose morality, promising rewards to the compliant and punishments for the non-compliant.
Conclusion and Application: The adoption of a modernistic viewpoint in Western Civilization during the early Twentieth Century had the effect of forcing a choice upon most religious groups to either hold fast to traditional ways of understanding faith or adapting religion to the new point of view. In Christianity, Modernism brought about splits in almost all groups of Protestants and serious strains in Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy. Issues such as the nature and role of the Bible, the authority of the Church and its traditions, the role of science in determining truth and the relationship of believers with culture were major battlegrounds in the conflict.
In the Twenty-first Century, Modernism is increasingly being supplanted by Postmodern views of reality and culture. Though its views of truth are at significant odds with developing Postmodern concepts, Modernism played a decisive role in the departure from centuries of tradition which had engendered and nourished the West. With the ascendancy of the Postmodern focus on relativity and individuality, the Modernist confidence in science, technology, education and mass society seem to be on the decline. The challenge for the church is to shift the focus of its apologetics and theology from countering modernism’s critique of Christianity and its alternative worldview to understanding and interacting with the new and largely unexplored challenge of Postmodern thought and culture.