Sunday, January 26, 2014

Evangelizing Amelia

            According to a recent Pew report, “Nones” are on the rise in America.  You may ask, “What are Nones?”  They’re not religious women who wear habits—in fact, they may be the opposite of that.  They’re people who marked “None” on the survey, indicating that they have no particular religious affiliation, and no habit of attending worship anywhere. says:

“One-fifth of the U.S. public – and a third of adults under 30 – are religiously unaffiliated today, the highest percentages ever in Pew Research Center polling.  In the last five years alone, the unaffiliated have increased from just over 15% to just under 20% of all U.S. adults. Their ranks now include more than 13 million self-described atheists and agnostics (nearly 6% of the U.S. public), as well as nearly 33 million people who say they have no particular religious affiliation (14%).”[i]

If Christians are going to reach the “Nones,” then we’ve got to figure out how to communicate the abiding truth of the Gospel in new ways.  Obviously, the old ways of sharing our faith aren’t working as well as they used to.  We can no longer assume that people will understand us when we try to evangelize them by speaking our own secret language, “Christianese.”  People who didn’t grow up in church won’t understand us when we talk about being redeemed, sanctified, or washed in the blood.  We’ve got to learn to speak the language of the people, if we’re going to share with them the truth about Jesus.

In Acts 17, Paul was very distressed when he visited Athens and saw all the statues to false gods.  In the same way, we’ve got to get distressed about the spiritual condition of our friends, relatives, associates, and neighbors who don’t know Jesus.  We’ve got to be convinced of their desperate need for salvation—otherwise, we’ll lose them.
When the apostle Paul addressed the philosophers and townspeople in Athens, he didn’t employ the same tactics that he used when he shared the Messiah with fellow Jews in the synagogue.  He realized that he had a different audience, and he had to tailor his message to fit his audience.  Paul knew their culture—and so we also need to know the culture we’re in, if we’re going to communicate with them.  He found common ground with them, saying:  “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way.  For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you (Acts 17.22-23 NRSV).”  Then, instead of quoting the Hebrew scriptures, he cited their own philosophers and poets.  In convincing ways that they could understand, he shared Jesus—and their interest was piqued.

Are you finding common ground with the people around you?  Are you sharing Jesus with them in a way that they can understand?  Or are you using outdated language and methods of communication, expecting people to adapt to your particular expression of Christianity?  Unless we’re the ones that adapt, we’re going to lose this generation—because they’re not going to adapt for us.
Remember the series of children’s books by Peggy Parish?  Poor Amelia Bedelia was always getting things wrong—because she always took instructions literally.  When her employers told her to put out the lights, she’d unscrew the bulbs and put them outside.  She thought it strange that they asked her to “dust the furniture,” when in fact she should be “undusting” it.  Her employers were constantly exasperated with her for doing things wrong, when in fact if they had simply learned to communicate more clearly, she would have understood perfectly.  In the same way, Christians often shake our heads at people who reject our message.  We say, “If only they could understand!”  Did we ever stop to think that maybe we need to change the way we’re communicating?  If the world doesn’t speak our language anymore, then we need to learn a new language.

How can we share the abiding truth of the Gospel in innovative new ways?  Get to know the culture.  Find common ground.  Learn a new language, or a new way of speaking.  Don’t expect the world to come to you in order to find Jesus.  Jesus said, “Go into all the world,” not “Make them come to you.”  Do this, and you’ll be able to welcome your friends, relatives, associates, and neighbors into the family of God.

[i] Pew Research Religion and Public Life Project.  “Nones on the Rise.” October 9, 2012.  January 25, 2014.


Boyd Moore said...

Greg, that is good. This is something I have been praying about.
Maybe you could give us an example of such a conversation that avoids out jargon. Boyd.

Greg said...

Thanks, Boyd. I think that a good beginning is to avoid quoting things in King James English. People who aren't familiar with it will find even the most familiar things strange. "Whosoever believeth in Him" just doesn't resonate with modern people.

In addition, we should avoid dropping theology bombs without using context clues. The things that we take for granted aren't plain and obvious to people who come from outside the Christian subculture. Even something as basic as asking someone, "Are you saved?" can elicit a head-scratch. "Saved from what?"

This takes a lot of intentionality on the part of the believer, when speaking with an unbeliever. We can't assume that they speak our language. At the risk of being condescending, we have to use very basic spiritual language when talking about spiritual things. Then, if we find that someone has more familiarity with our jargon, we can use it.

In my church, I teach a class for beginning Christians, or people who haven't even made a faith commitment, but who are curious about the faith. I've gotten used to people who don't know the meanings of words like "grace" or "deliverance" or "sanctification." So, instead of saying, "grace," I'll say, "God's blessing that we don't deserve and can't possibly achieve on our own." It's wordy, but there can't be any misunderstanding, either. Instead of "sanctification," I'll say, "the process of being made more like Jesus every day."

I also find that some understandings of atonement resonate with people in the 21st century, more than others. For example, because our culture isn't familiar with the practice of animal sacrifice, the idea of substitutionary atonement is foreign to most. When evangelizing, I don't usually take that tack. Another example is the satisfaction theory of atonement, which paints a picture of an angry God who can only be satisfied with someone suffering for sin (whether it's the sinner or another--namely, Jesus who ultimately satisfies God's wrath). I ask myself, "Does the satisfaction theory draw people to Jesus, or does it convince them that God is, in fact, pretty scary?" Instead of saying that Jesus "pleased God by suffering for our sins" or that He "took the punishment for our sins" or that He "paid the price for our sins," I'll say that He "bore the brunt" of our sins. Or, I'll explain that God's laws are like natural laws such as inertia and gravity. It's not that God just wants to punish someone for sin. It's more like what goes up must come down. So when we play around with sin by tossing it like a ball, it's going to fall on us with lethal force. So Jesus pushed us out of the way and "took the full weight of our sins upon Himself." I've found this to be a pretty understandable explanation for people who weren't raised in church, speaking Christianese.

I'm sure there are countless other examples I could give, but these will probably do. Thanks for your question, Boyd!

Greg said...

Another example: So many churches with movable-type signs put cheesy phrases full of insider-speak on them. Sometimes they even put threatening things--like a summertime sign that I saw that read, "You think it's hot here? Just wait!"

Instead, I like to use my church sign to promote events at the church, that we'd like to invite the community to share. Or, if there is going to be a quote on it, then I make sure it doesn't use insider language. Everybody driving down the road should understand what it means--not just Christians.