The Changing Face of Evangelism

History recounts numerous missional movements that have sought to reach people far from God through cultural accommodation. The Jesuit mission to China and St. Patrick’s Celtic way of evangelism are two examples of how the missionary church practiced cultural adaptation to further God’s mission.

George Hunter’s 2010 work on the Celtic mission informs us that Patrick and his men engaged the Celtic imagination in presenting the gospel through the creative arts of story and song and drama, adapting their mission to pagan culture to induce Celtic awakening. Similarly, to be effective in the contemporary world, evangelism methodologies in the West are adapting to Western culture shifts. Here are two examples.

Encounter vs. Information

Effective evangelism emphasizes experience over information in an increasingly post-Christian and postmodern context. In previous generations, evangelism methods appealed to reason and then called for a commitment to Christ based on a logical presentation of the gospel.

Some missional communities reverse the order today and find translating the gospel to contemporary cultures is more fruitful when an encounter with God precedes explanation about God. In such contexts, non-Christians are led to experience God before receiving a download of information about God.

Experiencing God may take the form of emotional healing from harm imposed by others or from personal addiction. For instance, Christians ministering at Burning Man (a self-expression and arts festival that annually draws some 60,000 people, many of them millennials) adapt the cultural tools of the festival to reach “Burners” through encounter.

Burning Man is an experimental society and participants dabble in everything from drug-induced altered states of consciousness—often associated with artistic creativity—to consciousness-raising projects. Personal and global transformation are explicit goals of Burning Man, as is taking responsibility in working toward a greater future.

Christian groups at Burning Man provide a “menu” of spiritual experiences to festival participants who show up at their camps. Dream interpretation and heart “massage” are popular among young adult Burners who encounter God through healing and listening prayer while believers help them identify their spiritual blockages, unresolved wounds, brokenness and addictions.

Scripts vs. Spiritual Conversations

Similar to the previous generation’s evangelism methodology of information download, in the past people often relied on formulaic presentations of the gospel. Evangelistic scripts like “The Four Spiritual Laws” and “Steps to Peace with God” were found to be evangelistically fruitful.

The previous Christian generation might assume that their non-Christian audience shared their belief and trust in absolute facts, observations and logic, and therefore tended to approach evangelism with argumentation, evidence and reason. Those assumptions are not always accurate today.

Cultural observers note that as culture shifts to more postmodern ways of thinking, non-Christian audiences no longer assume there is absolute truth, but that truth is biased and facts are socially constructed based on assumption.

What’s more, people today are less interested in being “taught” when they can become “experts” by educating themselves through the Internet. Popular culture emphasizes discovery, journey and narrative over apologetics, debate and persuasion. Today, fruitful evangelism looks more like story than propositional truth, telling God’s story and explaining how our own story fits in with God’s larger mission.

Significantly, younger generations don’t want a script or even a verse—but they do want to converse! Recent studies by Pew Research Center and the American Religious Identification Survey on the “Rise of the Nones” assure us that even those who are religiously unaffiliated generally still believe in God, pray frequently, enjoy community and often care about significant causes like human trafficking—providing plenty of opportunities for relational evangelism and spiritual conversations.

Encounter and story are two ways evangelism is effectively adapting to contemporary culture.

Beth Seversen is the denominational leader for evangelism in the Evangelical Covenant Church and a Billy Graham Research Scholar. Beth is currently pursuing a doctorate in Intercultural Studies at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. She is researching emerging adults and the factors that make churches effective reaching them.