“It’s unfashionable to speak about eternal destiny, but it’s unfathomable to believe it and not tell people about Jesus.”
In Part 1 of the interview, Ed Stetzer discusses the big picture of American evangelism today, why Christians have drifted away from evangelism and how the church can move forward.
In today’s culture, what skills do pastors need to cultivate in their congregation to get that “faithful and fruitful” outcome?
Part of it is that pastors need to be on the journey with their congregants. What does it look like to play the game of evangelism in a culture where Christians have lost home-field advantage? A lot of our evangelism is predicated to the idea that people are close or open to Christian faith, and just need that last bit of evidence or persuasion to push them over the edge. We act as if we’re in a mostly religious culture.
That’s true in some places, but for the most part, we’ve lost the home-field advantage. Today, most people are far away from any real understanding of the gospel. It’s not just an issue of persuasion, but often one of education. That shift means that we have to stop thinking that we are people who have “arrived,” inviting people to join us where we are, and start to think like people who have been sent, joining them where they are to ultimately share the gospel. That’s the journey of being on mission. Pastors need to lead that.
This is where the missional focus becomes helpful—it helps us engage culture in missionary ways, not simply as people who are similar to us but just need a little encouragement to believe. That’s one of the shifts. Also, there’s a very common frustration with the way we used to do evangelism. Nobody would deny that there’s been a decline in crusade and large-meeting evangelism. Whether you like that or not; that’s just math. If Finney and Graham were bookends of the mass-evangelism movement heyday, then what replaces the crusades?
Christianity Today wrote an article not long ago arguing that it’s church planting that has replaced it. That’s certainly part of it. I would point to the Billy Graham organization today as well—there’s a shift from the crusade evangelism that really defined an era to an in-home gathering strategy. It’s a space where unchurched or irreligious people can join Christians to ask hard questions without being shunted to the side. That is another picture of new emerging approaches to evangelism.
Right now, do different regions or subcultures in America contain different challenges to evangelism?
You bet. I grew up outside of New York City, planted churches in the inner city of Buffalo, New York, among the urban poor; in suburban Pennsylvania, among lapsed Catholics; have lived in Tennessee, and so on. There are huge differences depending on your context.
The how of evangelism is in many ways shaped by the who, when and where of culture. That’s key. If people have a near-religious memory, it’s a different conversation. Wheaton, Illinois, is very different from downtown Chicago, where I’m the interim pastor at Moody Church right now. Those miles make a big difference.
You want to ask the question of where and when you are on the cultural scale. Paul does this—at Pisidia and Antioch, he takes the Jews he’s preaching to on a journey of Jewish history. At Lystra, he’s with pagans, and takes them to the harvest and to the sea. He tries to get to the gospel, and they riot. At Athens, he notes that they are very religious, and quotes their own poets to them, sharing Jesus by beginning with their religion. Just from those examples, we have three very different examples to contexts and approaches by the same evangelist. In each context, Paul walks across a bridge of culture to communicate the gospel that saves in every culture.
Walk us through how you would help a local pastor ask the right questions about evangelism in his or her own culture.
This is the cultural exegesis question. How do we examine and notice our culture in a way that’s appropriate?
Honestly, the first step is a heart issue. A lot of pastors, rather than reach the people to whom the Lord has sent them, would rather be in love with somebody else’s community or culture. I call this “demographic lust.” [Laughs.] It’s community envy. They want to reach the cool people, in Southern California or Manhattan or wherever. But if that’s you, you need to “love the one you’re with.”
Once the heart piece is in place, the key is to simply listen to people’s stories. We need to take the time to hear what brought people to the place they’re in now. What is their trajectory? What is their spiritual journey? That teaches us about our culture in the most connected way to your congregation.
For me, in formerly Catholic or nominally Catholic areas, it has been a very different starting point than in, say, Tennessee, where the culture is nominally Baptist.
I don’t think that you can love or reach a community if you don’t know it. Evangelism involves telling people about Jesus. Mission involves understanding them before you tell them. Missional thinking, when it precedes evangelism, helps us to more effectively share the gospel.
What would evangelistic success look like in our generation?
Ultimately, I don’t think it looks like one thing, but multiple things. I think it looks like God’s people acknowledging that Jesus has sent them to a broken and lost world, and that the same Jesus who came serving the hurting and marginalized, like he preached in Luke 4:18-20, also came to seek and save the lost, like he said in Luke 19:10.
In this day, it feels like we need to stand up and rally people to both—serving the hurting and saving the lost. But look at the landscape today in evangelicalism. I could show you a hundred conferences on justice, multiethnicity and church planting. And I am so glad that they are here. But how many can we find that are calling people to proclaim the gospel for evangelism as well?
Success is that we would learn to walk and chew gum at the same time. To rightfully care about social and societal concerns, and recognize, you can’t speak of true justice without telling people about Jesus, and hopefully you can’t really follow Jesus without caring about true justice. These things must be deeply connected with one another.
Do you have any advice for pastors who feel that they have tried pushing an emphasis on evangelism in their community only for it to fall flat?
Isn’t evangelism predominately a failing enterprise? Most people with whom I have shared the gospel have not trusted and followed Jesus. The question is if that ought to lead me to not do it anymore. Of course the answer is no. It is the most important thing in the world that Jesus died on the cross for us and in our place.
Stop cycling through these patterns of “we tried this and it didn’t work.” Instead, just continue to ask the question, over and over again: How can I, personally and congregationally, share the gospel today?