Evangelist Sam Chan on Creating a Space for Non-Christians to Belong

How conversation and community elevate the art of evangelism

Sam Chan’s life is a laboratory for evangelism. The son of Chinese immigrants to Australia, Chan watched his parents evangelize the neighborhood and local college students. Dinners and Sunday lunches often included guests, and from the very beginning, evangelism was part of the rhythm and fabric of his family’s life.

He became a medical doctor, but the call to ministry was irresistible. After four years, he left full-time medicine and entered seminary in Australia and postgraduate studies in Chicago before returning home to teach in seminary. For the past five years, he’s been the public speaker for City Bible Forum, an organization that networks Christians and evangelizes the workplace in business districts across all major Australian cities. He connects with young, postmodern, post-reached and post-Christian audiences regularly.

Evangelism is a rich part of his personal life as well. He likes listening to behavioral psychology podcasts to better understand why people believe, and why they resist belief. He takes the long view, evangelizing through lengthy conversations, deep relationships and community.

He also writes a blog at EspressoTheology.com where he gives short bursts of theology, taking readers “from your world to Jesus in 60 seconds.” So it’s no surprise that his latest book is called How to Talk About Jesus (Without Being THAT Guy): Personal Evangelism in a Skeptical World (Zondervan).

Here, he talks to Outreach about the sort of evangelism we desperately need in today’s post-Christendom West. (Oh, and part of Chan’s lab of evangelism continues to be in a hospital. He still practices medicine a couple of days a week.)

Your passion for creative evangelism makes sense in the context of your life. Can you talk a little bit about your approach?

When it comes to evangelism, I say, let’s make it a challenge. If I were a missionary, how would I evangelize the West now, using the principles of missiology, contextualization, cultural anthropology and behavioral psychology?

The big premise of my evangelism methods is that we have changed. We’re post-reached, post-Christendom, post-church. I was at Billy Graham’s last crusade in Australia in the 1970s. He gave the 20-minute Bible talk, he gave an appeal, prayed a prayer, asked us to come to the front. The choir sang “Just As I Am,” and then Billy said his famous line, “The buses will wait.” We all rolled our eyes. That’s so kitschy. But here’s why that line matters: Every non-Christian that night came on a church bus. The unbeliever was way more churched back then than the unbeliever is now. We are in a completely different age of evangelism.

How did we get from there to here?

Rico Tice, a gifted UK evangelist, explains it best. He says there have been three phases of evangelism in recent Western Christian history. The first phase is the Billy Graham phase, where it’s just asking people to believe what they’ve heard a thousand times before. The second phase is what we can call the defeater belief phase. People know what Christians believe, but they can’t believe because of defeater beliefs: the problems of science, of other religions, of suffering. Evangelism meant we had to remove those defeater beliefs, and then they would believe. Now, in the third phase, we’re just on different planets, in different universes: The unbeliever doesn’t know what a Christian believes, doesn’t want to believe what a Christian believes, doesn’t know why it’s relevant.

But we’re still trying to reach people in ways that worked in Phase 1.

I recently heard Tim Keller say he knew someone who was doing a Ph.D. study, and they looked at all the methods of evangelism by all the different denominations. This guy said every method of evangelism presumes Christendom. But right now we’re post-Christendom. And we’ve never been here before.

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Well, you might think, we just have to pretend we’re pre-Christendom again. But there’s a problem: In pre-Christendom, the West really was a blank slate. But post-Christendom, we’re not. We’ve been exposed to Christianity, and people have decided they don’t want it; they don’t care. Pandemics are a good example of that. In pre-Christendom, the Christians set up hospitals. They’re the ones who stayed behind to help. That laid down the fabric for Christendom and made Christianity attractive. But during this current pandemic, Samaritan’s Purse tried to set up a makeshift hospital in Central Park. They got shut down and chased out. They were not allowed to be there because of their beliefs on sex and morality.

You use a lot of sociology, psychology and communication theory in your evangelism. It’s a very scientific approach to a very spiritual practice.

I’m fascinated by the psychology of persuasion. I’ve been listening more and more to behavioral psychologists, and it’s a real science. One thing it reveals is that people don’t want to change their beliefs, and no one actually wants advice. If you give people advice, their defenses naturally come up. Or if you try to win an argument, they emotionally don’t want to lose. They have such an aversion to loss, they would rather double down on their belief. They make up reasons on the fly for why they’re right and you’re wrong. So, there’s no point in trying to win. The art of persuasion is to empathize with their point of view, but gradually get them to see and empathize with yours.

We have to learn how to evangelize in the style of a conversation. A conversation is a dialogue, and the art of conversation is asking questions. And that’s how a counselor works.

I go back to this moment when I was trying to decide whether to stay in full-time medicine or go into Christian ministry. I asked all these friends for advice. They monologued with me for an hour, and I went away thinking, That was very unsatisfying. Then I realized I actually wanted a conversation where I could talk out loud. So I turned to another friend and said to him, “I could stay in full-time medicine,” and he replied, “You could, couldn’t you?” And with just that one question, I realized I didn’t want to. That’s what counselors do. They lead you to talk out loud to find the answer for yourself.

Where do churches fit into one-on-one conversational evangelism?

Somehow people have to be able to find belonging in your church. Maybe through community, or seminars focusing on things like financial management, parenting, marriage, work/life balance. People turn up and find some sort of belonging. Then the behavior comes. You actually get them onto your rosters. Have them come out and help you build a house for an orphan or something. After they behave, soon comes belief.

The other thing churches should try to do is not have an us-versus-them mentality. We need to merge our universes. Typically, Christians have two universes of friends: Christian and non-Christian. If we merge these universes, we won’t be the only Christian friend that our non-Christian friends have. If they know several Christians, they start thinking, Christianity is more believable because many of my friends believe it. But they also feel belonging, because they’re part of this tribe of believers.

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Behavioral psychologists talk about tribal psychology. People would rather be wrong and belong than be correct and shamed and kicked out of the tribe. That means if someone has belonging in a very secular group, they would rather be wrong in their beliefs and find belonging in their group than believe what you believe and be kicked out of their group. Unless they also have a network of friends who are Christians, they are never going to want to believe what you believe.

You go out of your way to understand people and things that are secular in nature so you can learn about them, build relationships and merge universes.

Because of general revelation, I believe God’s truth is in every cultural worldview or belief system, no matter how foreign, pagan or non-Christian it is. In every culture, every storyline, every group, there’s some goodness, truth, beauty and wisdom. That’s why I try to seek common ground.

But every culture is sinful as well. It has its way of rebelling, of running away from God, of suppressing the truth. I’m not naïve about that. When Jesus used to mix with tax collectors and sinners, the Pharisees would say, How come you’re always mixing with sinners and tax collectors? He would say, Well, it’s not the healthy who need a doctor. It’s the sick. That’s exactly why he has to be there—to be salt and light. But I’m not Jesus. He mixes with sinners, and his moral compass doesn’t get affected. Mine might. That’s why it’s very important that I’m accountable.

This is actually quite a Western problem, but it is one non-Western Christians have had for decades, if not centuries. For example, Asian Christians have always faced this dilemma: Do they go to the funeral of their non-Christian parents, where there will be idol worship? They go knowing that they aren’t there to worship idols but to honor, love, respect and bless their parents and family. That’s what Jesus commands us to do: to bless our enemies, to wish them the best. That’s something we find quite threatening. But Jesus says, Bless your enemies, love those who hate you, forgive those who persecute you.

And that helps our witness as Christians, too, because the stereotype is often that we don’t want to do those things.

Yes. And we think we need to be oppositional and adversarial, but we can actually be affirmational. When Jesus and the apostles witnessed to the church people with the Scriptures, they came in opposing them. You sinned, you rebelled, you need to repent. But to the unchurched people without the Scriptures, they come came in quite affirmational. To the pagans, the apostles said things like, You know, there’s a God who sends you rain, he makes your crops grow, but you’re not worshipping this God. They’re working with the culture rather than being oppositional. I think sometimes we believe we have to be oppositional.

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