Some evangelicals have criticized emerging church leaders for neglecting evangelism. While this may be a valid concern, we evangelicals (yes, I have been raised in this tradition) would be wrong to try to take the splinter out of the emerging church’s eye without first removing the log in our own eye. I have been doing some writing about evangelism after taking an evangelism course with Todd Hunter at George Fox Evangelical Seminary last spring. I am concerned with some misconceptions that we have possibly created in the minds of Christians in America that have led to a distorted view of evangelism and conversion. Here’s some of what I’ve been writing and thinking about. I’d love to hear from you, my readers, if you have encountered any evangelism misconceptions that you could identify for us and if you can offer any alternatives.
I was greatly influenced by Campus Crusade for Christ as a young Christian, and committed my life to participating in God’s mission for the world when I was 18. I went through missionary training, yet never made it to a foreign mission field. In all this training, I sensed God’s call to mission regardless of my location finding the principles of mission apply to home contexts as much as any foreign context, with some adaptation. After being on mission in America for over 25 years, I have been surprised at the lack of understanding of the need for being on mission with God here and now, as well as the rapid departure of so many growing up in Christian homes who are not only leaving the church but leaving the faith. American Christians have developed some faulty thinking about evangelism and conversion and they need to not only think differently, but change their behavior to become more intentional Christ followers who effectively reveal Christ to the world we live in. Missional Christians are thinking and acting differently, but they are often criticized and sometimes accused of heresy for these changes.
Many people think becoming a Christian is as simple as praying a prayer, but a life of following Jesus is much more complex and complicated. From ideas about conversion to methods of evangelism, many people have serious misconceptions that are not based on the Biblical narrative or the experience of God at work in the world. We must work to change these misconceptions and come to a more holistic view of evangelism and conversion that honors God and represents Christ in a way that makes it possible for His will to be done on earth as it is in heaven. From my experience, missional Christians are doing great work to change things. We have been going through a period of deconstruction, and are in the process of constructing new things in the area of mission and evangelism. We would do well to learn from our past and shape our future making sure we are not just reacting to our past failures, but responding to the Spirit’s moving in new ways.
Here are some misconceptions that we need to think about. I’d love your feedback on these as well as any ideas for others.
This deals with the misconception, “People are convinced of the truth only through exposure to the Bible.” This has become a strong and powerful misconception in America where Christians on the average own four Bibles. Some people seem to think that if they talk enough Scripture to their friends who are not yet saved, that the power of the Bible will somehow save them, as if the written word has some magical power. Most who hold this view may not be aware of their error in thinking this way, saying they know it’s the power of the Holy Spirit that makes the Scripture come alive, but this seriously discounts any efforts to be a witness unless the Bible is specifically proclaimed and quoted (in the particular translation they deem is best) and they tend to use the Bible as a weapon to defend their faith and convince others that what they believe is right and unless something is written specifically in the Bible, it must be wrong. Where does this leave Christians in other cultures who do not have access to the Bible? Is there no hope for them to be saved? We need to come to a fuller understanding of Jesus as the LIving Word and Jesus as the Way, the Truth and the Life so we do not give power to a source that cannot deliver what we expect. We need to expect Jesus to reveal Himself all around us and not limit His revelation to the world as being confined to the canonization of scripture.
Pray the Prayer
This exposes the misconception, “People are generally converted in the same manner.” I can’t tell you how many times I have heard the question, “Would you like to invite Jesus into your heart to be your personal Lord and Savior?” I heard a story of an evangelical Christian visiting a monastery and asking one of the monks if Jesus was his personal Lord and Savior, to which he responded, “No, I like to share him.” Just as we should not boil the gospel down to a simple four point formula and expect people to encounter Christ, we should not present the opportunity to make a decision to follow Christ the same way for every person in very circumstance. We need to learn to engage people uniquely and look to see how God is at work in drawing them to himself. We need to seek to see people with eyes of the Spirit so we can lead them to Christ according to their personal point of connection with him.
This addresses the misconception, “I have to invite my friends to church to hear the gospel preached by a professional before they can be saved.” Many Christians have an unrealistic expectation of the role of the church or clergy in Christian witness. The church is a powerful witness as it engages in practices of outreach, proclamation, hospitality, formation, initiation, and discipleship that lead persons into a process of conversion to a life of holiness. (Bryan Stone, Evangelism after Christendom, pg. 258) But many only invite people to hear the proclamation part and do not invite people into the life of the church. Sometimes this is because the church mostly offers proclamation and has set up, perhaps unknowingly, that proclamation is the most important part of Christian witness and you may as well leave it to the professionals to do this part anyway. The use of the “invitation” at the end of most sermon or message portions of church gatherings reinforces this notion that the proclamation portion of Christian witness is most important with the expectation that because the message was proclaimed so professionally, people will naturally respond. We need to enlarge our thinking about the role of the church in Christian witness as well as the role of the members to create a culture where the invitation is not merely to attend an evangelistic event or weekend church gathering, but is an invitation to be formed socially by the Holy Spirit into the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus through incorporation into his body.
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