by Ann Sullivan
Evangelism has fallen onto hard times, or so it would seem. The term evangelist itself has become problematic and tends to conjure up all sorts troubling images of greed, narcissism, and bad comb-overs.
It’s like the word fundamentalist. This used to be a positive term referring to someone who simply embraces the fundamental truths about a particular concept. Not anymore. Now the word is tantamount to fanatic and suicide bomber.
Living in a digital age has changed everything. Technology provides us with more information than we ever could have imagined even a decade ago, which is a good thing. Words and facts can be checked and cross-checked with the click of a mouse. And the good news is that genuine truth can stand the scrutiny. As William Penn said, “Truth never lost ground by enquiry.”
Writing my first book, Permission to Doubt, was very clarifying for me. I found myself letting go of certain things I believed and holding more tightly to others. Also, as I worked with atheists and agnostics, I realized how much easier it is to remain close-minded and cloistered.
Empathy takes effort.
But if we genuinely care about others and want to enter into the hearts and minds of those who don’t think the way we do, we need to understand what they believe and why they believe it. This is the face of evangelism in the 21st century. It’s all about relationships and building trust, because it’s only when we listen that we earn the right to be heard.
The truth of Christ isn’t threatened by changing cultures or relativism. It’s not determined by the size of a church building or what’s trending online. But how that truth is packaged, delivered, and received will keep evolving. And it must, no matter how difficult we find change.
Recently, I found myself longing for a simpler day as I read the biographies of DL Moody, Billy Sunday, and Dr. Harry Ironside. When I picture the likes of these men standing on the sidewalks of Chicago and preaching to an eager crowd, I’m reminded of how much things have changed. How skeptical our culture has become.
These days, when someone stands and delivers on the corner of State Street or LaSalle, everyone picks up their pace, including me. And this isn’t because truth has changed; it’s because we have changed. And so must evangelism.
I agree with atheist and professor of philosophy J. L. Schellenberg in this respect. In his book Evolutionary Religion, Schellenberg says the practice of religion evolves along with people and their unique cultures. And this is true. However, ultimate truth (an absolute Schellenberg absolutely denies) does not change.
Truth is not impacted by us.
We are impacted by truth.
Unfortunately, in our culture, religious people are often viewed with skepticism. They’re seen as less than intelligent, judgmental, and homophobic. And while sometimes the shoe may fit, in general, this doesn’t describe the Church I know. Some of the most brilliant and generous people I’ve ever met are followers of Christ.
Still, we’d all do well to understand the objections of unbelievers and respond accordingly. It’s hard to argue with those whose commitment to Jesus is displayed by feeding the hungry, battling human trafficking, or rescuing the planet. Believers are called to be set apart in order to make a difference, and love is always the primary objective: “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:35).
God’s love is a truth that has no variance over time, and His grace extends beyond the ages. So if we really want to make an impact, we’ll hold tightly to these truths as we press into the 21st century. This is the face of evangelism.
Ann Sullivan is an author, speaker, and blogger. Her first book, Permission to Doubt (Kregel), both challenges and encourages people in their faith as they face a new generation of progressive ideas. Her next book is entitled Beautifully Discontent. Ann’s website is annsullivansimpletruths.com.