I was driving to speak at a men’s conference about two months ago when I saw a church marquee that caught my attention. It said:
What would you need to see on our sign to get you to come to church?
Hmmm. Now, granted, it was a more traditional church with no inkling of forward motion in a while. But the sign angered me. It essentially said to the unchurched in the area: “Come to us. We’re not coming to you.” Or maybe we could put it this way: “We have the truth. If you’re seeking it, you should probably show up here at our predetermined service times. This may inconvenience you. But the truth is worth your inconvenience.” What would someone need to see on that sign? Nothing. Because the message of that sign speaks to a bygone era. The cold hard fact is that the days of “propositional” evangelism are gone.
Let me explain what I mean. Propositional evangelism is the idea that sharing the gospel with someone involves reciting a series of facts that others are supposed to believe simply because you have informed them. A couple of things are wrong with this. First, this type of evangelism assumes that information changes someone. And some information does change us and our perspective on life. But spiritual truths run deeper than a pamphlet or the “Roman road.” In the U.S., the idea that you can share the basics of Christianity with someone and they will smack their forehead and said, “Oh! I had no idea!” really doesn’t exist anymore. The second issue revolves around truth. In our postmodern age, there are truth claims that compete against each other…and no longer is Christianity held as the highest pinnacle of truth attainment. In every area of society, we now live in the “marketplace” of ideas – a giant supermarket full of ideologies that are all marked half-price.This makes those who are into propositional evangelism extremely angry… because they have no leg of established credibility to stand on since their “market share” is the same as everyone else’s.
What does exist is relational or trust-based evangelism. Since no one has to “buy in” to the Christian paradigm anymore, people come to understand more about Jesus through their relationships with others and the slow and steady trust built through long-lasting friendships. People are certainly interested in ultimate truth – they always will be. But the doorway to speak to others about that truth has nothing to do with the accuracy of truth claims. Those with the relationships will ultimately be granted the opportunity to answer questions about truth. This is bad news for many of us in the evangelical camp… because we are lazy. We’re not used to having to work at relating to others simply because we assume that everyone will be enamored with our wisdom. They’re not.
I heard a quote several months ago by a pastor named John Lynch. He said:
Truth is never received unless it is given in the context of trust.
That doesn’t mean the truth is up for grabs. But it does mean that the method by which it can be relayed as changed drastically. Only when I have earned someone’s trust based on friendship and service am I able to share with them what I believe about God. After all, that is the message of the gospel. Jesus scrapped all his positions and titles to live amongst us (Philippians 2). And by living with us, he showed us how to live.