Old Wine, New Wineskins

Alvin Reid, Professor at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, makes this statement often: “Lost people are more amazed at our silence than offended at our message.” Understand this statement in the context of the local church and you understand my perspective, including the premise behind this blog post.

I was reading an article Reid wrote in the Spring 2017 edition of Facts & Trends, a publication of Lifeway Christian Resources, Nashville, Tennessee. He discusses the findings of a recent study undertaken by Lifeway Research / Billy Graham Center for Evangelism at Wheaton College. He couches the findings in terms of his latest book, Sharing Jesus without Freaking Out, available from B & H Academic. I have to say I find the results of the study profound, while not all that surprising. Let me clarify.

The researchers asked several questions concerning the interest of unchurched Americans in listening to what Christians have to say. Examples include statements such as: “I would be more interested in listening to what Christians have to say if I saw Christians treating others better because of faith.” “I would be more interested in listening to what Christians have to say if I saw Christians caring for people’s needs because of faith.” Each statement was listed with a percentage value indicating its popularity as a response from the sample group. There were three values, however, that stood out to me above the others in the article.

The first two values are related and they may surprise some who read this blog. Among unchurched Americans surveyed, 79% agree with this statement: “If a friend of mine really values their faith, I don’t mind them talking about it.” Similarly, among unchurched Americans, 73% of those surveyed don’t think their Christian friends talk about their faith too much. Given these responses, it seems the door to gospel-centered conversation is open far wider than the average church member may care to admit. I believe the average church member may suffer more from fear or lack of confidence than they do from lack of opportunity when it comes to gospel-centered conversations.

Now, let me say up front the following information is based on my personal experience and is certainly not descriptive of every church in every city. However, I believe many other churches in America may hold similar positions. This is my premise: some churches believe sincerely they have no need of changing their current practices when it comes to great commission mobilization or advancing the gospel to the ends of the earth. They are content to continue doing things the same way they have been doing them for whatever historical period of time with which they are comfortable. Unfortunately, this is where the final value of which I spoke comes more clearly into focus.

According to Lifeway Research, “67% of unchurched people say they are unlikely to attend church in the future. For them, spirituality and church do not naturally go together. When millennials were asked where they go for spiritual help, church did not make the top 10” (Facts & Trends, Spring 2017, 15). Consider the juxtaposition of these three values and draw your own conclusions, but I see one glaring, if not completely obvious, inference based on the data. Churches must be willing to hold their methodology with open hands while holding the biblical truth of the gospel with closed hands. In other words, the church must never retreat from sharing the whole truth of the good news of Jesus Christ. But the church must always be willing to adapt and contextualize the presentation of this truth to an ever-changing culture. Missionaries study the best ways to present the gospel truth in the context of the mission field in which they serve. Why should the local church on American soil be any different? Answer: it should not be.

Reid concludes his article with five helpful “reminders for Christians to help alleviate their fears” when it comes to engaging others in gospel-centered conversation:

  1. Think less of giving a presentation and more of having a conversation.
  2. Tell them the great story of the gospel more than listing propositions.
  3. Connect the story to their everyday life experiences.
  4. Start in their worldview, not yours.
  5. Don’t just invite them to church—invite them into your lives and your community.

I would suggest another important principle to remember: the conversion of every person with whom you share the gospel does not constitute success in evangelism. Obedience to share the gospel through words and actions constitutes success in evangelism. Pray. Share. Leave the results in the capable hands of Almighty God.

Mike. Out.

[Note: All statistical data and quotations taken from an article entitled, “How to Share Jesus without Freaking Out: Effective Evangelism in the 21st Century,” by Dr. Alvin Reid, published in the Spring 2017 issue of Facts & Trends, Lifeway Christian Resources, pp. 12-17.]

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