"Theory" vs. "Reality" in Evangelism

One of the things that we have been learning together as a church plant over the past few months is the gap that we often see between “theory” and “reality.” In other words, often times in our preparation and training, we would read or hear about a theory on a particular area of church planting that sounded like it would probably be what we would experience—especially given the context in which we were planting—only to then discover that it was not even close to the reality on the ground. Nowhere, from my perspective, has this been more evident than in the area of evangelism. Here are some of the theoretical myths that have been busted in our neighborhood as we’ve been engaging people in spiritual conversations.

Theory: “Don’t focus on the eternal—focus on life right now.”

This theory is widely believed to be true, and it sounds something like this: “People today (especially ‘millennials’) don’t want to hear about eternal life—they mostly want to know how they can access life right now, because they often times feel hopeless right now.”

Before going any further, let me just clarify: Of course the good news of Jesus brings life right now. It brings life to individuals and life to the surrounding community. Of course that’s true. That being the case, however, here’s the reality we’re experiencing on the ground:

Reality: People are hungry for conversations about eternity.

While it’s true that the eternal life that Jesus offers begins right now, the idea that people are more interested in the “life right now” discussions about the gospel than they are about eternity is simply not the case. I’ll say this: both in my own gospel conversations that I’ve had in the past several months with skeptical, non-believing people and in what I’m hearing from members of our Launch Team regarding their interactions, I have yet to unearth an interaction with a non-believing, post-graduate, young professional, long-term resident, or U of M student in our neighborhood for whom the above theory would completely apply.

A few weeks ago at one of our community gatherings in which we looked to serve the neighborhood by getting the neighbors together for food and conversation, a young man named Joshua (upper 20s, lives in the neighborhood) walked straight up to me and another team member and said, “I need you to tell me what’s going to happen to me when I die.” I told him that we should grab some food together and talk about it at a table. He said to me, “I don’t care about the food that you’re offering me or the music or the tables—I want to know about life after death. I want to know about Jesus.” He wasn’t going to move from the place where he was standing until I told him what the Bible says about life after death. Here’s what we’re seeing, though: Joshua isn’t the exception—he actually represents, in many ways, the hunger for these conversations that we’re seeing in Southeast Minneapolis among those who are truly unchurched.

But in addition to that, the idea that the gospel as it’s presented in Scripture is described primarily in terms of “life right now” is also not the case. In fact, the opposite is surely true. I’ve quoted this in a previous post, but this exhortation from D.A. Carson is so good and timely.

“There’s a great deal in the Bible that just doesn’t make sense anymore unless you have an expectation of life to come. The whole call of suffering in this life, unless there’s vindication in the end, is basically a call to masochism… It may be true that in America 50 years ago, we were fighting too much over eschatological details. But nowadays we’ve got a brand of Christianity rife in the land which doesn’t deny that there is life to come, but it’s not very significant. What is significant is how Christianity affects your life now. That’s a vast distortion from the emphases of Scripture. Of course Christ affects your life now. Of course you have eternal life now. But the great anticipation in Scripture constantly is the life to come. Laying up treasure in heaven. And there’s very little in Scripture that makes sense without seeing that. Very little. Very little of Christian ethics. Very little of Christian doctrine. Very little of Christian value systems. Very little of Christian worldview. ‘Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.’”

So the fact that people are hungering for eternal things shouldn’t surprise us at all. It’s not that people are disinterested in eternal things—it’s actually that they are looking for permission, often times, to talk about it with people they trust. Life and death is a deeply personal and intimate topic for conversation. But it’s one that many people desperately want to have.

Theory: “Don’t communicate the gospel too quickly—grow the relationship first.”

This theory sounds something like this: “If we communicate the gospel too quickly, we will risk ruining the relationship and we will lose the platform for evangelism. We need to take a long time patiently building credibility first and then we should engage with the gospel later on.”

And so again, I want to clarify: Of course we should work to build genuine credibility both in neighborhoods and with individuals. Relationships are extremely important. We need to develop genuine and authentic friendships with people from a posture of love and service regardless of whether or not they ever receive Jesus. We’re loved enough by him in the gospel to offer the same thing to others. Of course that’s true. That’s why, at Gospel Life Church, we often say that we want to meaningfully and relationally engage non-believing people with the good news of Jesus. It has to be done in the context of relationships. Having said all of that, here’s the reality:

Reality: When it comes to a gospel conversation with a friend—the sooner, the better.

One of my close friends, who pastors in the Czech Republic (one of the most skeptical/atheistic countries in the world), has helped us quite a bit as we’ve wrestled through this one. They discovered what we’re discovering—that the longer you take to introduce a friend to Jesus, the harder that conversation will become. In part it becomes harder because there’s this huge aspect of your life that you’ve concealed from someone with whom you were building a friendship (and so it can feel like a bait and switch—“why were you keeping that from me?”), and in part it becomes harder because the longer the relationship exists apart from conversation, the more the fear grows that you’ll lose the relationship if you start the conversation.

And so the reality is that we need to be okay potentially being the “weird Christian friend” right out of the gate—that as we begin these relationships, we’re learning that, more often than not, we need to share about who we are as a result of who God is and what he has done.

Theory: “Don’t give many answers—just sit with people in their questions.”

Another theory is that we should stop trying to answer questions/doubts that non-believing people have and just be with them in their doubts—that we need to teach them to “embrace the tension” more than stating what we believe to be true.

And for part of this, I want to say, “amen.” Of course we need to listen well to others, and so often our inclination to give answers keeps us from listening well. People need to know that they are being heard—not just talked at. Of course that's true. And yet…

Reality: People are looking for answers.

This overlaps to a great degree with my response to the first theory, so I won’t belabor the point (too much). But both as a student ministry pastor for ten years and now as a church planter for the past year, nearly every time when what I should be seeing is a non-believing millennial (high school, college, post-grad, etc.) who is answer-averse, what I actually experience ends up being almost exactly the opposite. This is just another example of something that I keep being told about what millennials must be like that is out of line from reality. Additionally, the evidence here is not just anecdotal. The research demonstrates that the churches/movements that embrace a more answer-averse approach to culture are also shrinking the fastest

The reality is that the Spirit of God, working through the Word of God, gives us answers. These answers will seem counter-intuitive to the world around us. For “we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God” (1 Cor 2:12).

Theory: “Don’t waste time preaching. People want to contribute—not hear a lecture.”

We’re pretty new to the more regular worship gathering thing. And so I don’t bring this up because we’re seeing a large number of non-believers either drawn or challenged directly by the preached Word at one of our gatherings. We haven’t seen that up to this point. Having said all of that, here’s the reality:

Reality: Preaching is another reminder that the gospel isn’t just for non-believing skeptics—believers need the gospel just as much.

The gospel isn’t synonymous with outreach or evangelism. At the end of the day, all of us need to, in a sense, be evangelizing one another—moving one another from unbelief in the gospel to belief in the gospel in every sphere of life. Rooting all of life in the good news of Jesus together. And so we need to get beyond this idea that preaching is the same thing as any other kind of dispersing of information. We need to come to understand that while we will always, because of our default mode, want to contribute to God’s grace, preaching is another picture of what it looks like for God’s people to receive the Word without adding anything, which points us by his Spirit to the cross—to grace. And so preaching is central in the life of the church—the gospel proclaimed so that believers can hear it, repent, and believe, and the gospel proclaimed so that non-believing friends can hear it, repent, and believe.

None of this is to say that there is no truth at all in these theories, as I’ve stated above. I just wonder if it’s possible that, once again, what we are actually doing is importing some of our own struggles and agendas onto the hearts of non-believers when, in actual fact, non-believers are wrestling with the questions that we find at the heart of the gospel.

While we definitely don’t have this figured out, we’re grateful that we serve a God who speaks through his Word to our friends so that we don’t have to carry the burden of convincing our friends into the kingdom. Please pray for us as we continue on this journey of meaningfully and relationally engaging skeptics in the Marcy Holmes neighborhood of Minneapolis.