I led my first person to Christ in 1956 on a street corner in Austin, Texas. I was 17 and on fire. I used the Four Spiritual Laws and asked him to let Christ into his heart, and behold! He was a new person. I saw him years later, and he was still following Christ.
Fast forward to 2014, and the Four Spiritual Laws will get you nowhere. That approach doesn’t work anymore. Now it takes time to build a relationship. People are skeptical of religious people. They believe all we want from them is their money and besides that, institutional religion, in general, is out of favor.
So how do we share the Good News about what God did in Jesus in our current culture and spiritual climate?
After five decades of ministry and working with church leaders, my answer is simply this. Conversations with the lost can’t begin with the Bible or with the Church. They must begin with the person and where that person is. So here is my formula:
“We must listen to their story before we can share our story on the way to THE story.”
Give that sentence time to sink in.
Evangelism today is much like the parable of the prodigal son. Most people focus on the son in the story, but I focus on the father and especially what happened when the prodigal decided to return home. As soon as the father saw his coming, he ran to meet him. He didn’t wait until he came completely home. Instead, he met him halfway on the son’s terms, not his. He didn’t ask him to change one thing. He was so glad to have him home.
This is the kind of attitude we should have toward people who are not followers of Jesus. We must meet them where they are, not where we want them to be. We must love them as they are, warts and all. Because we know that in time, surrounded by God’s love, they will find their way home.
Too many of the churches I’ve consulted with over the decades have the attitude that their decline is the fault of the unchurched: If the unchurched would just shape up and get their life together, everything would be fine. We need to learn from the father in the parable and meet the lost halfway. We need to face up to the fact that they are part of the problem. Our unwillingness to change methodologies is as much the problem as the attitude of the unchurched.
So, the burden in evangelism is on us–not the lost. We have to learn to listen and understand what is going on in their life; why they are skeptical of churches and religious institutions; and why they don’t naturally give much respect, if any, to the clergy. Because it’s no longer 1950, we must first seek to understand the world of the lost or unchurched. Here’s a sampling of you’ll find in the United States:
- More of them have grown up totally void of any relationship with institutional religion than previous generations.
- The number of civil marriages is now rivaling church weddings.
- Parents are no longer bringing their infants to the church to be baptized.
- TV evangelists have poisoned the religious waters and are believed to be frauds.
- People are working more hours now than in the past, so free time–and what they do with it–is becoming rare and more important.
- People now have much more appealing entertainment today than the revival days of the past.
- This past generation of kids has basically raised themselves or was raised by their peers.
- The average family has one evening meal together a week, which has an enormous negative impact on their upbringing.
- Most kids, regardless of their parents’ income level, have smartphones, $150 athletic shoes and an assortment of electronic gizmos.
Taking the above into consideration, we realize that the world most church leaders over age 40 were born into has radically changed. Therefore, the burden to learn how to share the gospel in a new world is on us–not the lost. We must listen to their story, share our story and lead them to THE story.
About the Author
Bill Easum has a 30-year track record of growing congregations in two denominations. His last church, which he pastored for 24 years, grew to become the largest United Methodist Church in South Texas. Bill is the recipient of the prestigious Donald McGavran Award for outstanding church leadership. Over the past 20 years, Bill has served as a consultant to congregations and denominations. He is the author of numerous best-selling books such as Church Growth Handbook, How to Reach Baby Boomers, Dancing With Dinosaurs, Sacred Cows Make Gourmet Burgers, Beyond the Box and many more. His latest book is Effective Staffing for Vital Churches: The Essential Guide to Finding and Keeping the Right People.