I recently had a lively conversation with a woman next to me on a flight. “Listen,” she said, “if I want to be a man on Monday and a woman on Wednesday—who cares? Gender identity is simply a matter of personal preference.”
She said she believes in the essential goodness of human nature, so I asked how she’d describe the state of the world: “The world is clearly falling apart. It’s a mess!”
“But how is that possible if the world is filled with good people?” I asked.
She paused and then offered a uniquely American analysis: “I believe our problem stems from two sources. People either have addiction issues and need a recovery program, or they are psychologically wounded and need therapy. Don’t you agree?”
I replied, “Both of those solutions help people. But what if after recovery we discover our problem is deeper still? What if our ultimate addiction is to ourselves? What if, at the core, it’s a problem of the heart?” She then asked, “Yes, but who in the world has the power to heal the heart?”
I said, “Honestly, I can’t think of anyone or anything but God.”
This woman’s comments reveal the witnessing challenge we face in today’s culture: The gospel of Jesus Christ is the most glorious news for our weary and worn planet. Yet so many Christians find it difficult and feel it’s impossible—or not a priority—to share the good news with people whose views differ radically from ours.
How do we winsomely and effectively communicate that “Jesus is Lord” to people who believe preference trumps all?
World Has Changed
Polls and prognosticators tell us the future of Christianity in the United States looks bleak. While I don’t take much stock in trend reports, apart from trying to understand the meaning behind the measurements, there’s no question the cultural landscape of America has changed. Not all change is bad, of course, but advanced modernity has produced some lethal distortions:
• The collapse of absolute truth.
• The shift from objective authority to personal preference.
• The designer religion/philosophy approach of picking and choosing what we believe, cafeteria style.
• The sexual revolution.
Though the gospel is as glorious as ever, the world is not the same. And that’s perhaps the greatest challenge for American churches today. When British missionary Lesslie Newbigin returned to England in the 1970s after years of living abroad, he recognized two things: the secularization of England, and the effect of the secular culture on Christians. The challenge, he discovered, wasn’t only how to reach unbelievers with the gospel. It was also how to reach believers with the gospel—the “unfaithful faithful” far more influenced by secularism than they realized.
Newbigin’s description is a picture of America today. Os Guinness says that due to the effects of advanced modernity, Western Christians who believe the gospel in their heads often behave like atheists in their actions. That is to say, the issue isn’t lack of gospel power, but functional unbelief.
Back from the Future
My husband, Dick, and I recently returned to America after living and doing evangelism ministry for seven years across the U.K. and Europe—one of the toughest places in the world for the gospel. Yet we saw remarkable fruit.
Now, on returning to the United States, we see the same secularization unfolding here. It’s like returning from the future.
Are we, the American church, ready for that future? Here are some insights we learned from our time in Europe, and from the amazing fruit we saw in a post-Christian context:
- Christians in such cultures feel inadequate to share their faith. Their fears are largely the same as ours: What if I can’t answer their questions? What if I offend? How do I bring up faith naturally?
- Most have a faulty view of evangelism. They either memorize a technique to use on everyone (even though Jesus never spoke the same way to two people) or they are friendly but say little about faith, hoping unbelievers will just somehow catch on.
- They forget God’s power and focus on their own inadequacies. Deep down, they tend to assume it’s their expertise that ultimately matters, rather than the presence and power of God.
One Simple Truth
Here’s one simple truth we’ve learned from listening to and helping Christians around the world: Ordinary Christians need equipping for personal evangelism in three particular areas.
1. The Model
One doctrine that shapes our understanding of witness is the incarnation. Jesus shows us how to relate to the world. We must be radically engaged and yet radically different. Jesus also displays the skills we need: being respectful and compassionate, listening, asking questions, and sparking curiosity so people want to hear good news. Effective personal witness begins with authentic relationship.
2. The Message
Expressing Christ’s love is foundational, but God also requires us to bear witness to the truth. How do we faithfully proclaim the gospel in an age that denies absolute truth?
We invite people to take a look at Jesus! People who wouldn’t darken the door of a church are often curious about him.
Why is looking at the person of Jesus in the Gospels so effective? Because he is always a surprise. He’s so radical, so controversial, so beautiful, so different from what people expect. We communicate truth through story, asking questions about Jesus as we study.
3. The Means
We can’t proclaim the good news in our own strength. We need the Holy Spirit’s help. Indeed, our lack of dependence on the Spirit is the most glaring deficiency in the modern Western church. Rediscovering the power of prayer, then, will strengthen us for witness like nothing else.
Jesus did not say, “Go therefore . . . all you extroverts, all you with dynamic relational skills, and all you gifted evangelists . . . and make disciples. The rest of you just hang out, sing some hymns until I return.” Rather, Jesus summons all Christians—regardless of personality type or gifting—to go and make disciples. Not everyone is called to be an evangelist, but all of us are called to be his witnesses.
Effective evangelism must be biblically faithful, culturally relevant, spiritually empowered, and relationally effective—not with formulas or techniques, but with authenticity, credibility, and spiritual power. And we need to do this now—to get ready for the future that has long been present in Europe and is coming quickly to America.
Even with the Most Unlikely
As my new acquaintance and I retrieved our luggage and said goodbye, she turned and said, “Becky, I am embarrassed to say this, but if I emailed you, would you write me back?” I said I’d be delighted.
She wrote and I replied, “I told you I’m a Christian, but I didn’t mention that I’ve written a book called Hope Has Its Reasons for people who are searching for God—or for something they can’t quite name. May I send it to you?”
She instantly wrote back: “Are you psychic?! How did you know I am searching for God? Please send it right away!” We are now having an email conversation about faith. Even after all these years, it still thrills me when someone who seemed so far from the kingdom turns out to be spiritually open.
All human beings hunger for meaning, worth, and wholeness that can only be found in God. Unbelievers don’t know the reason for their longing, but it’s there. Our job is to help one another gain confidence in Christ and competence in evangelism, even with the most unlikely.
Editors’ note: Watch below as Tim Keller and Becky Pippert discuss how to turn a conversation toward Christ, filmed at our 2015 National Conference. We hope you will join us for our 2017 National Conference, April 3 to 5 in Indianapolis.