For years, we’ve built our churches around one main proclamation event. Maybe you’ve heard of it. It’s known as the Sunday morning worship service. But we’ve entered an age where resistance to any sort of proclamation is reaching an all-time high. More and more people are becoming skeptical of the church, our culture is inflamed around pandemic issues, politics are being pushed to either extreme and Millennial and Gen Z Christians have become less comfortable sharing the Gospel.
So why do people come to faith? What is it that draws them in? And what is the secret to evangelism now, in these unprecedented times?
Proclamation Alone is Problematic
Proclamation is important. Speaking truth is imperative. Using our words to introduce people to Jesus is still crucial. Many have the good news proclaimed to them in one form or another, and many of us respond with a heart resounding “Yes”—just as I did during a proclamation even in a church some 25 years ago—but not everyone.
First, there are hundreds of thousands of people in a close radius of your church and mine who are flat-out unwilling to show up to our proclamation gatherings, ever. Then, there are hundreds of thousands of people who are unwilling to engage in personal conversations where they are just being preached at. And, as the years have passed, our proclamations have become even less relevant to the world around us.
Many of our faith proclamations are no longer addressing the real questions of our culture. Questions like, “How can I find purpose?”, “How can I deal with loneliness and emptiness?”, and “Where can I find an answer to the injustices in this broken world?”
Discourse is Inflamed
Our Reviving Evangelism study indicated a 100% jump from GenXers to Millennials in adherence to this statement: Disagreement is interpreted as judgment. A new tribalism in every sector of our society has emerged. Us versus Them.
You don’t need data to convince you of this. Just look on social media and you’ll see the polarization play out in real-time over virtually any topic; each side of the political spectrum lobs verbal grenades at one another while entrenching deeper into their own echo chambers. We have the vaccinate or never vaccinate groups. The climate change and the no climate change debate. The Chevy versus Ford debacle. The vegans and meat-eaters are even going at it—I like to call it the beets versus smoked meats.
Certainly, this culture of vehement disagreement has spilled over into the religion and faith conversations of the day. We’ve lost the art of discourse in our time, and proclamation alone perpetuates this contemporary problem. If someone has a legitimate question in a disagreement-equals-judgment culture when it comes to faith, and we respond with a quick one-sided, one-dimensional, one-directional proclamation of hard truth, we won’t get from question number one, which is lodged in the head of the asker, to questions five and six, which are lodged in the heart.
Jesus Didn’t Just Proclaim
The Bible records 307 questions that Jesus asked, along with 183 questions others asked of him—but do you know how many times Jesus gave a direct answer? Eight times. And some scholars argue that on only three of those occasions was the answer he gave completely direct. Jesus was 40 times more likely to ask a question than to provide a direct answer (give or take). And this, coming from the one and only person who walked the earth and actually knew all the answers.
Jesus’ propensity to ask questions, or to leave the questions of others unanswered, is a profoundly different type of evangelism than that on which most churches around the globe have been built in the last 50 years. As a worldwide Church, we have somehow depended almost entirely on proclamation as the definitive evangelism strategy. We can and we must go back to Jesus’ style of evangelism, but it’s going to require us to re-prioritize one of the most vital, yet overlooked, skills that Jesus possessed.
The Secret to Evangelism is Listening
Proclamation has not only lost some of its power in the secular world. It’s also becoming less and less effective within our churches, as greater connectivity online introduces all of us to more and more questions, more and more immersion into our post-Christian culture and worldview, and more and more cause for doubt. There’s a huge desire building in those sitting in our church pews or logging on to our digital sermons to ask questions, to engage in conversations about faith, the Bible, and Christianity.
What if Christians were 40 times more likely to respond to questions and doubts and disagreements with listening (just like Jesus)? What if Christians asked 40 questions and thoughtfully listened to the responses for every one proclamation (just like Jesus)? What if Christians were the best listeners on the planet, reshaping and retraining culture to become effective listeners of one another (just like Jesus)? If so, we would begin to reflect the heart and behavior of Jesus with more clarity and draw more people into a relationship with Jesus with more consistency.
One of the most fascinating stats from the Reviving Evangelism study had to do with the top qualities spiritually curious non-Christians in America are looking for in a person with whom to talk about faith. First and foremost was someone who “listens without judgment.” Spiritually curious people want to bring things up, introduce controversial topics and doubts, and ask questions without feeling like Christians are judging every word they’re saying or dismissing them because of a long-held belief. They are looking to have a conversation, not just be proclaimed to. They want someone to listen. We can and must build space for conversation in our churches, in our lives, and in our collective evangelism strategies. Conversation, not just proclamation, is the way forward.
Excerpted from How to Revive Evangelism by Craig Springer. Copyright ©2021 by Zondervan. Used by permission of Zondervan. www.zondervan.com.
Alpha helps churches create this space for honest conversations in our post-Christian culture. See how here.