How do we do effective evangelism in secular culture?
Conventional wisdom says we should just plant more churches in secular cities. The great missiologist C. Peter Wagner wrote, “The single most effective evangelistic methodology under heaven is planting new churches.” This statement has become such conventional wisdom in the last 30 years that we often assume, “If I’m planting a church, I’m doing evangelism. Church planting and evangelism are the same thing.” I want to call that assumption into question.›
In conflating church planting with evangelism, we say things like, “the key to effective evangelism in a secular age is to plant more churches in secular spaces because church planting is the single-most effective evangelistic methodology under heaven, so let’s talk about how to plant churches in secular cities.” Do you see what just happened? My evangelism piece has become a church-planting piece.
But I want to propose that the most effective evangelistic methodology in a secular age is evangelism—done biblically, hopefully by a faithful local church. To evangelize effectively in a secular age, we need to ask, “what is evangelism, in its essence? And how do we do it in light of the cultural condition of secularism?”
The Spiritual Condition of Secularism
Secularism is a spiritual and cultural condition where many people think they already know what Christianity is. But the “Christianity” they don’t believe is not the gospel itself. Or they have heard the actual gospel a few times, but it hasn’t struck them as something they need. We often assume, “If I’m planting a church, I’m doing evangelism. Church planting and evangelism are the same thing.” Click To Tweet
Has there ever been another culture where people had been exposed to religion, maybe even to gospel preaching, but had largely not believed? I think the closest parallel is unbelieving Israel in the New Testament era, and we can learn from how the early church did evangelism there.
Romans 10 is the heart cry of the Apostle Paul for his Jewish relatives. It explains why they haven’t believed the gospel. To summarize, it’s because they have “heard” in one sense, but they haven’t “heard” in another sense. In particular, they’ve sought to establish their own righteousness. Doing this has stopped up their ears so that they’ve become hard of hearing. If their ears were open, they would’ve heard that their own Scriptures teach us to seek righteousness by faith and by calling on the name of the Lord. “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” (Rom. 10:13).
According to Paul, this is why we preach–to help them hear! “How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!'” (Rom. 10:14–15).
The Essence of Evangelism
From this, a simple definition of evangelism is preaching the gospel to make it heard by those who have not heard.
“Those who have not heard” means two things. First, it means those who’ve literally never heard what God did through Jesus Christ. But it also means those who’ve heard it in a technical sense but haven’t heard it in a spiritual sense. We know that both hearings are included because, in verse 18, Paul says, “But I ask, have they not heard? Indeed they have.” He then explains how Israel heard but didn’t hear.
Evangelism is preaching the gospel to make it heard in both ways. The question that drives the evangelist is, “how do I preach the gospel in a way that helps people hear?”
Planting, Hospitality, and ________ (Fill in the blank)
Rather than listing things to do, I want you to imagine your answers to this question: how do I make the gospel heard among those who have not heard? Who knows what the Holy Spirit will inspire in you as you ponder that question First, let’s imagine what “making the gospel heard among those who haven’t heard” does not necessarily mean:
It doesn’t mean just planting a church that preaches the gospel every Sunday. It’s true that some people come to faith by hearing the gospel in worship services. Evangelistic churches preach in a way that assumes non-Christians are always in the room, and they invite non-Christian friends to church. But we cannot reduce evangelism to the ordinary preaching of the gospel on Sunday because of the simple fact that too many people who haven’t heard are not in our worship services.
It’s especially true in the secular environment because 99.99% of people who haven’t heard are choosing not to attend our worship services. If evangelism is preaching the gospel to be heard by those who haven’t heard, we’re not doing evangelism if we don’t do something else to help them hear. Secularism is a spiritual and cultural condition where many people think they already know what Christianity is. But the “Christianity” they don’t believe is not the gospel itself. Click To Tweet
Making the gospel heard also doesn’t just mean building friendships with non-Christians. Yes, we should be showing Christian hospitality. Hospitality is often the precursor to evangelism. But by itself, it isn’t evangelism because Paul says, “faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of Christ” (Rom. 10:17). Hospitality with no word is not evangelism.
So again, here’s the question: how do I make the gospel heard among those who have not heard? The answer is neither “just plant a church with a worship service that preaches the gospel” nor “just build friendships with non-Christians.” Both are good and vital gospel ministry. But evangelism goes a step further.
Here are some questions that help me take the next step: how would you (or your church) get some non-Christians together who wouldn’t necessarily attend your worship services and help them hear the gospel? When you get together with them, what would you talk about? What passages would you point them to? Which pastors do you think they would connect with?
In a secular context, we don’t just need one or two programs to facilitate these conversations. We need the church to generate thousands of good ideas to help set the table—that is evangelism.