Spreading SeedsWhen the “Good News” gets a bad rap, how do we authentically talk about the gospel?
The word “evangelize” often gets a bad rap in 2020. When we think of examples of modern-day evangelism, they usually look more like performance art: the person outside a baseball stadium with a loudspeaker wearing a sandwich board that reads “Jesus Saves” or a Jesus meme on social media or someone knocking on your door in a suit holding a Bible, asking what you think happens when you die.
Situations like these often feel like soul-saving competitions. They are usually awkward and sometimes embarrassing. At worst, they evoke anger and fear. In almost every one of these instances, these exchanges are not rooted in relationship or authentic conversations. It’s no wonder that according to a 2019 Barna study, 47 percent of millennial Christians think evangelism is wrong. And really, who would want anything to do with that kind of God—one that leaves little room for diverse people and ideas and that also appears completely out of touch with today’s culture?
I should know how uncomfortable it can feel to be evangelized to, because I’ve tried and failed to evangelize. In college many years ago, I spent a summer in San Francisco with a group of young people doing street ministry. I stood on street corners in Union Square, Fisherman’s Wharf and The Haight, handing out leaflets and trying to strike up conversations with tourists and residents as they passed by on the sidewalk. It was uncomfortable for my introverted self to do this work back then, especially for a 20-year-old. By the end of the summer, I had handed out hundreds of tracts and talked with only a few people, never to see or speak with any of them again.
I took a few things away from my street ministry experience. I’d like to think that my heart was in the right place that summer—I was not standing on the sidewalk feeling angry or bitter with a hot goal of converting the people that walked by. I was not trying to scare people towards Jesus or judge anyone in my heart, but instead I wanted to talk about the joy that I found in life with God. But I had a lot to learn. Decades later, I see that the image I was projecting to those passing by was that I had something to offer, not something that others needed to receive. If I had seen my younger self on a San Francisco street, I would have quickly crossed to the other side and walked away.
To understand how to think about evangelism, let’s take a 10-second detour back to the Greek language. In Greek, “evangelize” comes from the root word “euangelion,” which simply means “good news.” So, what does “good news” look like in 2020?
“Decades later, I see that the image I was projecting to those passing by was that I had something to offer, not something others needed to receive.”
Examine Your Heart
When you plant a garden, it helps to have rich soil. If you start with dry soil, nothing will sprout. Just look at Matthew 13:1-23 when Jesus explains the Parable of the Sower. In the same way, it’s hard to talk about the gospel with others if we don’t have much “good news” growing in our own life. When the gospel comes from an honest place, it can more easily resonate with others. That doesn’t mean striving to be perfect speakers, but it does mean making room to be transparent with the people in our lives about our own struggles.
When we’re humble about our weaknesses, we’re better able to share how God meets us each day. It’s the very opposite of shouting “Jesus Saves!” on a street corner. This kind of Christian witness, one born out of authentic struggles, is a strong contrast to the “bombastic Christianity” of a loud street preacher.
One reason it can be hard to talk about our faith with others is because of the way the word “Christian” has been misused by people throughout history. Bible verses are misused all the time to justify racism, bigotry and abuse.
Earlier this year, I met with two women in their 20s visiting my hometown of Seattle for a conference. We talked about what it’s like to be a young Christian in 2020. As I listened, I learned that these women and many of their friends have become tired of the negative picture that culture paints of what it means to follow Jesus. They shared about feeling “shame-by-association”—the feeling when Christians are associated with a particular set of political views and a lack of action on important social issues like climate change.
I get it. As a Christian, I often feel both a need to separate myself from the parts of the church that are broken and from the ways people have wronged others in the name of Jesus. Nevertheless, I’m still genuinely dependent on God and learning to become fully free in Christ. By not trying to hide the sins of the Church but continuing to identify with Jesus and serve others, we become witnesses without having to force it.
Instagram wasn’t a thing when Catholic writer and activist Dorothy Day founded the Catholic Worker Movement in the 1930s. If it was, I wonder what photos Dorothy would post and which social justice hashtags she would use. I imagine the photos of Dorothy writing articles for her Catholic Worker newspaper—covering strikes, fair rights for women and safe working conditions. Maybe there would be photos of volunteers preparing meals at the first “Hospitality House Day” founded on New York’s Lower East Side, or of friends pulling up carrots at the communal farm that Day started outside of the city.
Dorothy Day was countercultural; she built her life around evangelism (sharing “good news”) by direct service. When we roll up our sleeves and work alongside others to provide for practical needs, we model God’s love and dignity for all people.
An authentic way to not only model good news but to begin to transform how culture views Christianity is for us to demonstrate what we believe with the way we live our lives. Like Dorothy, we can put others before ourselves and show kindness right where we are. We can speak up as people of faith fighting issues like equal pay for women and homelessness. When we do, we model the kind of wholehearted lives that flower and fruit.
In Matthew 10:39, Jesus says, “If you cling to your life, you will lose it; but if you give up your life for Me, you will find it.” A new freedom comes when we belong to God. But if we’re afraid of how others might judge us when we talk about our faith, we’re not only being dishonest with people in our lives about who we are, but we’re also being dishonest with ourselves.
We can pray that God will help us build relationships with people who look and think differently than we are and listen and learn from mentors and peers. Showing others how we live our lives differently because of Christ’s love is the first step in authentically sharing the “good news.”
When we model acceptance and love, it’s surprising how both are often given back, regardless of who they are or what they believe. We bear a powerful public witness that attracts people to the goodness of the Christian story by choosing to be brave and honest in our daily lives.
For Further Study
- Barna Study: Half of Millennial Christians Say It’s Wrong to Evangelize
- An ‘Intimate Portrait’ Of Dorothy Day, The Catholic Activist With A Bohemian Past
- Good News for a Change: How to Talk to Anyone About Jesus
- This Cultural Moment—A Podcast About Following Jesus in a Post-Christian World
- Evangelism in A Skeptical World
Sara writes about faith and culture for orphaned believers. She lives on a little land near Seattle with her husband and two children. Read more work on her website, on Instagram @sara.billups and by signing up for her occasional newsletter, Bitter Scroll.