Evangelism in a Changing World
By Bryan Tener
Over the last several decades, we have experienced significant downsizing of the church. The Pew Research Center estimates that in 2020, some sixty-four percent of Americans were Christian; thirty percent were religiously unaffiliated or “nones"; and Americans of other religions were around six percent (“Modeling the Future of Religion in America,” Pew Research Center). Pew projects the continued shrinking of the Christian population in America, with the possibility that in a few decades, Christians in the United States will make up just a little more than one-third of the population. The rate of those leaving Christianity and the post-Christian context toward which we head can be worrisome. (For Barna research and indicators of post-Christendom, click here.)
When we walk into our churches on Sunday mornings and think about who is not there and wonder what might be taking place somewhere else that is grabbing people’s time and attention, we may see reaching those people as an overwhelming challenge. Institutional anxiety and metrics for what is “vital,” budget, Sunday attendance, and buildings all may be causes for despair. Further, there is baggage associated with the word “evangelism.” Sometimes that baggage is heavy due to evangelism’s use as a deadly tool of colonization.
Changes in the culture over the last several decades as well as the recognition that harm has taken place through unhealthy evangelism, cause us to consider how evangelism needs to change in ways that will create connections and move forward the mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.
Over the next four months, a series of articles will look at ways that evangelism can be lived out in our day-to-day lives, sharing our faith in ways that make room for growth. We’ll move from exploring our own spiritual lives to listening and being present. Each article in the series will offer some reflections or learnings and questions that lead to action steps.
As we think about going out into the world to share the good news, it’s good to begin to reflect on our own experience of God and what the good news means. Our relationship with God can be the most attractive and strongest when we begin to share our faith with others. Through this relationship with God, we are able to discern our purpose, open ourselves to growth, and seek to build relationships with those around us. A vital faith lived out in compassionate, hopeful, life-giving ways is something that can bring connections with others. Not only that, but deep faith can support us on those days when frustrations, disappointments, and challenges could overwhelm us. Having a vital faith and a deepening relationship with God that sends us out to share the good news doesn’t mean that we have all the answers; it doesn’t mean that we need to keep “turn or burn” flyers in our pockets to hand out to strangers. It does mean we are to be open to where God is leading us and to live that faith out in ways that offer love, life, and hope.
- Why are you a disciple of Jesus Christ?
- Who has supported you on your faith journey? In what ways have they supported you? Encouragement? Presence? Offerings of wisdom?
- What are the spiritual practices you use?
- What’s the best part of your personal spiritual life?
- What experiences from your own life inform your faith journey?
One of the spiritual practices that has been fulfilling for me is daily journaling. Each morning, I listen to a daily prayer podcast on my morning ruck and then I spend a few moments journaling to prepare for the rest of the day. I begin with the date, my purpose statement, an intention for the day, five things I’m grateful for, one thing bothering me, and then three things I can do to make the day awesome. It’s been such a helpful practice, and it helped me keep perspective when so much was occurring in the first stages of the pandemic. When everything seemed out of control and chaotic, my daily journal helped me to be mindful of what I can control and what I can’t, and it kept me grounded in my faith. But recently I’ve rethought my purpose statement. The purpose cannot change; it will most likely always be the same, once we discover it. For the longest time, I held onto “Love God, Love Neighbor” as my purpose statement. It’s biblical, but I also found it’s too general and not specific enough to really home in on what makes me who I am. I still hold it up high as what I strive to do, but I recently was moved to rethink how I would understand my purpose, a statement that would capture what gives me energy, where living that purpose out does indeed lead to love for God and love for neighbor. My re-envisioned purpose is tied more directly to my gifts and strengths. It’s something that won’t change, although the way that it is lived out might change. I was listening to a podcast, The Jordan Harbinger Show. The guest, Jason Pfeifer, was talking about his book and a podcast he hosts: both are on the subject of building a better future when everything has changed. He walked the host through an exercise on creating a purpose statement. It really captured my attention, and I held onto that exercise in my head, thinking, “I should do that.” One day I decided to walk through the exercise. Afterward, looking through each of my answers in the exercise, I developed a new purpose statement: “Create space so that there is an opportunity for others and myself to learn and grow.” As I think about what I love to do, the things that give me energy, I find that this statement is at the root of God’s purpose for my life. My gifts and my strengths can all be lived out in this; and while I love to teach and watch others learn and grow, I also know that I have so much to learn from them as well. From leading workshops, to writing articles, to leading webinars, space is made to live this out. Even as I coach a class or two in the CrossFit gym, I’m living into my purpose, building relationships, and sharing faith along the way. Living into my purpose in the gym on its own has led to my officiating four weddings and a funeral (coincidentally, a movie title). The place or venue may change, but my purpose remains. I’m still learning and working on how this looks in other spheres of life, but I’m finding that the more that I am intentional about keeping my purpose in mind, the more opportunities I find to live into it in ways that help me to grow in my relationships with God and neighbor and share the good news.
(This is the exercise from the podcast that I mentioned)
- The scenario is that you’re at a dinner party and someone asks you, “What do you do?” (Answer this by listing out your tasks.)
- Same scenario; you’re at a dinner party: someone asks you, “What do you do?” (Answer this time by listing your gifts and skills. Don’t list anything you listed in answer 1.)
- Same scenario; you’re at a dinner party; someone asks you, “What do you do?” (Eliminate answers from 1 or 2. Think now about what is at the core, the thing that is so ingrained in you that it drives you to cultivate and learn skills and moves you to do the tasks. Keep it to a short sentence.)
This purpose, you at the core, does not change, but how you live it out, where it is lived out may change. Your circumstances may change, but your purpose will see no or minimal change once you get to the root of it. This keeps us from defining ourselves too narrowly and can open us to opportunities to live out of our purpose and connect with others. It can lead to the sharing of faith in many different places. Next time, we will explore those places in our community where people gather. We will keep our purpose and our spiritual lives in mind as we go.
 “Modeling the Future of Religion in America,” Pew Research Center ( September 13, 2022), https://www.pewresearch.org/religion/2022/09/13/modeling-the-future-of-religion-in-america.