To lead a person to Christ, you have to reach them where they are and communicate with them in a way they can relate to.
The world our youths are growing up in is dramatically different from the one I experienced. I grew up in the modern age dominated by Enlightenment-era, scientific, linear thinking. The world of the emerging generation is increasingly postmodern—a change with huge implications for how we evangelize youths.
This month I share (with the author’s permission) excerpts from an article written concerning this topic by Mark Tittley, director of Sonlife Ministries in Africa. Mark addresses methods for evangelizing postmodern youths by summarizing key points from several helpful books.
Evangelizing postmodern youths
Kevin Ford, in Jesus for a New Generation, speaks about process evangelism, where postmodern youth (and also adults who are postmodern thinkers) are convinced of the reality of God’s love not by propositional arguments or one-time evangelistic rallies, but by a daily consistent, practical demonstration that Christianity works and that God’s love is real.
In process evangelism, pre-Christian people discover the reality of God and the love of God in the transparency and love of God’s people.
Process evangelism is quite similar to the patterns used by Jesus with his disciples. He entered into their world, he identified with their pain and their broken condition, he devoted great amounts of time building his life into their lives, he committed himself to a process of evangelizing—not just an evangelistic event.
Process evangelism can be distilled down to four essentials:
1. Authenticity—we must be authentic and committed to Jesus Christ. The Christian life must be the core reality of our lives, not just an act.
2. Caring—we must demonstrate genuine care and unconditional love for the pre-Christian—regardless of their level of belief or lifestyle. This does not mean that we never confront sin, but we must always show love and acceptance of the individual, no matter what the sin.
3. Trust—we must demonstrate absolute integrity, truthfulness, loyalty, confidentiality and openness. Only after we have established a deep level of trust will we be able to share how the story of Jesus Christ has intersected with our life.
4. Transparency—we must be real and allow others to see the reality of our lives through our openness and vulnerability. We must admit our mistakes, confess our sin and tell the story of our pain and our problems so they can see God at work in our lives.
There was a time when we could preach at people and they would respond to the gospel. But preaching at people doesn’t work too well anymore. We can’t just come at people—we have to go with them. We have to get into their world, just as Jesus came into our world and became one of us.
This is called incarnational evangelism: becoming incarnate or being figuratively born into another person’s world. The incarnational approach to evangelism has five steps:
1. Do what they do—as we bond with non-Christians trust is built, which lays the foundation for evangelism. While the traditional approach to evangelism involves inviting people to do what we do, the incarnational approach involves going to do what they do.
2. Enjoy and accept them—if I just go through the motions of doing what pre-Christians do and don’t give them my heart, they will feel patronized, not loved. Evangelism is most effective when it is natural and unprogrammed—when we truly enjoy spending time with and talking to the people we are witnessing to.
3. Affirm what is good in their values—as Christians we have a tendency to be judgmental. We are afraid that any affirmation we give will make them believe that we agree with all their values and even their sinful habits. But refusing to affirm what is good in their value system creates distance between us. It also ignores the fact that God is already at work in their hearts— planting biblical learnings and values in their mind and drawing them close to himself.
4. Share the story of Jesus in their terms—this is the transition step and is the most tricky. We may have done the hard work of building trust and incarnating ourselves into their worlds, but then we can blow it by using church jargon that they don’t understand and which turns them off.
5. Invite them to follow Jesus in a way they can relate to—there are two dangers here—either we get so religious that we scare the person off, or we never get around to inviting the pre-Christian at all. But if we have really gotten to know the person, it will not be difficult to ask whether they are up to following Jesus.
Jimmy Long, in Generating Hope, explores how evangelism needs to change among youth today. A transition has occurred from the Enlightenment era to the postmodern era—and a new approach is needed.
While the church must continue to tell the old, old story, it must now do so by helping people to consider the plausibility and authenticity of the gospel—not by making a rational defense of its credibility. Christians will need to live out their faith in front of people so that it allows them to see that what they believe is credible.
The need for story is still relevant. Narrative evangelism involves a merger of “our story” with “God’s story” as we share it with others. People will make a commitment to Christ when they hear a story that seems coherent and rings true to them.
The story that the Christian community adopts is Jesus’ story—Jesus’ life. To become a Christian (to convert) is to adopt the story of Christ so that one becomes part of the story line. It is possible that people today are more open than ever to hear God’s story because of the emptiness and brokenness of postmodern life. The gospel story intersects with this generation’s experience in a number of ways:
They feel alienated: God’s story brings reconciliation.
They feel betrayed: God’s story restores broken trust.
They feel insecure: God’s story brings a sense of safety within a protective, healing community.
They lack a defined identity: God’s story brings a new identity in Christ.
They feel unwanted and unneeded: God’s story offers them a place of belonging, a place for involvement, and a place where their lives can be used in service of a purpose that is larger than themselves.
The conversion process in narrative evangelism can be called a “collision of narratives”—our story collides with God’s story—his story challenges our story and makes us question our reality.
While this postmodern generation may not be looking for the truth, it is looking for what is real. Our apologetic will need to emphasize an inclusive community that welcomes people to come in and observe the reality of the Christian faith. It needs to emphasize a loving community that reaches out to the needy and the hurting. It also needs to emphasize the hope that we have.
There are three elements in this apologetic:
Faithful Community—today we need to establish the plausibility of the faith long before we talk about its credibility. Postmoderns will best understand a holy, just and forgiving God when they see a holy, just and forgiving community of believers. Postmoderns will be impressed when they see truth lived out in community. So, evangelism is possible only when the community doing the evangelism lives out the Christian message.
Loving Community—Jesus stressed that we would be known by our love. The greatest apologetic for Christianity is a loving community. At the heart of the gospel is a person—not a proposition. As long as we try to debate with this generation on the basis of right and wrong we will turn them off and turn them away. We will, however, build bridges to them as we demonstrate compassion to them through performing deeds of love as God’s community.
Hopeful Community—this generation is struggling to find meaning and hope for the future. We will have to empathize with the pain and sufferings of this generation. The community of faith can offer an eternal or heavenly hope where tears and pain will no longer exist (Revelation 21:1-5).
How then can we go about loving our neighbors and pointing them to Christ? There are six phases in a postmodern conversion:
1. Discontentment With Life— people who are content with their lives are not usually open to the gospel. A sense of discontentment with one’s life can lead to people finding Christ.
2. Confusion Over Meaning—media slogans like: “just do it” discourage people from a search for meaning. Some have given up the search because they have been frustrated in their pursuits of meaning.
3. Contact with Christians—unfortunately many seekers do not have a very high opinion of Christians. Maybe they have had negative encounters in the past or they have wrong stereotypes. Christians will need to develop trust that will lead to breaking down negative stereotypes.
Once evangelistic friendships have been developed the following guidelines apply: (a) issues of the heart more than the mind must be addressed; (b) realize that it will take a long time for the person to make a commitment; and (c) the friendship must be moved into a community.
4. Converted to Community—it is important that individuals become involved in the Christian community as part of their decision-making process. This may involve a small group, a seeker event or a social outing.
Postmodern people make decisions based on their experience within the community. The evangelistic process is more of a community affair than a one-to-one encounter. Postmoderns experience a two-stage conversion: they become converted to the community—over a period of time they begin to identify with the community and feel a sense of belonging. At this point they may be a member of the community without having made a commitment to Christ. The next stage is making a conversion to Christ.
5. Converted to Christ—as the seeker identifies with the community they may not be aware of the need to make a commitment to Christ. This may form over a period of time or it may take place at a specific moment. Either way, a commitment to Christ needs to take place.
6. A Calling to God’s Heavenly Vision—we must help people understand God’s story, from creation to Christ’s Second Coming [and beyond]. This understanding will give them the meaning they have been lacking in the past. They need a perspective that is lived from the future (Christ’s return) in the present (pain and suffering) while being anchored to the past (Christ’s death and resurrection).
Tim Celek and Dieter Zander, in Inside the Soul of a New Generation, present a model for evangelism based on Paul’s encounter on Mars Hill in Acts 17. They suggest four guidelines:
Real—we must work hard at being vulnerable, transparent and [showing that we are] imperfect. People will relate to us when we are honest about our struggles.
Rousing—as we use our genuine, honest experiences, we will rouse people from their hiding places.
Relevant—it must address the questions this generation is asking and not those of a previous generation.
Relational—more and more evangelism is going to happen through relationships. The gospel is going to be communicated more incarnationally than propositionally or cognitively.
Celek and Zander say: “[Those] with a postmodern mindset … process truth relationally. In order for them to sort through an issue, or delve into the deep waters of their emotional makeup, they need time to process the radical message of Jesus. They need to think about it, talk about it among their friends, and talk about it some more.
That process probably isn’t going to be finished in an hour or two. Or maybe even a month or two. When you try to wrap things up nice and tidy, [they] sometimes will see that as being unreal and trite” (page 114).