Aug. 30, 2019
As believers in Christ, how much is evangelism part of our everyday lives?
It’s a question that I have been asking myself a lot lately, especially in light of yet another discouraging poll that was released this past Sunday showing that over the last 20 years, the number of Americans who see religion and having children as “very important” is in steep decline (from 62 to 48 percent for religion and from 59 to 43 percent for having children).
The same poll also shows a substantial difference in the outlook of Millennial/Gen-Zers (ages 18-38) and the Boomers/Silent Generation (ages 55-91), who see patriotism, belief in God, and having children as “very important” at substantially higher rates than the younger generation. This does not bode well for the future of our country.
Overall, the poll found that Americans are increasingly angry, anxious, and unsatisfied. As believers called to witness to the gospel, we clearly have our work cut out for us.
Plentiful Harvest, Few Laborers
Whenever I come across fresh evidence like this of our country’s increasing godlessness and indifference to family life, I often think about Christ’s words in Matthew’s gospel: “When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, ‘The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; pray therefore the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest’” (Matthew 9:36-38).
“They were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” Isn’t that an incredibly fitting description of our culture right now? Christ’s next words haunt me no matter how many times I read them: “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few.” There are so many souls out there who are lost, who are yearning for God without fully realizing what this hunger in their souls is for. Are we laboring amongst the plentiful harvest of these shepherdless sheep?
As believers, it’s easy to settle into a comfortable pattern in our faith lives. We find great solace and satisfaction in sharing our faith with our families, close friends, and church communities, as we should. While it’s true that a primary evangelistic responsibility is to pass the faith on to our children and to refuel our needy souls in our churches every week, it’s also true that many believers live their lives as though that is where their call to witness ends, myself included. What Jesus is calling us to is something even more far-reaching: to see the world as our mission field.
An Isolated and Lonely Culture
So how should we evangelize today’s culture? Should we stand on street corners with megaphones and loudly proclaim Christ while handing out leaflets?
I would argue that for most of us, this type of impersonal evangelism is not what we are called to. I believe we are called to a much more personal type of witness, one that focuses on individual connection and invitation during one-on-one interactions that happen in everyday life.
Why? Consider this: in one of the most astonishing studies released in recent memory, it was found that 46 percent of Americans reported “feeling lonely sometimes or always,” with 43 percent “feeling isolated from others, and the same number report[ed] feeling they lack companionship and their relationships lack meaning.”
Let’s let this sink in for a moment. Almost half of America is saying that they do not have meaningful relationships and often feel lonely and isolated. Now recall what the first study I discussed in the opening paragraphs found: fewer and fewer Americans consider raising a family and faith to be important. But families and faith communities are two of the biggest means by which people find true companionship and meaning in their lives, and thereby avoid loneliness!
Tragically, a large portion of the American populace does not appear to see the connection between what they value most in life and how those values affect their wellbeing. They are shunning society’s most fundamental institutions that provide authentic community and a sense of identity and belonging. Just how integral is family to this sense of identity? As Mary Eberstadt has written:
Up until the middle of the twentieth century (and barring the frequent foreshortening of life by disease or nature) human expectations remained largely the same throughout the ages: that one would grow up to have children and a family; that parents and siblings and extended family would remain one’s primal community; and that, conversely, it was a tragedy not to be part of a family.
As for faith, psychology professor Clay Routledge recently summed up his and his colleague’s findings about its unique importance:
Religion isn’t just like any organization or group that affords people the opportunity to socialize. Religion promotes a deeper feeling of mattering by teaching adherents that they have social duties to family, friends, and even strangers. Religious faith is an invisible thread that weaves individuals together into moral communities.
And yet, fewer and fewer Americans are seeing the value of family and faith. Is it any wonder that so many in our society are feeling increasingly isolated and alone?
The Essential Importance of Connection and Invitation
It is abundantly clear from all of this that there is a plentiful harvest of people in our culture who need to be reached out to. To reiterate: I would argue that the most effective way to evangelize a godless, lonely, and disconnected culture is to focus on personal connection and invitation in our interactions with people in our everyday lives.
So what does this look like?
Connection. For an introvert like me, I start getting nervous when I think about “reaching out” more. I’m the kind of person who, depending on the day, finds it quite difficult to merely ask a cashier at a store how their day is going. But these kinds of friendly interactions must be the starting points in our mission as believers to spread the gospel. A friendly “How is your day going?” to a grocery store clerk, fellow airplane passenger, or homeless person on the street can easily turn into a genuine connection if the moment is right. But unless we initiate this connection, we will never know if an evangelism opportunity could arise from it.
Even if one of these everyday encounters does not result in a genuine connection being made, we can simply say, “God bless you” as we depart from the person we are engaging. These simple parting words are a way not only to impart a blessing on them, but also to emphasize the fact that we are Christian and that our good will is ultimately derived from our faith.
We should be especially open to opportunities for connection at our places of employment. Besides our homes, there is no place that we spend more time at than our jobs. The more time we spend at work with our coworkers, the more of a rapport we establish with them. This natural familiarity we develop with our coworkers can lead to an increased trust and openness with each other, which can then lead to excellent opportunities for evangelism.
We should also remember certain populations of people who are especially prone to isolation, particularly the elderly and those in prison. One in three seniors report feeling lonely, which underscores the need for us to visit our local assisted living facilities, where many elderly often do not have loved ones to spend quality time with. We should also spend time to discern if we have a calling for prison ministry. Organizations like Prison Fellowship provide great information and opportunities to minister to this often-forgotten population.
Invitation. Once we have established a connection with someone, we cannot afford to leave it at that. As we are seeing, our culture is starving for authentic community. This means we must extend an invitation to those we have connected with to continue the conversation, at a minimum. Depending on what we feel called to in a given situation, this could mean exchanging personal contact information, extending an invitation to our home for a shared meal, or inviting them to our church.
As Rod Dreher has written, evangelism in our time cannot be separate from discipleship. When we help those we witness to learn how to be faithful by continually inviting them into our own homes and faith communities, we not only build up their faith but also enrich our own families and communities with the fresh perspectives of newcomers.
We Are Not Called to Be Successful, But Faithful
During our journeys of witness, we will often feel like failures. In fact, we will probably not be able to see any lasting impact from most of our attempts to evangelize during our lifetimes. But this doesn’t matter. The Lord is simply calling us to be laborers in the harvest—He will take care of the rest.
In the end, evangelism is simply the act of showing love for our neighbor. Consider the words of Augustine, the mighty father of the early church, who described how Ambrose, a bishop, witnessed to him in his Confessions: “I began to love him at first not as a teacher of the truth … but simply as a man who was kind and generous to me.”