Evangeless-ism

Evangelism is getting harder, according to one of today’s oft-noted theologians and pastors, Tim Keller.  The reasons Keller cites for evangelism getting harder than it was just a few generations ago are several.  Some are external to Christians and some are internal.

First he cites that evangelism  is more complicated in a highly diverse population that does not have a general, cultural understanding of the Bible and Christianity.  Without a common baseline understanding, evangelism requires a lot more effort.  To someone conditioned by our culture to not know what sin is, and once you explain it to them, to reject the notion as depressing or relative means the person trying to witness has a lot more ground to cover.

Next he cites a greater difficulty in sharing the faith because our culture no longer has a basically good attitude towards Christians and the Church – even if they themselves are not Christians or church-goers.  Emphasis on the abuses and sins of the Church both historically (slavery, religious wars) as well as currently (pedophile priests and other sexual scandals across the denominational spectrum) mean we can’t assume the person we’re talking to even thinks Church or God  is a good thing as a whole for society.  I’d argue that in addition to these factors, there is the deliberate downplaying or ignoring of valuable roles that the Church has played historically and currently, whether in the development of universities and hospitals or current social justice issues.

Finally there is the relativism that pervades our culture now, so that any time someone wants to share the truth, that truth is seen as relative and subjective – maybe good for the sharer but maybe not good or necessary for the hearer.  This can in turn lead to a lower level of empathy among people which makes it hard for them to see things from another person’s perspective.

In a typical evangelical response, Keller cites Christians as basically the problem despite the overwhelming issues noted above.  Nor does he mention sin and an active – though defeated – Satan as elements that contribute to the difficulty of Christian evangelism.  I think he would agree with all of those things he just doesn’t mention them here.

He thinks Christians need to be more humble and sensitive in their witness, and I’d argue that’s always a good thing.  He also thinks Christians need more courage, and of course this is always good as well.  Finally he argues that Christians ultimately don’t really care enough about others to evangelize.  Here I disagree.  I know plenty of Christians who care a great deal about others but their efforts to evangelize have been stymied by many of the factors noted above.  That doesn’t denote a lack of love on their part, but rather a reality of our age.  I question the evangelical assumption that every Christian needs to be an evangelist, since there are pretty few Scripture passages that can be interpreted that way (and those that can are often argued as not applying to the average Christian).

Rather than blaming a lack of love, perhaps we should blame churches for inadequatey catechizing their members, teaching them not only what their church believes but also why.  Perhaps we should blame churches that presume that just because people are members they believe everything the Bible or the church teaches, when in reality most of their lives are lived out in thoroughly secularized school and work environments that are actively hostile to Christians and at times seek to make evangelism an actual offense that could affect admissions or promotions.

Yes, Lord, change our hearts.  But also grow and strengthen our churches and pastors to better ground and equip their parishioners in the faith.

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