Is evangelism passe?

Posted by on Aug 1, 2011

Someone asked me my opinion about an article on CNN’s home page. You can read it all here:

It’s by Carl Medearis, who believes we can have better relationships with Muslims if we stop trying to convert them and simply invite them to be “apprentices of Jesus.”

I’ve heard this kind of message several times in the past few months and have wondered how best to respond. The short answer is that I think Carl (and others) are naïve to think that following Jesus’ command to “make disciples of all the nations” will ever come without struggle, pain, and opposition.

Here are a few of Carl’s statements from the article along with my responses. I’ve put my comments in blue.

“Jesus was the master of challenging religious prejudice and breaking down sectarian walls. Why do so many Christians want to rebuild those walls?”

I don’t know what he means by “breaking down sectarian walls.” Jesus warned his followers, “Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division. From now on there will be five in one family divided against each other, three against two and two against three. They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.” (Luke 12:51-52).

“Even the Apostle Paul insisted that it’s faith in Jesus that matters, not converting to a new religion or a new socio-religious identity.”

Perhaps one of the most important tasks for Christians today is to clarify definitions. What does Madearis mean by “faith in Jesus” if it’s something different than “converting?” The gospel message, what people convert to, according to the Apostle Paul, would be “to the one…the smell of death; to the other, the fragrance of life.” (2 Cor. 2:16). See my comment about the next quote:

“What if evangelicals today, instead of focusing on “evangelizing” and “converting” people, were to begin to think of Jesus not as starting a new religion, but as the central figure of a movement that transcends religious distinctions and identities?”

Christians should “evangelize” because that word means to spread good news and surely, Jesus told us to do that. (see, for just one of many examples, Mark 16:15). To be an “evangelical” who did not “evangelize” seems to be one of the clearest examples of a contradiction.

“Funny thing is, Jesus never said, “Go into the world and convert people to Christianity.” What he said was, “Go and make disciples of all nations.”

What a strange antithesis! With just a little bit of study about what the word “disciple” means in the New Testament, I see no other option than to think that “converting” is the first step in that process. The new testament teaching about conversion includes all sorts of things that are distasteful in our world today – repenting, turning, changing one’s beliefs, leaving one’s lifestyle, “going and sinning no more.” To speak of following Jesus without converting is confusing, at best and, contrary to scripture, at worst.

“Just because I believe that evangelicals should stop evangelizing doesn’t mean that they should stop speaking of Jesus. I speak of Jesus everywhere I go and with everyone I meet.”

It’s odd to hear a Christian say this. I’ve heard non-Christians tell me that I should only speak of Jesus’ teachings about love and peace and drop all that divisive stuff about him being the Messiah, Savior, God, “I AM,” etc. Sure, if you drop all those things, people love it when you talk about Jesus. The problem is you’ve stopped talking about the most important things about Jesus. You’ve omitted the core. And you’ve removed the stumbling block. Jesus warned us, “Woe to you when all men speak well of you, for that is how their fathers treated the false prophets.” (Luke 6:26).

“It may come as a surprise to many Christians that Muslims are generally open to studying the life of Jesus as a model for leadership because they revere him as a prophet.”

When you remove all the difficult parts about following Jesus, life does become easier for you. I’ve found the same thing when I speak to my Jewish acquaintances and relatives. They are fine with talking about Jesus, until I tell them he’s the Messiah who died for their sins and they should repent of trusting in their own goodness to justify themselves. Then things get ugly. As they always will.

“Jesus met people where they were. Instead of trying to figure out who’s “in” and who’s “out,” why don’t we simply invite people to follow Jesus — and let Jesus run his kingdom?”

Jesus did indeed meet people where they were. But then he called them to change, turn, repent, stop sinning, etc. His demands were radical. That’s why some, who only came for the free food, stopped following him. (see John 6, especially verse 26) and some went away sad when they realized the cost (see Mark 10: 22).

Regarding “who’s in and who’s out,” Jesus talked a lot about “who’s in and who’s out.” (see, for just one example, Matthew 25). And he told us to proclaim a message that helps people understand who’s in and who’s out. (see, for example, Jesus’ story about Lazarus and the rich man in Luke 16:19-31).

“Inviting people to love, trust, and follow Jesus is something the world can live with. And since evangelicals like to say that it’s not about religion, but rather a personal relationship with Jesus, perhaps we should practice what we preach.”

I hope you won’t fall this kinds of faulty logic and bad theology. People who did not like Jesus’ message when he was on earth killed him. They did the same to Paul and thousands of others who proclaimed the gospel throughout history. As our world heats up with antagonism towards the gospel, it will become increasingly tempting to want peace at all costs – even compromising the gospel. We might end up with more people who like us but far fewer followers of Jesus, the Messiah.


  1. Karl Udy
    August 1, 2011

    Hi Randy,
    Having read the original article and your response I have a slightly different take on what Medearis is saying. To me, it seems that what he is saying is that one of the lessons he has learned is that there is a lot of baggage that is associated with the words “evangelism” and “missionary” not only for non-Christians, but also Christians, and that he needed to to strip the baggage away from the biblical ideas behind these words.

    In particular, the main issue he seems to tackle is the us/them, insider/outsider dichotomy which we as Christians in today’s world seem to be so concerned with. This certainly was one of the issues that Jesus and Paul both dealt with, although in their time, the key issue was the Jew/Gentile divide which is the main issue in Galatians, and one of the main themes of Ephesians is how Christ has removed this dividing barrier between Jews and Gentiles.

    If the barrier is Christ, then by all means we should not find a way to sidestep our way around this barrier to find peace, but we also need to look at ourselves to see if we are putting any other barriers in the way of those who are yet to believe. A lot of the time, there are things that are part of our culture that we mistakenly assume are Christian, when in fact their roots are in Western philosophy, British culture, or something else not strictly Christian.

    A clue to this can be found in the criticism that he quoted of missionaries as right-wing extremists and neo-colonial crusaders. Are the changes that we are imploring people to take a conversion to Christ, or to Christ + our culture? That’s the question we need to answer.

  2. Dr. A. Woh
    August 1, 2011

    Randy, thanks for these insights into the mission of the gospel in a pluralistic society, i.e., evangelism and the making of disciples. Perhaps karl has a point that can be acknowledged by most, that we must be careful to not do a “gospel +” kind of discipleship. Having said that maybe our friend Leslie Newbigin is a good guide here… The balance between being culturally sensitive and unapologetic about the Good News (and the unintended consequences) is what lies at the bottom of all our efforts in this regard. The temptation that I face is not being able to say, in so many words, what Jesus said to the rich man… “go and sell your possessions and come follow me.” When he went away sad, Jesus did not run after him and try to make it easier. It will cost us something (sometimes friendships) when we seek to press the point that Jesus, though kind and understanding, was also the Messiah with a mission.


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