This is the first of a series of blogs I plan to write about evangelism based on the research I conducted for my doctoral dissertation. I interviewed 40 college students who had come to faith within the past two years. I think some of my findings and conclusions may be helpful for pastors, campus ministers, and any Christian interested in reaching out with the unchanging gospel to a constantly changing culture.
I’ve entitled this series “21 Evangelism Lessons for the 21st Century” with a nod to a similarly titled chapter in Scott Burson and Jerry Walls’ book C. S. Lewis & Francis Schaeffer: Lessons for a New Century from the Most Influential Apologists of Our Time. Much of my thinking about evangelism has been shaped by Lewis and Schaeffer and this book helped deepen my appreciation for them. Burson and Walls’ book is a bit dated (copyright 1998), and you may not land where they do on several theological points; but it’s still worth reading as we try to adjust our outreach methods to people who connect with us less and less.
Conversion is more of a communal experience than we may have considered in the past.
I do not mean that people convert in groups. The gospel must be believed and received individually. But some new Christians describe their conversion as the culmination of a series of interactions with many people, each one contributing in a distinct way. They first were attracted to the gospel (even if they couldn’t articulate it as such) by meeting a Christian down the hall. They then met more Christians who asked gospel-paving questions. They were given something to read by yet another Christian. They observed interactions between Christians at large gatherings. They heard a sermon preached by someone else. And the cast of characters just kept growing.
When asked, “What would you say were the most important factors that contributed toward your coming to faith?” the vast majority said “a friend” or “friends” or “community.”
This is no surprise to any of us who have been involved in campus ministry or other evangelistic efforts. But here’s what sounded different to me. The students made very little differentiation between the kinds of input they received. In other words, the late-night chat with Joey down the hall was just as important as a message they heard from a big name speaker at a conference. In fact, most of them couldn’t remember the names of those big name speakers, but they knew Joey’s name. Some even said that a conversation they had with a non-Christian influenced them more than anything they had read by a Christian author. (More about the role of books and reading in a future installment in this series).
Some even went further. They distrusted the experts (the pastors who preached sermons or the campus ministers who gave talks), but they accepted answers from peers. Credentials and polish were detriments. Sincerity and friendship trumped expertise.
There’s a lot we could say about this, but here’s just one application I want to promote: We need to do a better job equipping all Christians in the skills of evangelism and apologetics. Some of the things I heard from the new converts were vague, at best. The “answers” some of them received from peers were far from orthodox. If the most significant presentations of the gospel come from friends, we need to help those messengers understand, articulate, and defend the message with more clarity, more depth, and more support from the scriptures. There may have been a time when people had a pretty good idea what we meant when we said “a personal relationship with God” or “ask Jesus into your heart” or “give your life to the Lord,” but those days are gone (and those expressions weren’t all that good anyway).
Some aspects of our current world suggest resistance to the gospel or, at bare minimum, confusion about it. We should not be naïve and discount them. But behind closed dorm room doors or through Facebook messages or via tweets that link to URLs, many people may be more open than we think. We need to train as many Christians as possible to be prepared to give reasons for the hope we have. And the need for clarity has never been greater.
Randy Newman has been with the staff of Campus Crusade for Christ since 1980 and currently serves with Faculty Commons, their ministry to university professors. Randy is a Jewish Believer in Jesus and is the former editor of The Messiah-On-Campus Bulletin. He is the author of numerous articles and books including Questioning Evangelism: Engaging People's Hearts the Way Jesus Did and Bringing the Gospel Home: Witnessing to Family Members, Close Friends, and Others Who Know You Well.