I consider myself an ardent follower of Jesus Christ, and as a long-time Cru staff member, a well equipped, but not specially gifted, evangelist, trained to look for and anticipate opportunities to share the gospel. Yet, about a decade ago, I began to notice a paradigm shift in America’s religious landscape: The Millennial generation began to question Christendom’s traditionally held beliefs, and massive global migration dramatically altered the complexion of America’s cities.
Because of these ideological and societal transformations, I realized that my evangelism training — which presumed a Western understanding of God — seemed to hinder, rather than help, my gospel conversations.
For example, one fall afternoon, I shared my faith with an 18-year-old, all-American, Central Oregon farm girl on the campus of Portland State University. Shortly into the conversation, after asking the usual pre-evangelism questions, I learned she had no spiritual background—she had never heard of God, Jesus, or the Bible. I worked to hide my surprise and quell my curiosity. How could anyone growing up in quintessential rural America not at least know something about God?
A few years later, I flew into Chicago-Midway and caught a taxi to a hotel. The young Asian driver spoke with a thick Russian accent — something I recognized after living in Russia. So, I began asking him questions and learned he was from Kazakhstan, a country I had occasionally visited as a missionary. He wondered the purpose behind my visits, so in the one well-worn Russian phrase I remembered, I told him I traveled to his country to “talk with students about God.” He became visibly nervous, slowed the car, pulled out his personal phone and asked me to watch a YouTube video of an Imam debating with a priest on the topic of the Virgin Birth. After watching for a few minutes, I engaged him in conversation about Jesus and the Bible. He countered, with great passion, preached Islam to me in very broken and heartfelt English, and turned the ten-minute drive into thirty.
When we finally reached the hotel, he announced, “I believe it was Allah’s will for us to speak today and I hope to see you again in Paradise.” I smiled and replied, “I believe it was the God of the Universe’s will that we meet today, and I hope you will come to know Jesus Christ one day as I do.” For weeks after my encounter with this guy, I pondered the significance of our conversation. Never before in my thirty years of ministry, had a Muslim proselytized me, let alone in my own backyard.
Months later, my husband and I conversed with a self-described Socialist on a flight to New York City. She had devoted her life to freeing the notorious “Cuban Five” who she believed to be unlawfully imprisoned by the U.S. government. She described these alleged spies as “revolutionaries” who sought to expose Cuban terrorism. Passionate about her beliefs, she freely shared the numerous reasons for which she stood on behalf of these men. Although she did not ask, and clearly was not interested, we told her that we, too, follow a revolutionary whose name is Jesus. Once again, I sat in amazement. Although I often experienced the effects of Socialism while on the Russian mission field, I was not prepared to have this conversation on a Southwest Airlines jet flying across America’s heartland.
Then, last spring I struck up a conversation with the Buddhist driver from Bangladesh while riding in a cab from LaGuardia. When he learned that my visit to the city revolved around my faith in Christ, he peppered me with questions about Jesus, explaining that others just like me had ridden in his cab. So, I leaned through the small square opening in the Plexiglas divide between rider and driver and picked up where his last Christian fare left off. This guy was among several Buddhists with whom I had conversed, underscoring the need to acquire a basic understanding of Buddhism, pantheism and panentheism.
In conversation after conversation with taxi drivers, fellow travelers, neighbors, or friends at the gym, I encounter Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Atheists, Agnostics, Wiccan and, on rare occasions, a Protestant or Catholic. Significant religious and societal shifts require the church to understand the variety of worldviews at work in most North American cities and suburbs. David Bosch points out,
[T]he West—traditionally not only the home of Catholic and Protestant Christianity, but also the base of the entire modern missionary enterprise—is slowly but steadily being dechristianized…Because of the dechristianization of the West and the multiple migrations of people of many faiths we now live in a religiously pluralist world, in which Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, and adherents of many traditional religions rub shoulders daily. This proximity to others has forced Christians to reexamine their traditional stereotypical views about those faiths.
So, what can we do, as pastors and church leaders to better equip our congregations, small groups, staff and co-laborers?
1. Acknowledge the cultural shifts.
First, we must acknowledge that a once commonly held Western worldview has been replaced by either a “pre-Christian” worldview (confirmed by the Portland State freshman and others like her) or by various worldviews evidenced by the multi-ethnic urban and suburban communities across our country. This will require willingness on our part to learn, or relearn, our culture. In fact, Michael W. Goheen and Craig Bartholomew, authors of Living at the Crossroads, An Introduction to Christian Worldview, emphasize the need ask the question, “What time is it in our culture?” Once we ask the question, we will need to lean in and listen for ways in which we can communicate the message of the gospel in relevant ways with an ever-changing society.
2. View the cultural shifts as opportunities.
Secondly, we can recognize these cultural shifts as excellent opportunities to share the gospel in both word and deed with the nations. Chandler Im and Tereso C. Casino assert that “the reality of the dispersion of individuals, families, and people groups on every corner of the globe is an irreversible phenomenon,” and they encourage the whole church to “decisively engage the strategic frontier for world evangelization caused by the movements of people through the centuries.” Since the majority of world religions have no framework for the God of the Bible or the gospel of grace, we have a chance to create new ways of communicating the unchanging message of the good news with a generation that does not understand and cannot comprehend the idea of one, absolute, and sovereign God. I have found that when I approach evangelism from the more comprehensive view of the grand narrative, “Creation, Fall, Redemption, and Restoration,” there is often more robust dialogue.
The message of the gospel is unchanging, but the methods of communicating its truth are multi-faceted.
3. Learn from other Christians.
Finally, as I travel to different cities, burdened by this need, I often invite believers to join me for “21st Century Gospel Conversations” where we discuss the various challenges and opportunities believers face in the cities where they live and work. Together we talk about ways in which we can “make a defense for the hope that is in us with gentleness and respect” (I Peter 3:15). I find these dialogues very enlightening as I listen to the ways in which followers of Jesus are sharing the gospel in some of the most challenging corners of our society. I am also encouraged by the ways in which the Lord is using believers from other countries to share the message of grace and truth here in America.
The message of the gospel of Jesus Christ is unchanging, but the methods of communicating its truth are multi-faceted. Effective evangelism in this new context will require careful contextualization and willingness on our part to engage the culture and learn with fresh eyes of faith.
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image credit: FreeImages / Neils Boegh
 David Bosch, Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in the Theology of Mission (Maryknoll: Orbis, 2012), 3.
 Chandlar Im and Tereso C. Casino, “Introduction,” in Global Diaspora (ed. Chandlar H. Im, Amos Young; Eugene: Wipf and Stock, 2014), 16.
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