A recent Barna poll showed that 47% of Millennial evangelicals believe it is wrong to share one’s faith with the intent of converting others to Christianity. In the same poll, 96% of Millennials agreed that sharing their faith was an important part of Christianity, and 94% agreed that coming to know Jesus is the most important thing that could happen to someone. How can half of those who profess the importance of evangelism believe that the practice of personal evangelism is wrong? What accounts for such a difference in numbers?
Many commentators interpret this stat as a sign that Millennial evangelicals are more influenced by the world than by the church. Some blame a kind of college campus catechesis, more rooted in multicultural awareness than in Biblical teaching. Others believe that such Millennials are simply reacting to our hyper-polarized society by attempting to avoid disagreement or judgement. David Kinnaman believes that Millennials lack a “resilient” faith. He thinks that if their faith were less subject to cultural whims, they would want to evangelize.
While all Christians should certainly be aware of the extent to which the world influences us, I would not be so quick to blame this particular statistic on secular culture. For decades, evangelical churches have taught a personal gospel message emphasizing individual conversions at the expense of a cosmic gospel message. I believe the Millennial reluctance to share the faith has grown out of the dualistic Christianity born of this lopsided emphasis.
What is the gospel?
The full gospel — the good news that Christ has come to rescue us from sin and death and make all things new — is one I did not come to understand until college. I understood part one of that good news — that humanity sinned, that Christ died to pay for our sin, that He rose again to give us victory over sin and death, and that one day we would spend our eternal life with Jesus. I was taught that one must accept Jesus as both Savior and Lord, meaning that only Jesus could free me from sin and that I must submit to Jesus’s loving leadership over my life. In college, however, I learned that my part of the story was just one piece of a larger, cosmic picture.
The personal gospel is not wrong. But it is not complete.
Jesus is not only my personal Lord and Savior. His saving work also applies to all the fallen, broken creation around us, and His Lordship is that of a King over a vast Kingdom. Tim Keller expresses this best, saying that through Jesus, “God fully accomplishes salvation for us, rescuing us from judgment for sin into fellowship with him, and then restores the creation in which we can enjoy our new life together with him forever.”
The individual, personal gospel
The personal gospel taught me that conversion was an intense, emotional, individual experience. When I observed my peers making decisions for Christ, such decisions almost always came through overwrought emotional altar calls on the last night of youth camp. These conversions were usually accompanied by lots of tears and big promises. Some of my peers’ churches even hosted hell houses — Christian rip-offs of haunted houses designed to scare people out of hell and into making a decision for Jesus.
If someone like me, who was already saved, did not wish to feel left out during those emotional altar calls, they had two other options: 1) re-dedication of their life to Christ, or 2) “surrendering” to God’s call to the ministry. Both these responses were seen as signs of the spiritually mature, and they often went hand-in-hand. After all, what better way to prove one’s Christian dedication than to pursue a job as a minister or a missionary and spend a lifetime sharing the gospel?
And share the gospel we did. To their credit, our leaders taught us well how to make a gospel presentation. We learned about the “Roman road” and how to make “Jesus bracelets,” in which every color represented a different part of the gospel story. Sometimes we handed out gospel tracts door-to-door, in a mall, or on the streets. We went on short-term mission trips, where our “way in” was to feed and clothe and serve, but our real goal was to get conversions. And in all these gospel-sharing activities, we shared the personal gospel, never once understanding that feeding and clothing and serving might be part of the Big-Picture gospel call to participate in Christ’s kingdom.
The salvation “experience”
Taken together, these activities came with a few side effects that I believe have contributed to young people’s reluctance to share the gospel.
First, from those tearful altar calls, I came to believe that the typical conversion process probably wouldn’t be appropriate for an ordinary setting. Can you imagine wanting your friend to have a full-on spiritual meltdown in the middle of the company break room? Instead, we learned to invite our friends to church or to another event where the gospel would be presented and they could have their dramatic conversion in a safe space designed for that purpose.
For me, there was another side effect that changed the way I viewed the conversion process altogether. Because my own conversion process had been far less dramatic, I often questioned the validity of my experience. Shouldn’t an encounter with God result in some sort of powerful emotional ordeal? Sometimes my peers’ experiences translated into real life change, but they mostly fizzled after summer break. As a result, I began to lose faith in people’s conversion stories. Most of the serious Christians I knew had far more ordinary salvation stories. Maybe a “personal salvation experience” wasn’t the measure of Christianity that I thought it was.
The evangelical hierarchy
Next, from the emphasis on evangelism “events,” short-term missions, and calls to ministry, I learned another, more insidious message. I learned that even if the Christian leaders in my life didn’t say so overtly, certain jobs and callings were more important than others. Pastors and missionaries were at the top of the Christian hierarchy because they alone would dedicate their lives to Jesus’ teaching: “go and make disciples of all nations.”
Later, with a cosmic understanding of the gospel, I came to realize that there was no hierarchy of professions or callings. We are all called to God’s redemptive work in whatever sphere of influence we find ourselves. So, I threw myself into that pursuit, learning to write, sing, and teach in ways that would cast light into darkness, bring beauty into brokenness, and speak truth and wisdom into ignorance. But that niggling voice — “Go and make disciples” still bothered me.
The gospel as we go
That nagging voice was born of another incomplete teaching. I had always heard Jesus’ words as a call to “leave my comfort zone”– to go outside of my ordinary rhythms of work and play and into an intentionally “evangelical” space. Remember those door-to-door tract activities from youth group? The methods changed as I aged, but the principle remained the same: obedience meant “going.” But that explanation of Jesus’ teaching makes a lot more sense in English than in Greek.
Anthony Bradley explains, “the word ‘go’ in Matthew 28:16–20 is not an imperative. […] Properly translated, the verse should read, ‘having gone,’ or, ‘as you go.'” In other words, while we may sometimes need to go out of our way to spread the gospel, Jesus instructed us to share the gospel “as we go” through the journey of our ordinary life.
As we learn to integrate the personal and cosmic gospel, what might it mean to share the gospel “as we go?” Perhaps we would view conversion more as a long-term process than a one-time epiphany. Perhaps, in working out God’s redemptive activity through our respective callings we might prompt our colleagues to holy curiosity. Perhaps we’d see God working in the break room and the coffeehouse in small but mighty ways. Perhaps talking about God to our friends would feel a little more normal and a little less like a sales pitch.
Almost half of millennial Christians feel wrong about trying to convert their friends. A more balanced view of the gospel and the great commission could help them to reconnect evangelism with the everyday.
Christine Hand Jones is a singer-songwriter, a professor of English and songwriting, and has served as a worship leader and church music director. She has a PhD in Literary Studies from the University of Texas at Dallas, which she earned, in large measure, by listening to the collected works of Bob Dylan and writing about what she heard. When she's not playing music or fascinating her students with stunning lectures over comma splices, Christine can be found drinking coffee, playing devoted cat mom to Desmond and Molly, and roaming the shelves of Half-Price Books.