Evangelism: The Offense of Christ in a World Easily Offended
Q: Some unbelievers think that Christian evangelism is part of a campaign for world dominance. In this modern age, where we are encouraged to be religiously tolerant, especially in a multiracial and multi-religious society like Singapore, where I live, how are we able to evangelize successfully? Some Christians teach that the manner of evangelizing differs among individuals. Does this then mean that we are practicing what some might call a form of psychological manipulation on our “targeted victims”?
A: In one way or another, what is true in your native land is also true across the earth. Why should this surprise us? Jesus cautioned His disciples about the world’s rejection because of the name and the message they carried. He warned His followers: “You will be hated by all for my name’s sake. (Matthew 10:22)” Later, the same Gospel quoted him saying, “They will deliver you up to tribulation and put you to death, and you will be hated by all nations for my name’s sake. (Matthew 24:9)”
Paul wrote that the essential message of Christian apostles, pastors, and evangelists is to “preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles. (1 Corinthians 1:23)” The world offers many excuses for not accepting this Gospel at face value. Some don’t realize that they are at all sinful while others might think that their sins are minor flaws that they can correct. Some realize that they live in a broken world among broken people but deny that Jesus is the correct “fix” for their brokenness. For some, the very idea of one, true God is an appalling bit of superstition while others allow for a remote, faceless god but reject His personal and intimate entry into the world in human flesh.
Among all of these wrong thoughts you’ll often find a common thread of resentment over the Christian, Scriptural claim that Jesus Christ is the only way to eternal life. As He told Philip, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. (John 14:6)”
Many Christians buy into the world’s reasoning. They want to get along, not offend, and not be considered “weird.” Even worse, some who call themselves Christian fail to recognize the “exclusivity” of the Gospel: No one gains eternal life except through Jesus Christ. Some so-called “Christians” think that other people’s religions and gods are just as valid as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob who took on human flesh for the life of the world. Others, caught in the web of self-justification through good works, figure that if their non-Christian friends, neighbors, or coworkers are decent and hardworking, they’ll probably earn their heavenly reward in due time.
Your letter shows that you are not one of these false or misguided believers. Your concern for the unsaved is evident, yet you obviously don’t want to give Christianity a bad name by resorting to manipulative tactics. However, “evangelism” is nothing more or less than proclaiming the Gospel (Good News) of Christ to unbelievers. God’s Law (his wrath and judgment concerning sin) is necessary to “preparing the way” for the Gospel, but it isn’t the Good News. Also, remember that we convert no one to faith in Jesus Christ — this is solely the work of the Holy Spirit applying the Good News to sin-stricken hearts and minds.
As for individualizing your message, don’t worry about tailoring your presentation to suit your own abilities or the perceptions and needs of your hearers. Paul wrote, “I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. (1 Corinthians 9:22) There is no need to be manipulative — indeed, that is the domain of the cult and the sect. Be yourself, but be the self who is redeemed and confident in your salvation. Still, however, understanding those around us helps us choose how we present the Good News.
You aren’t playing mind games when you customize the message for a specific person or group. Take the example of two sinners: One is a child given to bad displays of temper, the other a convicted thief in prison. Both must be confronted with God’s judgment in preparation for God’s mercy in Christ. However, you would act and talk much differently with each. Or suppose that two 45 year old men stood in need of salvation. If one were a university professor and the other profoundly retarded, would you not address each differently according to both the Law and the Gospel?
Yet no matter whom we find before us, our core message will always be the same: “You are a sinner. Your sins are forgiven in Christ.” How we prepare and present the Gospel will vary but the message’s content never will. Relativists, universalists, and “go along, get along” types of Christians deride us. Often they place barriers in our way in the name of cooperation, mutual understanding, or inclusiveness. These difficulties stem from Satan’s lies. He wants us to give up and go away. “Leave my kids alone, whether they are overtly wicked or merely quietly unbelieving” — that’s how the Old Evil Foe thinks. While leading an unbelieving world to scorn and shun the saving message of Jesus Christ crucified and risen, the Devil also works on us believers, trying to cool our zeal, making us ashamed of the message or fearful of the consequences should we speak it boldly and plainly.
You know better, for you “know ... Jesus Christ and him crucified. (1 Corinthians 2:2)” You see the lies of the world for what they are and you know Christ’s truth that sets men free. As I said above, Christianity is hated for its exclusivity, since we believe and teach that there is only one way to salvation. Yet this same faith is also the most truly inclusive entity this world knows, for God “desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. (1 Timothy 2:4)” The false inclusivity of the world invites Christ-deniers to eternal destruction; the truly inclusive Gospel invites them to live eternally in God’s love.
Be yourself, yet be all things to all men. Give the same message to all but, being “ready in season and out of season, (2 Timothy 4:2)” present the Gospel in a manner most becoming and beneficial to your circumstances. Let the Holy Spirit concern Himself with getting results — you only need remember that God is with all to whom He has entrusted His Word, so that each of us might live and speak that Word in spirit and in truth. And rejoice that even if geography, customs, or language divide us on this earth, we will be truly one in the Day of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Scripture quoted from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version™, © 2001 by Crossway Bibles.
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Walter Snyder is the pastor of Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Emma, Missouri and coauthor of the book What Do Lutherans Believe.
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