5 Important Ways Evangelism is Shifting In Our Post-Christian World

Almost every Christian leader I talk to has a passion for reaching people who don’t know Christ.

But as we’ve seen before, our culture is changing so rapidly before our eyes that many of the methods we’ve used to tell people about Christ become less effective with every passing month.

If you keep using methods that worked decades ago to talk to people outside the Christian faith about Jesus, you might see some fruit. But I’m quite certain you’ll lose the vast majority of people you’re trying to influence, and I’m positive you’ll lose the vast majority of people under age 35.

In the post-Christian, post-modern age in which we live, the methods of evangelism have to change in order to keep the mission alive.

By the way, if you’re wondering what the post-Christian mind looks like, this study from the Barna Group outlines 15 criteria that delineate the trend.

So what’s changing in evangelism? More than you might think.

While there are many things that are shifting in how we should approach evangelism in a post-Christian, post-modern world, these 5 stand out to me as shifts I’m seeing not just in the ministry I lead, but across many churches:

1. Embracing the question is as important as giving an answer

For me, evangelism used to be mostly about helping people find answers. In fact, I’ve been very anxious to get people to answers. I still am.

But, often, in the process of getting people to an answer, I would fail to really embrace or honour their question. Increasingly, that’s a massive mistake.

Almost no one likes going into a store and asking a question only to have a customer service person blow past your question or make you feel stupid. In fact, your most positive experiences have likely been those in which someone listens to your question, takes it seriously, appreciates it, and then tries to respond to it thoughtfully and helpfully.

Too often, Christian apologists rush past the question to get to an answer.

Church leaders who embrace people’s questions will be far more effective in the future than leaders who don’t.

Listen to the difference:

“So when I die, will be in reincarnated?”

Answer: Christians don’t believe in reincarnation. So no, not at all. You’ll be resurrected in Christ. 

or

Answer: That’s a great question. Thanks for asking it. Actually, the Christian experience focuses on resurrection. Would you like to talk about that? 

Which answer would you rather hear?

 

2. Steering the conversation is better than pushing for a conclusion

One of my favourite environments at our church is Starting Point. It’s an eight week small group experience for people who are new to Christianity, new to faith or returning to church after an absence.

Our best Starting Point leaders are not the people with all the answers or the leaders who are always trying to ‘close the deal’.

If you have 12 people in a conversation, you’re likely to have 12 different world views, many of which might seem “Christian” but in truth aren’t.

Our best Starting Point leaders are people who can steer a conversation.

They don’t freak out at people’s questions, no matter how strange they might be.

They listen without judgment.

They affirm a person’s intentions.

Our best leaders listen, don’t judge, thank people for their input, and then gently steer the conversation back toward truth.

Listening, empathizing, and then steering the conversation back toward truth will often get you much further with post-moderns than slamming on the brakes and telling them they’re wrong.

3. Being open is more effective than being certain

Don’t get me wrong, Christians can be certain. Ultimately, Christians must be certain because our faith is certain. Our faith stands on a sure and certain ground.

But, when talking to post-moderns, coming across as certain is far less effective than coming across as open.

I mean, people will be able to tell that you have a depth of conviction if they spend more than a few minutes talking to you.

But leading with that conviction all the time can be counter-productive.

The person who is always certain thinks they’re being convincing when the opposite is often true. You’re less convincing because being perpetually certain makes you appear anti-intellectual, closed and a bit arrogant (see below).

If you’re open to people and their views, they’ll be more open to you. Even if underneath all that, you’re certain. Because you likely are.

4. Arrogance, smugness and superiority are dead

For too long, Christian apologetics has carried with a tone of arrogance, smugness and superiority.

If you want to repel anyone under 40, lead with that.

Arrogance is so ingrained in many Christian cultures that Christians don’t even see it or hear it anymore.

Humility is attractive. Humility is what makes Jesus so much more attractive to people than the Pharisees who lack it.

Arrogance is only ever attractive to the arrogant.

Arrogance also a sin. So repent. Get over your smugness and superiority.

Humbly love your God, love your community, and love the people who don’t know him. God does.

5. The timeline is longer

I’m so A-Type I’d love to conclude everything in about 35 seconds.

Increasingly, evangelism doesn’t work that way.

Ever notice that people who come to faith when pressured often leave it after a few years? And that, conversely, the people who come to faith on their own timeline tend to be flourishing years down the road?

Jesus said he would draw all people to himself, and he will. But he didn’t promise to do it in 3 minutes, or during a 90 minute service or even an eight week class.

You need people and leaders who will take the time to go on a journey with people.

It kind of took the disciples 3 years to figure out who Jesus was, didn’t it? Why do you think your church will be any different?

Don’t get me wrong, we can’t lose our sense of urgency in the mission. I feel that urgency every day. Sometimes I think I feel it more every day. But we need to give people space and we need to give the Holy Spirit space to do His work.

So give people time and space to come to faith. Apparently, God does this too.

How About Your Context?

I’m not saying high-pressure evangelism never works or that God has stopped using it entirely.

I’m just saying I’m seeing it becoming increasingly less effective and that another methodology that shares the same end appears to be even more effective.

What are you seeing about how evangelism is changing in your community?

Scroll down and leave a comment!

49 Comments

  1. Drake De Long-Farmer on October 29, 2016 at 11:58 pm

    Great article Carey. Our team is actually writing a book on some similar topics. I think we will be citing this article a few times. Some good stuff here. 😉

  2. Taylor Broussard on July 31, 2016 at 4:08 pm

    I have to testify, depending on how you define “high-pressure evangelism” wich is a bit ambiguous, i completely agree with Careys statement. It still works. Helfire and brimstone even. That is if blanced with the truth of love and grace can still feel incredibly pressuring but can be incredibly effective. Ive seen the most impactful changes in peoples lives and my own because of this. Street preaching, tracts,confronting an unbelieving friend in sin.. if these are considered “high pressure”
    But this is changing as our culture becomes more secular.
    I can only guess but i feel that in our mass media culture, the strong message of repentance has gotten around enough bo be considered common, without these people seeing true examples of beleivers living out that self denying repentance. How can you follow an example no body demonstrates, churches are becoming more self centered verses self denying now a’ days. Everybodys heard about Jesus, they just need to see him.

  3. Darryl Willis on March 16, 2016 at 8:28 am

    I will add one disagreement with you. You say: “I’m not saying high-pressure evangelism never works or that God has stopped using it entirely.” I do say “high-pressure evangelism never works…” I suppose I really can’t say it NEVER works because how do you prove a negative? But in 35 years of ministry I’ve never seen someone really own faith as a result of high pressure evangelism. Usually they completely drop out, or later in life they come back and say (usually after a miserable and legalistic life): “I had no idea what following Jesus really meant.”

    • Abie Sidiyefgy on November 10, 2016 at 10:31 am

      I hear this Darryl! I haven’t been in ministry 35 years – I’ve barely been alive that long – but in 10 years of church-planting in Africa, and most recently in the Arab World, I’ve lately begun to think a lot about regeneration and what it means. I think large chunks of the evangelical Western Church have reduced conversion to an assent to doctrine. On the positive side, I’m hearing more and more leaders call this out lately – like for example in the messages ‘Examine Yourself’ by Paul Washer, ‘The Holy Spirit’s Power and our Effort, pt 2’, by Francis Chan, or ‘Spiritual Formation as Part of Salvation’ by Dallas Willard (all available on Youtube).

      I’ve been reading through a great book called ‘Pentecost – Today?’ by Iain H Murray, which aims to give a Biblical basis for revival, and chapter 2 of this book has been immensely helpful in understanding how we may have gotten here.

      I also found Don Carson’s message ‘What is the Gospel? part 1’ (also available on Youtube) which deals specifically with regeneration to be so helpful in going back to the Word in defining what we should aim for in evangelism/discipleship.

      Anyways, all that to say, I appreciate your comment, and if you happen to have any more insight into this or good resources to check out I’d be really interested!

      blessings,

      AB.

      • Darryl Willis on December 12, 2016 at 9:51 pm

        Highly recommend Krieder’s The Patient Ferment of the Early Church. It is history (first 300-400 years of Christianity) and it synthesizes many other studies (including Stark’s)–but it actually relates to this. The church grew and yet they closed their assemblies to outsiders and you won’t find one treatise on evangelism in the first two-three hundred years following the fist century! What is that all about? This is a great page turner and I think addresses some of the discussion here.

  4. Darryl Willis on March 16, 2016 at 8:19 am

    Good article. Your example on #1 I’d give a different answer: “That’s a great question. When you say ‘reincarnation’ what exactly do you mean?” Often we don’t understand a particular individual’s use of a term. (The “orthodox Hindu” understanding of reincarnation is really different from Western views!) This allows for more input from the questioner and gives them a chance to share more with you.

    After that I generally make it personal. Rather than saying “Christianity” I often say as a follow up–“My perspective is a little different…does that make sense?”

  5. Nathan on March 10, 2016 at 7:37 am

    Great article and so true. Other peoples perspectives are incredibly interesting so why shouldn’t we take them on board and discuss them in an open way.

  6. Andy Minard on November 16, 2015 at 1:30 pm

    Thanks for this article. Great points all around. So hungry to be effective.

  7. Judah on November 15, 2015 at 9:02 pm

    Hi Carey, Great article! That link to the Barna Group stats at the top isn’t working. I’d love to see them. Could you update this link, as I’d love to share this article.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on November 16, 2015 at 10:39 am

      Barna redid their website and I can’t immediately locate the new link. Sorry. I’ll keep trying.

  8. Joshua on June 9, 2015 at 12:24 am

    Listening is key! One young man was milling about on a university campus, obviously listening into an evangelistic conversation some students and I were having with a couple of other half enibriated gentlemen. When I noticed him, I stepped aside from the group and asked if he knew the Good News. After ignoring me once, I asked again, to which he replied that he almost killed himself over it. “Why would you do that,” I asked,”it’s Good news.” Angrily he turned and looked right at me shaking a rather pointed index finger in my face, “IF YOU WILL SIT DOWN AND LISTEN TO MY STORY, I’LL LISTEN TO WHAT YOU HAVE TO SAY!” he shouted. “Certainly,” I replied with a smile. You should have seen the shock in his face. “Really??! This is the first time that a street preacher has ever wanted to hear what I have to say.” We sat down on a bench and he poured out his heart to me. In turn he was calm, pleasant and genuinely interested in hearing the Gospel.

  9. G-Man on June 8, 2015 at 9:39 am

    I think addressing social injustices in our culture is an effective way we could influence our world towards God. When people see how our faith is inspiring us to serve those who are vulnerable and victimized, we have already shown God’s compassion even before we attempt to talk to people about God. I think we have separated the preaching of Gospel from Social Justice works, and we need to close that gap.

  10. Rob Coscia on June 7, 2015 at 8:11 am

    Patience is a fruit of the Spirit. Wouldn’t it be awesome if we used it to love people into the kingdom?

  11. christoph on June 6, 2015 at 4:50 pm

    You saved BEST for LAST. Timeline is longer. We evangelical Christians are so success-driven that we want to close the deal right away instead trust the work of the Holy Spirit

    • Carey Nieuwhof on June 7, 2015 at 6:34 pm

      So true. I’ve been in the same community for two decades. God has a different time line than I do…that’s for sure. Amazing what you see when you stick around.

  12. Cory on April 30, 2015 at 9:03 pm

    In the first point, you ask which answer I’d prefer. Frankly, I’d prefer the first one. Just give me the truth and the facts. The second response sounded too condescending and patronizing to me. If someone answered me like that, I’d feel like they were talking down to me.

    The thing I like in the general tone of the article is three keys that resonated with me: listening, openness (which I think leads to good listening), and humility.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on May 4, 2015 at 5:21 am

      Fair enough. I know in Canada answer #1 sends people out the door.

      • CJL on March 27, 2017 at 11:51 am

        There are peole who would like #1 but they are more likely to be looking for trivia facts than seeking…… There are exceptions, of course. If people are looking for #1, #2 will answer it.

  13. benhemp on April 26, 2015 at 10:00 pm

    I think these 5 points are good, but they don’t strike me at all as new to this generation. I think these were always true. And I’m 61, so I think I have some perspective.

  14. Dan O' Donnell on April 24, 2015 at 9:29 am

    I agree totally with you. I have been a pastor for 45 years now and still pastoring it. This was an excellent article. I read a blo blog by Thom Ranier entitled “Pastoring Is Not Like It Was 30 years Ago.” That is true. I am a more mature in age seasoned pastor who chosen to change with the times. I realize the things you have said are “right on target.” Now, the question is, “How do we make contact with the people who are not Christians and let them know that they are not just projects?” We are interested in being friends for friends sake, nothing else.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on April 24, 2015 at 9:47 am

      Dan…love your leadership and heart. 45 years? Wow. You get a medal. Way to go!

  15. Jan Ferguson on April 24, 2015 at 7:31 am

    Such a good discussion. So many Christians seem to be in a quandary about how to share their faith these days. It seems every church has a couple of folks who are tract-handing, door-to-door-preaching, turn or burners who genuinely love the lost. I wonder if people don’t share their faith because they think this is the only way. I’ve been on my journey for as long as I can remember and it seems like the church has really hit a wall when it comes to telling people about Jesus. thanks for another great post! You posts always give me a lot to think about and quite a bit to act on as well.

    Thanks,
    Jan Ferguson

  16. Carey Nieuwhof on April 23, 2015 at 6:36 am

    John…thanks for this! I agree…longer timelines are the norm for sure. John if you’re at Orange Conference drop by and we can chat there!

    • John Crilly on April 23, 2015 at 5:30 pm

      Would love to but celebrating an anniversary – have a fun time!
      Maybe we can connect after? jcrilly@qplace.com

  17. Ben Schettler on April 22, 2015 at 11:44 am

    As to point number 3, Could it be said that being open is the most effective certainty? It could be confusing to contrast certainty with openness. One can be certain and open. It’s not an either or. By saying that being open is more effective than being certain you force people to decide which one they have to be. You can be certain. They key is being open in your certainty. I feel that Point number three demonstrates a misunderstanding of certainty. However I am open to an explanation of how I might be wrong on that. 🙂

    • Carey Nieuwhof on April 22, 2015 at 12:19 pm

      I think that’s a great point Ben. That’s what I meant but you said it better than I did.

  18. Orlandus Green on April 22, 2015 at 3:15 am

    I believe that the application of biblical principles when it comes to evangelism in our modern time is still as effective as it was in Acts. However, the misapplication of those same principles will render our efforts ineffective. One of the main elements left out of modern evangelism? The Holy Spirit. Let’s just take a look at what the scriptures say.

    II Corinthians 10:3 For though we walk in the flesh, we do not war after the flesh:

    10:4 (For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal, but mighty through God to the pulling down of strong holds;)

    If we remember who empowers us to evangelize the unsaved, we would first submit to Him, watch the strong holds come down, and share the gospel with willing recipients who are willing as a result of the work of the Holy Spirit. The “Truth” is still what makes people free.

  19. Andy Scott on April 21, 2015 at 2:55 pm

    GREAT POST!!!!!

  20. Bill Wagner on April 21, 2015 at 10:30 am

    One of the things I found interesting in the most recent Barna findings is an astonishing 1/3 of the atheists who argue and beat down Christians are basically hermits! They lock themselves in their homes and do not engage in much communication with anyone! So if developing “relationships” is the most important aspect of the church, we have an even more difficult task as these folks are very reluctant to talk to us at any level! Patience and being non-confrontational is the key to reaching these people. We can argue with those who should know better, but we are wasting our breath arguing against those who do not. Winning permission to share your walk with the pre-believers is the only way to present the gospel. Is this tactic by Christians wide spread and working? A quick scan of our Facebook pages will reveal that collectively, we are representing exactly the opposite of what we should be.

  21. Lawrence W. Wilson on April 21, 2015 at 6:19 am

    Carey, I would argue that the concept of conversion–not merely the pathway to it–is also changing. People, in my observation, see themselves less as “saved from sin and hell” and more as “joining a new life and new community.” Big difference there.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on April 21, 2015 at 7:59 pm

      That’s a really astute observations Lawrence. Thank you! So true. That likely has long term implications too.

    • MJC on May 1, 2015 at 7:56 am

      I think that might be right, but we need to stay true to the gospel – we are not offering life enhancement but salvation. Life enhancement you can take or leave much like a stylistic choice of goggles when you swim. But if you are drowning a pair of goggles is no help at all – at that point only a lifeboat will do. If we lean out of the boat and offer a perspective we have not offered salvation at all. If our churches become clubs then we have missed the point.

  22. On the Web | Second Chance Pastor on April 20, 2015 at 7:31 pm

    […] 5 Important Ways Evangelism is Shifting In Our Post-Christian World […]

  23. Sean Chandler on April 20, 2015 at 6:17 pm

    I think I’m just young enough that most popular evangelism tactics of the last 25 years have always rubbed me a bit wrong. If the Gospel is true, asking someone to accept the Bible is true changes EVERYTHING for someone. Packaging that in a cute one size fits all model which can be presented in 3 minutes seems dubious at best.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on April 21, 2015 at 8:00 pm

      I remember tracts too Sean. So true! What’s effective in one era isn’t always effective in the next.

  24. Dillon Schupp on April 20, 2015 at 1:13 pm

    Wow, great read. This is in so many ways counter to what is typically taught in terms of apologetics.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on April 20, 2015 at 1:16 pm

      I agree Dillon. The opposite way may be more effective!

    • Sean Chandler on April 20, 2015 at 6:12 pm

      This seems to be good reason to continue to hold our values with a closed hand and our strategies with an open hand. Instead of getting stuck on old models we need to keep adjusting for our to reach people where they are at.

  25. mlukaszewski on April 20, 2015 at 11:01 am

    Great post Carey. I particularly resonated with the section about taking time.

    We’re starting to see a shift in how churches approach inviting. Away from “look at me” or “here’s our new series” and more toward adding value, having conversations, and building trust over time.

    I know it’s a secular term, but it’s really what “content marketing” tries to do. Offer incredible value and be there when people are ready to take action.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on April 20, 2015 at 11:03 am

      Michael…that’s a great analogy and an important insight. It is less about series and more about relationships and conversations, which the series can hopefully add value to. There’s a lot of insight in your comment. Worth another post I’d say!

      • mlukaszewski on April 20, 2015 at 11:04 am

        Thanks Carey…I’d be happy to guest post that one for you. 🙂

  26. christoph on April 20, 2015 at 10:44 am

    100% with you. Once after I preached at a church, a young lady came up to me asking me about evangelistic strategies. My short answer was : LISTEN.

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