Today, everything is marketing. Everything about you can be monetized. Your social media accounts gather data to be sold to advertising agencies. Your internet searches are scrutinized by marketing strategists. Everyone is out to make money off of you.
You know it. I know it. We all know it. And that knowledge puts us all on high alert. Thus, when an old high school buddy reaches out to me on social media, my first response is not excitement over reacquainting myself with a long-lost friend; rather, I am primed to wonder, “Which type of time-share scheme does he want me to buy into?”
In such a social economy, then, how does Christian evangelism distinguish itself from the commercialized cacophony surrounding us? How do we as Christians genuinely invite people to receive the gospel message without simply repurposing worldly marketing mechanisms to do so? I would suggest that there are at least three distinctives that help us separate Christian evangelism from the incessant sales pitches that permeate our society.
1.) A Genuine Community
One way we are constantly marketed to—and often end up marketing ourselves through—is social media. Social media regularly utilizes the vocabulary of interpersonal relationships to describe disembodied cyber-connections. On Facebook you “friend” someone, and on Twitter you “follow” someone. Neither action requires any further investment, and both can be undone with the click of a button.
By way of contrast, Christian evangelism is neither transactional nor shallow. Rather than seeing our neighbors as potential buyers of our religious product, our evangelism should invite them to join us in the community formed by the gospel. The gospel isn’t a sales pitch but an offer of adoption. Thus, gospel proclamation requires that churches view themselves as gospel-shaped families into which new believers can be integrated.
2.) A Compelling Story
One factor that can turn people off to the church is that many simply see Christians as “religious folk.” In certain parts of the U.S., such a designation can evoke a saccharine nostalgia of a bygone era. In other parts, however, the label “religious” is code for bigoted Neanderthal. Both responses confuse the essence of the gospel with the effects of the gospel.
We need to be able to conversationally connect the gospel story to the story of our lives and our friends’ lives.
This confusion is due in part to the fact that many people simply assume Christianity to be the sum total of the 140-character positions Christians take on social media regarding political and moral issues. Thus, when a Christian begins to share the gospel, it can often be received as a campaign for some political or social agenda. This kind of reception is especially likely if the gospel is presented as a canned sales pitch or pre-scripted stump speech.
We certainly need to be ready to share the gospel message of Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection (1 Cor 15:3–5). Likewise, to remain true to Scripture, this gospel will, at some level, always bear the same contours and components. However, we also need to be able to conversationally connect the gospel story to the story of our lives and our friends’ lives.
This conversational approach to evangelism involves learning to ask good, probing questions of our friends. (I highly recommend the book Questioning Evangelism by Randy Newman to help with this.) Doing so pushes us to listen well to their answers. And it also requires us to be familiar with the gospel as the one true story of the world. When we understand the gospel as the true story of cosmic history, we learn how to connect the hopes, dreams, and fears of our neighbors with the story to which those hopes, dreams, and fears ultimately point.
3.) The Apologetics of Awe
Finally, our presentation of the gospel should distinguish itself from worldly marketing campaigns by evoking worship and wonder from us as we share it. Let me illustrate this with a story:
My family and I spent seven years living in North Africa and the Middle East. During our time in this part of the world, we had innumerable conversations with people of different faiths. In fact, I probably shared the gospel with one of my closest friends fifty times.
Though I am convinced that the first forty-nine times were not wasted, it was the final time that stands out to me as most significant. That night, in contrast to our other conversations, I found myself sharing the gospel with this friend not as an intellectual battle. Rather, as I articulated the gospel, I found myself being freshly amazed at its beauty. That God had, in Christ, ransomed me, atoned for my sin, and adopted me into his family brought me to awe.
I can’t think of a more compelling apologetic posture than sharing the gospel as one captivated by its wonder.
By the end of that discussion, I realized that more than evangelizing, I had been worshipping. As I presented the gospel to my friend, I was simply rehearsing before God my own gratitude for the salvation made available in the gospel. I walked home that night realizing that evangelism is simply a manifestation and expression of worship. In the end, I can’t think of a more compelling apologetic posture than sharing the gospel as one captivated by its wonder.
Who’s Your One?
So where does one start? Recently, J. D. Greear and the Southern Baptist Convention put together a great resource called Who’s Your One?, which reminds us to be prayerfully and intentionally committed to sharing the gospel with those in our communities. This website includes stories, ideas, and prayer guides for those who are seeking to share the gospel genuinely among their friends and neighbors.
May it be that in a world that is weary of being commodified, our evangelism would be distinctive by being marked by worship, by producing genuine community, and by showing people their place in the universal story of the gospel.
Matthew Bennett and his wife, Emily, served with the IMB for almost seven years. He holds a PhD in missiology from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary,and he currently serves as an assistant professor of missions and theology at Cedarville University in Cedarville, Ohio. He is also co-author of Hope for American Evangelicals: A Missionary Perspective on Restoring Our Broken House.