Portland (one of the foci of our recent This Is Our City project) continues to provide a glimpse into the future of American ministry. More than a third of its residents are religiously unaffiliated, with minority faiths growing quickly.
Journalist Melissa Binder recently convened a panel on evangelism to the “nones” and Muslim refugees at the Christ & Cascadia conference, an annual gathering of Christian scholars, ministers, and culture leaders around the Pacific Northwest.
Binder spoke with James Gleason, pastor of Sonrise Church; John Baskaron, pastor of Arabic Christian Church; D. L. Mayfield, author of Assimilate or Go Home. Josh Chen, who directs Cru’s city ministry in Portland, later contributed to this conversation.
We live in a city with a lot of “nones,” and many view the church with skepticism or apathy. How does that cultural reality shape your approach to evangelism?
Gleason: We’ve constructed a culture around Christianity that isn’t the gospel. It’s not the gospel that’s the problem. The gospel is amazing. It’s what we’ve done to the gospel. We have to deconstruct the wrapper of culture that we’ve put on.
We want people worshiping God for eternity—that’s no question—but we also want people fed, people healed, and people to find homes. Words and works bind together in a way. When we do both, I think we have an open door for people who are more skeptical of the institutionalized church.
Chen: I’m careful about the language I use when I talk to the “nones,” or really any millennials. There are a lot of words we throw out there that mean something different to the person we’re talking to than what we’re trying to say. Instead of using a word like sin that has a lot of meaning behind it, I just say what I mean. The second key thing for evangelism is knowing what is good news for the person I’m speaking to. I listen to their story and listen for what they’re longing for. I ask myself, “How does the gospel resonate with this person?”
What kinds of “Christianese” words do you avoid, and how have you replaced them?
Chen: As part of my research, I went out and tested a bunch of Christian words—like sin, faith, repentance, salvation,and prayer—to see what nonreligious people hear. Prayer was really the only one received positively. Those other words tended to carry a lot of baggage. But I found that people responded pretty well when I communicated the same ideas with different language.
I’ll use sin as an example. Sin sounds to people like ideas of judgment, behavior modification, and trying to fit someone into a narrow box. It comes with baggage and can put people on guard. So, when I want to talk about sin, I talk about it in terms of heart issues. I use the concept of finding life where there is no life, which people recognize. People understand the concept of seeking fulfillment in something empty—for instance, they’ll tell me they binge-watch Netflix or seek life in something else that isn’t life-giving. That’s a starting point for a deeper conversation.
James, you said good works open the door for conversations about the gospel. Can you give me an example?
Gleason: Sonrise employs two women at the Hillsboro School District. (Well, we give the money. The district pays them, so I’m not their boss.) That came about simply because I asked, “Who in the district knows about all the needs at the schools?” and the district said, “Nobody.” I met the superintendent and said, “I have an idea. I want to pay a person, and you just set them loose to find all the needs in the community.” That led to a strong relationship.
I cannot tell you the number of gospel conversations I’ve had in the last six years. Whether you call it “friendship evangelism” or “works evangelism” or “social gospel” or whatever, I just know people have come to Christ because we showed up.
Josh, I want to come back to something you said—that a key to evangelism is understanding what would be good news to the person you’re talking to. Tell me more about that.
Chen: I’m over-simplifying this, but older generations were asking: “How do I get to heaven?” and “What do I do with my guilt?” Millennials are asking, “What does it mean to thrive?” If we approach millennials with a pitch for Christianity that was designed to resonate with their parents, it isn’t going to sound like good news to them.
The way Jesus explained the kingdom of God was different from person to person. To one person it was that they can be healed in this life. To another person it was that they belonged, even if they were marginalized. He told them how the kingdom was good news to them, in their unique situation. We have to do that kind of customization.
You’ve noted that there’s a broad difference between generations, but how about at an individual level? How do you know what is good news to someone?
Chen: What I like to listen for is what people complain about. I listen, and I think about how my own experience connects to them.
A clear example of this was this gal I was talking to who was really stressed out at work. She complained she didn’t have time for anything else. And I said, “Man, I feel for you. I was there six months ago.” And she goes, “Six months ago? Are you still stressed now?” I said, “No, I’m not.” She said, “What changed?” I said, “Honestly, it was this Bible verse that gave me a new perspective.” She asked, “What was the verse?” and I said, “It was ‘God demonstrates his own love for us in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.’ I extrapolated this idea that we are inherently valuable. It’s like this: God demonstrates his value of us in that while we had nothing to offer, Jesus came to pursue us to the point of death. With that in mind, I realized I was so stressed because I was trying to derive my value from what people thought of me at work. But if I’m inherently valuable, why do I look for value outside of myself? As that sank in, my stress melted away.” That was really good news to her. Months later, I overheard her telling someone that the verse had eased her anxiety about work.
That’s a micro example of the gospel, but I don’t think the good news has to be all encompassing at any one moment. The goal of evangelism isn’t to present all of theology to someone at once and have them make a choice. The goal has to be that evangelism moves them closer to surrendering their life to Jesus.
It sounds like the evangelism you are talking about happens within long-term relationships with nonbelievers. What do you do when there’s no response to the gospel, even after years?
Mayfield: One of the things I love about being a Christian is that we have a theology of caring for people even when they don’t convert.
I was in a missions organization called InnerCHANGE for a few years, and they have a few different ministry tracks. One is called “ministry to the most broken,” and in that track it’s just expected you will not see fruit. You will not see conversion. You will not see people come out of addiction. And that’s a valid ministry. Those people are still worthy of mercy and love and a just life. For me, it was so freeing to realize that is still evangelism.
From a cultural standpoint, people pay attention when you do that. In Minneapolis I taught English to people from East Africa. Most of the people I taught had been so traumatized that they could not retain information. Most of them were never going to learn English. They knew it and I knew it, and yet it was still important to show up and be there and build that relationship. I ended up having a lot of influence in the rest of the community because of my commitment to be with people who were never going to make progress.
Baskaron: It is not up to you to covert them. It is up to the Lord. You are just planting the seed. One Muslim woman I baptized came to Christ because of her neighbor, and her neighbor never preached to her. She saw how her neighbor lived, how she talked. That’s why she was open to becoming a Christian when she moved to the United States. Her neighbor planted a seed; only the Lord could grow it.
John, you used to evangelize to Muslims by handing out tracts. Now you’ve abandoned that approach and focus on supporting Muslim refugee families as they arrive. Can you talk about that shift?
Baskaron: When I was in Bible college in Lebanon doing outreach, I thought, “I’m going to give you a tract, I’m going to talk to you about Jesus, and that’s all I’m going to do.” We can’t get through to people with that kind of attitude. We have to live with them, we have to humble ourselves and deny ourselves. It’s not about you. It’s about the message. If you share life with them, feed them and do things for them, they are going to ask you, “What are you doing that for?” That’s the open door.
The Lord changed my view of outreach. I thought outreach was to just go out and talk to people about Christ. Yes, that’s the goal, but you have to open the door for them first.
Do you have any advice for Christians who want to engage Muslims in conversations about faith?
Mayfield: Muslims love to talk about God. I love talking about wanting to be obedient to God, and that’s something Muslims like talking about, too. In that way, starting conversations about faith is easier because you have something in common.
Some people love to go to mosques and argue with the imam and talk about doctrine. I’ve found that to be counterproductive for me. Instead, I am always on the lookout for people who are hungry. I’m looking for people who we would call “people of peace.” I don’t really try to have faith conversations with people who don’t want to listen.
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