I recently came back on a flight from Orange County. Before departing from California, the pilot announced that we would be arriving in Chicago about 40 minutes early due to some powerful tailwinds.
That sounds like great news.
However, amazing as those tailwinds are, all they mean in the Chicago airports is that you sit on the runway for an extra 40 minutes instead of being in the air. The plan goes to the penalty box—the place where they put planes that get there early before the gate is open.
It’s like punishment for promptness.
Headwinds and tailwinds
But despite the penalty box, it did remind me that there are both headwinds and tailwinds to be addressed in this moment when we talk about evangelism. Now, I’ve mentioned before (and many have observed) that we are on a low ebb of evangelistic intent.
We’re in a season where many hear about evangelism in a context of criticism—often, people poke fun at the way another individual or group shares the gospel rather than actually doing it themselves. That’s a pretty significant transition in our culture
Part of this reality, I believe, is a transition in a cultural moment. We’re still trying to figure out what the future should ultimately look like as we continue to share the gospel.
In this cultural moment, there are both tailwinds (cultural realities that help our evangelistic task) and headwinds (cultural realities that make that evangelistic task more difficult).
Let me talk about some of the headwinds we’re facing.
From nominalism to pluralism
We’ve moved from a nominally Christian to a more pluralistic and secular society — and that’s a very important shift. In a sense, we’ve lost our home field advantage.
That creates a significant headwind for evangelicals who desire to share their faith.
Numerically, evangelicals have remained relatively steady. As Ryan Burge described in a recent Christianity Today article about new General Social Survey data:
That’s mostly what the 2018 GSS results show us. Evangelicals—grouped in this survey by church affiliation—continue to make up around 22.5 percent of the population as they have for much of the past decade, while the nones, now up to 23.1 percent themselves, keep growing. (For comparison, the Pew Research Center’s 2014 Religious Landscape Survey put evangelicals at 25.4 percent and the religious nones at 22.8 percent.)
Mainline protestants are in significant decline. Roman Catholics are a bit steadier than mainline protestants, though on a slow decline.
However, the nones are the growing segment—those that have no religious identity, are often secular (with a smaller portion being atheists) but often see many different approaches and paths to spirituality.
I think some can become confused with the classification of nones, as some might interpret “nones” to mean these people are atheists. However, most nones are not atheists. The people who classified themselves as “nones” simply were saying they don’t have a specific identity.
For a long time, most non-practicing people of faith in the English-speaking western world considered themselves Christians, even though they were not practicing. Many knew that if they wanted to be “right with God” they would do so following the Christian faith. Many knew that if they wanted to be ‘right with God’ they needed to believe in some version of the Christian faith based upon a biblical and theistic worldview.
Thus, evangelism was often talking to people who saw themselves as Christians and explaining to them what that meant and helping them take those next steps. Put another way, evangelism was often talking to people who had a vaguely Judeo Christian worldview and explaining to them what it truly meant to embrace, engage, and ignite the Christian faith based upon the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
As we move from nominally Christian to secular and pluralistic, that is changing. Within that “none” category, there are people of no faith, people of undefined faith, and people who are spiritual but not religious. In addition, there are people of other faiths—Hindu, Muslim, Mormon, and many other faiths.
In short, our society is experiencing the shrinking of nominal Christianity and the consistent growth of secularism and pluralism.
Pluralism and evangelism
This shift from being a nominally Christian society to a pluralistic, more secular society has also profoundly affected the way people perceived evangelism in our culture. There’s been a growing sense of anti-proselytization. In fact, it seems that our time is becoming, in many senses, an anti-proselytization age.
The prevailing attitude is that people can believe anything they want so long as no one tries to convince anyone else to switch their view and thereby convert them to their way of thinking believing, and living.
At the end of the day, the primary objection is the sense of absolute truth that most Christians exhibit.
People in our culture might say, “How dare you go tell somebody that what they believe is wrong!” And even more objectionable than that, “How dare you go tell somebody that they have to believe what you believe in order to know God rightly!”
Sharing the gospel is largely seen in our culture as an act of intolerance to people of other faith groups, no faith, or those who hold other forms of spirituality.
This, too, is a part of our changing western cultural context. To believers in Jesus—and even members of other religious groups in other contexts around the world—this perspective is difficult to understand. Across Africa, Asia, and other continents, people are not stunned at all at the notion that somebody would try to share their religious beliefs and practices with a hope that someone might follow them.
In a sense, this should not be surprising to us. As the Apostle Paul communicated, proclaiming Christ and Him crucified is a stumbling block to those who do not believe (1 Corinthians 1:23).
Tomorrow is Good Friday and we dare to call it good. It is good because Jesus died on the cross, for our sin, and in our place. But, that good is only known if we tell it.
Despite the headwinds we’ll encounter in sharing Christ within a pluralistic age, we must be willing to embrace and proclaim this stumbling block—Christ crucified and risen—though it may be rejected by many of those around us, and even our culture at large.
More to come in subsequent parts of this series.
Ed Stetzer holds the Billy Graham Distinguished Chair of Church, Mission, and Evangelism at Wheaton College, serves as Dean of the School of Mission, Ministry, and Leadership at Wheaton College, is executive director of the Billy Graham Center, and publishes church leadership resources through Mission Group.