Ed: It’s hard to deny that we are living in challenging times culturally. The church’s influence is fading, and we are struggling to find answers to some hard questions. What’s your take on the health of the church today, especially as it relates to our witness?
York: What’s hard is that witness as a category itself seems to be disappearing. I find myself struggling with pastors and lay leaders in their understanding and acceptance of our role as witnesses. I feel that the church growth movement of the 1990s into the 2000s did so many great things for the church. That era developed the category of leadership in the church, created new standards of excellence in worship and platforming, and changed modern-day preaching forever.
At the same time, witness gravitated toward something lay people did by merely bringing others to church programs. The idea that an average, everyday Christian could simply explain the good news of Jesus to another person and call that person to a decision has all but disappeared in our churches.
Many Christians need to be persuaded that personal witness is a good and dutiful part of their relationship with God. I believe we need a witness revolution, a basic conviction that the gospel is good news for those around us.
Ed: Evangelism has especially fallen on hard times. It seems that everything else—even good things like discipleship—has overwhelmed our passion for sharing the love of Jesus with others. What does evangelism look like today and how can we begin to develop a passion for showing and sharing the love of Jesus on a daily basis?
York: The challenge is that for most Americans, times are great. We sit and sip our $6 lattes and people-watch at our favorite coffee shop and what do we see? We see well-dressed people holding $900 cell phones giggling to the sounds of Michael Bublé. Our Instagram feeds are full of young parents with happy kids eating organic snacks with the latest clothes.
It is hard to ‘feel’ that people are absolutely spiritually destitute and dangling over the very flames of hell. It doesn’t ‘seem like’ those around us have already been judged by a Holy God who has power to destroy the body and soul in hell when all we see is heaven on earth.
Why rock the boat when life works for them and life works for us too? In North America, we suffer from abundance. Like anesthesia, abundance has numbed us to the reality of mortality and the eternal consequences of sin and God’s wrath. Motivating Christians to share their faith because people are in great need and danger has more than fallen out of fashion; it seems nonsensical.
We are more motivated to share our faith or church programming because we want people to have better marriages, or to love their children better, or have financial peace. The reality is we need a megadose of hell, judgment, and wrath.
These kinds of eschatological ideas need to find fresh expression in our language and practical theology. While the church growth movement sought to erase these categories in the pursuit of being seeker-friendly, the result has become an anaesthetized church to the real spiritual needs of their neighbors.
Ed: You are a plenary speaker at our 2019 Amplify North American Evangelism Conference next summer, and you are talking about ‘A Gospel for the Lonely.’ Tell me about what a gospel for the lonely looks like, and why it should matter to all of us.
York: While most people in our world seem like they are having a great time, the reality is that loneliness and all the associated maladies like depression and suicidal thoughts are rampant.
Our college campuses, as an example, are filled with tens of thousands of young, upwardly mobile, and intelligent adults who seem like they have everything going for them. At the same time, there is an epidemic of depression, anxiety, and suicide. There are entire departments on every major university tasked with dealing with these realities.
Loneliness is all around us, hiding just underneath the veneer of a life well lived. While we have never been more connected in the history of humanity, loneliness is all around us. The great news of Jesus is that a God is with us. This phrase ‘with us’ is replete throughout the Bible. God is with his people in their desert wandering, God is with Mary in her shame and alienation, and we are with Him in the end as the tabernacle of God is finally among mortals (Rev. 21:3).
Before Christ ascended, he declared that he would be with us always, ‘…even to the end of the age’ (Matt. 28:20).
This idea of constant companionship is the singular aspect of my personal faith that has propelled me deeper and deeper with Jesus. Whenever I’m tempted to forsake the faith, settle for mere ‘Churchianity’ or just live a quiet religious life, it is God’s constant presence that calls me to the reality of being known and knowing.
The gospel is good news because it restores our humanity, calling us deeper into relationship with God and others. We are restored to who we have been made to be as we are known and as we know—these realities are a critical contour of the gospel and the only real, enduring way that we can be freed from the oppression of loneliness and the despair that comes with it.
I have struggled with loneliness my entire life, which is why I crumbled into tears at the altar on my wedding day when the pastor marrying us turned and said to me, “York, from this day forward, you will never be alone.”
What I have in a spouse is a temporary but powerful picture. My marriage combats loneliness in a small way, but it reminds me that God is ‘with me’ and that I am ‘with God.’ In Christ, we are never alone in an ultimate and enduring sense, and that is great news to the lonely.