Here’s a concept I want to offer for your consideration; what if we stopped thinking of evangelism as me telling you about my beliefs, and starting thinking of evangelism as the two of us exploring truth together? Does that undermine the very essence of evangelism? Will that work? First off, why would we even consider doing evangelism like this?
The view from the other side
I used to think of evangelism as Christians telling others about Jesus. What was our purpose for telling people about Jesus? Obviously because we want them to accept his offer of grace and put their trust in him for life. They have only a glorious future of life fulfillment, freedom from guilt, and a magnificent afterlife to look forward to. Why wouldn’t they?
One reason they wouldn’t (there are many reasons!) is because of the proverbial price of admission. If they are not a Christian then they obviously have some other belief system. They might be Buddhist, Muslim, Atheist or any number of other worldviews. Or, they might not really care about any of this stuff anyway; they don’t think it is important. In order to accept Christ there is a critical first step that Christians rarely consider. They need to first let go of whatever they currently believe, even if their current belief is as simple as “these subjects aren’t really important in the first place.”
We tend to think that this change of belief systems is something that ought to excite them. After all, whatever they currently believe (insofar as it contradicts Christianity) is wrong, or as a bare minimum incomplete. Why wouldn’t they give it up? After all, we are telling them about Truth! We are introducing them to the God of the universe! Who wouldn’t be excited? In our enthusiasm we forget that they are fairly convinced the situation is the other way around; they are right and we are wrong. Christianity, insofar as it contradicts their beliefs, is wrong. This is part of the reason why they would naturally resist accepting Christ. Can you blame them?
Have you ever considered, for instance, that maybe those Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses that come to your door might feel the exact same frustration that you do when you refuse to join their church? Just as you cannot fathom how anybody would turn down Jesus’ offer, they cannot understand how you could possibly choose to turn down Joseph Smith or the Watchtower society. In other words, in the exact same way that you are reluctant to give up your cherished beliefs, so others are reluctant to give up theirs.
The need for an open mind
In order for a person to come to the conclusion that what she currently believes is wrong, she needs to first allow for the mere possibility that her beliefs are wrong. She needs an open mind. When she enters into the conversation she needs to consider that maybe, just maybe, the other person may have the real answers to life’s biggest questions. We are deeply hopeful that whoever we share Jesus with will have just this kind of open mind; a willingness to seriously consider his claims and ask whether those claims might be true and worthy of acceptance.
But what about you? You expect open-mindedness from others; will you return the favor?
This is dangerous ground, some might think. If we enter into evangelism with a mind that is open to the prospect that the other person is right and we are wrong then it is possible that we might reject Jesus and accept their views. Isn’t that kind of the opposite of what evangelism is supposed to be about? Yes, and that is a good thing! Hold that thought.
Here’s my suggestion; both people need to be open-minded. Both people need to consider the possibility that the other person is right and they are wrong. They need to examine the evidence with an objective set of eyes (as best as they can – nobody is perfectly unbiased) and both seek to discover the true nature of reality, whatever that looks like. This may not sound much like evangelism, but let’s consider the possibilities. On the one hand Christianity may be closest to truth. On the other hand, whatever they believe may be closest to truth (Islam, Hinduism, Paganism, etc).
Suppose Christianity is true. As you both explore it with an open-minded approach to the evidence, you will explore the person of Jesus, the reliability of the Bible, and so many other related subjects. If Christianity is true, you will (ideally) both come to the conclusion of its truth. At that point they will have to decide how they are going to respond to Christ. Let me ask you; how is the end result any different from evangelism, traditionally understood? In the end you presented Jesus to them with the hopes that they would accept him. The part in the middle was different, but the end was the same.
What about the alternative; Christianity is false? In this case you would both examine the evidence and come to the conclusion that their views are closer to the truth than your own. Scary prospect? It probably is, but they are quite likely scared of the exact same outcome with respect to their views. If you expect them to enter “dangerous territory” why would you refuse to do the same? They should seriously consider Jesus but you will not consider their perspective? Hypocrite!
In the end either Christianity is true or it is not. If it is, then this approach will produce precisely the same end result as evangelism done the old-fashioned way. If it is false, wouldn’t you want to know? I would rather believe what is true than what is false, even if it means abandoning some of what I happen to believe right now (scary as that is).
So I guess this raises two questions. Are you deeply convinced that Christianity is actually true? Then you have nothing to fear from anything I have suggested. Engage in open-minded evangelism rather than simply throwing your views at the other person without any intention of listening to their views. Have a dialogue instead of a monologue. Believe me when I say that most people are far more willing to open their mind if they believe you are doing the same. They will believe it only if you really do it (no faking it!).
Second question, which is more important to you; that other people accept your beliefs or that your beliefs are actually true? Personally, my vote is for the latter. Open-minded evangelism is more likely to lead you both to the truth in the end; a worthwhile goal in my mind, wherever the truth may lie. I happen to believe (fairly strongly in fact) that the Truth lies with Jesus of Nazareth – God incarnate, raised from the dead – but I need to keep my mind open to correction. While I have spent years examining evidence on all sides of the discussion, and done so with as open a mind as I can, I must continually remain open to the possibility that I have missed something important that somebody else might introduce me to.
This is probably one of the more controversial ideas I included in Arguing with Friends and posted here at my blog. Please, drop me a quick note with your thoughts. Agree? Disagree? I want to hear from you. Thanks.