Like many of you, I grew up in Churches of Christ. I knew what 728b was. I knew what a tract rack was (and used it as a resource as a child). I knew you weren’t supposed to clap. I knew who was going to heaven. We were and anyone else was suspect at best. I do not remember that last one being directly stated very often but it was the feel we had and was said often enough in private. We had the truth and if anyone wanted it (or not) we were going to inform them of it.
We got very good at a certain kind of evangelism. It was evangelizing people who already knew a fair amount about God, the Bible, Jesus, etc. It was evangelizing them to church rather than to Jesus. Maybe they had church wrong. Maybe the had baptism wrong. Maybe they had worship wrong. We were going to correct anyone who would listen (and many who wouldn’t or didn’t need to).
I engaged in those kinds of discussions for years. Then it finally occurred to me that there were Christians in other groups. I knew this because I met them and listened to them. I compared what they were saying with what the Bible said and saw no reasonable way to exclude them from the kingdom (as if that was my job anyway – the Lord adds to the church but we knew how to take away).
I finally realized that salvation didn’t hinge on having every issue right or else Paul got the introduction to all of his letters in the New Testament wrong.
This shift in thinking was the death of our evangelism. Not because we had nothing left to say but because of something else. Once we largely gave up converting “the denominations” we thought we had no one else to evangelize. This was because we had another faulty assumption. The first was that anyone not in our movement wasn’t a Christian. The second was that the people around us by and large had a knowledge of Jesus and were largely Christian.
But that wasn’t the case at all and still isn’t today. God has sent the world to us. We live in Acts 2 and 10 daily. What is more, the very people we need to be reaching are on the increase numerically (those who have fallen away and the non-affiliated, and those of non-Christian faiths). While those groups increased around us we lost our need to evangelize.
I believe we also lost our zeal for evangelism because we only knew how to talk to people about Jesus who were already mostly like us. They were already going to church (didn’t have to convince them to start). They already believed in the Bible and in Jesus. We knew how to take someone who was already pretty far along and get them the rest of the way (in our sectarian minded thinking). It was a smaller ask, an ask we were comfortable asking. But we didn’t know and largely don’t know how to have a conversation with someone who doesn’t believe in God or believes in numerous gods. These are the groups that are growing and we are ill-prepared to engage them.
We need to learn to contextualize the gospel and have the boldness to talk with people seemingly less like ourselves about Jesus. This means we are asking them to make bigger steps and larger commitments than we are used to. This is essential to our future but more than that, it is what we were told to do and even if we do it we are just unworthy servants, just doing our duty.