“always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect”
1 Peter 3:15
The existence of God, the historicity of Jesus, the veracity of Scripture. Answering critical questions about these issues used to be central to evangelism. However, while Christians still need to be equipped to answer them, these are no longer the primary questions being asked by skeptics today. They arose from the Enlightenment and were based on modern principles of rationalism and scientific empiricism. Our postmodern culture has different concerns that also deserve thoughtful consideration.
Many Christians believed, myself included, that the greatest threats of postmodernity to our faith were the relativization of truth, the rise of religious pluralism and the privatization of morality. But even these issues rarely come up. Instead, skeptical unbelievers (and even some professing Christians) are asking questions like:
How do Christians account for the genocide of Indigenous peoples, the enslavement of Africans, the Colonization of the Western world, or the forced ‘conversions’ (read: torture) of the Inquisition? All these were done in the name of ‘Christianity,’ after all. How should Christians respond to sexual misconduct, cover-ups, financial scandals and other abuses of power within their church? How can Christians preach a message of unity, love and reconciliation when there is so much division and animosity in the religious world and even within their own congregation?
Some of these concerns can be answered by affirming that not all that wears the name of Christ is necessarily of Christ. There was nothing remotely Christian about the slave trade or the Inquisitions, despite attempts to prop them up with Scripture. But others hit disconcertingly close to home. Some of us have even witnessed religious hypocrisy, injustice, and abuse within our own church. How should we respond to the undeniable and glaring faults of Christians which have disenchanted our generation?
We must understand we are proclaiming the gospel to people who view Christians with deep suspicion and distrust. Whether every suspicion is merited or not is beside the point. These misgivings are barriers to the gospel that must be cleared away if the saving message of Jesus is to reach the heart. The work of evangelism is not only about defending our faith but also includes establishing trust. How can we do that? At least three things come to mind.
First, we must acknowledge any wrongs and inconsistencies in both our individual lives and in our church with the message we proclaim. Honestly admitting our failings and grieving over them highlights our need for God’s grace and our desire to correct them. Few things are more destructive to our public witness than “Christians” covering up sin in their lives or in the lives of others.
Second, this sorrow must move from emotion to action; our change in mind must be followed by a change in life. Skeptics must see the gospel’s transformative power as well as its convicting power. Christ saves us from our sins and to a new, holy way of living. The “putting-off” of the old humanity must be followed by the “putting-on” of the new which is made in God’s likeness (Eph. 4:23-24).
Third, we must never compromise the message of the gospel in an attempt to make it more accessible or relevant to others because its effectiveness depends on its purity. There can be no deception or distortion, only “the open statement of truth” (2 Cor. 4:2-3).
There is much more to say about establishing trust in our post-modern culture but these three things would be a great start.