Brian McLaren pastors at Cedar Ridge Community Church in Spencerville, Maryland, and is author of More Ready Than You Realize: Evangelism as Dance in the Postmodern Matrix (Zondervan, 2002).
The following is an excerpt from an interview with Brian McLaren by Building Church Leaders. Visit www.buildingchurchleaders.com
How can we speak evangelistically to people today?
Much evangelism in the United States was developed in a context in which just about everybody knew the basic information of Christianity and was favorably disposed to it. Evangelism got people to act on what they already knew and, in a sense, already passively believed. You could call people to commitment relatively quickly. You could also use pretty forceful persuasive techniques.
Today’s postmoderns do not know the basics of Christianity. If anything, they have a negative idea of what Christianity is. So it makes no sense to them if you come on too strong and quickly ask for a commitment. We should count conversations rather than conversions, not because I don’t believe in conversions, but because I don’t think we’ll get many conversions if we keep emphasizing them.
So what does evangelism to postmoderns look like?
When most people think of evangelism, the word arguments comes up—arguments for the existence of God, arguments for the uniqueness of Christ, arguments for the inspiration of the Bible. For postmodern people, anything presented as an argument is less persuasive because arguments suggest a message of conquest rather than a message of peace. Postmoderns are so assaulted by advertisements and political messages that for a message to be important and true, it must generally come in a form other than argument.
Also, we have become good at boiling the gospel down into little four-step outlines. Modern people love diagrams; it’s all about engineering. But postmodern people feel that truth comes as a mystery, a story, and a work of art; truth is more like poetry than engineering. This forces us to ask if we have a clear understanding of what the gospel really is. In many ways, the modern evangelical gospel is a message about how to not go to hell. When you step back and ask if that’s really the gospel from Jesus’ perspective, it’s pretty hard to answer yes. When Jesus talks about the gospel, he talks more about the kingdom of God.
How do you help people share their faith?
We don’t talk about having a missions department in our church. Instead, we tell people that when we become a follower of Christ, we’re signing up for his mission. That involves doing good, caring for the poor, and giving out cups of cold water in Christ’s name, then telling others the story of the gospel and what God has done in our life. We talk about being and making disciples in authentic community for the good of the world. We talk about that because, according to Jesus, one of the things disciples do is help others become disciples. This helps us get away from the event-oriented, decision-oriented evangelism that a lot of us grew up with.
My book includes the story of a young woman whom I met while she was trying to load her harp into a truck. After I offered to help, we got into a conversation that led to exchanging E-mail addresses. That led to more than a two-year e-mail friendship, through which she came to faith in Christ. Disciple-making began when I offered a simple act of kindness.
We emphasize that to be a good member of our church, we must get to know our neighbors. We say, “Throw parties. Have people over. Be nice to the children in your neighborhood. Be good people. Be good neighbors. That makes it easier to talk to people about your faith.” You know that verse in 1 Peter 3 about always being ready to give an answer? Well, that implies that people are asking questions. To me, part of the issue is how we can help Christians live such good lives that people want to ask questions.
What questions do postmodern people ask?
Many would ask, “Is Christianity good and can it make me into a better person, or will it make me a jerk?” They ask that because when they think of Christians, they tend to think of people who are narrow-minded, judgmental, arrogant, and angry. And they think, “I really want God, and I’d rather be a Christian than a Buddhist or a Muslim, but Christians look like jerks. I don’t want to become like that.”
They might also ask, “How can I be a Christian without becoming hateful toward people of other religions?” If we answer that question by giving reasons why other religions are wrong, we just prove that we’re not the kind of person they want to become.
A lady who became a Christian through our church called me one day and told me she needed to talk. When I asked what was wrong, she said, “I’m afraid I believe something different from the other Sunday school teachers. They all believe that if you’re not a Christian, you’ll go to hell. I don’t believe that.”
Instead of arguing with her, I asked what she believed. She said her two best friends weren’t Christians; one was Jewish and one a lapsed Mormon. “There’s nothing I would rather see than that both of them would discover what I found in Christ,” she said. “But if I tell them they’re going to hell, they’ll never listen to me.” What’s so interesting is that she didn’t say, “I don’t care what they believe.” It’s a different spin. We have to listen. If we come with answers without understanding what’s behind a question, we can make things worse.
You know what’s so interesting? She started a Bible study with these two women, and they read the Bible together. I don’t think these women have converted, but I’m sure the outcome will be better by keeping the relationship going than by forcing a decision too soon.
How can churches be more welcoming to non-Christians?
To become this kind of church, we have to accept people who don’t dress right, don’t talk right, don’t smell right, and don’t think right. If we’re not willing to let people belong before they believe, they will never believe in our church. If a group says, “We will accept you only if you agree with us,” it sounds like any other worldly group. What people are looking for is a group that accepts them regardless of whether they conform. That becomes one of the validations of the gospel.