Picture an imaginary scale from 1 to 10.
On the left end of the scale, at the “1,” we have someone who is completely divorced from a relationship with or knowledge of Christ.
On the other end of the scale, at the “10” mark, is that point in time when the spiritual journey of an individual results in coming to saving faith in and knowledge of Christ.
I know, this is a crude and overly simplistic scale, but let it try to illustrate a point.
Let’s begin by using this scale to evaluate yesterday’s typical unchurched person. Speaking in broad terms, where on the scale would such a person living in the United States in 1960 have been?
If I had time I think I could make the case that most had the following on their spiritual resume:
- Acceptance of the deity of Christ
- Belief that truth existed and that the Bible was trustworthy
- A positive image of the church and its leaders
- A relatively healthy church background and experience
- Foundational knowledge of the essential truths of the Christian faith
- A built-in sense of guilt or conviction that kicked in when they violated the basic tenets of the Judeo-Christian value system
So, on a scale from 1 to 10, this person would have been placed at “8.”
In other words, someone you could just about win to Christ through a well-worded tweet.
The top evangelistic strategies of 1960 — arguably door-to-door visitation, Sunday school, revivals and busing — were well oriented to this context.
And with each of these efforts, a one-time, cold-call presentation of the gospel would have been effective.
After all, they did not need to move very far down the line — just from an “8” to a “10.” All it took was a bump.
One of the most pressing questions for the church in today’s world is this: Are the conditions and attitudes that created such a successful context for those strategies still in place today? Are the people we are trying to reach today the same as they were in 1960?
Obviously, the answer is no.
So where might the contemporary unchurched person rest on our imaginary scale?
A generous suggestion – very generous – is that they would be placed at a “3.”
Headline? It is time to rethink evangelism.
And that begins with capturing a new understanding of evangelism; one that sees evangelism as both process and event.
When someone comes to saving faith in Christ, there is both an adoption process and an actual decision event. For the last several decades, evangelism capitalized on a unique state of affairs: namely, a culture filled with people who were relatively advanced in their spiritual knowledge and, as a result, able to quickly and responsibly consider the event of accepting Christ as Savior and Lord.
In light of today’s realities, there must be fresh attention paid to the process that leads people to the event of salvation. The goal is not simply knowing how to articulate the means of coming to Christ (the “10” moment), but how to facilitate and enable the person to progress from a “3” to the point of a “7” or an “8,” where they are even able to consider accepting Christ in a responsible fashion.
It reminds me of a rather obscure essay C.S. Lewis once wrote on modern man and his categories of thought. Lewis argued that when the gospel first broke out, the evangelistic task was essentially to one of three groups: Jews, Judaizing Gentiles and Pagans.
All three believed in the supernatural.
All were conscious of sin and feared divine judgment.
Each offered some form of personal purification and release.
They all believed the world had once been better than it now was.
But now, Lewis argued, the average person shares none of those marks.
In fact, he ended the essay by stating, “I sometimes wonder whether we shall not have to re-convert men to real Paganism as a preliminary to converting them to Christianity.”
He was, as usual, prescient in this thinking.
James Emery White
C.S. Lewis, “Modern Man and His Categories of Thought,” Present Concerns (London: Fount Paperbacks, 1986).
About the Author
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, The Rise of the Nones: Understanding and Reaching the Religiously Unaffiliated, is available on Amazon. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, visit ChurchAndCulture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.