One thing that is becoming increasingly clear is that the form of our evangelism in America will need to evolve. As the US approaches being post-Christian (especially the more academic types), the arguments made by Christians toward those who do not believe will evolve from the types of evangelism models used in a nominal Christian society.
One of the key differences between the post-Christian and the nominal Christian is respect (or guts). The nominal Christian still had cultural respect in regards to the bible (or lacked the guts to boldlydefy it). Think of the bible belt, here. The nominals did not read the Bible, but still felt guilty when someone told them that the Bible says they were sinners. Post-Christian types just say, “Who cares?” Nominals still had some sort of respect for the Bible. Though they did not read it or care to obey it, they customarily acknowledged that the Text was law.
Not so in a post-Christian society. One of the principal hallmarks of a Post-Christian society is that of autonomy. That is, the post-Christian society makes up its own laws. The Bible may say that premarital sex is against the law (of God), and the nominal would feel a little bad when you reminded him or her of it–if for nothing else than the sheer weight of Christian culture. The post-Christian responds, “I don’t remember signing off on that law.”
Evangelism to Nominals
The types of methods used when approaching nominals typically proof-texted the evangelical soteriology. Take, for example, the Roman Road. One could, easily enough, recite the key texts from the book of Romans and the nominal would be told about sin, punishment, sacrifice, and salvation. Other “plans of salvation” exist that follow the same format. They quote some scriptures that claim all men are sinners. They’ll post another that speak to the punishment that sin costs us, and another–like John 3:16–which show God’s love and condescension towards us.
Before I proceed, I want to note that I don’t believe there is anything wrong with this. In fact, I think the scripture memory required for this is commendable. I just think times are a’changin.
I don’t want to be accused of neglecting the spiritual aspect of evangelism, so this needs to be stated. The Spirit must change a person’s heart in order for them to understand and accept the authority of the bible and of Christ.
Consider, first, the disposition of those who do not believe:
The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. (1 Corinthians 2:14 ESV)
And, second, the Lord’s work which must be done for a person to hear the Word:
One who heard us was a woman named Lydia, from the city of Thyatira, a seller of purple goods, who was a worshiper of God. The Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul. (Acts 16:14 ESV).
So, for all of this talk about methods, tactics, and cultural changes that are taking place, I don’t want to misunderstood. It is the Lord who saves, not our methods. But, if we recall, Acts 17 shows that we are to make compelling cases for the faith, and are also to defend it when it is attacked. We do our part to make the Gospel understandable, and leave the results to God. There is a tension here that I’m not going to solve. All I’m trying to do is note some changes that are taking place, and what will be required of us in the future. And it won’t be the memorization of seven verses.
Atheists aren’t new. But a new thing is happening to America because of them. The so-called four horsemen of the New Atheism sparked a particular type of mindset among those who were suspicious of Christianity in the first place, and further hardened those who were already atheists. Key to this movement is the attitude towards religion in general, and Christianity in particular. Nominals, those who really aren’t serious about religion but go to church just because “it’s what you do,” are the ones who are disappearing. Many devout Christians have stayed Christians through the attacks of Dawkins and company. But the nominals…Well, that’s another story altogether. The nominals are falling away.
As I mentioned earlier, the nominal still sinned and still felt guilty about it. This is a generalization, no doubt. But an accurate one, I would argue. What the New Atheists have done is give the nominals a reason to not feel guilty. No need for guilt. No need for sacrifice. No need for blood. Just autonomy. And it is the liberated nominal that backlashes against all that held him in bondage these many years (Christianity). All of those times the nominal was called a sinner!
With the help of Dawkins and the other “horsemen,” the work of counter-evangelism begun. If you want to know what counter-evangelism is, just take what Christians have been doing for decades, twist it, and shout it in an argument with a scoff. Some examples are in order:
Evangelism: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16 ESV)
Evangelism: “So we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him.” (1 John 4:16)
Counter-evangelism: “And when the LORD your God gives it into your hand, you shall put all its males to the sword, but the women and the little ones, the livestock, and everything else in the city, all its spoil, you shall take as plunder for yourselves. And you shall enjoy the spoil of your enemies, which the LORD your God has given you. Thus you shall do to all the cities that are very far from you, which are not cities of the nations here. But in the cities of these peoples that the LORD your God is giving you for an inheritance, you shall save alive nothing that breathes,” (Deuteronomy 20:13-16 ESV)
Counter-evangelism: “He (Solomon) had 700 wives, who were princesses, and 300 concubines…” (1 Kings 11:3 ESV)
Counter-evangelism: ” He went up from there to Bethel, and while he was going up on the way, some small boys came out of the city and jeered at him, saying, ‘Go up, you baldhead! Go up, you baldhead!’ And he turned around, and when he saw them, he cursed them in the name of the LORD. And two she-bears came out of the woods and tore forty-two of the boys.” (2 Kings 2:23-24 ESV)
The claims of the counter-evangelists vary. Some say that this shows the bible is contradictory. Some say that if genocide is an example of God’s love, then leave them out. What is clear is that now God sits in judgment, and not the nominal nor the post-Christian.
Many of the counter-evangelist techniques are saved for important social issues like that of homosexual marriage. First the Christians claim that marriage is between one man and one woman, and then the counter-evangelists respond by pointing out that “biblical marriage” would involve having 700 wives like Solomon, possibly. I’ve responded to this particular claim already, here.
What is becoming clear is that the nature of evangelism will have to go away from solely proof-texting our soteriology because there are roadblocks now. Note, I did not say that evangelism will have to leave out our soteriology (the gospel). I said it will not be sufficient on our part as we go forward because there are verses which appear to contradict our claims. And these verses will need to be explained.
There are two primary problems we have now.
The first is that the response to counter-evangelism claims are necessarily more long-winded. The claims (The bible endorses polygamous marriage, God is a ravenous genocidal murderer, if homosexuals can’t marry then you can’t wear cotton and polyester, etc) require a detailed response that takes more time than most people want to hear. Furthermore, they don’t want to hear it because they don’t like being wrong.
Second, the detailed responses requires a working knowledge of all of scripture. To accurately explain why the Bible is not pro-slavery and pro-polygamy requires memorization, not of 7 verses in the book of Romans, but of countless narratives throughout the scripture. Most Christians today are not prepared for this kind of work. But it is work that will need to be done if we are going to effectively communicate the Bible’s message to post-Christians.