Editor’s Note: Forty years ago, when GROUP was an infant, the “rules of evangelism” were well-known and commonly accepted. “The Four Spiritual Laws” and “The Romans Road” and “If you were to die tonight, do you know where you’d be going?” had not yet been dismissed as hackneyed clichés. Today, the cultural landscape is a harsh ecosystem for conventional ideas about evangelism. In youth ministry, it’s still high on the “to-do” list, but very few actually model or train students in how to do it. Confusion and guilt reign…
We have to find a way forward—a path that will lead young people (and us!) to a mindset that frees us to engage others about the person and promise of Jesus. So I asked two friends who are passionate about Jesus and natural evangelists, Carl Medearis and Greg Stier, to join me in a conversation about the future of evangelism. They come at this from very distinct vantage points… Greg grew up in the rough underbelly of the culture, outside of the church—he’s the founder and long-time president of Dare2Share. Carl grew up as a PK, and is a long-time missionary to the Muslim world and author of the bestselling books Muslims, Christians, and Jesus, Tea With Hezbollah, and Speaking of Jesus.
We met at the offices of Dare2Share in Denver, and we video-recorded the entire conversation. We’ve condensed and split that recording into four parts, posted at the end of this article.
Rick Lawrence: Thanks so much, Greg and Carl, for fueling this conversation. I want us to pursue a really big question facing the church in general and youth ministry in particular: What is the future of evangelism? Let’s start with something basic: What is evangelism, anyway?
Greg Stier: At its core, I think the Greek word is “euaggelistés”—it just means wanting to declare good news. I remember as a kid in north Denver— growing up in this very violent home and not knowing my dad—a church from the suburbs reached out to the city and declared the good news of Jesus to my family. This preacher shared Christ and him crucified—a message of grace and salvation by faith. And it clicked for my Uncle Jack and then it clicked for my Uncle Bob in the back of a squad car and then it clicked for me. I had the privilege of sharing the good news with my mom. It wasn’t a religion; it was a relationship with Jesus through faith. So, at its core, evangelism is the declaration of the good news with our life, but also with our lips.
Carl Medearis: Well, I agree with everything you just said, and even the way you said it, and even the way you moved your hands while you said it. Maybe the only thing distinctive I’d add is that it’s interesting that the word “euaggelistés” doesn’t appear in the Bible. I think a better word is “make disciples.” That’s the phrase Jesus used in what we call The Great Commission, in Matthew 28. So how do you disciple a generation of young people? I think there are some nuance differences between doing the act of evangelism, which tends to culminate in the sinner’s prayer (which is extra-biblical), and engaging somebody in the process of discipleship, which is a journey. Jesus did not have the 12 evangelees—he had the 12 disciples. He didn’t evangelize them, he discipled them.
I think our churches are full of weak disciples, sometimes because of the way we’ve evangelized them. We haven’t started with the discipleship thing in mind from the very beginning. We start with, “Let’s get them saved and then hopefully we’ll make disciples.” But if you start with, “Let’s make disciples, and then carry that through,” I think that’s more effective, especially in the kind of post-Christian culture that we live in today.
Rick: Let me get at this another way—let’s look at Peter. Peter owned a fishing company. Jesus invited him to follow him, and he left his fishing company behind. Somewhere between that point and dying upside down on a cross, Peter became a disciple. He was evangelized. But at what point in this arc is Peter evangelized?
Greg: Well, you never see Jesus lead anyone through a sinner’s prayer in the Bible. I wrote an article called “The Bigfoot of the Bible”—it’s the sinner’s prayer. I was doing a radio interview and the guy was always saying, “Just say the sinner’s prayer.” And I told him, “Hey, there’s going to be a lot of people in hell who said the sinner’s prayer.” You know, it’s about faith in Christ.
But I would say it’s a false distinction to just to call it a process—it’s a process with a point of salvation, when “you must be born again.” And then there’s a process of maturity. I think we want to be careful to not the swing the other way just to make it all process-oriented. The Bible makes it clear that there is a point of salvation—when a person puts their faith in Christ and is born again. Jesus himself told Nicodemus, “You must be born again” in John 3:3. We are born at a point in time and we are born again at a point in time. At the moment you put your faith in Jesus you’re born again spiritually, even if you don’t remember the exact moment.
Like Nicky Gumbel with Alpha says, if you’re riding a train and cross the line from Colorado to Wyoming and happen to look out the window at the moment you see “Welcome to Wyoming,” then you know that’s when you crossed the border into Wyoming. But if you happen to be sleeping and miss the sign, you still are in Wyoming once you cross the border. In the same way there is a moment of faith where we cross the line from lost to saved. We may not remember the exact moment we crossed that line but what matters is that we crossed it and were born again into the family of God.
I think the question of when, exactly, Peter became a disciple is something we don’t really know. I would just say it’s a both/and—salvation by faith and discipleship by process.
Rick: A youth pastor would say that makes perfect sense until you’re actually trying to engage in evangelism. Then the question is: “What am I doing right now, and at what point have I completed what I’m supposed to be doing?” How do you know when someone is maturing in Christ? It’s not an easy question to answer for us. Even in my own story, when did I become a disciple? It wasn’t a point in time.
Greg: But did you have a point of salvation?
Rick: I would say that’s when I publicly stood up and said, “Yes, Jesus I want you and I want to follow you”—it was the first time I’d done that. But was that the moment when I was a disciple?
Carl: Greg, my story is just opposite of yours. My dad was a church-planting pastor all my life. I joke that I was kind of like John the Baptist—saved in the womb. But my parents got me to pray the prayer when I was 4, and I actually remember it. They gave me a pile of information about Jesus, then said, “Would you like to pray to receive Jesus as your personal Savior?” I’m like, “Sure, this sounds good to me.” So I prayed. And then I did that another hundred times—I think I lost it every week and then got it back again on Sundays. At what point did I really become a disciple of Jesus?
Greg: When did you become a child of God?
Carl: Actually, I don’t know. Some would say when I prayed that prayer, repeating after my parents, and I would be okay with that. But I’ve seen lots of people—like you said earlier—who’ve prayed the prayer and it didn’t “take.” The Billy Graham Association just released figures that say something like 5 percent of the people who come forward to “pray the prayer” are still in churches five years later. They’re not questioning their salvation, but the question was when did Peter get saved? And I’m just saying that I don’t think it’s being wishy-washy to say we don’t know. We can’t be sure when Peter got saved.
Rick: What we’re dancing around here is whether or not there are lines of demarcation, when you know in your soul that you’re born again. Whether it happens in a moment or over a length of time, I think there are examples of both in Scripture.
Greg: Slow burn or fast burn. Saul was a quick burn. Got knocked off his donkey.
Carl: That works!
Rick: We did some research with youth pastors and asked them, “How high of a priority is evangelism in your ministry?” It’s in the top three. Then we asked them to look at a list of common youth ministry practices and mark which ones they do the most. Evangelism was next to last in a list of about 20 practices. So it’s high-value, low-practice. And the gap between is filled with a tremendous amount of dissonance, guilt, and embarrassment. Why do you think this gap exists today?
Carl: I think what we have today is a post-Christian, post-modern, post-everything Western world, and we like Pauline philosophy. We preach Christ, but we do it in a very Pauline sort of way. Paul went to our forefathers, the Greeks—he kind of went West. Jesus stayed in the East. Jesus stayed with his tribe, with his people the Israelites. So we’ve taken from Paul’s approach this mixture of enlightenment, modernism, and a black-and-white, saved-or-not-saved mindset. Jesus’ approach, for the most part, was a bit more fuzzy. It’s hard to pin Jesus down. He didn’t answer questions, he told stories that people didn’t understand, and he said, “I tell stories you don’t understand so that you won’t understand.” I mean, he’s says really odd things.
Greg: Why do you think that is?
Carl: Truth is a person—truth isn’t a bunch of propositions. Jesus says very clearly, “I am Truth.” Jesus was post-modern in his pre-modernism. I’m just talking about style, not theology—I think we end up back at the ways of Jesus being more effective than the ways of Paul. The ways of Paul worked well with Billy Graham leading big evangelistic events. You say here’s the truth—the core message of the good news. We proclaim it and people say yes because they have some foundation for that. But Jesus’ style was not answering questions, hanging out with sinners, and partying with drunkards.
The approach of Jesus, the one anchored in the Eastern world, stylistically works better for youth pastors and their youth groups that don’t have the Christian foundation that we had 20 or 30 or 40 years ago. The Pauline style worked better then.
Greg: It sounds like what you’re saying is that Paul went rogue from the ways of Jesus.
Carl: Not at all. He spoke to the Greeks. He spoke to the pre-moderns of our day. In their language he argued, he debated.
Greg: But he primarily spoke to Jews.
Carl: But in that culture, the Greeks were Hellenized Jews.
Greg: Jesus had a mission to accomplish, and that mission was not to be received as a king, but to die on the cross and rise from the dead and establish the new covenant. That’s why he says in John 16, “Though I have been speaking figuratively, a time is coming when I will no longer use this kind of language, but will tell you plainly about my Father.”
I don’t separate the theology of Jesus and Paul. It’s all part of Christ’s plan—I don’t think he unleashed Paul to pursue a lesser strategy than the one he’d been teaching the whole time. It was the fulfillment of what Christ wanted, because he was speaking in parables. The bottom line is that, deep down, youth leaders know they should be doing evangelism. There’s a caricature of evangelism that is street-preaching. And because of that misperception, we’ve overcorrected to either no evangelism or we hide behind a once-a-month outreach meeting or doing a little social justice. Loving people with our lives is a good thing, but leaving the gospel message out is not.
From takeoff to touchdown, youth leaders don’t know, generally, how to bring it up—how to explain it clearly or ask in a non-manipulative way, “What will you do with this Jesus?” That’s why at Dare to Share we do training in motivation—why should we share our faith, and what is the essence of the gospel? The message is a “who” and a “what.” Jesus said, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life”—he is the gospel. The “what” is in Galatians 1 and Romans 1:16: “For it is the power of God for the salvation.” You can’t have Jesus without the gospel.
Rick: Greg, you said it’s about the “who” and the “what.” Carl, I know your experience of frustration as a missionary in the Muslim world re-focused you on the “who.” You discovered that if you talked with Muslims about Jesus, they were totally open to talking about him, but were totally closed to talking about the religion of Christianity. They had a culture built up around their religion, and asking them to trade in their entire culture for a new culture was a hard sell. You had zero success with that approach. But they would talk about Jesus, the “who” behind all this. How do you see that same dynamic playing out in this diverse, post-modern, post-Christian culture?
Carl: Yes, it’s the “who” of Jesus. But there’s also a “what” to Jesus. It’s the biblical Jesus that we’re talking about, so there are a lot of “whats” in there. The “whats” of Jesus tell us about his personality, his style, and what he wants from us. I do differentiate between the style of Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom of God versus Paul’s proclamation. I think they were to different audiences.
Obviously, that’s a bit controversial and a lot of people don’t agree with that. But I do separate their styles, not the theology behind them. What I realized didn’t work in the Muslim world was to “Christianize” them. They’ve been evangelized quite well—the Crusades tried to Christianize them about a thousand years ago, and that didn’t go so well. Relative to the non-Christian youth culture, the questions are really: “Do they want Christianity? Is youth culture looking around for a religion? Are they confused?” There are churches on every corner, so they could find Jesus if they wanted to. They don’t want to.
We have to be careful that we’re not setting up a “join our tribe” gospel versus following the person of Jesus. That’s what Jesus asked his disciples to do, and that’s what he asks us to do. The reason why youth pastors value evangelism but aren’t doing it is because they’re confused. That’s because we give them philosophies—the Four Spiritual Laws or Roman Road or Evangelism Explosion—that are very Pauline or modernistic in their approach. That doesn’t work so well today, so we’ve thrown it all out.
So we have people who’ve given up their lives for the gospel who don’t know how to share the gospel. That’s why our model is pointing people again and again and again to Jesus—to follow Jesus, which is a journey. And in the middle of that journey the Holy Spirit intersects and saves them.Click to tweet
Rick: Greg, how do you respond?
Greg: Well I would say you’re underestimating Paul. I love the gospels and I love Jesus, but I don’t see a differentiation. Paul even says in 1 Corinthians 9, “To the Jews I became like a Jew that I might reach the Jews.” To the East, I became like the East; to the West, I became like the West. I think you’re underestimating how Paul would evangelize in this culture. He was very fluid and very sensitive to the spirit of Jesus who dwelled in him to live out the gospel and to share with everyone.
Rick: Carl, I think when you use the word “Pauline” you’re really referring to the examples referenced in the Bible, right?
Carl: Yes, because I do agree that he would do it differently now.
Rick: The Holy Spirit’s job description is to help us understand Jesus, and in my own story there’s a point where that reality came home to me. I was on the same trajectory as the disciples—I loved Jesus, was committed to following him, but didn’t really understand him very well and was confused by him a lot. And then I invited the Holy Spirit more deeply into my life, and I experienced an immediate change. I started to understand the Bible for the first time.
That’s a picture of this “moving target” in evangelism. Was I a follower of Jesus already? Yes, in every way. I had committed by life to him, but I wasn’t intimate with him. And I didn’t have a growing understanding of who he is. I didn’t have worship in my life. As the Spirit began to show me Jesus, worship started to grow. Evangelism is really about relating with people improvisationally—responding to who the person is and what’s happening in their life at that moment. And we don’t do well with variables—we don’t do well with improvisation.
Carl: My reaction is against strategies that dictate, “This is what we’re all doing.” They typically fall under an apologetic approach that says “we have these four things, these five Scriptures, and you’ll need to use these patterns with everybody, and then you ask them for a decision.” That actually doesn’t allow the Holy Spirit to work. And the over-reaction to that is, “Hey, we don’t know anything, and who knows what truth is, so we’re not even going to talk about any of this.”
Greg: There’s a place for apologetics, but in this culture you don’t lead with apologetics. It’s not your opening line anymore, it’s the P.S. “Here’s the love story of the gospel and, P.S., it’s all true.”
Rick: One of the things that I appreciate about both of you is that you’re both focused on Jesus—you’re captured by him.
Carl: And we’re both good looking.
Rick: Exactly. And you have huge biceps, both of you… But the other common thread that I see in both of you is a kind of artistry in how you engage people. The stories you tell are not about a linear progression toward something—they’re more like playing music with somebody. And the music you play is different with each person. That’s something that young people can learn how to do—they can learn how to engage people better. They can learn how to pay attention to people better. They can learn how to ask better questions of people. They can learn to have courage when that person answers and you ask them another question because of their answer. They don’t always feel comfortable engaging people because they’re not sure how to be an artist with them—to have a good conversation with them. So what can ministry leaders be doing to help prepare young people to have conversations about Jesus that lead somewhere?
Carl: Hmmm. Go to the Dare to Share training? Was that the right answer? I feel like that was the right answer.
Greg: You know, we’ve changed over the years with the way we engage, because we used to kind of go with the standard questions. We have a philosophy, it’s probably Pauline, I don’t know…
Carl: Oh, no. Here we go again. (laughs)
Greg: No, it’s asking questions—it’s what we call “ask, admire, admit.” It’s a simple strategy for students just to ask questions. Not to trick anybody, just to discover who they are, and then as you move into the spiritual. You admire everything you can, and you build on that foundation. You know, like, “Oh, you’re a Muslim? I believe in one God, as well.” Then you admit the reason you’re a Christian is because you’re so messed up that you needed someone else to save you. You couldn’t rescue yourself.
It’s interesting to me that you used the metaphor of music, because we use an analogy when we’re training students. We tell them to think of each aspect of the gospel—the good news—as a chord. You have to learn them; you don’t just pick up a guitar and start playing. You learn the chords and then you can riff. And so what I would say is really know the gospel. Know Christ and him crucified. Have the urgency of the reality of life without Christ—life now and eternal life without Christ. And then engage, don’t enrage. Just dive into that conversation.
We have a saying at Dare to Share—“Awkward is Awesome.” Because it’s in the crucible of awkward—you know, like in John 4: “Go get your husband. I don’t have a husband. Yeah, you’ve had five and the dude you’re shacking up with now is not your husband.” Awkward, right?
Carl: Jesus leaned into the awkward.
Greg: And we need to lean into the awkward, cross that thin line, but we do it with humility, respect, not with this [jabs finger].
Rick: We’re called to make disciples, and making disciples is coming to know Jesus—knowing him in the “biblical sense.” Knowing him in the lover sense. Knowing his heart and having his heart capture your heart—that’s discipleship, really. Out of that momentum comes the ability to engage with people about Jesus. Then you can play music, because you know enough of his heart to be able to have a conversation. So few kids really “know” Jesus in the lover sense of knowing Jesus, and that prevents them from having these kinds of conversations.
Carl: Well let’s not blame it on the kids. I mean, it’s us. So few of us know Jesus. You can only give what you have. So many leaders in the church don’t really know Jesus. As an evangelical Christian missionary to Muslims, I realized at some point that my relationship with Jesus was weak. My relationship with theology was strong, my relationship with the Bible was great. I was the guy who won every “sword drill.” I could out-Bible about anybody, because we did Bible quizzes at our house every night. But I didn’t actually know Jesus intimately. I didn’t know his ways, I didn’t know his teaching, and I didn’t know why he didn’t answer questions. When I was going head-to-head, he was going heart-to-heart.
Rick: If I love Jesus and I know how to engage somebody in a conversation about something real, Jesus is going to come spilling out in that conversation somehow. But kids don’t want to use a technique—they don’t want to manipulate anybody. Transactional relationships are really disgusting to them. So we haven’t yet seemed to move from training them in transactional techniques to simply engaging people in a way that allows them to have a conversation about things that are important.
Greg: Well I appreciate the focus on knowing Christ—maybe that’s why Paul was such an evangelist. I mean behind all that evangelistic fervor, there was a deeper fire that burned. We’re telling kids at Dare2Share: “You fall in love with evangelism, you’ll fizzle out. You fall in love with Jesus, you will always share the good news.” I think Christ is the entry point, not religion, I totally agree. But if you set this whole thing up and you don’t really drop the punchline—“For by grace you’re saved by faith, it’s a gift of God and not of good works so that no one can boast”—then we’re not doing that person a service. We help them set forth the truth plainly and encourage people to join the party.
Rick: Well, I really appreciate you guys making time for this conversation. I think this is a super-important conversation to have, not just in youth ministry, but in the church right now. I think we’re in a place of real confusion because the culture has changed so rapidly underneath our feet—it’s been hard for people to find the way forward. Embedded in this conversation is the way forward.