Today’s western world is a post-Christian society. Many people have already heard about Jesus, and may have encountered Christian ideas, perhaps even the Gospel itself. For many, this is a neutral or even positive experience. But for some, the things they have encountered turned them away from the Christian religion. Not necessarily from the Gospel, for they may not have heard it or may not have heard it in a way that speaks to them. For them, how do you go about sharing the Gospel in the right way?
Since the problem is that people already know something about Christianity, we can say that they know something of the Christian context. For some, the Christian context itself is problematic, so perhaps we need to figure out how to present the gospel outside of it. Can Acts 1:8 help us understand this better? In that passage, Jesus describes the Gospel being taken throughout the world. Let’s walk through the passage, but not from a physical standpoint. Instead, let’s consider what it might mean in different expressions of Christian context, and see what it says about the problem of reaching people in a post-Christian world.
In that well-known passage, Jesus said His followers would be His witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. How might these represent different types of contexts? By thinking about it that way, we may gain insight into the Lord’s heart about reaching people today who know of Him, but do not know Him personally.
Start with Jerusalem. Jerusalem was the heart of Jewish religious activity. As the “city of David”, it held the temple, the very place of God’s Presence. It was therefore a physical manifestation of the heart of the Jewish society. The society consisted of people, but the city gave a place to be a focus. Today, this can represent church buildings and the associated activities. These are places where those who form the Body of Christ assemble with most focus. Churches are typically the most organized places of worship and gathering, and are largely separate from the world. Approaching an unbeliever in this context is naturally through religious Christian perspectives, because that is the essence of the context.
Moving outward into Judea, we see a land dominated by the people of God. In a sense, Judea was the people of God living in the world. Still dominated by His visible rule, but away from the center of worship. As such, Judea might represent the extension of Christian culture away from the church itself. Places or activities still dominated by Christian ideas such as Christian movies, Christian concerts, evangelistic events, and so on. In these places the Christian context is well-developed, although it’s outside the bounds of the organized group. Pure expressions of Christianity, but existing out in the world instead of in the church building. Approaching an unbeliever means first bringing them into the context, then speaking truth. Note that in both Jerusalem and Judea, the person is brought into the Christian context first, before hearing the Gospel.
Samaria was a land of mixing. Here the people of God had intermarried with gentiles, producing a mixed society. True religion was still important, but it was now intermingled with the world, rather than a pure expression out in the world. So today, this might represent where Christian ideas mingle with secular. Perhaps at work, where Christian values are expressed in the marketplace, witnessing may be open, Christian decorations are used, etc. Or in the political arena, where Christian ethics are used to form public (ie, secular) policy. Or perhaps in the medical field where, although we seek healing through medicine, we also pray and seek the Lord for healing. In this case, the Christian context is evident if not pure. So approaching an unbeliever will generally build on that awareness. They are probably aware of the Christian ideas because they are manifest in the environment.
In all the cases above, some manifestation of Christian context is evident before evangelism occurs. In other words, Christianity is apparent without explicit evangelism, so unbelievers have been exposed to it in some way, possibly with some richness, even without any deliberate sharing. So for the post-Christian unbeliever, they will bring any pre-existing biases into the encounter. To the extent that those biases are accurate and positive, that may be helpful. But it’s unfortunately true that unbelievers often have a negative perspective of the faith because of either being misinformed about the truth, or encountering the truth poorly expressed.
But when Jesus was talking to His disciples, the faith had not yet spread to the ends of the earth. What then would the ends of the earth represent today?
There is an obvious physical meaning of traveling away from where Christianity is widespread and/or part of the culture. But for this discussion, I think this is where there is no Christian context at all. No reference to Christ, no knowledge of Jesus, no reference to Judeo-Christian ideas at all. And yet, there is still spiritual seeking, a recognition that there is more to life, perhaps an unsettled spirit. So here is where spiritual truths can be introduced in truly fresh ways, but without first invoking Christ. Such places exist even within our nominally Christian nation and post-Christian society, in spheres of activity that are non-Christian.
Such activities would be locations, events, communities, etc, where Christianity is not evident at all. Not necessarily hostile to it, for that would at least be acknowledging the faith, but where there is little or no recognition or awareness. Think of a typical secular movie. It’s likely that there is no mention of God or religion at all. Or consider a workplace with no believers. It’s not that Christianity is unwelcome there, but rather that they have no time or interest. One way to witness in such places is to bring Christian context into play, which is how we are often trained. Evangelism classes stress the Roman road, telling our testimony, or equivalent. But that’s like Samaria: we end up bringing Christian context into the situation directly, before presentation of the Gospel. And for anyone who has already been turned off by Christian religion, this is unlikely to bear fruit. Yet, just because someone has been turned off by the religious aspects of the faith, does not mean they are closed to the Gospel if it is presented properly. So what can be done here?
We can take a clue from Paul before the Areopagus. While that was not really a post-Christian group in the sense that we’re discussing, they had heard some of Paul’s message, which is why they had invited him to talk. But when Paul addressed them, he did not build on his earlier comments, and he did not start off addressing the comments or questions they had raised. Instead, he started with their spiritual perspectives, and used those perspectives to point to the one true God. He described the truth of His nature, and from that, the reality of the Savior.
In our world, we would engage people with spiritual concepts without mentioning Christian truths (at first). Like Paul starting with the altar to an “unknown God”, we start with the lost’s perspective of eternity, morality, or whatever seems to be on their heart, and deliberately leave Christianity out of it. Working within the context at hand, we look for clues that point to spiritual concepts, then build on those, and use them to lead to Christ. The reason for this deliberate initial avoidance of Christianity is because of existing perspectives in the post-Christian mind. It is necessary to present spiritual truths without answering every secular objection they may have.
What people need to hear, even outside Christian context, is the reality of eternal life, the existence of a holy deity, our inability to be holy and relate to Him, and therefore our need for a Savior. As God works in their hearts, this becomes the point at which Christ can be introduced as that Savior.
As our eyes are opened to this approach, we see how many opportunities exist for introducing spiritual perspectives in ostensibly secular arenas. It is as if God is way out there working ahead of us. He knows what people need to hear, and prepares the way for their hearts to respond. He prepares paths for their hearts to walk, but it is up to us to lead them along those paths.
For example, with a sensitive spirit we may watch a movie and see something that pictures truth. By starting with that movie, that picture, we can lead people along the path to truth, on a path that God has already prepared. In many cases those making the movie may not realize what door they are opening, because they are not really opening it. I’ve noticed such opportunities in such blatantly secular works as the “Terminator” franchise, “Watchmen“, “The Avengers“, and “I Am Legend“. The same principle can be applied to non-fiction things such as physics, and parables can be drawn from ideas like crystal lattices, Schroedinger’s cat, relativistic non-causality, and supercooled water.
While this choice of topics may not appeal to everyone, the same principle can be applied anywhere. It can be applied in conversation, just requires a listening ear. This is a different sort of apologetic, one focused only on proclamation without argument. More like a parable than a proof. But the key is to listen to the Spirit. He know where He is at work preparing hearts. When we follow His lead, we can rest in His work. Ultimately, He is truly the only one Who can bring fruit.