Graham Tomlin, principal of St. Melitus College in London, has written in The Provocative Church that the problem with reaching people with the gospel in a post-Christian context (the majority of the western world) is that people have been inoculated to the message. Most people are not overtly hostile to the faith, they are simply indifferent to it.
Faith seems like a lifestyle choice, one way of organizing life among many, to secular people, and one that imposes arbitrary and oppressive restrictions on people. In other words, it doesn’t look or sound like good news. How, in a context where the public culture is dominated by secularism, can the good news seem like good news to people again?
It is largely by the community of faith in a particular place showing the difference that Jesus makes that people will be ‘provoked’ into asking questions about him. This is of course no different than what Jesus told us – ‘By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another’ (John 13:35) – but for some time now we have lived in a social context in which the dominance of an over-institutionalized Christianity has made it seem like we did not need to obey Christ in this respect.
Supposing, though, that in obedience to Christ we do love one another – how can we invite secular, postmodern students into our midst to see how the good news takes root in our communities? How can we gain a hearing for the gospel in a post-Christian context?
Schaupp’s and Everts’s ‘Thresholds’ in Evangelism
Doug Schaupp and Don Everts, InterVarsity staff workers, have written a book in conjunction with their students about just how to do that, called I Once Was Lost. This book is an invaluable resource for what it looks like do evangelism in an embodied way as a community. They see evangelism not as an event – proclaiming the good news and then asking for a decision – but as a series of encounters seeking a series of ‘micro-decisions’ from students.
Each successful encounter Schaupp and Everts describe as ‘crossing a threshold’. The stages are ‘building trust’, ‘instigating curiosity’, ‘opening to change’, ‘guiding seekers’, and ‘inviting into the kingdom’. Schaupp has made a series of videos about the stages, which you can watch here and use in training your students if you find the paradigm helpful.
The goal remains the same – making disciples of Christ – but Schaupp and Everts recognize that this goal almost always involves a process of getting to know students, doing life with them, and allowing them to see the love of Christ at work, so that they begin to declare, as did the ancient Romans observing the early Christians, ‘see how they love one another!’ (Tertullian, Apology).
Jonathan Warren ministers to graduate students and faculty at the University of Texas at Austin with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship along with his wife Tish. He is finishing his Ph.D. in the History of Christianity at Vanderbilt University, and he and Tish are ordained Deacons in the Anglican Church in North America. Jonathan and Tish have two daughters and attend church at Christ Church Anglican.