Evangelism in a Postmodern World

By Gary Zustiak

There are two scenes in the movie Saved that provide insight to how the world views our usual attempts at evangelism. In the first scene, Hilary Faye (played by Mandy Moore) is sitting with a group of friends in a lunchroom at a Christian high school. She notices the school “rebel” (Cassandra) and decides the group needs to witness to her and get her “saved.” Hilary tells the group, “We need to show her just how cool we Christians can be. Come on, let’s start laughing . . . NOW!” The group follows orders and serves up a chorus of hollow, fake laughter as Hilary invites Cassandra to join them.

In the second scene the group is trying to perform an “intervention” on one of their own (Mary) whom they have determined is a backslider. Their rough and insensitive treatment is met with the accusation, “You don’t know the first thing about God’s love.” Hilary responds by shouting, “I am filled with Christ’s love”—and then she promptly throws her Bible at Mary and hits her in the back!

Please understand, I am not endorsing this movie. It is a caustic and critical presentation that will offend most Christians. It goes over the edge in many places and doesn’t even try to give a fair and balanced presentation of evangelical Christianity. But I believe it is an accurate representation of how the unbelieving world views us, especially with respect to our attempts at evangelism.

What is the first thing that comes to your mind when you hear the words evangelism and witnessing? It is probably a street preacher shouting out warnings of repentance concerning the coming apocalypse, or being accosted by some well-meaning stranger who wants to know, “If you were to die today do you know for certain you would go to Heaven?” I have to agree with Brian McLaren, who wrote:

Evangelism as it is commonly practiced and understood is debased. On the street, evangelism is equated with pressure. It means selling God as if God were vinyl siding, replacement windows, or a mortgage refinancing service. It means shoving your ideas down someone’s throat, threatening him with hell if he does not capitulate to your logic or Scripture-quoting.1

It is this type of phony, high-pressured salesmanship that has turned most Christians off to the idea of witnessing. I know many Christians who struggle with the whole idea of witnessing and tend to feel guilty if, while talking to someone who’s apparently not a Christian, they don’t confront the person in some way to convert him. In the end everybody ends up feeling uncomfortable. That’s because no one wants to be just “another witness opportunity.” And no one wants to dehumanize someone else this way. The sharing of the good news about Jesus Christ must flow out of a genuine relationship of caring and compassion.

An intriguing thing about the life of Jesus as portrayed in the Gospels is he was so comfortable with “sinners”—and they were comfortable with him. Perhaps our job is not so much to evangelize as to “Immanuelize,” that is, to disclose God with us by the way we live our lives, through our conversations, and through our acts of kindness in the name of Jesus.

The Challenge

The arrival of the postmodern mind-set has presented a difficult challenge for evangelism. In a postmodern worldview, evangelism may even be seen as evil because most postmoderns believe there are no universal truths all people must follow. Therefore they see you as presumptuous and arrogant to think you or your group have discovered the answers to all of life’s questions and problems.

Postmoderns typically reject a one-size-fits-all theology. Their rejection of the metanarrative (a story containing universal truth that applies to all peoples in all time periods and cultures) prohibits them from responding positively to any one-size-fits-all approach. They feel no spiritual laws apply to all people.

But this does not mean postmoderns are unreachable or that they aren’t concerned about spiritual issues. Just look at the rise in popularity of many television shows built around the idea of the supernatural or the spiritual.

Postmoderns value community and cry out for meaningful relationships. If they don’t get them at home, they turn elsewhere for them—many to the computer where they settle for a kind of pseudointimacy through the world of cyber relationships.

Effective evangelism will take place as Christians build and nurture genuine relationships with those outside of Christ. This is not a new concept. For many years we have said Christians must “earn the right to be heard.” That simply means most people don’t care what you have to say until they know you really care about them. However in Tim Smith’s book, 8 Habits of An Effective Youth Worker, he makes a valuable point about “earning the right to be heard.” He writes:

I know this is a popular slogan for youth ministry, but it can be taken to an extreme. I know because I spent two years trying to be cool and build friendships before I ever mentioned God, let alone sin, or other serious topics. Teens want us to be relational, but they need for us to be intentional.2

Yes, for effective evangelism to take place we must focus on the relational—but we must also be intentional. How can we be intentional without coming across as pushy or practicing some form of “guerilla evangelism?”

Thinking in a New Light

One of the things that terrified me about evangelizing was I thought I had only one chance to get it right. It was an “all or nothing” mentality. If I didn’t convince a person to become a Christian with my slick, logical presentation of the gospel, and if my apologetic prowess didn’t destroy any objections or questions he might raise in one massive presentation—then in my mind it wasn’t going to happen at all. I had failed. It was as if I had lost an argument, and I hate losing.

But I have since learned it is much more effective to take a slower, more natural pace in a postmodern world and not force a decision too soon. There are several good metaphors that illustrate this concept. The first is from McLaren, who likens evangelism to a dance.

Evangelism in the postmodern world shouldn’t be an argument. This is not to say it shouldn’t be logical, but that it isn’t about winning and losing. Dance is not about winning and losing. When the music ends, you don’t sneer at your partner and say, “Gotcha! I won that dance, 7 to 3!” And if you try to pull someone into a dance against her will, it isn’t known as “bold dancing,” but “assault.”

Evangelism should be about relationships, not arguments. “Trying to convert” someone is inconsistent with a relationship. It is wrestling, not dancing; an argument, not conversation; win-lose, not win-win; sales and conquest, not friendship.3

Soren Kierkegaard used the metaphor of being a midwife to teach how evangelism should take place. The evangelist should never be coercive, pushy, or combative. Instead, he should be patient and gentle like a midwife, knowing the giving of life takes time and cannot be rushed without potentially lethal damage.

Spencer Burke, in his book Making Sense of the Church, suggests the church needs to see evangelism more in terms of planting and gardening instead of going to battle and engaging in war with the enemy. “The difference between warriors and gardeners is significant. Warriors take territory by force; gardeners faithfully till and water the soil. While warriors are busy attacking, gardeners plant and fertilize.”4

This is not to say the New Testament doesn’t contain warrior imagery. Paul’s epistles contain several references to spiritual warfare. But Burke’s point is the warrior motif is not the only metaphor used in the Bible, and for postmodern times, the model of a gardener fits more aptly.

Think of the difference between warriors and gardeners.

There’s the matter of seasons. While warriors press on no matter what the elements, gardeners step back on occasion. They know that working the soil incessantly leads to burnout. They understand the importance of rest—of allowing a field to lie fallow for a year so it can regenerate itself. At the same time, however, they’re also keenly aware of the mystery of spiritual growth. Spiritual gardening is not an exact science. While gardeners faithfully do their part, they experience peace knowing God is ultimately responsible for the crop.5

While we should be concerned with the ultimate success of our evangelistic efforts, we must be just as concerned about the process. The gardening image is about caring for people, encouraging them in their spiritual growth, and providing the best environment for healthy growth to take place at its own pace.

Invited to Community

The church’s efforts at reaching out to those who don’t know Christ will be more effective if people are invited to be a part of the community instead of just to an event. In fact, the most effective apologetic the church can offer is simply to be what the church was meant to be—a loving, nurturing, and accepting community. In the “old days” people had to believe and then they could belong. Today people need to belong and then they will come to believe.

Evangelism is more dialogue and listening than preaching and telling. George Barna comments:

You cannot effectively evangelize most of them by preaching at them. Effective evangelism with this group requires relationships, dialogue and a willingness to journey together. A Socratic form of evangelism—questions-based rather than didactic; long-term rather than hit-and-run; conversational rather than confrontational; backed up by personal modeling rather than institutional traditions and dogma—works best.6

Evangelism in a postmodern world means being bold and loving about what we believe. Not “arrogant bold” or “know-it-all bold” or “point-fingers bold” but relationally bold, sharing the good news of Jesus and of kingdom living with others.

Emerging generations are craving spiritual meaning. Let’s show them Jesus living in us.


1 Brian McLaren, More Ready Than You Realize: Evangelism As Dance in the Postmodern Matrix (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002), 12, 13.

2 Tim Smith, 8 Habits of an Effective Youth Worker (Wheaton: Victor Books, 1995), 84.

3 McLaren, 27, 29.

4 Spencer Burke, Making Sense of the Church (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003), 145.

5 Burke, 145.

6 George Barna, quoted in an interview “Seven Questions With George Barna,” www.ginkworld.net/current_7q/archives_7q_2002/7_questions_04012002.htm.

Gary Zustiak teaches psychology and counseling at Ozark Christian College, Joplin, Missouri.

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