Posted by: Calum Miller | March 13, 2014

Evangelising to those who have already ‘got it together’

At CU the other day we got talking about how we evangelise to those who are already satisfied with their lives and who don’t feel guilt, or the need for salvation or redemption of any kind. I wanted to offer just a few very brief thoughts (I don’t have many more, since I find this very difficult too) on this.

The first is one simply of encouragement. Many of the people I have met who are very closed to evangelism are nevertheless very open about their own insecurities and failings. This openness doesn’t necessarily make anyone easier to evangelise to. On the other hand, many people who have started out perfectly satisfied have ended up recognising their need for God. So the first thing to do, though it may seem obvious enough, is to keep trying.

How can this help? It’s useful here to think about the theology of unbelief. Putting faith and trust in things other than God is what idolatry means. Everyone does this to some extent, even if they don’t call it idolatry. We all have some things which we believe will satisfy us above anything else (it can be helpful to share your own experiences of some of these). And most people will have experiences of being failed by these things. Most people won’t even be fully satisfied when they do achieve those things: they always want more. So, for example, a huge number of people who idolise money still want more, and often fail to be satisfied by it. They will use other people to get it, and if they end up without it they will end up bitter, empty and unforgiven. Similarly, those who idolise intrinsically good things like sex and relationships will often feel less than fully satisfied when they get them. But in the process of getting them, they will often use other people. And when they fail to achieve success in these areas, they will feel bitter, empty and unforgiven. Contrast the gospel: that Jesus fully satisfies when we get Him, that we don’t need to use anyone to get Him, and that when we fail Him we are forgiven. Jesus is the only God that fulfils all these criteria.

So what does this mean for relatively satisfied non-Christians? It means they will often be temporarily captivated by an idol. After all, the reason people go for idols in the first place is the short-term appeal and attraction of idols. So we should expect that some people will have some level of satisfaction with their idols to begin with. But these idols inevitably crumble, and our persistence in evangelism and friendship (real friendships, not just evangelism targets) over many years will be especially evident to our friends when those idols do fall away. When the idol has been there for years and eventually fails someone, they will be in need of comfort, loyalty, satisfaction and forgiveness more than ever. And if we have been loyal comforters to our friends for that whole time, they will be much more open to the forgiveness and peace found in Jesus.

This focus on idols, by the way, can be helpful as a talking point. If they are not so willing to talk about Jesus, you can bet people will be willing to talk about their idols! So asking what kind of things people put their trust and satisfaction in can be a very good way to get them to realise the ultimate futility and emptiness of those things, unless they are grounded in God. Even noble things like relationships, service to the poor or standing up for human rights can become idols, and are empty if God isn’t at the heart of it all. So talking to them about those idols can help to expose the need for God at the centre.

A second piece of advice is to try and get them to see the bigger picture. This can be done in a number of ways, but one helpful way is to get them to consider the perspective of eternity. Francis Chan has a really good illustration of this (watch it; it’ll be better than me describing it here).

Of course, most non-Christians don’t really believe that they will exist for eternity anyway. So this usually needs to be supplemented with some really good evidence for some of the claims in Christianity. So here, it might be worth using the Lord, Liar or Lunatic? argument. Or perhaps sharing with them some of the evidence for Jesus’ resurrection. If we can make it at least plausible to them that living for eternity might be a real option, then it can help to expose the emptiness of their idols. After all, money is of no use to a dead man:

Here’s another way to help consider perspective, especially if we’re talking to someone who feels satisfied and not guilty. After all, many people appear relatively satisfied and externally good. They might have a nice family, a nice house, a job they enjoy, and so on. And they might not have committed any major crimes. But take an analogy. Suppose there is a man in a small study in his house, who likes nothing more than to study books and browse the internet. And suppose the rest of the house was absolutely revolting – there are rats running all over the floor, the walls are covered in the filthiest mould, there are human corpses lying on the floor. In other rooms there are people being brutally murdered, children being tortured, and so on. And the man, satisfied as he is with his books, and content that he has never murdered  or stolen from anyone, sits there blissfully on his desk chair, oblivious to the horrors of the entire house around him. This man is subjectively satisfied and has never killed anyone. But is there not something clearly wrong with him? Is there not a serious problem with someone who could be satisfied while living in such a place, and who does not go to every effort to prevent the evils going on around him?

If there is a serious problem here, then why is there not the same problem for anyone who is content with the state of our world? Sure, most people have never murdered anyone, and many people will say they are satisfied with life (though actually not that many would), but if the thought of sitting satisfied and innocent in a murder-house horrifies them, why does the thought of sitting satisfied and innocent in our world not horrify them equally?

There is another dimension to this, brought up by Tim Keller. Living right isn’t just about being ‘good’ and breaking no rules. It’s also about selflessness and relationship. Think about the analogy he uses here at around 30 minutes in. Again, I won’t explain it here, but listen to the video. The whole video is worth watching, in truth: Keller adeptly talks about the need for being born again and not just relying on external piety, and it is all hugely relevant to the question I’ve tried to answer here. And he brilliant expounds the story of the prodigal son to help explain what’s wrong with simply ‘being a good person’.

I don’t have a profound concluding paragraph, so I hope the above helps, and don’t hesitate to get in touch for further help (or suggestions!).

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Responses

  1. I find evangelicals, especially those at Christian Unions, are too fixated about evangelicalism as a goal in itself, rather than a means to help people lead more fulfilling, less self-centred lives. Christianity does help some people to this end, but as a matter of fact, it doesn’t help other types of people. In recent years I have been interacting with students at Islamic Societies on campus at Imperial College London. The Muslim students run Islam Discover Week, set up stalls to chat with passerby students, run talks, social events, guest dinners. They are fired up for their religion, enthusiastic to support charities, support each other, and eager to tell seekers about Islam with hope of converting them to Islam. (I imagine the same goes on at Islamic societies at Cambridge.) They recognise, like Christians at CUs do, life without God is futile. Much of what you are saying about, just won’t rub off for them. I also have experience with Buddhist societies and practitioners. Again, they recognise futility of a self-centred life, hence the need to cultivate and practise compassion, living simply and letting go of attachments – be it to career, pursuit of wealth, relationships, material goods. With regard to living a fulfilling life, Christianity offers nothing unique relative to other major world religions (for devout Jews, one response, when evangelicals try to persuade them to become Christians, is perplexity why they need Jesus when they already have a relationship with God). Atheism and secularism are not organised religions, hence they don’t share a system of creeds and practices. Hence atheists and secularists don’t have an easily identifiable tradition from which they can point to that supply them with meaning and purpose. However, atheists and secularists can life a fulfilling life by striving for similar goals of the religionists – love, family, friendship, meaningful workplace, global justice, global peace, care for environment. Some atheists like the ethicist, Peter Singer, is an inspiration to many, in his passionate advocacy for the global poor.

    “And when they fail to achieve success in these areas, they will feel bitter, empty and unforgiven. Contrast the gospel: that Jesus fully satisfies when we get Him, that we don’t need to use anyone to get Him, and that when we fail Him we are forgiven.”

    The reality is Christians are no more shielded from failures, disappointments, frustrations, and all other negative aspects of life rest of humanity experience. Non-Christian theists like Muslims and Jews, in their own theological system, can obtain forgiveness from God. For non-theistic religions like Buddhism, what is required is not forgiveness from a Creator God (who does not exist in Buddhist thought), but from others and from oneself, as a route to correcting the wrong done. In evangelical circles, talk of forgiveness is often cheap – so little attention paid to restitution (unlike in Catholic circles) and doing things to correct the wrong.

    “Even noble things like relationships, service to the poor or standing up for human rights can become idols, and are empty if God isn’t at the heart of it all”

    How is it that these noble things are empty without belief in God? This kind of claim is persuasive only to theists whose theological framework already presuppose and inculcate this mindset. For those who don’t share this framework, there is no reason to think these noble things are empty without God.

    Regarding the analogy of the man in a small study in his household that is morally disintegrating: the analogy should be put to the relatively comfortable Christians living in America, who care little for global warming and impact it will have on the poor countries of the world most affected by climate change, who care little for the ongoing extinction of thousands of species around the world, who put their national interests first over the interests of people living in the countries in which America has waged wars. Do the average Christians occupy their daily life with thoughts for the poor, the marginalised, the sick, those suffering personal tragedies? As far as I am concerned, Christians and non-Christians alike are in the same boat – we have the same problems, obsessions with our own lives, same sort of myopia, same failures, in virtue of sharing the common humanity, with its inherent flaws and strengths.

  2. Callum this is just what I have been looking for! tell me, have you read “forming intentional disciples” ?

  3. Thanks Clare! I haven’t, no – is it good?


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