One of the more important books I’ve read in the past year is called Disruptive Witness by Alan Noble. The premise is essentially that Christian witnessing to a non-believing world has become more difficult in the 21st century, not so much because the world has become increasingly hostile to the gospel, but that those who would be potential candidates for witnessing are less available for engagement.
Why? Fewer and fewer people are asking the primary philosophical questions:
- Where did we come from?
- Where are we going?
- What determines good & evil?
- What is the meaning of life?
It’s tough to sit on any of those deep questions for any length of time when your phone is chirping every 42 seconds, your email alerts are popping up, and all 9 seasons of The Office are available for streaming on Netflix for a limited time only.
The average person is so incredibly distracted by life, that they’ve run out of time to broach the existential questions about the meaning of life.
“Distraction and secularism have shaped the way modern people tend to find or create meaning in their lives. … a culture of technological distraction inclines us to look for meaning in preoccupation, novelty, consumer choices, and stimulation. So long as we are moving on to the next thing, we feel that our life has some direction and therefore meaning.Noble, Disruptive Witness, pg. 62
The end result is that the average person has so many devices to help them feel better that the most readily available solution to “feeling bad about myself” today is not the grace of God, but the scrolling of Instagram or falling deep into a YouTube hole, which offers its own innumerable assembly of prophets and vloggers who will share with you their vision for the good life. Thus, what your feed is most likely telling you is that the problem with your life is not that you’re sinful and need the grace of God, but that you’re simply doing life wrong and need to troubleshoot. Try these 3 steps. Do you. Life hack. Feel better. And if that doesn’t work, the reasonable solution is to track down a better 5-star iTunes podcast or doorstep-in-two-days Amazon Prime product that offers a greater shot at success.
The well of potential life solutions is deeper than it’s ever been. And it seems that people won’t listen until they’ve drawn from the bottom.
And in case you weren’t sure they didn’t want to listen– read the room– the AirPods literally plugging their earsfrom your interaction should be sufficient signage.
My favorite new example of how traditional evangelism techniques might not accomplish the desired results in the modern world came the other evening on The Late Show. Host Stephen Colbert was asking guest Keanu Reeves about his current projects, including the upcoming Bill & Ted Face the Music, the third installment in the highly successful series which began in 1989. Reeves explains how the predictably wacky premise of the new film revolves around the two main characters writing a hit song in order to save the universe. At around 9:45 in the clip linked below, Colbert then asks, “What do you think happens when we die, Keanu Reeves?” The audience laughs, amused by the sudden shift of conversational gravity. Reeves breathes deeply and muses, “I know that the ones who love us will miss us.”
At this point, the audience pauses, laughs, and then cheers as Colbert and Reeves shake hands to end the segment.
Since then, the clip has gone viral on Twitter, logging millions and millions of views. Clearly, the response was welcomed by the watching world.
The problem is that, while resoundingly applauded by the American public, the response doesn’t make much sense. And herein lies the perfect microcosm of shallow, distracted American spirituality – i.e. that which is applauded is sweetly sentimental but nonsensical.
Colbert’s question to Reeves was “What do you think happens when we die?” This, or some close variation, was actually one of the main leading questions in evangelism tracts of the 20th century. Clearly, the implied point of the question, as Colbert states it, was to ask what happens TO US when we die. Reeve’s answer, however, said nothing about what happens to the deceased. The thing that he said happened is that those who love us will miss us, which should be obvious, and assumed by anyone who has ever been to one funeral.
But with a slight misdirection, responding to an incompletely asked question, Reeves was able to take a devastating, divisive, life-altering question (which worked for years) and turn it into a saccharine notion lapped up by an adoring audience. Seriously, who asks a question about the inevitability of death and generates a response which causes people to sound like they’re fawning over newborn puppies?!
How does one even begin to evangelize in this climate?
Satan has burrowed deep into a society that has somehow seemingly become inoculated to life’s most pressing questions, distracted to the point of disinterest. What can we do?
When Jesus came down from the Mount of Transfiguration, a mute and deaf demon-possessed boy was brought to him. Typically the disciples had been equipped to carry out this ministry by this point – the healing, and demon-driving power that Jesus had anointed them with. But this time they found no success. So after Jesus drives out the demon himself, the disciples, perhaps perplexed, perhaps embarrassed, ask him privately:
“Why could we not cast it out?”
Jesus replied, “This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer (and fasting).”Mark 9:28-29 (ESV)
This comment by Jesus is admittedly a bit peculiar, but most commentators take it as suggesting the disciples had started to believe that their ministerial success was dependent on their own gifts and methodology. Jesus therefore points them to practices (prayer and fasting) which represent total dependence on God.
As the environment for evangelism has become more difficult in America, we want to balance two things:
- The fact that we need to be faithful, thoughtful, humble, and courageous in being willing to augment methodology. Just because something became an effective method for doing ministry in years past doesn’t mean it’s equally valid today. Cultures change. The spiritual forces of the world attack from new angles. The Apostle Paul was willing to share the gospel by presenting formal teaching in the synagogues (Acts 17:10-15), conversational dialogue at riversides (Acts 16:11-15), hymns sung in prison (Acts 16:16-40), or academic presentations in educational settings (Acts 17:16-34). That’s the type of contextually appropriate flexibility we want to emulate.
- That said, we also need to be comfortable with the idea that the primary goal of evangelism is the glory of God, not the affecting of humans. Old Testament prophets, one after the other, seemed to often lack effectiveness in their messaging. The lack of change caused to their once faithful society was not due to the messengers’ lack of faithfulness, but due to the stubbornness of the audience. In other words, it’s entirely possible that you could pray unceasingly, preach fearlessly, and do so in the most thoughtful, culturally sensitive style imaginable, and not a single soul be converted. Since you’re not the one that grows the plants, but rather the sower who scatters the seeds, you can be perfectly faithful despite not a single plant sprouting. If the societal soil is well worn and depleted, it’s even possible that the blooming is less likely. But in that fruitless scattering, God is still glorified by your sowing.
Jesus doesn’t need you to accomplish spiritual results.
That’s his job. A farmer certainly pays attention to fruitfulness as an aspect of wise management, but he also understands that his job is to faithfully carry out the process, not deliver the results.
In a culture where the soil to cultivate souls appears hardened, the results might be fewer and far between, but the opportunity to glorify God is as ripe as ever.
So witness to his grace.
Unapologetically tell them that you are certain what will happen to you after death because you know that your Redeemer lives. Do so with the fierceness of a martyr and the sweetness of a sinner saved by grace. And then let Him do his job.
Image Credits Creator: Scott Kowalchyk Credit: CBS copyright: Ã‚Â©2019 Scott Kowalchyk/CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved.