It used to be that the way to spread news was exclusively by word of mouth. That's never gone away but the invention of writing made the reach of the news even wider and longer lasting. The existence of the gospel (literally, good news) in the New Testament was possible because the Roman Empire made it safe for travelers and had good roads which facilitated sending letters. And as the original apostles were martyred, churches not only saved the letters they had received from Paul, James, John and the like but also traded copies with other churches that had different letters. So we have literally hundreds of copies of the books of the New Testament, which enables us to reconstruct accurately what the original texts said.
Everything was hand-copied, of course, until Guttenberg's press made it easier to print thousands of copies of books and broadsheets and eventually newspapers. Print technology remained dominant until the advent of movies which could be viewed by the masses in theatres. Once sound was added, a news reel could not only show but tell the news. Radio allowed the news to be heard simultaneously across the world and you could hear it in your home. TV added pictures. And now the internet can bring the news to a device you keep in your pocket or purse. It also allows anyone in the world to disseminate their message.
Two groups of people were early adopters of these communication technologies: Christians and pornographers. Both had content they wanted to get out there. We are going to concentrate on the former group.
Guttenberg's name will forever be entwined with the first mechanically produced Bibles. Missionaries went on to use magic lanterns to help spread the gospel and in 1899, Herbert Booth of the Salvation Army is thought to be the first person to use film in the cause of Christianity. We are all familiar with Christian radio and TV. There are now thousands of Christian websites. Even my humble sermon blog has a small but international audience, with readers in France outnumbering those in the US for the last couple of weeks, followed by Russia, South Korea, Germany, Poland, Malaysia, the United Kingdom, Ukraine and China.
Nowadays just about every church has a website and a Facebook page. Some have Twitter accounts and some have YouTube channels. We haven't even touched on media used by denominations and Christian organizations. If anyone has access to any kind of media, they can easily learn about Jesus.
So have we fulfilled the Great Commission—to make disciples of all nations, baptize them in the name of the Triune God and teach them to observe all that Jesus commanded us? Well, certainly the content of the gospel has gone all over the world as well as Jesus' teachings but we haven't figured out a cybernetic way to baptize people. And you have to wonder if simply putting the knowledge out there is sufficient. I remember after the Columbine shooting, people actually saying that it wouldn't have happened if we had just let authorities post the 10 Commandments in schools. That's not how it works! The Decalogue is not a magic spell and I don't think the shooters' problem was that they simply forgot the commandment against murder and needed to be reminded of it. The problem isn't an external one but an internal one. As it says in Jeremiah 31:33, the law must be in a person's mind and written on his or her heart.
And I think that must be done in person. Very few people have come to Christ merely by reading or seeing or hearing a Christian message, especially when it's delivered by technology alone. And when people did do so, they almost always knew and interacted with Christians before that. St. Augustine famously one day took up and read the gospel but his mother was a Christian. C.S. Lewis is as close to anyone who has come to the faith through a rigorous intellectual process, yet he had Christian friends, including J.R.R. Tolkien, who helped him as he wrestled with certain issues. We are social animals and messages have the most impact when delivered by someone we know and like.
In fact, a study has shown that 3 quarters of people who come to church did so initially because they were invited by other churchgoers. If I, a clergyman, invite people to come, they discount it because, after all, I work here. It's like a restaurant manager telling you to come to his restaurant. They figure we're paid to do that. But if you recommend a restaurant (or a doctor or a church), people are more likely to take the offer seriously because you go voluntarily.
Of course, it has to be something they are already interested in. I have found that I can recommend good books or TV shows or movies to people, but if they just aren't interested in that type of thing, it won't do any good. I have a brother-in-law who hates musicals; he wouldn't go to Hamilton if it was free and being performed across the street from his house. There are some people like that when it comes to church. Or they may simply be committed to their own church or denomination. You can't sell a Lexis to a person who loves Chevys.
And timing makes a difference. Recommend a dinner restaurant to a person who just ate breakfast and you are less likely to get a response. Tell him about the great restaurant you found at the end of the workday, and that same person might be more interested. Folks rarely care about choosing a doctor when they are feeling all right, but when they are sick, they might ask you whom you go to. One of the things I've learned in my jail ministry is perfectly summarized by the chaplain of the Senate in a recent documentary on PBS. He said, “Nobody really needs a chaplain...until they really need a chaplain.” And if people don't feel their spiritual needs keenly, if they aren't hungry for the nourishment God provides, they are less likely to come. Of course, you don't know that just by looking at them. And they have to know that you are someone who can help them with that. I don't have to wear my collar when I go to the jail. My predecessor didn't. But it lets people know at a glance who I am. The first step in telling people the good news about Jesus is to stop being an undercover Christian.
That doesn't mean you have to do what I do when I enter each unit at the jail. I yell, “I'm Chaplain Chris. I've got Daily Breads and I am available if you want to talk or be prayed for.” (Daily Bread is a daily devotional booklet.) And I shout to be heard over the din of TVs and ping pong and the general hubbub of inmates talking. You don't need to be obnoxious about it but you do need to let people know that you follow Jesus and are available if they want someone to talk with or pray with. Think of yourself as a spiritual resources person for the folks around you.
I think that a lot of us are reluctant to tell others about Jesus because it feels like we are trying to sell others on him and we don't want to think we are simply another person in this culture selling something. But if you are a spiritual resources person, you don't have to push people. You simply make yourself available for folks when they need a spiritual perspective on things in their life.
Part of the problem with modern evangelism is that we live in a very different world than the first Christians. Nobody knew about Jesus then and so the market place of ideas was wide open to them. On the other hand, you could be killed for declaring yourself a Christian. Today's world is very different. Everybody in the US knows all about Jesus, or thinks they do, and so the good news is not perceived as news by anyone. Also far from getting killed, at least in the West, being a Christian is equated with being privileged, at least in the US. And, sure enough, 75% of Americans and 88% of Congressional members self-identify as Christians. Yet 51% of Americans say they go to a service at least once a month and only 37% say they attend weekly or nearly weekly. That's about the same number as European Christians who say they attend monthly or more. In contrast more than 2/3s of Latin American Christians and 90% of African Christians attend church regularly. We live in a post-Christian society.
The media has hyped the fact that those who say they are unaffiliated with any religion has risen to 23% of the population. But only 33% of the so-called “nones” say they do not believe in God; 61% say they still believe in God. And only 11% were raised in secular homes. So why did the formerly faithful leave organized religion? 49% said they were disenchanted or ceased to believe.
Some of those have accepted the false dichotomy between science and religion. Being unable to reconcile a literalist interpretation of parts of the Bible with current science, they have walked away. And sadly, some fundamentalists have simply doubled down on untenable positions on the matter like the pseudo-scientific Answers in Genesis. Yet a lot of Christians do accept science, including John Polkinghorne, the theoretical physicist turned Anglican priest, DNA pioneer Francis Collins and Robert Bakker, who is both a respected paleontologist and a Pentecostal minister, and whose pioneering work on dinosaurs led to his being an adviser on the original Jurassic Park. Sadly these Christians aren't as good at capturing media attention as scientists who are anti-theist. To win back those who think that science disproves or is a good substitute for religion, we need a new C.S. Lewis.
But some who have fallen away from the faith are simply disenchanted with a church in which there are, as one Pew Research respondent said, “Too many Christians doing un-Christian things.” The problem is not that people are turned off by talk of God or Jesus; they are turned off by people who talk the talk but do not walk the walk.
How we live our lives is just as much a way of proclaiming the gospel as what we say—more so! How many people have lost respect for a parent or a previously admired person when they found out they did not act in harmony with what they said. Jesus criticized the hypocrisy of the Pharisees when he said, “So practice and observe whatever they tell you—but not what they do. For they preach but do not practice.” (Matthew 23:3) James wrote, “But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.” (James 1:22) And 1 John 3:18 says, “Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth.” (1 John 3:18)
If we tell people about how Jesus transforms lives but our lives are mired in destructive behaviors and unrepentent sin, they aren't going to believe us. And if we tell folks about the joy Jesus brings but we are unenthusiastic about following him, they will not believe us. If we tell them God so loved the world that he sent his Son and then we exhibit hatred towards some of the inhabitants of that world, they will not trust a word we say. Because everyone is sick of a society that says it's Christian but doesn't act like it.
To go back to the restaurant analogy, who will believe your recommendation of a gourmet restaurant when they see that your car is full of old Burger King bags and pork rind packages? It's not that we have to be perfect but we have to be seen to be actually following Jesus and actually making progress in that regard. God's grace is not merely something that was once a factor in our becoming a Christian but should be a daily reality in our becoming more Christlike. As Jesus pointed out, you can't see the wind but you can see clear evidence of its work and the same is true of the work of the Spirit in us.
Jesus also said the Spirit would help us say what we should when the time comes. So we need to be open to the Spirit. This doesn't mean we should just open our mouths and let whatever pops into our mind come out. The fishermen who followed Jesus knew that you needed the wind to get somewhere but you didn't just open your sail and sit back. You knew your destination and you set your sail to get there and you may have to tack. You also may have to change your itinerary if the wind wasn't favorable. But it wasn't a passive thing.
And this brings us back to something I touched on a little ways back. You need enthusiasm. The word originally comes from the Greek for “inspired by God.” Because of religious fanatics, we tend to worry about letting ourselves get carried away in our devotion to God. But look at Jesus. He was filled by the Spirit and yet he comes off as the sanest man on the planet. Remember that one of the fruits of the Spirit is self-control.
Remember how the sailor uses his sail. Being filled with the Spirit doesn't mean acting like a madman. It means seeing things differently, from God's perspective, and being empowered to act on that. The actions may seem odd to others, such as stooping to write in the dust when a woman is in danger of being stoned for adultery, or washing your students' feet like a slave, or going to the cross when you could have just told those in power what they wanted to hear.
C.S. Lewis said Jesus didn't send us into the world to tell it that it's all right. Part of the reason we don't want to talk to others about Jesus is the implied judgment. Jesus saves, so if you tell me I need him, it must mean I need saving. Nobody likes to be told they need help. Until it is obvious, even to them, that they do. Maybe that's why I get so much out of working in the jail. The people there have less illusions of being perfectly all right. Most of them know they need help, like the people in a doctor's waiting room realize they need help.
And that's why one way you can fulfill the command to preach the gospel is to let people know by your deeds as well as by your words that you are a spiritual resources person. A doctor doesn't grab people off the street and force them into treatment. Even a doctor can't help someone who doesn't trust him and won't cooperate with him. But he lets everyone know he is there. He lets them know that they can trust him. He lets them know that their well-being is his top priority.
As students and followers of Jesus we need to let people know by our lives as well as by our words that they can trust us to help them and that their total well-being is our top priority. And we need to remember that we are not the Great Physician. We need to refer people to him. Because we too are in need of his help. In the end, we need to remember what Martin Luther said about evangelism: it is just one beggar letting another beggar know where to find bread.