Let’s just put it out there: the word evangelism is usually a turnoff—and not only to non-Christians. I’ve taught classes on evangelism to undergraduate and graduate students at three Christian colleges, and I’ve seen firsthand just how strong the negative connotations are, particularly among young people. Reactions can be especially strong in churches that embrace a missional identity and emphasize impacting communities and culture through proximity, hospitality, and incarnational presence. All in all, evangelism is a concept in dire need of deconstruction.
Here’s the thing: The issue is not that believers and students don’t want to see their friends, family, neighbors, and coworkers experience new birth in Christ. The issue is what evangelism has often looked like: door-to-door visits, preachers on street corners, religious billboards and bus ministries, stadium campaigns, and radio and television evangelists. These are images that emerging adults (and, yes, lots of boomers) instinctively react against. And they do so with good reason: offensive, impersonal, businesslike, and consumeristic delivery strategies for a supposedly life-giving and life-transforming experience with a personal God.
Not only do we need to deconstruct the idea of evangelism, we also need to do the hard work of introducing a new imaginative framework for what evangelism can mean, something that can replace old models and images that no longer communicate well. That’s what I saw happening at the bright-spot churches I studied, churches that stand out because of the number of new faith commitments they have retained among emerging adults aged eighteen to thirty-three.
Pastors of the bright-spot churches I studied shared a commitment to making evangelism one of their churches’ top priorities. They emphasize evangelism frequently and openly, and they talk about evangelism in unique ways. I heard phrases like “helping people take a step closer to Jesus,” “helping people find their way back to God,” “reaching people far from God,” and “a new beginning” among others, but whatever their vocabulary, they talk about it a lot. Most approach evangelism primarily through relationship building and friendship and secondarily through addressing tangible needs in their community. And they go out of their way to get their congregations excited about participating.
Whether they use the exact “e”-word or not, they emphasize evangelism frequently, and they integrate evangelism into as many ministry areas as possible.
When the pastors I talked with meet with unchurched young adults, they do so with a couple of purposes in mind. The first goal is to help non- Christians make progress toward a faith commitment and to help new Christians continue to grow in faith and discipleship. This probably comes naturally to most pastors, but it’s worth pausing to note its importance. For dones, personal relationships with pastors and ministry staff give them an experience with faith and religion that contrasts with disappointing past experiences. And for nones, receiving personal attention from a pastor can be a source of amazement.
As important as the spiritual nurture of individual young adults is, it’s also important to realize that every conversation with unchurched young adults is an opportunity to learn about their world. In a way, it’s a research opportunity—not in the sense that the people we’re relating to are test subjects, but in the sense that they have a lot to teach us if we’re paying attention.
Pastors who want to reach unchurched young adults need to recognize that they’ll have to bridge significant cultural divides—divides between generations as well as between the Protestant evangelical church culture and the world as the unchurched experience it. They also need to acknowledge that the barriers we encounter aren’t just a matter of unfamiliarity. Distrust, suspicion, and misplaced assumptions also come into play.
Let’s be honest. Just as Christians do not appreciate certain things in the broader culture around them, we need to remember that many non- Christians are equally apprehensive about us. Church dropouts in particular may be wary of church and Christians because they are influenced by negative stereotypes and often by painful personal experiences. Empathetic pastors and other church leaders can build and repair bridges to emerging adults who are disillusioned with the church, and they need to be honest with themselves about the reasons behind that disillusionment.
Pastors of bright-spot churches get emerging adults, yet their understanding generally doesn’t come naturally. They work hard to develop cultural fluency. They deliberately educate themselves by reading about and interpreting pop culture, identifying cultural heroes and idols, exposing themselves to art and media consumed by young adults, and learning how young adults prefer to communicate. Above all, they recognize the importance of genuinely listening to young adults in order to understand their experiences and challenges, learn about their perspectives, and improve their ability to communicate with and care for them. Emerging adults see and appreciate these efforts.
One student described a pastor this way: He does a great deal of actually listening. He does a lot of his work in coffee shops, does a lot of sit-ins and interviews to understand what the issues really are, and doesn’t project things that he thinks we might be struggling with. He does his best to understand what drives us. He definitely understands his audience; his audience is very young and full of students from the different universities. He understands the pressures we put on ourselves.
Pastors like this make sure they’re being informed by emerging adults and exposing themselves to this group’s concerns and needs. Even pastors of very large churches can take steps to ensure that they’re regularly hearing from young adults, such as by making sure they ask younger staff members for their ideas and opinions.
Pastors who gain cultural fluency are equipped to engage in a two-way translation process. On the one hand, they can act as cultural informants to unchurched young adults, making foreign aspects of Christian belief and practice more familiar. In the process these conversations give pastors insight into how unchurched young adults perceive God, faith, and the world, leaving them better equipped to translate the world and perspectives of young adults to their older congregants. Pastors who consistently practice openness and empathy with unchurched young adults are able to function as intermediaries or go-betweens who bridge the cultural divide, connecting young nones and dones to the Christian church subculture.
Adapted from Chapter Nine, “Leading: What’s a Leader to Do?”