I will never forget the slow-motion car crash of watching my friend trying to evangelise our waitress. We were overseas, jet-lagged and midway through a conference, so perhaps there were extenuating circumstances, but I think he was just trying to impress me with his spiritual zeal. We'd barely got through hearing the specials when he introduced us as two mysterious strangers, only in town for a Christian event, and asked her if she ever prayed. I can imagine it was only the misplaced hope that God-fearing folk give bigger tips that held her there, politely engaging with his questions. What was absolutely sure was that she had no real interest in having this conversation with us.
My friend did not read the signs. The waitress politely rebuffed the prayer question, along with a slightly intrusive follow-up about where she thought she'd go if she died tonight. When she walked away with our order, my friend decided that "the signs were good," and proceeded to plan his next line of attack for when she returned. I wondered about maybe making a run for it. When the food arrived – unsurprisingly – it was delivered by the manager.
Evangelism does not have to be like this. We don't have to walk through life, spring-loaded and ready to pounce on the next unsuspected victim. We don't have to metaphorically twist arms behind backs, and try to force people to confess their sin. We don't need to trick people with clever words or brilliant tracts – we're not selling double glazing off a script here. But just because we shouldn't try to hit people over their heads with the gospel, it doesn't mean that evangelism isn't important. It clearly is.
Is evangelism offensive?
The concept – and the word itself – have both become slightly uncomfortable for many people in recent times. Inescapably it has become twinned with the sullied concept of 'evangelicalism', but perhaps more significantly in a pluralistic culture, it can even feel like a slightly offensive idea. The thought that we might want to persuade people – let alone young people – to a specific and potentially restrictive value system is not very 'you-do-you'.
On top of that, the concept of explicitly proclaiming and sharing faith has been set up in a false dichotomy against the biblical priority of social justice. To generalise, most Christians seem to lean quite strongly toward one above the other, as if following Jesus correctly involves an either/or decision between the two. Yet the Bible seems to create no such distinction or hierarchy. "By this everyone will know that you are my disciples," says Jesus, "if you love one another." Justice and evangelism are intrinsically linked.
"If evangelism isn't part of our normal lives – if we can never truthfully tell young people about our own trials and errors – why would they ever believe it should be an important part of theirs?"
Making disciples – literally helping other people to learn to follow Jesus – is so important that it's among the final instructions the Lord gives before leaving Earth in human form (Matthew 28, Mark 16). Alongside ensuring justice, it is one of the core activities of the Kingdom; a vital element of our own discipleship, and a key part of the adventure that Jesus invites us and our young people into.
But... it's difficult. We find it uncomfortable; we're scared of failure or looking stupid; we don't know how or where to start. So with all that in mind, here are a few thoughts about how we can help young people talking about faith with their friends:
1. Make it easy
Evangelism doesn't need to mean walking into a debating chamber and taking on atheists (although kudos to the people who do). It can also mean small and subtle things, like our use of social media, or not deliberately hiding our faith from our friends. I won't ask for a show of hands, but plenty of us have felt the shame of telling friends that we were at a 'music event' on Sunday. Sometimes evangelism is just dropping a small clue into a conversation with our friends, which over time grows into something more substantial. We must not only provide models of evangelism which involve confrontation.
2. Make it a part of your culture
Like justice, faith-sharing shouldn't be something that you only talk about once a year during a special sermon on the subject. Rather we should try to make our groups and churches places where it's natural and safe to invite our friends. If we create truly kind, non-condemnatory places of belonging, then young people will automatically bring their friends along – and not just to 'seeker-friendly' events.
3. Make it something you model
The hardest thing about youth discipleship is that it's pretty meaningless if you don't model the discipled life yourself. Young people are apprentices, learning how to follow Jesus as they watch us do the same thing (see Paul in 1 Corinthians 11 v 1). So, if evangelism isn't part of our normal lives – if we can never truthfully tell them about our own trials and errors – why would they ever believe it should be an important part of theirs?
4. Most importantly: make it an invitation to family
Finally: a wise person once said that no-one ever converted to Christianity because they lost the argument. People don't choose to follow Jesus because they've been defeated by more brilliant logic, but because they've heard and understood the Holy Spirit's call to join the family. This is how we should talk about evangelism with young people: simply as us inviting our friends and neighbours to experience the same love, forgiveness and belonging that has been extended to us. And that, for both the evangelise-r and the evangelise-ee, is a whole lot more compelling than misplaced confrontation.
Over seven weeks, we're diving deep into the core values behind Satellites – from a youth leader perspective. If you want to explore them with young people, check out our offer on the book written for them; get seven copies and a 'book group' study guide for the price of six.