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Is Evangelism Relationally Deceptive?

The Barna Group has released a new report called Reviving Evangelism. The study looks at the faith-sharing experiences and expectations of Christians and non-Christians alike in all generational brackets. Among the major findings in the report, the most pressing discovery is that young adult Christians hold a conflicted sentiment toward evangelism. 

Nearly every Christian that was surveyed claimed that being a witness for Jesus was essential to the faith (ranging from 95% to 97% among all generational groups) and that becoming a Christian is the best thing that could ever happen to any person (94% to 97%). However, in the 20–34-year-old bracket, nearly half (47%) agree to some extent that it is wrong to share one’s personal beliefs with someone of a different faith in hope that they will one day share the same faith.

Is that inconsistent?

What’s more surprising is that, of all the generations, the 20–34-year-old bracket believe they are thoroughly equipped to share their faith. Almost three-quarters (73%) say that they know how to respond when someone raises questions about faith and that they are gifted at expressing their beliefs. But, despite their ability to share, evangelism is off the table. Why?

Being in this bracket myself, I believe the negative sentiment toward evangelism boils down to one’s attitude toward a shady relational agenda (a sentiment I do not share). Here’s what I think is going on in the mind of those who believe evangelism is wrong.

“Hey, my name is Liam. When invited to, expressing my faith feels amazing! I love talking about how Jesus has saved me and how he has transformed my life. Communicating the gospel is easy for me too. When someone approaches me and asks about my faith, I can give them fairly good answers. All my non-Christian friends know that I believe in Jesus. My Instagram is filled with Bible verses, worship service pics, and my mission trips to Haiti.

I only share my faith when asked to though. I think it’s wrong to just go up to someone and try to get them to believe in Jesus. Also, I have plenty of friends who practice other faiths. Though I hope that Jesus captures their heart, I don’t want to have some ulterior motive in our friendship. If I am only friends with them because I want them to believe in Jesus, that just seems off to me. My motive should be love, not evangelism.”

That last part is key.

I think the biggest reason why young adult Christians are hesitant to intentionally share their faith with the hope of one’s conversion is that it seems relationally deceptive. If your friend asks you to share, it seems like an opportunity. But, if you initiate, it seems wrong. I wonder too if evangelism and sharing one’s faith are two separate categories in the mind of the young adult Christian. Where one is an expression, the other is driven by an endgame. The difference being someone who loves cars and a car salesman.

Is there a healthy middle ground here? Is evangelism relationally deceptive?

In John 11, Jesus’s friend Lazarus is dying. When Jesus hears this, he does something surprising. Instead of going to his friend right away to heal him—which he totally could have done—he intentionally stays where he is. Why?

“Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. It was Mary who anointed the Lord with ointment and wiped his feet with her hair, whose brother Lazarus was ill. So, the sisters sent to him, saying, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” But when Jesus heard it he said, “This illness does not lead to death. It is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. So, when he heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.”

Jesus stayed because he loved them.

That does not seem like love at all! He intentionally lets Lazarus die. How is that loving? All of that pain and sorrow could have been avoided, but Jesus lets him die. And why? Because God will be glorified in it. What!?! Jesus shows up on the scene and both Mary and Martha are confused about why Jesus let Lazarus die. Jesus weeps and is deeply moved by all of this while having an ulterior motive. He raises up Lazarus from the dead and says, “Did I not tell you that if you believed you would see the glory of God?”

This is what true love is! Helping others see the glory of God in Christ is the most loving thing you can do. It might not seem like love by worldly standards but thus says the LORD. So, if you truly want to be a loving friend in your relationships, with non-Christians or Christians, then doing whatever you can to show the glory of God in Christ should be the underlying motive in everything you do in that relationship.

Young adult Christian, do not let the world define for you what true love looks like.

Let evangelism, aka sharing the glory of God in Christ with the hope that they will glorify God themselves, empower your relationships. If you think evangelism is relationally deceptive, then be upfront with what you know love to be. That may sound like this…

Gavin, I enjoy your friendship greatly. And, I know that you are aware of my Christian faith. But, I just want you to know what I think true love looks like. Basically, I hope for you to see how awesome Jesus really is. And honestly, I’ll do whatever I can to make that happen. So, when I do that, it’s just my way of saying, “I love you.”

Written by Staff Writer Cody Irwin