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evangelism: an ethical dilemma?

Updated: Jul 31, 2020

We live in an age of offence. Have you noticed it? Perhaps my asking if you’re aware of this is offensive to you… or maybe the fact that I spelled offence with a ‘c’ rather than an ‘s’ has you up in arms !

But, seriously though.

I don’t think it comes as a surprise to say that pluralism and moral relativism are on the rise in our culture. And along with this, we’re also seeing an increase in the (seemingly) insistent demand for blanket affirmation and acceptance of my or your “truth” – and grievous personal offence in their absence. Nowadays, disagreement is interpreted as judgement; failure to affirm is seen as bigotry, or worse yet, hatred. Further, critical speech, whether legitimately so, simply perceived, interpreted as such, or otherwise, is now being equated with physical violence. Offence and cancel culture are rampant these days. The ramifications of this rise of offence – or as missiologist, Ed Stetzer calls it, the “age of outrage” – are far reaching.

So why do I draw attention to our current age of offence? It would seem the future of Christian missions is at stake because of it.

Let me explain.

According to Barna’s most recent report, The Future of Missions, evidence suggests that among today’s emerging generations (i.e., Millennials and Gen Z) there is a growing sentiment toward the unethical nature of missions, particularly the act of evangelism, or sharing one’s faith.

While this is alarming to hear, it needs to be noted this data isn’t exactly new. In February 2019, Barna reported then that 47% of Millennials surveyed believed it was “wrong to share one’s personal beliefs with someone from a different faith in hopes that they will one day share the same faith” (Barna, Reviving Evangelism). Wrong to share your faith, they said; unethical to evangelize, to share the gospel, the good news.

Let that sink in, friend.

This is the current cultural temperature of the day, and it is a growing sentiment among non-Christians and Christians alike.

Now, to be fair, Christian missions have historically experienced more colorful, or darker, days. As much as it pains us to acknowledge it, to say that Christian missions have, in the past, been associated with colonialism, perpetuated systemic racism and used as a tool of oppression is not incorrect. A singular example of this can be seen in Canada’s history with First Nations people and the residential school systems created to assimilate indigenous youth to a Western worldview and culture, which included, and was championed by Catholicism.

Horrendous things have been done in the name of religion, Christian religion. We must acknowledge and own this. And yet, we cannot forget that Christian mission has also been on the opposite side of such atrocities, fighting against injustice and inequality like the abolishment of slavery, caring for the poor, the orphaned and widowed, ministering to the sick and dying amidst pandemic, disease and plague. And this good work is still going on, right now, around the globe.

Admittedly, a degree of Christian mission work in the past has been unethical. But to say that evangelism itself is unethical, this is a whole new conversation, and one we need to both address and engage in.

You see, there is a growing cultural cost these days to being a Christian. Maybe you see it. Maybe you feel it. If not, just ask your kids. Surely, they do. And there’s no doubt why. As virtues such as individualism and relativism take deeper root in the grow bed of our culture, the very real fear – and regrettable reality – of being perceived as judgmental, intolerant, or unloving, is all too common an experience for many Jesus followers, particularly the emerging generations.

And they’re not wrong to feel this way.

Ironically, and most unfortunately, we live in a world intolerant of intolerance, where your right has no right to say I’m not right . We live in a world where disagreement is not simply a matter of one’s own internal beliefs or convictions, but rather an attack on another’s identity, even when such disagreement is conveyed in love, grace, gentleness, and truth.

In sum, we live in a world intolerant to the truth, opposed to the very notion that there is a right or better/best way (for that would imply there is equally and also a way that is not right).

And the net effect of this cultural zeitgeist or ideology?

For far too many Christians, it has resulted in the (mis)belief that evangelism is wrong. And I’m not just talking about how half of young adults would say Jesus’ mandate to “go and make disciples” doesn’t apply personally to them… that stat is true, too, unfortunately, and equally needs to be addressed (Barna, The Future of Missions). But I’m talking about how followers of Jesus have found themselves convinced – maybe needs to be read: bullied? – by the culture of our day that evangelism, the Great Commission itself, is no longer an ethical activity, but rather an offence.

And yet isn’t the gospel in and of itself an offence? Isn’t the gospel foolishness to those who are far from God, or as Paul says it, those who are perishing? Wasn’t Jesus referred to as the stumbling block, the stone of offence to Jews and Gentiles alike? Surely, this is the very nature of the good news of Jesus: It confronts in all of us that which is opposed to the character, nature, and ways of God. It does not discriminate nor play favorites. No, we have all fallen short of the glory and standard of God. Yet simultaneously, through the cross of Christ, we have all equally been offered the gracious gift of forgiveness of sin and reconciliation with God, a gift only accessed through faith and repentance, or in other words, acknowledging that God’s ways are far better than our own.

Confronting, offensive news? Yes. But good news? All the more.

To be clear, the emerging generations are, generally speaking, increasingly for Christian missions in the sense of the Church’s justice and compassion efforts and good deeds. (For the most part anyway... There remains a contingent that question the efficacy of missions and its so-called ‘good deeds’ altogether. We can talk about them another day.) I mean, who doesn’t love seeing or participating in delivering a clean water system to a remote village, or teaching sustainable farming and land management, or delivering vaccines to the sick and vulnerable? Who doesn’t see value in helping sex workers or child slaves flee subjugation and given the opportunity to advance their education, find alternative and sustainable, safe work, experience true freedom for the first time? Assuredly, these are good things! Great things! Yet that’s also where the rub is…

You see, this view toward the unethical nature of evangelism has led to the divergence of good news from good works – a known tension, but with renewed attention these days. And this is why I say the future of missions is at stake. Missions, that is, good works or good deeds, done without the good news of the gospel is, in fact, not missions at all. Rather, it’s simply humanitarianism.

It’s similar to that all too often inaccurate and misquoted sentiment from one St. Francis of Assisi that reads:

Preach the gospel always. If necessary, use words.

First off, I’m pretty sure he didn’t say that, or at least not that way, anyways. Surely St. Frank, from such a refined time, would have nuanced this disposition in a far more eloquent way, but I digress...

Secondly, aren’t we called to proclaim the gospel in deed and word, and to do so together in conjunction with the other?

I mean, didn’t Jesus come proclaiming good news to the poor, verbally announcing the Kingdom’s arrival, including the repentance from sin and belief in the gospel (Mark 1:15; Isaiah 61:1; Luke 4:16-21)?

Sure, Jesus’ preaching went hand-in-hand with demonstrations of the kingdom like healing and deliverance (i.e., justice and compassion, also known as good works). But the fact remains: He still preached. He still proclaimed good news to those who were near and far. He evangelized. And he did so unapologetically, without shame, or fear, or thoughts of the (un)ethical nature of what he was doing. In fact, he himself called the message he proclaimed “good.” And he has called us, each of us, to do the same, to share the gospel, the good news.

Just think of Jesus’ parting words to his disciples…

“As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” (John 20:21)

“Therefore go and make disciples of all nations…” (Matthew 28:19)

“But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:8)

How can we be sent in the same way without doing the very things Jesus did? How can we make disciples of the nations if we are unwilling to proclaim good news? How can we be witnesses to the truth of the gospel if we are silent about the person and work of Jesus, or if we conform to the culture of the day rather than stand obedient to the commands of Christ?

Simply put, we can’t.

The gospel is intrinsically verbal. It’s impossible to proclaim the good news of Jesus without words. And this is why evangelism is essential, not unethical. I would even argue that evangelism is the most ethical thing we can do, for by declaring the truth of what God has done for us through Christ, this is the only way to experience true freedom, liberty, and life.

In the same vein, surely the greatest injustice we can commit is to remain silent, to refuse to share good news.

I love the quote by D.T. Niles that reads:

Evangelism is just one beggar telling another beggar where to find bread.

With this picture in mind, I wonder how followers of Christ could honestly perceive evangelism to be anything less than a proclamation of justice, compassion, grace, mercy, love…

The gospel is good news, friend, for the gospel is good. Evangelism is not a dirty word as the world would like us to believe; it’s not something to shy away from or be ashamed of because the culture of our day tells us we ought to. Rather, as followers of Jesus, it is both our duty and delight to proclaim to the nations what God has done for us through Christ, yes in deed – always in deed – but even more so in word.

“How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can anyone preach unless they are sent? As it is written: "How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!"… Consequently, faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word about Christ.” (Romans 10:14-15, 17)

Looking forward to discussing this with you more.

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Great thoughts Nick and I hope it generates discussion here. This issue is 'fresh' for me as the recruiter/developer of our international workforce. One (of SO many) thoughts I have on this relates to the extent to which -sometimes - we have become so task-oriented to 'fulfill the Great Commission' or to 'bring back the King', that we have in effect, lost trust in the sovereignty of God to do what only He can do - convict, draw & restore people to Christ. (Frankly we can't even 'MAKE disciples' but we can disciple). That trust does not negate our engagement/involvement one iota, but it does have impact on our approaches to people. More grace & respect and open conversatio…

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