The Challenge of Evangelism in the 21st Century

Ken Oliver

As we prepare to enter the third decade of the 21 st century, the evangelical movement is facing a serious challenge: our methods of evangelism – spreading the good news about Jesus – are becoming ineffective because society and our relationship to society has changed over the past three decades.

Every generation has its own point of entry for the gospel message. For the past 30 years, we have been very successful reaching out to the “spiritual seeker.” Much of the mega-church movement is built on the idea that people are looking for God in all the wrong places, and the task of the evangelist is to show the seeker that what they really desire is found in Christianity.

This seeker-centered approach to evangelism has affected our public theology.

Public theology is the Christian engagement and dialogue within the church and the larger society about the common good. It has two aspects: first, it is our teaching with respect to the public square. The audience is the society in general, and the task of public theology is to provide Christian insights into human nature, justice and the common good in a way that helps the whole of society make wise and moral choices. The second aspect of the public theology is the teaching with respect to the Christian community. It is our way of educating fellow Christians how to think about our faith in the context of our culture, so that we can become good citizens.

It is my thesis that before we can address the challenge of evangelism in the 21 st century, we need to understand how our public theology has been shaped and why it is failing us now. In other words, before we can correct our evangelism methods, we need to correct our public theology.

The public theology of the seeker generation was of two kinds corresponding to the two tasks:
first toward the world we focused on Apologetics. Our task was to show that Christianity was a reasonable alternative, and that the other alternatives fell short. Thus our focus on atheism, secular humanism, Marxism, Eastern spirituality, and – to a lesser extent – other theistic religions as counter point to Christianity. If we could remove the intellectual barriers, the pathway for the seeker to Christianity was clear.

The second aspect of our public theology, the teaching within the Church, focused on political
action. Society was going in the wrong direction, and moral scolding was not enough. Evangelicals needed to enter the public arena and engage the political process in order to reverse the course that began (depending on your historical reference points) either in the 1920’s or the 1960’s. This engagement was essentially conservative in nature, and thus evangelicals found the best alliance with the conservative political party, namely the Republicans.

What this public theology lacked was a sense of theological reflection. If the second task of public theology is to help Christians think about the relationship of Christianity to culture, then the evangelical version took a pass. We entered into the task with a high level of self-confidence that we had the tools and understood the issues. The reason why we felt that we did not need to engage in theological reflection is that we already had the answer: Worldviews.

The concept of worldviews was developed by Dutch philosopher Herman Dooyeweerd, adapted by theologian Abraham Kuyper, further refined by conservative American theologian Cornelius Van Til, and popularized by Francis Schaeffer. The Van Til/Schaeffer version of “worldviews” became an apologetic tool that Schaeffer used to refute those ideas developed since the Enlightenment that did not fit into his theological framework. At first, “worldviews” was adopted by the apologist wing of evangelical public theology, but it was soon used by the political activist wing as well.

The use of “worldviews” by the activist wing of evangelicalism allowed for categorical rejection of opponents. The idea that “truth” was shared along the political spectrum and the public theologian’s role was to move both sides to a more Christian understanding of society – that idea was no longer valid. The arguments of “liberals” did not need to be engaged because they were not discussing solutions to specific issues, but were promoting a worldview that was hostile to Christianity. The new role of the evangelical public theologian was to defend the Biblical Worldview against its enemies. To win this battle, we needed to make alliances with groups that had worldviews compatible with the Biblical Worldview. Political conservatives might not all be Christians, but when it came to their worldview, they were close.

Thus an alliance with, and a corresponding loyalty to, the Republican Party developed. Because the model of public theology used by evangelicals did not engage in theological/cultural reflection, we accepted worldviews as the correct way to understand and engage society. We did not see the extent to which our “worldview” was shaped more by contemporary culture and less by the Bible than we thought. So we did not engage in serious theological dialogue with our culture as it changed over the past thirty years. We also did not critique the failings of the conservative approach to public policy issues. Instead, it was “us” against “them,” thus binding us to the Republican Party as it became the party of Trump. 

The challenge of evangelism is that our world has changed. The generation of seekers – baby boomers and Gen-X – has been replaced by Millennials and Gen-Z. The justice issues raised by political liberals resonates with this generation, while the values associated with the new Trump led Republican Party are rejected. This generation is less self-focused (“my spiritual needs”) and more community focused (such as care for the disadvantaged). Evangelicals, because of the alliances that we have made, do not have credibility to speak to these new issues of concern. This is a shame because Evangelical Theology has a lot to say about justice, the poor and the sojourner. However, our public theology has put a muzzle on our Biblical theologians. Even when we manage to make a statement about Biblical justice, it is not only obscured by the filter of politics, it is often openly challenged by the activist wing. Witness the trials of poor Russell Moore trying to stand up for a traditional understanding of Christianity and immigration.

Our bad public theology is killing our evangelism. We need not new methods of evangelism, but a new public theology. We need to park the “worldview” approach to the side for a while. It is not wrong, but it is not serving us well at this time. Instead we need to develop a robust public theology that takes the Bible seriously, is willing to engage in public issues without the filter of partisan politics, and is willing to take a moral stance in the face of evil. We need to take seriously the Jesus model, where sinful behavior did not elicit rejection but compassion. 

The first task of the new public theology will be speaking to the faith community. Before we can engage the world, we need to correct a lot that has gone wrong at home. So many evangelical Christians are ignorant of the Christian tradition about society and justice, and have adopted unchristian views on so many public issues. The first engagement is the education of the church.

We have a new generation that needs to hear the good news. If what they are hearing from evangelicals is “we hate gays” or “there are good people on both sides” they are not going to listen to anything we want to say about Jesus. No new method of evangelism will overcome that reality.

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Additional Commentary. . .Resources. . . Replies

  • As America has been declining, I have had a sense of God Standing-by, Ready to Help. But our culture thinks it can handle things by itself.


    Evangelists need to forget politics, find an entry point to the culture, then use a logical approach to evangelism.  That entry point, in the current culture, may be sports.


    In the first century, people were so much less knowledgeable about things in general.  We now think that we are far more knowledgeable about many more things.  Today we “know” so much that:

    Modern society,

    Which touts its ability,

    Trusts more in humanity

    Then it does in Divinity;

    It bids the Almighty

    To leave the vicinity.


    Modern man "knows" so much, that he is not afraid of God, while the ancients feared Him.  Many today, would not even know to which meaning of the word “fear” that pertains.  Thus, man uses his own logical powers to run his life and others.  He sees little use for Christianity.


    Heaven is Perfect. We are not. Like a sports team that has lost even one game, we cannot make our own “record” perfect. A sports league commissioner, on appeal, can overturn that one lost game.  Christ is the only one, who on appeal, provides us with an unblemished life.


    Other theologies state that all one needs to get to Heaven, is a “winning record,” more good deeds than bad.  Such a record is not perfection.  How could Heaven be perfect if imperfection is allowed to enter?


    If logic in humans begins where the mind connects with the heart, Christianity is the Logical Choice.


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