Friday, February 22, 2019

Too Hot to Handle: Abandoning Evangelism

In which our regular writers toss around subjects a little more volatile than usual.

Relevant Magazine says the results of this new study by Barna are shocking.

Tom: I’m more inclined to nod sadly at the obvious, I guess, which is this: 47% of millennials believe evangelizing others is … wrong.

I’m not sure why anyone is surprised. We live in a society that prizes tolerance, inclusivity and a sort of pseudo-respect for the traditions and culture of others above all else. On top of that, the vast majority of Christians have allowed their children to grow up in an environment that propagandizes them from 9:00 to 3:15 five days a week for most of their formative years.

What exactly did we think would happen, Immanuel Can?

A Predictable Outcome

Immanuel Can: The outcome was predictable, of course. This really ought to be the least surprising statistic.

Tom: It’s a post-post-modern world. I think Don Henley said that. Relativism is the spirit of the age.

The obvious question: Is this a case where we ought to consider whether can learn something from the youth of today? Is there any debate to be had about whether evangelism is still appropriate in the current environment? Or are these twenty- and thirty-somethings just plain out to lunch, however understandably?

IC: Or maybe we could take a different angle: if evangelism-phobia is the obvious outcome of letting our children absorb a relativistic culture, then what was (and is) the alternative? After all, you can’t exactly take your kids out of the world, can you?

Tom: No, of course not. But you can choose to judiciously limit contact with it once you have observed the effects of unrelenting propaganda on kids at their most impressionable ages.

IC: Okay, but let’s make that very practical. We can probably guess how the message of relativism got into our kids: the media, the education system, and the patterns and habits of modern living, and finally, input from peers who were likewise influenced. But what is the right Christian response or strategy to deal with that?

Programmed from Birth

Tom: Well, personal salvation is the starting point. If your child is not saved, he or she will be far more susceptible to the lies that permeate our popular culture. The apostle Paul said, “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.” And it is those “things of the Spirit of God” that are the world’s greatest antibodies for bad ideas.

IC: Okay, a good starting point. But does being a Christian mean your child is inoculated against the effects of immersion in a relativistic, secular culture? Or is there more to be done yet?

Tom: Absolutely. First, a child needs to learn truth is objective and be absolutely convinced of it. Then he needs to learn how to think critically, to learn to spot defective teaching, to learn that nice people are not necessarily good people … the life lessons go on and on. I notice when Jesus was teaching his disciples, he didn’t just correct error. He also taught them to be cautious about certain categories of people and the things they did and taught: false prophets, the teachers of the law, the Pharisees, the Sadducees, and so on.

That might be called “profiling” today, but it’s a great defensive tactic.

Playing Parents’ Advocate

IC: Alright. Let me play the “parents’ advocate” for a moment. Suppose I find all that a bit overwhelming. Not being a particularly mistrustful or critical person myself, I feel overwhelmed at the prospect of having to street-proof my kid against all sorts of false teaching. I’m not even sure I’m all that street-proofed, to be frank. So while I see the value of what you’re proposing, I’m also a bit intimidated by the prospect of trying to do it adequately. I’m not even sure when and how I’d undertake such a thing.

Two questions, then: firstly, how can I get the help and support I might need to do what you’re suggesting, and secondly, how do I make sure my child understands that standing for the gospel is not “intolerant” and not optional for a Christian? That’s a lot to ask, maybe: but I’m pretty sure both those questions will appear right away.

Tom: Hmm. I’m thinking more of media-proofing, government-proofing, peer-proofing and teacher-proofing than street-proofing, to be honest.

And really, as a parent, if you’ve managed to wander through the past 15 or 20 years without becoming the tiniest bit mistrustful of those sources of information, you need to start paying more attention. You need to seriously up your parental game in that department, and not think about offloading the responsibility. There is nobody in the world your children instinctively trust and look to more than you. You can ask your church to teach your kid to think if you want, but good luck with that.

IC: Okay. And if I CAN up my game, I should. Granted. But it won’t help me if I find myself limited in that respect, will it? I grant you that we all ought to try harder, but we’re up against a bunch of powerful forces here, perhaps with limited personal means to fight back. We might need all the help we can get. Are we really alone on this?

Tom: Well, we’re never alone as Christians, are we? James says God gives wisdom to his children “generously and without reproach”. And once you start asking around, you may find your fellow believers are also concerned about the same things.

Questioning the Narrative

But look, it can’t be all that hard to learn to question the narrative. 77% of Americans say they believe the media reports fake news at least occasionally. These are saved and unsaved, Democrats, Republicans, centrists, young people, old people … and a whole lot of them are parents. Now, not all of them agree about who is doing the lying or which aspects of popular culture are least trustworthy, but at least they watch their TVs, go to movies and browse the internet open to the possibility that not everything we are being told to believe is honest and agenda-free.

IC: Okay, there’s a minimum we can do. And we should stop making excuses and being lazy, and just do it, as much as we can. Again, I grant you that. Still, I think that teaching kids to have a critical attitude will only go so far, for a couple of reasons. Firstly, that no matter how cynical one may be, if one is still soaking in bad information one is eventually going to absorb some of it, and there’s a lot around. Secondly, psychological research shows that people do not instinctively react critically, even if they’re well equipped to do so, in situations in which they are data-overloaded. That means that when stuff is rushing in, we tend to believe first, and then react critically only if we are allowed time afterward to do so. The pace of the media, education and our lives in general often forces us to receive information without enough time to process it critically. That means that skepticism will not defend us against indoctrination in such an environment. So now what do we do?

Tom: If it’s true that data-overloaded people are of necessity blinded to bad ideas and faulty assumptions, then deliberately setting aside times to decompress and reflect — not to mention pray — seems like an obvious answer. That might not be a trendy idea currently, but it’s certainly worked for godly men and women through the centuries.

IC: Yep, that’s good. We have to slow down the pace of stuff we’re taking in.

Walking as Enemies of the Cross

Tom: But it also seems to me that Paul addresses this very question in Philippians. There are, he says, professing believers who “walk as enemies of the cross of Christ”. I can’t think of a better description of the Christian who says evangelism is wrong. His mind is set on earthly things”. Not wicked things, but earthly things. He has been programmed by the world to accept its default assumptions. He has been sidelined from the race and taken out of the battle without drawing his sword.

IC: Well, and more than that: he’s discouraging others, by both example and doctrine. He’s opposed to what Christ himself commanded us in the most uncompromising tones, to do — “all authority in heaven and earth,” the Lord said.

Tom: Exactly. Evangelism is a huge part of our calling. We might say it’s the reason we’re here. What exactly is left for the “Christian” who will not do the most clearly spelled-out thing he was left in this world to do: share his faith? Only the pleasures he can enjoy in this life. His god is his belly. His glory (tolerance) is his shame (blindness).

Pressing On

IC: So what’s instead?

Tom: Well, the solution Paul prescribes for this faulty, worldly mindset is a continual “pressing on” toward the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. That is the biblical definition of Christian maturity.

IC: Right. Good.

I wish we had time to drill down further on this. I’d like to discuss what real, practical measures parents can install to control the flow of the world into the home. But that’s a big topic — maybe a book or two, not a blog post. Still, I have a feeling this issue is going to come up again.

Tom: No doubt about that.

A Postscript

IC: As I look back on this post, one thing I feel like we forgot to say is that it’s time for parents to sit down with their kids and talk about the gospel again — what is it, what’s it for, and what’s it means — just to make sure that their children really get what being a Christian is really all about. I don’t suspect millennials are deliberately being evil. I can’t think that they would say that letting people just go to hell (literally) is a good thing to do, even if they happen to believe in postmodern “tolerance” generally. The problem, it seems to me, is that if they believe evangelism is bad, then they surely haven’t heard of, don’t understand, or (less likely) are deliberately refusing to believe in the Great White Throne or the Lake of Fire at all. If they thought these things existed, there is no way they’d want anyone to go to either, or imagine they were doing anyone a favor by keeping mum about all that.

I don’t think they’re deliberately “selling out” their friends to hell; I think they don’t know what they’re doing.

And if that’s the case, then that’s a parental-education problem: parents aren’t telling their kids what the gospel involves.

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