Evangelism in a secular context

The author defines a “postmodern” person and suggests ways to reach them with the gospel.

Vesa Annala, MDiv, pastors in Kalmar, Småland, Sweden.

Sweden, perhaps, is known as the most secular country in the world. According to one study covering 1986 to 2011, the average Swede attended a worship service or religious meeting seven times a year.1 These visits include funerals, weddings, baptismal services, and Christian holidays, for example. Another study showed that 23 percent of Swedes believed in God, 19 percent say they do not believe in God, while 53 percent believe in some kind of spirit or life force.2 All in all, Swedes take first place in admitting that they are atheists, agnostics, or nonbelievers. Next come people from Vietnam, Denmark, and Norway.3

Often described as “postmodern,” the secular individual is known as an individual who has a strong, individualist outlook on life. Characterized by gadgetry, the postmodern has and would like even more gadgets. Often people say that the postmodern individual no longer believes in the “big stories” we find in the various religious books (including the Bible). This mentality has led many to throw the major Bible stories into the “historian’s hotchpotch,” as the former archbishop of Sweden, K. G. Hammar, is credited to have once expressed. 

While saying that the postmodern individual has lost his or her faith in the big stories of the Bible, individuals find it easy to forget that a large majority of people (at least in Sweden) believe in the big story that was created by modernity, that is, the naturalistic story of how our earth came to being. In this naturalistic big story, the big bang cosmology, life’s spontaneous formation in nonliving material, Darwinian evolution, and the origin of humans from apelike ancestors occupy a central position. 

In Sweden, 70 percent 4 of the people believe in this postmodernistic story. The faith in evolution often takes a religious flavor. “Do you believe in Darwin?” is a question I face. This is like asking, “Do you believe in God?” The funny thing is that when you deny faith in Darwin, it feels like you are almost committing a mortal sin, or at least intellectual hara-kiri. Charles Darwin and his followers can be regarded as this big story’s “prophets” to whom Nature has revealed her own story of its coming without God’s involvement. 

Based on these modern presuppositions, Sweden is a country where a large majority of people are rather post-Christian than postmodern. Sweden has left behind the Christian story and embraced a new story. When we are talking about the post-Christian, we know that we are talking about people who no longer believe or embrace the Christian faith and its most central beliefs in God’s existence, God’s creation, the human fall, sin, Jesus, and so forth. 

These post-Christians are today’s challenge to be reached with the gospel.

God answers prayer and speaks through His Word

When my wife, Aila, and I moved to Kalmar, Sweden, in June 2011, we had all this knowledge in our “baggage.” Our congregation in Kalmar is small, and the majority was elderly. We knew that the congregation would die out if we did not get new people from outside. So, the question and the great challenge was, How do we reach out to these post-Christians?

After we moved, we learned that a small prayer group composed of people from other Christian churches in Kalmar had, for a time, been praying that the Lord would send someone to Kalmar who would come with new ideas to reach out to people. We knew nothing about this prayer group but then came in contact with one member of that group. She told us that they believed we were God’s answer to their prayers. The message in Mark 4:26–28 was also helpful. It says that the only thing the sower does is to scatter the seed. After the sowing is completed, he does nothing more. He just goes out and sees how the seeds germinate and grow, but he does not know how all this takes place. What a relief to know that our part is to scatter the seed, and the “soil” (the Lord’s care) will do the rest.

The Lord asked us to “scatter the seed,” and when we have done this, our work is finished. All by itself the soil would bear the harvest. At the moment I am writing this, we are in the midst of this “scattering” work.

Reaching post-Christians with the gospel

With these thoughts in the back­ground, we contacted political parties and other authorities in the society and invited them to our church to participate in an open discussion about the big questions of life. The response was overwhelmingly positive. We had no difficulty to get participants. One of the politicians told me afterwards that this was the first time they had talked to each other about the meaning of life.

A panel consisting of myself, a humanist, and a physician led out in discussions on death. I have also debated a humanist (an atheist and former Christian) on topics such as, Does God’s exist? and Did Jesus rise from the dead? I have given lectures on indoctrination, theophobia, and Creation and the Flood, for example. Three times I have joined an atheistic professor to give public lectures on morality, the nature of humans, and suffering as an existential experience.

The most important thing for me has been the opportunity to present the gospel of Jesus to these post-Christian people. Thus, by interacting with people without any prejudice toward their beliefs or lack thereof, I found a mean­ingful way to share my faith. In this way, the society was able to see the church’s relevance. By relevance I mean faithful­ness to the Bible and the gospel. Nothing can be more relevant than the faithful preaching and witnessing for Jesus.

Basic principles

Of course, we do have some basic principles behind our work—to regain the respect the Christian faith had early in Sweden and to show open­ness toward the post-Christian society. During the last decades, the state-church system has destroyed the credibility of the Christian faith. Also, the free churches are losing members and are considered as small ghet­tos of those already saved. So, we started working in an open way to create credibility. Credibility provides answers the Christian faith gives to life’s big questions. Openness allows post-Christians to participate in activities in the church building, such as an atheist being given the opportunity to sit in a church and question the church’s most basic doctrines.

The importance of personal conviction

Conviction is the key. If I, as a Christian, cannot show a genuine belief, how can I convict those who are listen­ing to me?

There is a lot of difference between faith without reflection and faith with conviction that is built on good his­torical and factual base. Conviction has another important aspect. While I am convinced as a Christian, I am also convinced that other specific belief systems and philosophies are not fully true and might even be false. Not many, perhaps, are aware that the Christian faith contains a worldview that provides answers to life’s great questions: What is truth? What is knowledge? How do we get knowledge? Where do we come from? Where are we going? Who am I? Is there a God? Who is He? Who was/is Jesus? What is science? What is evolu­tion? What is data? The Christian faith is a belief system, a worldview about the whole reality. You cannot read the Bible with open eyes without being convicted of that.

To have the correct perspective on evangelism, you need to first realize that the Christian faith has an all- inclusive worldview. Our world strug­gles between different worldviews, ideas, and perceptions of reality. As Christians, we believe that God has given us, in the Scripture, a basic revela­tion of the reality of the Person of the Godhead, how the world came into being, the existence of evil, the reality of love, the meaning of history, and the future of life. Our faith must be based on the Scripture. As Paul writes in Colossians 1:13–17, our Lord Jesus Christ is at the core of our faith.

Approaches and results

In order to reach out to the wider public, we have used advertising and posters. In our panel discussions, partici­pants present their views on the topic. Then they can ask each other questions and provide clarification. One important part has been to allow the public to take part in the discussion, with a person moderating the discussion.

We were surprised by the positive response received. Engagement from the public has been admirable. Many of the participants have praised our church for our openness toward the secular community.

On one occasion when we debated God’s existence, our small church with room for 80 people was almost packed by nonbelievers. On average, we have had some 30 people attend, of which a large majority is post-Christian, often middle-aged. About 65 to 70 percent of our audience are men. This shows that the basic questions of life and current issues in society appeal to men in our city. We have had meetings where only nonbelievers have attended. Even humanists attend our meetings, the very people who form our fikarum 5 critics of Christians.

When it comes to the question-and­answer sessions, most of the questions have been directed to me. To lift up the gospel of our Lord has been a wonder­ful occasion. Questions have been about my faith, our church’s view on homosexuality, euthanasia, hell (a standard objection to the Christian faith), science, etc.

One result of such meetings was the opportunity I was given to speak on the local radio station regarding what and why we are facilitating these meetings. At the end of one of these radio talks, a journalist asked me if proselytization was the reason we are conducting these public meetings. The journalist was surprised when I agreed with what he said. I continued to tell the radio listen­ers that Jesus wanted all the people to be His disciples. Paul was praying that people should be like he was (the disciple of Jesus), and this was the very same thing we wanted. We hope that all in Kalmar should be disciples of Jesus. The journalist certainly expected a reply in which I would try to evade his claim. And this is important. We must have the courage to say honestly and sincerely that we want to do what Jesus said in the Great Commission: make all people His disciples.

As a fruit of this activity, we have been able to form a group that meets regularly to read and study the Bible. We read only a few short passages, ask questions, and talk about what we have read. This has been proved to be very popular. Rumors have spread that in the Adventist Church one can hear the gospel clearly presented.

In spite of all these positive experi­ences, however, we know that it is a long way for post-Christians to submit themselves to God and receive Jesus as their Savior. We have no illusions here. The post-Christians must be able to recognize that their worldview has been false.

Can others use the same concept?

Of course, some wonder if the same method can also be used elsewhere. If you want to reach out to post- Christians, my answer is Yes. This kind of work requires, however, that one is aware of issues post-Christians have embraced and believe in. Doing your homework becomes very important, along with mastering the arguments and knowing the opponents’ argu­ments. At the same time, we must recognize the importance of not over­estimating the opponents and their knowledge. Personally, my experience has been that people, in general, are not fully aware of the Christian faith and its worldview when it comes to arguing its claims.

Of all worldviews, the materialistic story of evolution has received the wid­est acceptance among post-Christians, at least here in Sweden. This unfounded belief system is embraced uncriti­cally through educational systems and media. When working with post-Christians, you must be aware of their strong conviction in this materialistic story. For them this is the Truth, with a capital T.

My work with post-Christians has convinced me, personally, that people want to know the truth: the truth about our world, society, God, and human life. In loyalty to Jesus’ calling us to witness for Him, we must be penetrated by sin­cerity, conviction, and humility. These are the qualities the post-Christians value in life, and as a Christian you must ensure you have those qualities. Most of all: you must know Jesus personally. You must be able to tell the story of Jesus always and everywhere. 

References:

1 Lennart Weibull, Henrik Oscarsson, and Annika Bergström, eds., “Swedish Trends 1986–2011,” SOM Institute, www.som.gu.se/digitalAssets/1384/1384776_swedish-trends-1986-2011.pdf.

2 Special Eurobarometer 225 “Social Values, Science & Technology,” 2006. According to Dagen, 45 percent believe in God, www .dagen.se/nyheter/45-procent-av-svenskarna-tror-pa-gud/.

Wikipedia, s.v. “Atheism,” wikipedia.org/wiki/atheism.

4 Carl Reinhold Bråkenhielm, ed., Världsbild och mening (Sweden: Bokförlaget New Doxa, 2001). This figure is still higher among young people.

Fika is a Swedish word used when people are sitting around a coffee table and chatting.


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Vesa Annala, MDiv, pastors in Kalmar, Småland, Sweden.

June 2014

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