ALPHARETTA, Ga. (BP)–John Avant and I had heard the “all-religions-are-basically-the-same” comment at least 100 times before. This time, Austin, our waiter, was passing this tidbit of conventional wisdom onto us with sage-like seriousness — like a treasure hunter who had just discovered the mother lode.
Austin was more than an evangelism project. He had become a good friend of John’s, and was just starting to open up about spiritual things. As he began to share, I realized that “that guy” had already gotten to him.
Now, I’ve never met “that guy” personally, but we all know who he is. “That guy” is the evangelist, not for Christ, but for the post-modern, conventional wisdom that pervades the spiritual opinions of Americans. “That guy” is the same guy who came up with, “It doesn’t matter what you believe as long as you’re sincere,” “The Bible is full of contradictions,” “We all worship the same God,” and the ever-popular, “A loving God wouldn’t condemn anyone to hell.”
How does he do it? With all the evangelistic training, tracts, preaching and prayers, our message is still unheard by many, but “that guy’s” message is pervasive. Why is he so successful? Here are some possible reasons:
— “That guy” uses the media successfully. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’ve never seen an advertisement for his views. Public relations is “that guy’s” forte. Well-known people in television, movies and journalism package his poison message in a pleasant-tasting syrup.
John Avant of the North American Mission Board advocates making evangelism “good news” again, emphasizing the glad tidings of salvation over sin through Jesus Christ. The media usually portrays our denomination negatively. Recent strides by our denomination in race relations, servant evangelism, World Changers, block parties and disaster relief are helping the public to view us in a positive light.
— “That guy” doesn’t institutionalize his message. There is no “Church of Conventional Wisdom.” His message is bigger than a company, denomination or organization. It has become a movement.
De-institutionalized Christianity is best positioned to become embedded in our culture again. The Southern Baptist Convention, with its locally autonomous churches structured around cooperative missions, could be the model for the successful denomination of the future, even providing a home for churches with cutting-edge, emergent methodologies but who still desire a sound theological foundation.
— “That guy” reaches teens. A recent TIME magazine article stated, “Churches have begun to see 13 as a pivotal age for finding God.” The evangelist of conventional wisdom realized this years ago, as he packages his message in the language of youth culture. A majority of his resources goes to communicating to this demographic. He knows that young people are the cultural change agents of our day.
Southern Baptist statistics on reaching students are dismal. In 1971, youth baptisms contributed to 30 percent of all baptisms in SBC life. Today, they contribute to just 22 percent of all baptisms.
According to Chad Childress, director of children and student evangelism at NAMB, the plateau has been evident since the mid to late 70s. That is about the same time youth ministry became more emphasized, funded and staffed. Based on this fact, pastors and parents must stop delegating the youth ministry entirely to paid youth workers, and become re-engaged in the evangelization of our students.
— “That guy” positions his message as counter-cultural. Even though the mantra of the conventional wisdom evangelist is rehearsed, well-worn and predictable, “that guy” still frames it as somewhat rebellious.
I predict that the marginalization of Christianity by an increasingly hostile culture can actually help re-position us in society as a radical faith. We need to be reminded just how revolutionary Jesus’ challenge is to “take up [your] cross and follow Me.”
If “that guy” can be so successful with a powerless, ineffective message, just imagine what Christians can do with the Gospel, “the power of God unto salvation.” John Avant has already led one of Austin’s friends to faith in Jesus, and any day now I expect to hear that Austin has embraced Christ. Even with all of his savvy and cutting-edge methodology, “that guy’s” message cannot prevail.
Toby Frost is the director of strategic evangelism coordination at the North American Mission Board.