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My Take: Why evangelicals should stop evangelizing
Carl Medearis with Sheikh Nabil Qawouk Hezbollah’s number two leader.
July 24th, 2011
01:00 AM ET

My Take: Why evangelicals should stop evangelizing

Editor's Note: Carl Medearis is an international expert in Arab-American and Muslim-Christian relations and is author of the book Speaking of Jesus: The Art of Not-Evangelism.

By Carl Medearis, Special to CNN

Let’s do an exercise. I want you to fill in the blank on what you think you know about me based on what I’m about to tell you.

Here goes: Twenty years ago, I became a missionary. My wife and I left our home in Colorado Springs, Colorado to move to Beirut, Lebanon. Our job description was to plant churches and evangelize to Muslims.

Based on what I just said, Carl Medearis is a ______________ .

Depending on your background, the blank may look something like this:

Carl Medearis is a... hero of the Christian faith, a saintly super-man willing to sacrifice the comforts of home in order to share the love of Jesus Christ with those who have never heard the gospel.

Or this:

Carl Medearis is a... right-wing extremist who destroys cultures, tears apart families and paves the way for neo-colonialist crusaders to invade, occupy and plunder the resources of local populations.

Quite a range, isn’t it?

For one group of people, the words “evangelist” and “missionary” bring to mind pious heroes performing good deeds that are unattainable for the average Christian. For another group, those same words represent just about everything that’s wrong with the world.

I understand the confusion.

Based on my experiences of living and traveling around the world, I know that religion is often an identity marker that determines people’s access to jobs, resources, civil liberties and political power.

When I lived in Lebanon I saw firsthand how destructive an obsession with religious identity could be. Because of the sectarian nature of Lebanese politics, modern Lebanese history is rife with coups, invasions, civil wars and government shutdowns.

When I tell my Christian friends in America that some of the fiercest militias were (and are) Christian, most are shocked. It doesn’t fit the us-versus-them mentality that evangelism fosters, in which we are always the innocent victims and they are always the aggressors.

This us-versus-them thinking is odd, given that Jesus was constantly breaking down walls between Jews and Gentiles, rich and poor, men and women, sinners and saints. That’s why we have the parable of the Good Samaritan.

Jews in Jesus’ day thought of the Samaritans as the violent heretics, much the same way that Christians think of Muslims today. The idea that a Samaritan could be good was scandalous to first century Jews.

Jesus was the master of challenging religious prejudice and breaking down sectarian walls. Why do so many Christians want to rebuild those walls?

Even the Apostle Paul insisted that it’s faith in Jesus that matters, not converting to a new religion or a new socio-religious identity.

What if evangelicals today, instead of focusing on “evangelizing” and “converting” people, were to begin to think of Jesus not as starting a new religion, but as the central figure of a movement that transcends religious distinctions and identities?

Jesus the uniter of humanity, not Jesus the divider. How might that change the way we look at others?

This is more than just a semantic difference.

When I used to think of myself as a missionary, I was obsessed with converting Muslims (or anybody for that matter) to what I thought of as “Christianity.” I had a set of doctrinal litmus tests that the potential convert had to pass before I would consider them “in” or one of “us.”

Funny thing is, Jesus never said, “Go into the world and convert people to Christianity.” What he said was, “Go and make disciples of all nations.”

Encouraging anyone and everyone to become an apprentice of Jesus, without manipulation, is a more open, dynamic and relational way of helping people who want to become more like Jesus — regardless of their religious identity.

Just because I believe that evangelicals should stop evangelizing doesn’t mean that they should to stop speaking of Jesus.

I speak of Jesus everywhere I go and with everyone I meet.

As founder and president of a company called International Initiatives, my work is aimed at building relationships among Christian leaders in the West and among Muslim leaders in the Middle East.

It may come as a surprise to many Christians that Muslims are generally open to studying the life of Jesus as a model for leadership because they revere him as a prophet.

But now that I’m no longer obsessed with converting people to Christianity, I’ve found that talking about Jesus is much easier and far more compelling.

I believe that doctrine is important, but it’s not more important than following Jesus.

Jesus met people where they were. Instead of trying to figure out who’s “in” and who’s “out,” why don’t we simply invite people to follow Jesus — and let Jesus run his kingdom?

Inviting people to love, trust, and follow Jesus is something the world can live with. And since evangelicals like to say that it’s not about religion, but rather a personal relationship with Jesus, perhaps we should practice what we preach.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Carl Medearis.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Christianity • Interfaith issues • Opinion

soundoff (3,792 Responses)
  1. Stephen

    An excellent article, and as some have pointed out, should apply to the indoctrination of children. Sunday school, vacation Bible school, catechism and all religious "instruction" is a form of child abuse. In most European countries, it is illegal to advertise directly to children because they are "intellectually defenseless" until about age 15; meaning that they are incapable of independent thought. They will simply believe whatever they are told by parents and other authority figures. How is religious indoctrination any different?

    July 24, 2011 at 11:47 am |
    • Stephen

      Unless you're the state. Then you can advertise all you want to kids under 15.

      July 25, 2011 at 1:30 pm |
    • Stephen

      And it's religious instruction. You only call it indoctrination because you don't agree with it. Newsflash: the world does not revolve around you.

      July 25, 2011 at 1:31 pm |
  2. Bert in UT

    Thank you. I agree completely I also remember a time when religion was pretty much a private matter for each individual. The purpose was to take care of your own relationship with God, and let others take care of theirs. We need more of that.

    July 24, 2011 at 11:46 am |
  3. Mike L

    Jesus,Paul, Peter, and other apostles did try to convert people. This guy apparently is putting out an opinion, that some people want to support. The cold hard fact is early Christians tried very hard to convert people and risked death trying to do that. Just read the new Testament. It is insane to say they did not.

    July 24, 2011 at 11:44 am |
    • AGuest9

      Convert them to what? These people were Jews. Jesus was a Jew. He didn't say "Hey, I've created this new church called Catholicism"!

      July 25, 2011 at 9:17 pm |
  4. Saddened

    This article and many of the resulting comments underscore the truths that Jesus actually taught. He, in fact, taught that all those worshipping his father would have to worship "in truth." Yes, he reached out to ALL to give them an opportunity to learn that truth. But he recognized that the majority of mankind would not accept that truth. Thus he said that the road leading to destruction is broad and spacious with many traveling it while the road to life was cramped and narrow with few traveling it. Those traveling that broad road unfortunately includes many who profess Christianity because Jesus also said that in the period of the last days MANY would profess to believe and accept him and would even perform many great works in his name. And yet he says to them "I don't even know you....get away from me." He said the reason is because they insist on doing things their own way instead of doing the "will of his father." So before all professed Christians start indicting or judging anyone else it would do us well to examine whether or not we are doing the will of his father or if we even know what that will is. Despite what many churches teach, his father's will involves MUCH MORE than merely accepting Jesus as Lord. The apostle Paul indicated that apostate Christianity would develop right from within the true Christian congregation. Jesus said counterfeit Christians (weeds) would "grow" alongside true Christians (wheat) until the last days when they would be harvested. Many of the apostate traditions developed during the first few centuries are still practiced in mainstream Christendom to this day. One only needs to HONESTLY AND HUMBLY examine his beliefs and do the research and Bible study necessary to determine whether the traditions are actually supported biblically. True Christians are identifiable today....Jesus said you would be able to identify them by the love they would display. He said that instead of killing or judging enemies, they would love and pray for them. It is up to his father to bring judgment upon disobedient people in His own due time. It is not up to true Christians to be involved with any type of killing or judging. But true Christians do, indeed, actively follow Jesus command to GO AND MAKE DISCIPLES. This is a priority in their lives. But they NEVER treat those who refuse to listen unkindly or unlovingly. They just continue on with their work until Jesus and his father say it is finished. The "truth" is readily available to any and all who have receptive hearts from any part of the world or from any culture or tradition. Many have found it and are leading peaceful lives in harmony with Jesus' teachings. How the others will fare is not up to them. In the meantime, they continue to show loving kindness to all regardless of ethnic, nationalistic, religious or racial background. That is what Jesus taught.

    July 24, 2011 at 11:43 am |
    • Amistavia

      Paragraphs are a wonderful concept. If you had employed them, I may have been tempted to read your post.

      July 24, 2011 at 11:45 am |
    • flower12

      What religion are you? It is odd that you do not state. Is there a reason?

      July 24, 2011 at 11:49 am |
    • Lino

      Well said....

      July 24, 2011 at 11:50 am |
    • Glenn

      Well said Saddend, the single most important thing in this world is how one treats their fellow man. Love is the only thing you will take with you which will last forever.

      July 24, 2011 at 1:27 pm |
  5. gustavi

    Who does this guy think he is?? Making discuples plus baptizing them .thats makinf a full convert or isnt it? This stupido guy only needs attention. Maybe his wife is not giving him enough attention. REPENT!!!!!

    July 24, 2011 at 11:41 am |
  6. Question everything

    Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction.

    July 24, 2011 at 11:40 am |
  7. erich2112x

    The Evangelicals have taken Jesus off of the cross and replaced him with an American Republican politician, hairspray and all.

    July 24, 2011 at 11:40 am |
    • AGuest9

      LOL! Evangelicals would have stood at the foot of the cross and told Jesus that he wasn't dying well enough and had somehow sinned while he was up there.

      July 25, 2011 at 9:19 pm |
  8. SDN

    I agree with you and 'Plate'. I'm agnostic – I simply don't know if Jesus was, and is, a living, breathing guy with a message which we could all benefit, or not. i simply can't imagine a 'faith' based on fear, guilt, and reverence for guys in weird outfits packing incense and bowls of 'holy water'. If Jesus' message was respect and love for your fellow man, sign me up. The path we're hurtling down now sure as hell isn't the answer to a pleasant life on the planet.

    July 24, 2011 at 11:40 am |
    • Yonah

      Sounds like you are on to something. Read Matthew. What is the first thing that Jesus said to anyone and everyone? "Come, follow me." He didnt give some huge sermon, he didnt tell anyone to follow a religious system, and he didnt say, first you have to believe x,y,z".

      July 24, 2011 at 11:44 am |
    • I_get_it

      [Jesus said,] "Come, follow me."

      It sounds like Jesus needs a Twitter account! 🙂

      July 25, 2011 at 1:40 pm |
  9. PATRICK KELLY

    Bible says salvation comes by faith and faith comes by hearing the word. That is what evangelists do travel and preach the Word of God. It is not enough to know the historical Jesus, Jesus said you must be born again – a spiritual birth from above to know God as your Father. To be born from above requires repentance from sin and beleiving in His sacrifice on the cross.

    July 24, 2011 at 11:37 am |
    • Amistavia

      It also requires a good dose of self-delusion.

      July 24, 2011 at 11:39 am |
  10. blabblahblahblah

    No one ever points out that if you don't convert to Islam, they just kill you.

    July 24, 2011 at 11:36 am |
    • SDN

      Might want to have a quick read regarding the Spanish Inquisition.

      July 24, 2011 at 11:41 am |
    • HS

      Ignorant comment. And you know this for a fact? And have you ever looked at the history of Europe? Most countries didn't flock to Christianity because of their deep acceptance of the words of Christ. It was mostly by the sword or political decisions by leaders who converted rather than be slaughtered as pagans.

      July 24, 2011 at 11:41 am |
    • Yonah

      There are 1.57 billion Muslims in the world. Do you know any of them? Are you saying that all 1.57 billion want to kill you or convert you?

      July 24, 2011 at 11:46 am |
  11. Rodney Hinds

    Real gods would not require the use of missionaries. Keep religion as a personal relationship between you and your god and the world would be a much happier place.

    July 24, 2011 at 11:33 am |
  12. Sam Houston

    A Christian is one who follows Jesus Christ's example (1Peter2:21-23). Obviously, the wars fought in the name of "christianity" were not really by true Christians. This gentleman needs to study the Bible a bit more and see how not only did Christ look for people and visit them where they were, but what about his disciples. They too brought the "good news" (evangel) to others wherever they were. It was never a forced conversion. (Acts 20:20,21; Luke 8:1; 9:2) Rather a preaching of the "good news" of God's Kingdom–the only true solution to the world's problems.

    July 24, 2011 at 11:33 am |
    • Chris

      Wrong...a Christian is someone that believe Jesus died for their sins...DONE...That's all that's required to be one.

      July 24, 2011 at 11:35 am |
    • BeamMeUpScotty

      @Chris is a SUNDAY Christian.

      He goes to church every Sunday to ask for forgiveness for all the sins he has committed in the last week!

      LMAO

      July 24, 2011 at 11:40 am |
    • Doug

      Yet it is the Christians of this nation who argue that the wars started in the name of Islam are committed by "true" Muslims. Muslims = terrorists if they murder in the name of their religion. Christians = crusaders, simply killing because the infidels won't accept the word of Jesus Christ? Do you see the contradiction here? Of course, Muslims also attempt to disown terrorists and extremists, just like the Christians. I cannot wait for the rush to disassociate the actions of the Christian terrorist in Norway, from the Christian belief system.

      July 24, 2011 at 11:51 am |
  13. Ron

     1 What was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the Word of Life— 2 and the life was manifested, and we have seen and testify and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was manifested to us— 3 what we have seen and heard we proclaim to you also, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father, and with His Son Jesus Christ. 4 These things we write, so that our joy may be made complete. 1 John 1-4

    July 24, 2011 at 11:32 am |
  14. BeamMeUpScotty

    Jesus is so irrevalent in the Bible. Why is very little said about him?

    HINT: he never existed, or he was just a regular man who went GOD-delusional

    Now how about we protect children from being evanglized by their parents and church?

    July 24, 2011 at 11:31 am |
    • secondhalf

      I'd recommend you read the bible in a different light. Much of Old Testament points to Christ (see prophecy) and nearly all the New Testament IS Christ. Even many secularist historians point out that Christ lived, no serious doubt about that. Whether or not you believe He is God (I do) there is no question that He is the most influential person who ever walked the earth.

      July 24, 2011 at 11:41 am |
    • Pumbaa

      That's the "beauty" of Christianity. You can "sin" all week and go to Church Sunday and have all those sins forgiven. You don't have to worry about Karma in this life or the life to come. At one time a gift of money to the Church would buy you a temporary license to sin some more.

      July 24, 2011 at 11:58 am |
    • Liam Ray

      What do Atheists like yourself care about what parents and people tell their kids or anyone else regarding their faith? If you're an Atheist, what do you care? If you really believe that God or any god does not exist and everybody else is delusional, when we all die, we will cease to exist anyway. Why are you hateful to others where in the end, we will be no more? It really doesn't matter, doesn't it? Let everybody do want they want. If you really believe what you believe, just chill out, have a beer, and enjoy the remaining years of life you have left here. Let all the crazies and the delusional whack jobs tell others about their gods and let them kill each other. What are you worrying about? Are you worrying that you're going to die? It really doesn't make a difference, doesn't it?

      July 24, 2011 at 12:53 pm |
  15. Lino

    "Live is simple we the people make it complicated" –Carl Medearls wrote this powerful article that few will understand. I agree with some post that religion is the root of evil; (me) a person with Christian faith. Why I say that is because true Christianity is about the relationship with the Father (God-Creator). Religion is a ritual to a god. –Carl in the article wrote one of the core principle that Jesus thought us; to love one another. When you Love someone it means you get to know that person and understand them. Learning from God and the bible it was never about forcing your views to other people but it is about loving them for who they are.
    By reading this article it gives me hope and more understanding that one day this selfish world is going to be a better place. For those that already hating on this post; guess what I love you.

    July 24, 2011 at 11:31 am |
  16. Yonah

    Thank you Carl. Keep lifting Jesus's name. His name will bear much fruit. The fields are white for harvest!

    July 24, 2011 at 11:30 am |
    • bob

      don't you mean ripe not white?

      July 24, 2011 at 11:33 am |
    • Yonah

      John 4:35 "...lift up your eyes and see that the fields are white for harvest"
      It is a reference to the traditional Samaritan white garments. Because Jesus decided to go through Samaria and talk to one woman, he ended up staying a couple of more days and "many more believed because of his word."

      July 24, 2011 at 12:05 pm |
  17. Random Christian

    I happen to be a Christian who approaches Christianity just like you Carl. As Coloradan points out, this is not an easy viewpoint to have when surrounded by a Christian society whose walls and practices makes them very much not Christ-like. My wife is Muslim; when I married her with no intention of changing her views, I was basically branded the ultimate failure at evangelism and ostracized from my previous church. Nobody cared that each of our faiths was made stronger through our relationship, because it was convert "them" or fail. I think the modern American Christian, who seems to have gone to war with a global society inching closer and closer to real tolerance, has missed the point. It will be sadly ironic when we can look back on our current age and note with hindsight how non-Christians did more to build the Kingdom than modern evangelicals.

    July 24, 2011 at 11:29 am |
    • BeamMeUpScotty

      The greatest inspiration for ATHEISM is Christianity.

      Christianity has done more to advance ATHEISM than any other religion.

      July 24, 2011 at 11:35 am |
  18. Sergio

    Then why did Jesus tell people to go an d make diciples?

    July 24, 2011 at 11:28 am |
    • Lino

      Follow Him and you will know why.

      July 24, 2011 at 11:33 am |
    • BeamMeUpScotty

      The "Jesus" of the Bible (as written) never existed.

      It was those ANONYMOUS writers of NT gospels who wrote those lines in order to advance their POLITICAL MOTIVES, ie. a NEW WORLD ORDER

      July 24, 2011 at 11:37 am |
    • Lino

      How you came up with this?

      July 24, 2011 at 11:40 am |
    • Lino

      Do you mean the new church? A church that was not corrupted by self gratification?

      July 24, 2011 at 11:42 am |
    • BeamMeUpScotty

      @Lino

      It's called HISTORICAL FACTS!

      Go research yourself, and the TRUTH shall set you free.

      July 24, 2011 at 11:49 am |
  19. Michael

    A well meaning article, but it misses the point. The point of Christianity isn't to just be an "admirer" of Jesus, nor should we be satisfied that others just "admire" or "respect" Jesus's teachings. The point of being a Christian is to be "born again of water and the spirit" this necessary step is part of being a disciple of Christ, and what Jesus meant when he said to "go and make disciples of all nations." Maybe the author became jaded with evangelical methods. I would understand that, and I do believe in a slower, more methodical, more open mission work. But to say that Christians should stop seeking converts goes against the Christian Mission

    July 24, 2011 at 11:28 am |
    • Bert in UT

      There is a big difference between spreading the message and "seeking converts".

      July 24, 2011 at 11:49 am |
  20. Plate

    Thank you for your article. I happen to agree with you. I was raised in a Pentecostal Church it was full of fire and brimstone, shame and control. "For all have sinned and come short of the glory of God". Mathew also says "Judge not that ye be not judged". Jesus said "Let the first among you without sin cast the first stone". In my life I have known many "Christians" I have known few people who have been Christ like, personally maybe one. I have been in recovery from Alcoholism for 29 years. And it wasn't until I got involved with AA that I came to understand a different Christ than the one that I had been told about most of my life. I believe that our relationship with God is a personal relationship. It is not something that is worn on the sleeve. Neither Ghandi nor Martin Luther King were missionaries, they were both men of God. Proselytizing only works through a life lived not preached. Hamas in some aspects is doing what Jesus ask his disciples to do, good works, "if a man ask for your jacket give him your shirt as well" "build up your stores in heaven not in the treasures of earth" . One of the few Godly men that I have ever known died way too young, for my timeline, but one of the things that I remember him saying was "most Christian's heads are so high in the clouds they do no earthly good" Religion is man made not God made.

    July 24, 2011 at 11:27 am |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.