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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. Jim

    Joe has a certain view of the world "evangelize" that many would not identify with. He is perfectly within his right to use the word in the way that he is but that is a very, very stunted definition. To evangelize is to bring good news to those who do not know that news already (the Greek for 'good news" is 'evangelion' which is where the word evangelize comes from). Jesus SPECIFICALLY evangelized and proclaimed that it was His mission to do so when Jesus (in his first recorded proclamation) quoted the prophet Isaiah (Isaiah 61) to His own people (Luke 4).

    "16 And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up. And as was his custom, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and he stood up to read. 17 And the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written,

    Luke 4:

    18 “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
    because he has anointed me
    to proclaim good news to the poor.
    He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives
    and recovering of sight to the blind,
    to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
    19 to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor.”

    20 And he rolled up the scroll and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. 21 And he began to say to them, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

    To say that Jesus didn't evangelize is false, unless one is taking only a very narrow view of the word in English. Jesus came and evangelized while making disciples. One cannot be a faithful follower of Jesus without hearing and following the 'evangelion.'

    July 24, 2011 at 1:31 pm |
    • Richard S Kaiser

      Hello Jim,

      Your WORD is your Faith and your being an "evangelion" speaks Volumes!

      July 24, 2011 at 2:10 pm |
  2. Ed

    Um, Luke 12:51 "Do you think I came to being peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division. ..."
    The gospel of "can't we all just get along" is a false one. The greatest form of evangelism is living the full sacramental life with faith, hope, and charity.

    July 24, 2011 at 1:30 pm |
    • Luis Wu

      And a blah blah blah mumbo jumbo oogah boogah to you too. Moron.

      July 24, 2011 at 1:40 pm |
    • Richard S Kaiser

      Hello Ed,

      Isn't there enough Derision Nowadays to Last? Maybe, Maybe Not. Therefore I must conclude that Families Ought be Parented. Yes, even The Fathers and Mothers of Children; They should All be in educational studies for their Betterment and for the Good of the communities they dwell within. These Epressly written Words are those of its' bearer and should not be enlightened with one's vigilancies.

      July 24, 2011 at 2:19 pm |
  3. Sankarshan Das Adhikari

    I resonate with Carl Medearis. There is a universal science of reconnecting with the Supreme Person, the source of all existence. This can be expressed in Christian terms, Muslim terms, etc. The atheists will hard pressed to scientifically demonstrate that existence can spring out of nothing. Where is the scientific experiment to prove that something can come out of nothing?

    July 24, 2011 at 1:29 pm |
    • willie

      You have a really cool name but I think you need to take that question one step further. How did god create himself out of nothing? You see, both sides have the same issue.

      July 24, 2011 at 1:34 pm |
    • Bucky Ball

      Bullshit.

      There is NO "science" of reconnecting with anything. You made that up. What scientific experiments or theories or evidence have been presented, discussed, or written about in peer reviewed publications concerning what you said ?

      "The atheists will hard pressed to scientifically demonstrate that existence can spring out of nothing."
      -- No they aren't.
      -- Google "virtual particles", "quantum fluctuation" etc etc.
      "Where is the scientific experiment to prove that something can come out of nothing?"
      -- Don't be so lazy. It's there. Go find it. (And BTW, just because you can't see, today, what may have caused a something to come from nothing, does not mean it was done by a deity, or the ONLY option to explain that to yourself, is that "oh, god did it").

      July 24, 2011 at 1:43 pm |
    • Eric G

      Atheists are not trying to prove that "something came from nothing". Physicists are working on that one. Atheists claim (correctly) that verifiable evidence supporting the existence of a god has never been presented.

      The big bang theory you reference has a great amount of supporting evidence, but science does not have a problem saying "we don't know yet". If you dispute the verified evidence supporting the big bang theory, you either do not understand it (which is an argument from ignorance) or you do understand it and deny it because it does not support your world view (which is an argument from dishonesty).

      If you subscribe to the "god created everything" theory, what verifiable evidence do you have to support your view?

      July 24, 2011 at 1:45 pm |
    • OnEutawStreet

      An atheist request for to "prove" the existence of God is problematic. Assuming that science can only measure the natural, or the material, then it would not be capable of measuring a being, who by definition would be super-natural (i.e. above, outside of, or bigger than the natural). If you are a materialist, which most atheists tend to be, then you have defined a higher being out of the equation and there would be no need to conduct the proof, so why ask for it?

      July 24, 2011 at 1:57 pm |
    • Richard S Kaiser

      Hello SDA,

      From Nothingness ALL Things did Spring Forth! This Nothingness reaches form the Celestail Parts of OUTER Space and does Dwell within the Deepest Chasms of INNER Spaces ad infinitum.

      July 24, 2011 at 2:25 pm |
  4. billsf

    You're still a nut case, imo.
    You don't proseletyze, but you speak of Jesus wherever you go. What's the difference?
    Try and be like Jesus instead of speaking of him.

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

    Great article. Very interesting read. Your headline grabbed my attention and your prose didn't give it up. You have a very good point, and a very challenging argument here. Thank you.

    July 24, 2011 at 1:26 pm |
  6. vel

    I do wonder what Mr. Medearis would say about his supposed "savior" being all loving, if he would actually read Luke 19. there's a parable there, the parable of the 10 minas. At the end, it has this supposedly loving being saying "those who do not beleive in me, bring them before me and kill them". no wonder no pastor or priest mentions this parable. they always stick with the nice ones, the good samaritan, the prodigal son, etc. I was a Chrisitan once, and found one of the fastest ways to be come an atheist is to *actually* read that thing I was to be believing in rather than just let other people lie to me what it was about.

    July 24, 2011 at 1:26 pm |
    • HC21

      I've heard this parable spoken about at least a few times in sermons. It is usually in reference to people using their talents, gifts, skills, wealth, etc, to the glory of God. In other words, use your gifts to reach out to your fellow humans to help them, just as Jesus would have done. Yes, He does say that if we don't do this, we will be judged for it. But it is not up to us to say how He will judge anybody. Only God knows.

      July 24, 2011 at 2:27 pm |
  7. NJBob

    The author would is still mistaken. He could accomplish far more by dropping the mythology and embracing secular humanism.

    July 24, 2011 at 1:25 pm |
    • vel

      Indeed. mr. medearis is just one more Chritian with a magic decoder ring, who has decided that his version of the bible and Jesus are the only "right" ones. Funny how they all do that, and JC is claimed to support all sorts of things, directly contradicting the other. Shall we beleive Mr. Medearis or Fred Phelps in the contest of "will the RealTrueChristian stand up?"

      July 24, 2011 at 1:28 pm |
  8. Peter Togel

    Jesus told us to reach people for him. If we can't even do that, we miss an important thing.

    July 24, 2011 at 1:21 pm |
    • willie

      No he didn't. Jesus, if he ever lived in the first place, left no writings, no recordings or messages of any kind. You simply believe what others tell you.

      July 24, 2011 at 1:24 pm |
    • Jim

      Willie,

      Secular historians acknowledge that Jesus lived because ALL the evidence points to it. Tacitus (a VERY antagonistic Roman historian) even wrote that Jesus was crucified under Pilate and that he had followers and that Nero used them to divert the blame for the burning of Rome in addition to other atrocities. Tacitus wrote the "Annals" and secular historians know he wrote it about 110 AD.

      We shall see if "willie" is written about by historians in a few generations and that reference (among others in the same period) is preserved for 2,000 years....probably not. In another 2,000 years, it will still be true that Jesus walked this planet while you and I will most likely be forgotten long before the next 2,000 years are up. Unfortunately, it is you that only believes what he is told to believe my friend.

      Grace and Peace,

      July 24, 2011 at 1:37 pm |
    • Luis Wu

      Ancient mythology and one or two writings by a primitive culture don't make it the truth. Tacitus and Josephus never mentioned any miracles etc. They just noted that a guy named Jesus existed and had followers. So did dozens of other people. It's just old myths. Get a brain.

      July 24, 2011 at 1:42 pm |
  9. thenow

    Of course there is no god. What people may not recognize is that religion is a modern evolutionary tool like a tribe so that people can survive better or at least feel like they are safer. There is no reason or proof of god, no matter, people will make up anything based on fear so they can gain power in groups of number for the simple reason of furthering their species. That is why they have no problem going to war or doing violent things in the name of god because it really isn't what they say it is. The god veneer is just a feel good way to have natural selection have its way with the new member on board called the frontal lobe. This will all sort itself out, something always has to give. With every front there is a back.

    July 24, 2011 at 1:21 pm |
    • Jim

      Unfortunately your theory has zero evidence for itself unlike the evidence for the accuracy of the Bible.

      July 24, 2011 at 1:39 pm |
    • Bucky Ball

      ok jimmy, lets hear hear your evidence for the "accuracy" of your bible.

      July 24, 2011 at 1:47 pm |
    • thenow

      My point exactly Jim. Fight the good fight brother.

      July 24, 2011 at 1:47 pm |
  10. Jess

    You are right Joe. God is the one who determines who is in the book of life. Read Romans chapters 1-3. Too many evangelicals don't seem to understand this and believe that they can convert someone to christianity. It is God who changes the heart for someone to believe. The only one who can judge is God and he states in His word that judgement begins in the house of God. Christians should demonstrate their belief by example not by judging others.

    July 24, 2011 at 1:18 pm |
    • Abused Altar Boy

      The Bible is a good book but nothing more. If you want to know the word of God open your heart. If you want to see how primitive men interpreted natural events, read the Bible.
      Christianity is an affront to common sense and a shameful insult to the true message of Jesus. Christians should hope that God will forgive their ignorance and barbaric rituals. Shame on all of you. Eating Jesus and drinking his blood...disgusting.

      July 24, 2011 at 1:20 pm |
    • dirtydog1776

      So you mean there is no such thing as free will, if everything is already written down in the Book of Life? Now you sound like the pseudo-philosophers over at the Huffington Post.

      July 24, 2011 at 1:28 pm |
  11. Ainesey

    I understand what you mean. The problem with many christians (me being one) is the way the message is delivered but not so much the message. Although I do agree with a few of your points in that Jesus was looking to unite people and how we should do the same, eventually the "Jesus" subject is bound to become controversial anyway. Why? Because Jesus spoke about many other things that would make people uncomfortable. For example, yes, you are completely right in that Jesus never taught us to hate anyone but instead love one another but like JLP quoted above, Jesus said" I am the way,the truth and the life and no man gets to the father except by me". If Christian were only to focus on one aspect of Jesus then it would be more like spreading a philosophy and not a belief. As christians what needs to happen is that we must become good ambassadors of the kingdom and become filled of God's love so we may see people and love people the way he did and still does.

    July 24, 2011 at 1:13 pm |
    • NJBob

      On the contrary! Jesus commands us to hate.

      July 24, 2011 at 1:22 pm |
  12. Jack

    Wasn't St. Francis who said that he preached the Gospel, and, when necessary, he used words?

    July 24, 2011 at 1:13 pm |
  13. Linda

    I had a really comfortable belief in God when I was a child. My family didn't go to church but I would go with a friend from time to time so I learned about Jesus. When I grew up I joined the Church of Christ which did more to make me really dislike organized religion than one would think a group of Christians could do! I'm working my way back to the belief I had when I was a child and am much happier for it. I don't believe life has to be suffering and uphill and sad like the many Christians I know believe it to be. I think the male dominated organized religions foster domestic violence and prejudice.This article is a good one & a message that should be spread with as much enthusiasm as the evangelicals spread their message.

    July 24, 2011 at 1:09 pm |
  14. willie

    If you read the book of revelations you will find christians engaging in a war of the worlds, destroying all there is then getting on a spaceship called heaven and bolting to a new planet. We already know you live on a different planet mentally, perhaps you can just spare us the war and destruction part and leave now.

    July 24, 2011 at 1:08 pm |
    • Tommy

      There is no book of "revelations", only a book of Revelation. Additionally, if you take the book to a be a prophecy, then the Christians aren't around anymore. What are you reading?

      July 24, 2011 at 1:18 pm |
  15. truth2power

    "I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians, they are so unlike your Christ."
    -Gandhi

    July 24, 2011 at 1:08 pm |
    • Totally agree

      Totally agree with you

      July 24, 2011 at 1:13 pm |
    • phil

      this is true of every follower of every religion.....Nobody can live of to the perfect image of their respective religion. That is why in Christianity, we are given Grace.

      July 24, 2011 at 1:29 pm |
    • ThinkAgain

      I agree. People confuse the means (their particular religious practices, words, etc.) with the end (finding "the christ" in all of us: the opening of the heart space, and living in compassion, love, tolerance, forgiveness and inclusion).

      Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, so is the ability to know and be with God not constrained by any particular name, practice, culture, etc. I include atheists in this, too; if they are moral, ethical people, they are with God (by my definition).

      July 24, 2011 at 1:30 pm |
  16. HH

    One question Mr. Medearis: Do you believe that Jesus is the Christ, the son of God, the way to eternal life? Or do you just believe that he was a good man whose example we should follow? Of course there have been and are now groups that call themselves "Christians" and then prove they are not by their violence and hatred, just as there are groups that say they practice "Isalm" and by their actions prove they do not. I believe that Jesus is the Christ and I share that belief with others. Whether they choose to accept Him as such is a personal decision and I respect that. There are people that I love that don't believe as I do and I love them still. But I'm not going to "water down" my beliefs to be more acceptable to society. To state that people should follow Jesus is fine, but follow Him as what, Christ the Messiah or just a good man?

    July 24, 2011 at 1:07 pm |
    • willie

      Belief is the problem. No one can understand anything completely, there are always new facts to find. Belief happens when you stop looking for answers and buy into what you think you know. The birth of belief is the death of reason. That is why believers look like such fools for those of us who desire to find the truth.

      July 24, 2011 at 1:13 pm |
    • ThinkAgain

      Willie: Until someone dies and comes back with Polaroids, none of us know what happens after we die; it is all a matter of faith. Best to live your life morally, ethically, with love, compassion, forgiveness and tolerance of others, making the world a better place from having lived. Live a good life for its own sake – and the afterlife will take care of itself.

      July 24, 2011 at 1:32 pm |
    • the Anti-Willie

      Willie: "Belief is the problem. No one can understand anything completely, there are always new facts to find. Belief happens when you stop looking for answers and buy into what you think you know. The birth of belief is the death of reason. That is why believers look like such fools for those of us who desire to find the truth."

      Willie – That is the most pseudo-intellectual dribble I've ever heard. In your attempt to sound so enlightened, you've played your hand.
      What is the truth, by the way? If there are always new facts to find, then how can one definitively ever believe in anything?! Can I say that I can't believe in my dog because I'm not done searching for the new facts surrounding her existence? Just because I can see and touch something doesn't make it real, and just because I CAN'T see or touch something doesn't make it non-existent.
      In your effort to be wise, you make yourself a fool.

      July 24, 2011 at 1:50 pm |
  17. Jean

    Better to live one's life according to his beliefs than to tell others how they should live their lives. Be an example. If others see that your life is good, they will want to do what you are doing. You won't need to convince them.

    July 24, 2011 at 1:05 pm |
  18. myway

    First it has to be explained why we should take any of this seriously since no credible evidence exists that Jesus was who believers think he was. Setting that aside, it is very presumptuous that we could possibly know what Jesus actually did during his last few years, let alone what his actions were before. However, we do have credible records the New Testament as we know it was edited using an unknown number of source scrolls into the gospels and latter scriptures during the 4th Century AD. Of course the original or unused texts were immediately declared as heretic and consequently destroyed. Therefore, it's anyone's guess what Jesus' intent or actions were. Perhaps the Vatican has the answers in their top secret vaults. One thing is certain, as long as people shell out good money these books will keep on coming.

    July 24, 2011 at 1:05 pm |
  19. Athiest

    I do not believe in the existence of God or religion,I do not follow any book, just go with what I feel is right or wrong.
    '
    Although, I believe I do exist and am 'Immortal" I come on these posts only to challenge and I have nothing to prove to myself as I do not have faith and hope...I am all knowing and all powerful

    July 24, 2011 at 1:03 pm |
    • Ainesey

      What's your point?

      July 24, 2011 at 1:17 pm |
    • Robert

      I will pray for you.

      July 24, 2011 at 1:19 pm |
    • Jon

      90%of all people you meet in the US beieve in God but are afraid to say it. The polls are overwhelming. Einstein was a christian. You people that know it all-how about 5000 years people have believed and you are so much smarter. Hehe, you are just a dot on the planet of 6 billion. You are not unique and you do not know anything more than other people.

      July 24, 2011 at 1:21 pm |
    • njebel

      "Atheism turns out to be too simple. If the whole universe has no meaning, we should never have found out that it has no meaning: just as, if there were no light in the universe and therefore no creatures with eyes, we should never know it was dark. Dark would be without meaning." – C.S. Lewis

      July 24, 2011 at 1:28 pm |
    • Friend

      This is a good post on youtube:
      Ravi Zacharias on Atheism, Suffering and Absolutes

      July 24, 2011 at 1:35 pm |
    • AK

      I feel that killing all Jews in an industrial manner is the right thing to do. They are a corrupting blight on mankind. So says the Fuehrer.

      I feel all those who do not follow the Prophet, who do not convert, should be put to the sword.

      I feel religion is the opiate of the people. Those who feel otherwise, we have gulag prepared where they can be re-educated. Or not.

      Who's right? Who's wrong?

      "Fee-eelings....nothing more than fee-lings......."

      July 24, 2011 at 1:37 pm |
  20. Andy

    God is the cake. (Portal)

    July 24, 2011 at 1:02 pm |
    • Jean

      I agree. Chocolate cake is heavenly.

      July 24, 2011 at 1:09 pm |
    • AnInvconvenientTruth

      The joke falls flat when you find out that it really existed after the credits.

      July 24, 2011 at 1:18 pm |
    • yeah

      I could totally go for some chocolate cake right now.

      July 24, 2011 at 1:21 pm |
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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.