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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. Sturgeonslawyer

    "I come to bring not peace but a sword"
    "Make disciples of all the world"

    July 24, 2011 at 1:49 pm |
  2. aUtheIsTIC

    Atheists should be the one to shut their mouth and stop evengelizing Godlessness.

    July 24, 2011 at 1:48 pm |
    • Ed

      When is the last time an athiest came to your door to spread thier beliefs?

      July 24, 2011 at 1:50 pm |
    • daniel

      Can't remember when. Then again, I can say the same for evangelical Christians.

      July 24, 2011 at 1:52 pm |
    • Robert

      In the USA, we have freedom of speech. I know it's hard for xtians to remember that it isn't "The United States of Christianity" but you'll figure it out eventually.

      July 24, 2011 at 2:02 pm |
    • Sarah

      An amen to what aUtheIsTIC said!!!

      July 24, 2011 at 2:07 pm |
    • The Way It Is

      I had a group of three evangelicals at my door yersteday morning. I have had many people shove their religious text onto my child without my knowledge or permission. I have had my children taking to "fun play groups" that turned out to be bible study/indoctrination sessions in disguise, which the people who took her knew but lied to me about. This has happened a lot.

      I have never had an atheist do anything like that.

      July 24, 2011 at 2:11 pm |
  3. jrun7

    What about that, "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations" part?

    July 24, 2011 at 1:47 pm |
  4. Katt

    Bones: "Jesus rose from the dead after three days...like a zombie."
    Booth: "Jesus is NOT a zombie, I shouldn't have to tell you that!"

    Booth: "God doesn't make mistakes."
    Angela: "I don't know....putting the testicles on the outside, not such a good idea." 🙂

    I love when these characters have talk about religion!

    July 24, 2011 at 1:46 pm |
    • Jeff

      LMAO!

      July 24, 2011 at 1:55 pm |
  5. Will

    I know the evangelical's mind set well. They feel like they are morally required to proclaim a message along with a harsh warning about eternal sulfur in hell if it is rejected because the person could conceivably have a heart attack and die later that night. Furthermore, the evangelical cannot witness with his life's example, because many of them are more unhappy and immoral then the "unsaved".

    July 24, 2011 at 1:46 pm |
    • Robert

      Sound just like Greek Cynics to me. They would go from town to town and expect the people to hear their diatribe, at the least. Typically, they also wanted to be fed and put up while there. If a town did not do these things, they typically cursed the town and left in a huff (shaking the dust from their feet as it says in the bible). The xtians changed that. Instead of a curse, they would usually just slaughter the people or raize the town. Love thy neighbor and all of that. These days it is more about going to desperate people for easy converts.

      July 24, 2011 at 2:00 pm |
  6. donna

    Distributing Bibles is important, since Bibles save soles. People shouldn't stop doing that.

    July 24, 2011 at 1:43 pm |
    • Jeff

      So if I strap bibles to my shoes, I will never need to buy another pair again?

      July 24, 2011 at 1:51 pm |
    • fpsdpod

      putting bibles in hotel rooms should not be the way to distribute though,

      July 24, 2011 at 1:53 pm |
    • Bucky Ball

      Apparently the bible IS the enemy of the cobblers.

      July 24, 2011 at 1:56 pm |
    • Jack

      You mean when you put the bibles on your feet, right?

      July 24, 2011 at 2:01 pm |
  7. T

    Beautiful and insightful article.

    July 24, 2011 at 1:41 pm |
  8. Friend

    Great Youtube post : Ravi Zacharias on Atheism, Suffering and Absolutes

    July 24, 2011 at 1:40 pm |
  9. Sharon Samson

    Well, how else are you going to control the sheep?

    July 24, 2011 at 1:40 pm |
  10. Jeff

    Just say no to jesus

    July 24, 2011 at 1:36 pm |
  11. Jesus is not a Republican

    "I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ."
    Mohandas Gandhi

    July 24, 2011 at 1:36 pm |
    • Jeff

      Good point, I'll change my earlier post to Just say no to christians.

      July 24, 2011 at 1:38 pm |
    • mabel floyd

      you are correct when you look at the fake christians , or as they call themselves, evangelicals

      July 24, 2011 at 1:51 pm |
    • chris

      right! do not follow Christians. There are to many people claiming to be Christians who really are not. Read the Bible and follow Jesus. He is the only way to heaven. He said, You must be born again. (Yes, that's evangelism.)

      July 24, 2011 at 1:59 pm |
    • Bucky Ball

      Not only was he NOT a Republican, but he was quite the anarchist. (Mathew 21:12, Mark 11:15, John 2:15) It's why they removed him.

      July 24, 2011 at 2:02 pm |
  12. dirtydog1776

    If you ever want to know why people in other countries are so disgusted with Americans, it is because we go to their countries and tell them their religion has no value, they have been doing it wrong for 1000's of years and that if they had any brains at all, they would convert to Christianity. I can imagine most Christian missionaries come across as pompous morons. Nice lesson on how to win friends and influence people.

    July 24, 2011 at 1:36 pm |
    • daniel

      Seems like you omitted the part where Christians go in and feed the hungry, clothe the poor, and build homes for those without shelter. Makes it easier to hate them if you can keep them in that tiny box of yours doesn't it?

      July 24, 2011 at 1:49 pm |
    • othentic

      hmmmmm, I think your logic is flawed. #1 It's not really "Americans" doing this. We hardly have the history for that. Religious propaganda and colonialism was happening long before America was colonized. #2 Do you know many immigrants/ refugees/ foreign students or workers? There are literally thousands in my city alone (African, Middle Eastern, European, South American, Asian, South Asian, etc), and they're generally pretty thrilled with the USA.

      July 24, 2011 at 2:24 pm |
  13. ThinkAgain

    I wish more groups would follow the "Anonymous" (as in AA, NA, etc.) Tradition 11 of "Our public relations policy is based on attraction rather than promotion; we need always maintain personal anonymity at the level of press, radio and films. "

    July 24, 2011 at 1:35 pm |
  14. City On a Shining Hill

    Jesus said that unless a man humble himself as a little child, as the gospels, and trust in Him for salvation, he cannot enter Heaven. And, we have all sinned, and come short of God's glory (Romans 3:23), but, if "we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and take them away, and reconciling us to God"-I John 1:9.

    Christianity is unique among all religions, in that it requires an individual to recognize his or her sinfulness, and then forsake it: "Shall we continue in sin, that God will forgive us, no. Turn from it" "Romans 6:1.

    All relgions teach that the way to Heaven is to live a good life, and go through certain rituals. But, "Without the shedding of
    blood, there is no forgiveness of sin"-Hebrews 9:22. Christ, as God in man, had to die a sinless death, to ransom the world and reconcile mankind to a holy God.

    Thus, Christians must warn the lost that to not repent, and follow Christ, and take up His cross daily, as a true disciple, one cannot enter the kingdom of God.

    Man is naturally prideful, and self centered. Humbling him or herself is harder.

    July 24, 2011 at 1:35 pm |
    • Luis Wu

      Jesus said? No...I think an archaic old book of myths said that. How utterly stupid.

      July 24, 2011 at 1:39 pm |
    • Tony

      "Christianity is unique among all religions, in that it requires an individual to recognize his or her sinfulness, and then forsake it"

      No. This is based on ignorance of other religions. For good ro bad, virtually all major religions require this. Please learn about other religions before saying things like this.

      July 24, 2011 at 1:46 pm |
    • sarah

      You need to take a world religion class if you honestly think Christianity is the only religion that asks people to repent their sins.

      July 24, 2011 at 1:52 pm |
    • ad

      just one question:

      do you think Mahatma Gandhi went to hello because he dint accept Christ?

      July 24, 2011 at 1:54 pm |
    • glenn robert

      Religion! A sin against humanity! Millions killed in the name of God. One side says there is a god and have no proof. The other side says there is no God and have no proof. Meanwhile the world suffers!

      July 24, 2011 at 1:59 pm |
  15. MikeTheCat

    The belief in fairy-tales has done much more harm than good, so all this talk about the composite-character currently called Jesus is more than just a waste of time. The delusions of believers continue to cause war around the world, with no end in sight. Focusing on the few nice parts of the Bible does nothing to change that fact.

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

      Do you actually not believe in the historical figure of Jesus? If so, what makes you believe in Alexander the Great or Augustus Ceasar?

      July 24, 2011 at 2:29 pm |
  16. Bud

    Let's see now. I do remember reading somewhere the idea of "Follow Me and I'll make you a 'fisher of men'." And I'm fairly sure those words are attributed to Jesus. So, someone wanna explain what it DOESN'T mean?

    July 24, 2011 at 1:35 pm |
  17. rev.spike

    You cannot be a Christian without being evangelical.

    July 24, 2011 at 1:34 pm |
    • Ron

      Is this a jest or are you serious?

      July 24, 2011 at 1:40 pm |
    • your.friend.jd

      Jesus called us to be followers of him, not Christians. Or evangelicals.

      July 24, 2011 at 3:17 pm |
  18. njebel

    "World Famous Atheist Converted by the Scientific Evidence for God"

    http://www.creationevidenceexpo.org/wordpress/world-famous-atheist-converted-by-the-scientific-evidence-for-god/

    July 24, 2011 at 1:34 pm |
    • modern_day_soothesayer

      Proving what? That not all atheists are smarter than Christians?

      July 24, 2011 at 1:56 pm |
    • Bucky Ball

      From your article :

      "Flew now describes himself as a deist. A deist is someone who believes in a God who is not actively involved in people’s lives. He has stated that he is not a Christian and does not believe in an afterlife."

      Creationism has been debunked in many places. Just because one elderly scientist decides to accept Creationism, does NOT mean he accepted "religion", or it's claims.

      July 24, 2011 at 2:26 pm |
  19. Tingle007

    Oh look Atheist throwing a fit over Jesus on the internet again. You never see that every damn day in every damn article.

    July 24, 2011 at 1:33 pm |
    • modern_day_soothesayer

      Sorry but you see much more Christian drivel any day of the week

      July 24, 2011 at 1:58 pm |
  20. dirtydog1776

    The best way to convince people your message is worthy is to lead by example. Rich evangelists telling me that I should give them lots of money is nothing more than a con game. I would never donate any money to someone who has a fancier suit or car than I do.

    July 24, 2011 at 1:31 pm |
    • uzalex

      Indeed! How very correct!

      July 24, 2011 at 1:48 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.