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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. Mel

    As a non-christian (whpo was raised methodist, so i know what the bible says etc.) nothing is more off putting than someone you meet deciding it's time to talk about Jesus. I think the author is missing his own message, talking to everyone you meet about jesus is going to be seen as "evangelizing" by a lot of non-chritians. At the very least it is obnoxious, and most certainly disrespectful. That said, jesus seems to have been a whole lot kinder and more accepting than most of his followers. Someone mentioned earlier the lack of proof for jesus, it may or may not be true, but if some christians would take thier noses out of their bibles and took the time to study the history or religion they would have to admit that, as seen now, is a combination of myths from ancient egypt to pagan europe and many others. My theory on all this, If you want to talk about jesus to someone you have met, you are evangelizing, and have the respect to keep your spirituality to yourself unless invited to discuss it.

    July 24, 2011 at 3:36 pm |
    • Allie

      Well said! I completely agree!

      July 24, 2011 at 3:41 pm |
    • twiddly

      Well said! I agree wholeheartedly.
      To say you are "just talking about jesus" and so you are "not evangelizing" is clearly ridiculous.
      If your religion is the one, true religion then isn't it your duty to evangelize? And if it isn't, then why are you bothering with it?

      This is someone who seems to think that it doesn't matter what you believe in, as long as you believe in "something" [preferably something with jesus].
      Only atheists are looked down on because they are pointing out that you're not going live forever (which I'll admit is scary, but get over it already).

      July 24, 2011 at 3:45 pm |
    • Allie

      In my opinion ~ Nothing lives forever... We – being humans – happen to think that we are the ultimate & superior living creature on this planet... When in all reality, we aren't the only specie that shares this place we all call "home". Energy is real, and it can be either positive or negative... Spirits, ghosts, souls & deities are imaginary. (Again, this is my personal opinion. If someone can PROVE to me these things are indeed true, like I can PROVE to them that dinosaurs existed, evolution is a fact & that we derived from hominids – then please, make an attempt to influence me otherwise.) What makes us so "special", compared to any other living creature? Much of our society is barbaric, violent and unrelenting. I find us to be no different than all the animals that thrive here, from the crawling ant to the largest blue whale. I've always said that if there is a heaven, I want to go wherever the dogs go. Life is beautiful ~ and everyone has their own thought process on what happens after they die. I believe our energy that we borrowed while we were alive, is returned back to Earth & hopefully goes on to something else positive in the world.
      People die everyday, just as animals die everyday... With death, comes life & with life, comes death. I believe that those who fear death are the ones who need to believe in a deity, in order for themselves to feel whole. Yet, not everyone needs religion to feel fulfilled... Some, like myself, believe in making a difference in the world for the better & do a good deed everyday, to feel like they're making the Earth a better place. I believe religious concepts can be brought up, if both parties are accepting of it, do not make any attempts to convert the other in one way or another and are completely respectful of the other person's beliefs. You can always agree to disagree & still be appreciative & regardful.

      July 24, 2011 at 4:20 pm |
  2. Carl Have You Read the Bible?

    "Jesus the uniter of humanity, not Jesus the divider."
    From a religious, Bible-believing standpoint, this is impossible. Luke 12:51- "Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division. From now on in one house there will be five divided, three against two and two against three." also Jesus said that.

    July 24, 2011 at 3:35 pm |
    • Carl Medearis

      True. And there are 100's that say my point. But it's a good push-back!
      carl

      July 24, 2011 at 3:43 pm |
    • Kat

      I would like to point out that the Bible is a book which everyone must intrepret when he or she "reads" it as so few do. One can find a quote from the Bible to support virtually every view, however, it is the intrepretation that supports the opinion, and rarely the passage itself.

      July 24, 2011 at 3:51 pm |
  3. Cheryl Humphrey

    Love your neighbor as yourself and judge not lest you be judged. I live my life based on these two beliefs. Only God knows what is in our hearts and only he shall judge us. In the meantime, my heart, my life, my church and my family welcomes gays. If we don't want others in our bedroom, why do we insist on being in theirs? The LGBT population volunteer in their communities, worship in their churches (if there churches are open and affirming), care for their elderly, contribute to society and so much more. Can't we live and let live? And no, I do not have anyone gay in my family with whom I have to support regarding this issue. The Bible has been translated and re-translated beginning with the Romans and Greeks. When the Bible said, and I paraphrase, "a man shall not lie with another man as he would with a woman," could it not mean something else and we've all been taught to look at it one way? The Biblical hierarchy began with the King, then men, boys and male slaves. After that came women, girls and lastly female slaves. Could this passage not mean within the context of society at the time it was written, that lying with a man was belittling that man as women were farther down on the social scale? Try thinking for yourself and not what you've always been taught or what some of the hysterical evangelists want you to believe. It's simple; love others as you love yourself, keep the Golden Rule and let God do his job.

    July 24, 2011 at 3:33 pm |
  4. John Rdra

    Hi Carl,

    An interesting article.

    Yet, I feel that you have missed two fundamentals truths that underlined Jesus' life. First, people followed Jesus wherever he went and they became converts on their own. There was no need for him to convert them. Second, Jesus gave a specific command to all his disciples (see Mark 16:15, Matt. 28:19.20) And He said to them, "Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation. (NASB) Why should we do this according to the Bible (Jude 1:23)?

    Preaching the good news and allowing those who choose Jesus to convert is a command not an option. There's nothing wrong with speaking to people about Jesus, but being a protagonist in evangelism is direct obedience to Jesus' command.

    Please reconsider your worldview.

    July 24, 2011 at 3:32 pm |
  5. morgan painter

    I believe it was Abraham Lincoln who said, "The best way to destroy your enemy is to make him your friend."

    When I first read the headline I was not in agreement but as I read the article I better understood the meaning. As I comprehend it, this mans intention is to continue discussing Jesus as subject matter without truly attempting make people switch faiths. That opens the door to intelligent dialogue without intimidation and allows God to speak to the heart of the person.

    I can live with that.

    July 24, 2011 at 3:31 pm |
  6. Jimm in Florida

    It's not enough that the anti-christian crowd flocks to any CNN artcile that demeans Christianity (there are such articles almost daily).

    If you are secular, don't believe in God, Christ or the Holy Spirit that is your call – keep it that way – its also goes without saying that the Secularists don't need to be selling Secularism either.

    What I am saying is the Irreligious Evangelicals need to button it up too – what is good for the goose is good for the gander, agree CNN?

    CNN is the leader in Christianity hating, American blaming – hard to believe they are even headquartered in this country.

    July 24, 2011 at 3:31 pm |
  7. E

    I do not understand the article's author. He says that Jesus never asked his disciples to convert people into Christianity, but that Jesus only asked them to go and make disciples of all nations.
    Disciples of what Mr. Medearis?
    (I know the answer, it is disciples of Christ!) Jesus literally asked his disciples to preach the good news of Gospel to the whole world!

    July 24, 2011 at 3:31 pm |
  8. Ann Brenner

    How refreshing and unintimidating . I will be able to share Jesus Good News if I just talk
    about Jesus with those that the lord sends into my life.
    Thank you Carl

    July 24, 2011 at 3:30 pm |
  9. ConsiderThis

    Seems as though this scripture is forgotten:

    Peter 3:15 (from NIV) But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect,

    When I read this, it teaches me to give the "reason for my hope" only when asked.

    July 24, 2011 at 3:28 pm |
  10. Reality

    Religion and gods are for weak minded people, naive, people, etc... That can't handle the fact that there is no reason why we exist. The human race is just a spec of dust in the universe on an insignificant planet among trillions of planets. Make the best of the life you have here as it is all you have. Don't bet on some silly after life idea...that is only an excuse for not enjoying what you have now.

    July 24, 2011 at 3:28 pm |
    • Allie

      Agree.

      July 24, 2011 at 3:44 pm |
  11. La

    This is what people of the faith from any denomination of the belief of God needs to hear. Speak the word of God and leave it there to be picked up and bridging that gap. Besides look at those who hate God or don't believe he exists are benefiting from that (not all atheists, Luciferians and Satanist or whoever is posting here). It's always been said that God has no favorite being or religion. All of those who love God are his people.

    Now for those are posting here trying to either insult God or saying we are insane or imperfect for believing in God: if the thought of God or the sight of a church makes you twitch enough that you have to find a religious blog on CNN to spew your grudge, it doesn't show much perfection of you and that's okay. If you feel that there is no God, why do you have to write a whole book on here just to say it? For there to be no God, he's definitely there enough for you to fight back at everyday. And just because it didn't work for you doesn't mean it can't work for us. If you feel clean searching for perfection that you'll never find, that's for you (no one can be perfect). If we feel clean having a relationship with God then it's for us. And the same people here, that you dislike or feel are an abomination on society, can definitely be depended to grow to love you no matter what.

    July 24, 2011 at 3:27 pm |
  12. Lisa

    If you keep your gawd, I promise to keep my logic and rationality.

    July 24, 2011 at 3:27 pm |
  13. DPV

    I think the article is written under the premise that 'evangelizing' and 'proselyting' consist in manipulating people. I am not evangelical christian, but I think this should be slightly offended to the decent individuals who choose to be missionaries, and teach the gospel correctly. Not by manipulation, or bible bashing like so many do, but teaching about Jesus. Inviting others to see life the way you do, so they can have better lives.

    I don't agree at all that proselyting is a bad thing and that Jesus did not command his apostles to do so. I do agree that manipulative evangelizing techniques are quite evil, and pretty annoying too.

    Share your faith, promote it. But don't do it by pulling out your Bible and reciting the 15 passages your pastor taught you supposedly destroy the doctrines of muslims, mormons, JW or whatever. Be a true christian.

    July 24, 2011 at 3:25 pm |
    • Katie

      I appreciate your response...as an evangelical your you put to words what I was feeling unsettled about. The author had some good points but was missing the depth of the issue for me. It would be like taking the issue of grief and reducing it just to steps. Grief is way more complex than that... the same (and more I'd argue!) can be said about sharing and experiencing the grace, mercy, forgiveness, and love of Christ. It felt like an article about semantics rather than wrestling with the real issue.

      July 24, 2011 at 3:54 pm |
  14. zyan globosits

    YES, BUT THE BIBLE SAYS THAT ALL WHO BELIEVE IN CHRIST SHALL BE SAVED. DON'T YOU THINK PEOPLE SHOULD BE SAVED?

    WAY TO BE A CHRISTIAN, CARL.

    July 24, 2011 at 3:24 pm |
    • Normon

      Saved from what? ... Oh, right, hell.
      What is hell again? ... Oh, right, that place God created to punish people.
      Punish people for what? ... Oh, right, not paying attention to the Guy who created hell.

      July 24, 2011 at 3:32 pm |
  15. Ralph in Orange Park, FL

    People have a right to be left alone, a concept many evangelicals have yet to grasp.

    July 24, 2011 at 3:24 pm |
  16. Justin

    There goes CNN trying to confuse people again.

    Jesus never said that he was a prophet or a mere teacher.
    He said that he is the Son of God and God himself (part of the Holy Trinity).
    He said that he is "the way, the truth, and the life", and that no one can be saved and go to Heaven except through Him.
    He did not come to earth to be a prophet and merely teach people to be better.
    He came to die for people's sins so that they may have communion with God and be with Him eternally.

    Perhaps the author has been influenced by having been in a region of the world where so many people use and abuse religion as a justification for doing acts of violence and other evil. He had a tough job evangelizing in Lebanon; perhaps he was affected by the huge amount of resistance he ran into – Muslims are the most difficult people to preach Christianity to.
    But.. religious pluralism is not the answer.
    Either Jesus was the Son of God or he was just a teacher. There's a huge difference between the two. There's no middle ground. If you want to preach Jesus, do it right.

    Also, here is Jesus' final commandment: "Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you."
    You tell me how this is compatible with believing in Allah or Buddha or Krishna or any other deity in the major world religions.

    July 24, 2011 at 3:23 pm |
    • follow me as i Follow Christ

      ditto

      July 24, 2011 at 3:26 pm |
    • Mike

      Excellent post. Never thought I would say that on a CNN website.

      July 24, 2011 at 3:26 pm |
    • Normon

      Justin,
      "Jesus never said that he was a prophet or a mere teacher.
      He said that he is the Son of God and God himself (part of the Holy Trinity)."
      How do you know what Jesus said? All you know is what someone said that Jesus said.

      "Either Jesus was the Son of God or he was just a teacher."
      As we are all supposedly, children of God, perhaps he was both...

      July 24, 2011 at 3:29 pm |
    • David Johnson

      Jesus apparently said a lot of stuff that wasn't true:

      I say unto you, This generation shall not pass, till all these things be fulfilled.” – Matthew 24:34

      Jesus promised, that He would return within that generation, but He did not. Since He was wrong, He could not have been God, so the Christian faith, is based on error. To bolster the argument, in all of the other places in the Gospels where Jesus used the term “this generation,” he was referring to people living at that time.

      Why do you spend any money on medical care? You have the promise of god:
      Mark 11:24: Jesus speaking
      Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.

      John 14:14: Jesus speaking
      If you ask anything in my name, I will do it.

      Mark 16: Jesus speaking
      16 He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned. 17 And these signs will accompany those who believe: in my name they will cast out demons; they will speak in new tongues; 18 they will pick up serpents, and if they drink any deadly thing, it will not hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover.

      James 5:15:
      And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise him up.
      Believers babble on about faith and belief and how the bible is the inerrant word of god.
      Yet, most ignore His word, and buy health insurance and seek the knowledge of man.
      They are tweaking the nose of god!

      Some, have actually believed what the bible tells them. They prayed for their child, trusting in the word of god, and withheld medical care. The child died. OOOooopsie!
      Not to fret! This was part of god's plan for the young'in.?
      A true believer would never set foot in a doctor's office!

      But, they do. They seek medical care, because they don't believe the promises of god. They know, that in the real world, prayer rarely works (exception: coincidence / random chance).

      Believers attempt to smooth this over by saying a little prayer, receiving medical treatment and then giving the credit to their god, if they get well... Hmm...

      The bible says: " Sick people are oppressed by the devil. Acts 10:38
      If this is true, then how can medical care be effective? A shot of penicillin would have no effect on demonic oppression. LOL

      Christians do not believe in Christianity because it is true. To them Christianity is true because they believe it.

      IF YOU CAN'T COUNT ON JESUS TO KEEP HIS PROMISES IN THIS LIFE, HOW CAN YOU POSSIBLY BELIEVE HIM ABOUT AN AFTERLIFE?

      Cheers!

      July 24, 2011 at 3:29 pm |
    • John

      Excellent point.. U either accept and follow jesus or u dont.. If u say I love him just as a teacher but not as Savior thn u r not following jesus....

      July 24, 2011 at 3:48 pm |
  17. Steve

    (Quote from the article) "Jesus the uniter of humanity, not Jesus the divider. How might that change the way we look at others?"

    That sounds great, but this is what Jesus said:

    "Do you think I came to give peace to the earth? No, I tell you, I came to divide it." – Luke 12:51.

    As long as there is sin in the world, humanity cannot be united. Jesus' words anger more people than they comfort, but nevertheless some will hear and it will change their life forever.

    July 24, 2011 at 3:21 pm |
    • hart

      I know what works for me as I am a devout believer in Jesus Christ and salvation through forgiveness.
      However, I respect others beliefs and do not wish to indoctrinate anyone.
      Reason being, without some sort of belief, whether spiritual or religious, the world would be full of anarchy.
      Everyone needs leadership and without a doubt we can not look to our governments for the leadership we desire in life.

      I am happy to share my beliefs with others in a way that works for both them and I but will never go beyond that point.
      Most have been happy to hear that there are Christians such as myself still in existance that are willing to share without telling them they are wrong.
      I am not here to judge and I do believe this is where most go wrong in the Christian faith by telling others that they ARE wrong.
      Share love, peace and fellowship and most will be more willing to listen.

      July 24, 2011 at 3:52 pm |
  18. Koseki

    People shouldn't evangelize because adults don't need to believe fairy tales.

    July 24, 2011 at 3:21 pm |
    • Logan9773

      I guess some of them just can't deal with reality.

      July 24, 2011 at 3:28 pm |
  19. gary

    YAWN,,,,CAN WE MOVE ON TO THE NEXT EXCITING SOCIALLY ALIENATING PERFORMANCE WE DO FOR THE IMAGINARY
    GUY IN THE SKY!
    CAKE....HAS HE GOT CAKE?

    July 24, 2011 at 3:18 pm |
    • Carla hurst-Chandler

      The Cake is a Lie....

      July 24, 2011 at 3:20 pm |
    • Logan9773

      Dam Straight! And it better be Devil's Food!

      July 24, 2011 at 3:29 pm |
  20. tj66

    It's not just religious evangelicals. We could do with more silence from out politicians as well. All learning should be Socratic in nature be it religious, political or otherwise.

    July 24, 2011 at 3:17 pm |
    • Logan9773

      Politicians are at their scariest when they're being quiet.

      July 24, 2011 at 3:30 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.