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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. frank

    The claiming to have a close personal relationship and be good buddies with the King of the Universe always kills me...

    July 24, 2011 at 8:37 pm |
  2. Buddy R

    Mr Medearis, Jesus himself said to preach the gospel.

    Mar 16:15 And he said unto them, Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature.
    Mar 16:16 He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned.

    No, Mr Medearis, Jesus is not a uniter of humanity. Jesus said his gospel will cause divisions because some people will become hostile to the truth. Not everyone wants the truth.

    Luk 12:51 Suppose ye that I am come to give peace on earth? I tell you, Nay; but rather division:
    Luk 12:52 For from henceforth there shall be five in one house divided, three against two, and two against three.
    Luk 12:53 The father shall be divided against the son, and the son against the father; the mother against the daughter, and the daughter against the mother; the mother in law against her daughter in law, and the daughter in law against her mother in law.

    July 24, 2011 at 8:35 pm |
  3. Kitty

    What about the people who were on the earth thousands of years before Jesus' birth. Did any of them go to heaven? Did they worship the sun?

    July 24, 2011 at 8:33 pm |
    • brad

      Kitty,

      People born before Christ were pointed to a future Christ in the Old Testament scriptures. Abraham, David, Moses, Job, and others were shown to recognize that a savior was to be provided at a future time. Regardless of anything that happened then, the decision before us now is whether or not we accept the salvation offered by Jesus – this salvation is offered to anyone who will believe.

      i hope you recognize the difference between Christ's sacrifice on our behalf as contrasted with religions which place a premium on service or behavior in an attempt to win God's approval. We are individually and collectively incapable of doing anything to win God's approval, which is why the death and resurrection of Jesus was absolutely required.

      i hope you continue to search, and i really hope you find and read the Bible.

      July 24, 2011 at 8:55 pm |
    • Muneef

      Kitty.

      If I may remark, no one since mankind creation yet has gone to heaven or Hell...all are awaiting the resurrection and judgement day at a place called "The Isthmus" that falls as transit between life and death...
      People at all times from past before Noah and after have worshiped various things as a source of power and unity...such as the planets,the Sun,the fire,the trees,the animals,spirits,jinn any thing you may name, and all through the life period GOD had been sending his Messengers and Prophets to guide,warn,remind people to take heed...some repent and steadfast while others die as astray or as evil as they were..

      July 24, 2011 at 9:01 pm |
    • Muneef

      Kitty.

      If I may remark, no one since mankind creation yet has gone to heaven or Hell...all are awaiting the resurrection and judgement day at a place called "The Isthmus" that falls as transit between life/death and resurrection...
      People at all times from past before Noah and after have worshiped various things as a source of power and unity...such as the planets,the Sun,the fire,the trees,the animals,spirits,jinn any thing you may name, and all through the life period GOD had been sending his Messengers and Prophets to guide,warn,remind people to take heed...some repent and steadfast while others die as astray or as evil as they were..

      July 24, 2011 at 9:03 pm |
  4. Muneef

    World is going to get better;

    Every thing happening was already recorded by GOD;

    [57:22] Anything that happens on earth, or to you, has already been recorded, even before the creation. This is easy for GOD to do.

    [57:23] Thus, you should not grieve over anything you miss, nor be proud of anything He has bestowed upon you. GOD does not love those who are boastful, proud.

    [57:25] We sent our messengers supported by clear proofs, and we sent down to them the scripture and the law, that the people may uphold justice. And we sent down the iron, wherein there is strength, and many benefits for the people. All this in order for GOD to distinguish those who would support Him and His messengers, on faith. GOD is Powerful, Almighty.   
    ------

    [2:210] Are they waiting until GOD Himself comes to them in dense clouds, together with the angels? When this happens, the whole matter will be terminated, and to GOD everything will be returned.* 
     
    Miracles Bring Greater Responsibility*
    [2:211] Ask the Children of Israel how many profound miracles have we shown them! For those who disregard the blessings bestowed upon them by GOD, GOD is most strict in retribution.

    Shortsightedness
    [2:212] This worldly life is adorned in the eyes of the disbelievers, and they ridicule those who believe. However, the righteous will be far above them on the Day of Resurrection. GOD blesses whomever He wills, without limits.

    Disastrous Jealousy
    [2:213] The people used to be one community when GOD sent the prophets as bearers of good news, as well as warners. He sent down with them the scripture, bearing the truth, to judge among the people in their disputes. Ironically, those who received the scripture were the ones who rejected any new scripture, despite clear proofs given to them. This is due to jealousy on their part. GOD guides those who believe to the truth that is disputed by all others, in accordance with His will. GOD guides whoever wills in a straight path.*

    [2:214] Do you expect to enter Paradise without being tested like those before you? They were tested with hardship and adversity, and were shaken up, until the messenger and those who believed with him said, "Where is GOD's victory?" GOD's victory is near.
    ----

    No Compulsion in Religion
    [2:256] There shall be no compulsion in religion: the right way is now distinct from the wrong way. Anyone who denounces the devil and believes in GOD has grasped the strongest bond; one that never breaks. GOD is Hearer, Omniscient.

    [2:257] GOD is Lord of those who believe; He leads them out of darkness into the light. As for those who disbelieve, their lords are their idols; they lead them out of the light into darkness – these will be the dwellers of Hell; they abide in it forever.

    July 24, 2011 at 8:33 pm |
    • Gavin Ford

      Silly nonsense.

      July 24, 2011 at 9:01 pm |
  5. Rod C. Venger

    What Jesus said was, "I am the way, the truth and the light. No one comes unto the Father but by Me".

    True, Jesus wasn't promoting a "religion" with a specific name. He was promoting himself and God. I personally rarely go to church, am not a member of one...though there's just one I go to when I do go...but that doesn't mean I don't have a relationship with Jesus. Jesus said something else too:

    "Where two or more are gathered in my name, there in the midst shall I be".

    Yet I long ago saw what happens to good people when they pick one sign over another sign. People get lost in the various petty arguments over theology and miss the big picture. So I'm content to go it alone. If the subject of religion comes up, I'll say my piece, no doubt, but I don't say that I'm right and you're wrong. I say, "Here's the Bible. He only asks that you do the best you can with the tools he gave us and do it honestly and in his name." Abusing the body that is God's temple is not what he had in mind, nor abusing the bodies or minds of other people. Okay, according to some people I'm doomed, going to be cast down into the pit. I think I'm doing the best I can and God will be the final judge of my fate, not them. The meek shall inherit the earth.

    July 24, 2011 at 8:33 pm |
  6. Robert Evans

    I wonder if this Cat has ever heard of the Great Commission? A charge to all Christians go into all the world teach everyone the gospel until Jesus returns.

    July 24, 2011 at 8:33 pm |
  7. Christine

    First take a look at the photo guy on left looks like he is "tolerating" the guy on the right. Like muslim is saying... ok you can stand by me til I am ready to cut your head off. The goofball on the right is a FALSE TEACHER!! Exactly what our pastor preached ablout today!!
    Bible says, NO ONE comes to the father EXCEPT thru Me (the ME is referring to Jesus Christ!).
    Run from this type of person, run very very fast the other direction!!! Jesus is NOT just a teacher He is the Son of God. He is God. This guy is a liar, he is NOT speaking Jesus. He is speaking jesus. Jesus did not just meet them where they were, He chastened them to change!
    People be really careful about these false teachers these news organizatons keep putting in our face!!

    July 24, 2011 at 8:31 pm |
  8. SaintGenesius

    Consider the reverse –if tens of thousands of Muslims were wandering around the US trying to convert people to Islam, we would see a lot of dead Muslims as "Christians" shoot them on the front steps. We would be outraged. As it is, there is this crazy "Sharia Law is Taking Over" conspiracy that has overrun some right wing circles. But that is exactly what the Christians are trying to do in the rest of the world, they are trying to interpolate Biblical Law.

    Of course, all of this is based on the belief in magic. All religion is illogical and essentially requires the believer to subscribe to magical acts –whether it's the nutty notion that an albino's limbs hold magical properties; a mountain can move; or a cup of wine can turn into a cup of blood on Sunday morning. Once you break down religion to its essentially entertainment essence, it all seems pretty idiotic.

    July 24, 2011 at 8:28 pm |
  9. Jusuf

    I have different words in filling the blank : "Based on what I just said, Carl Medearis is a professional to recruit members so that more money can be obtained to sustain the organization".
    There're many true missionaries in this world who have changed many countries. I remembered about one lady who was in china as a foot inspector. Their personal motivation was not converting others, but as a witness of faith in Jesus and spreading the seeds of God's love through Jesus. I believe and trust that NO ONE can have faith in Jesus, IF God Spirit Himself bring any person to Jesus.

    July 24, 2011 at 8:27 pm |
  10. Joseph Annor

    Oh Carl, Someone recognizing Jesus as a prophet and trying to live like him is not the same as accepting Jesus as his Lord and Personal saviour. I pray that you would remember the price Jesus paid for you so that you could use the opportunity you have gotten to preach the Gospel.

    July 24, 2011 at 8:22 pm |
  11. LC

    I feel like most religions are too cult-like for my thinking – including evangelical Christians as well as Muslims. Jesus sought to unite people, not divide them. Most people believe only what they were taught growing up, especially the Southern evangelicals. Most evangicals that I know couldn't even tell you the true beliefs of a Muslim or a Buddahist or a even a Wiccan. All they "know" – or think they know – is that those are evil practices that will "send them to hell!" I choose not to live my life in fear – but to live for good.

    July 24, 2011 at 8:22 pm |
    • pazyfe

      I think people get caught up on the religion part, the dos and don't, the who should I follow and what should I read, take the initiative and live a humble life, helping others and not waiting for anything in return, knowing that you can make a difference where you stand, observing your brothers and sisters and being there when they need you. Jesus hung around those that were lost, he a King did not care about those that were seen as the lowest of the low. He saw their hearts and wanted to save them. We must strive for the same, keep your eyes open give Hm all the glory and honor.

      July 24, 2011 at 8:31 pm |
  12. brad

    wow......Jesus as merely a prophet.....sorry, but he did not give us that option......Jesus claimed to be the Son of God, the one and only way to reach the Father and attain heaven......Jesus did come to divide the world into those who claim his salvation and life-changing kinship and those who reject him as that savior. On that basis, Jesus is either God (as he claims) or a liar/lunatic who merely thought he was God.

    each of us must decide for ourselves into which group we belong. I pray that each of you who read this will read the Bible for yourselves and realize that Christ is exactly who he said he was then, and also realize that Christ still lives today!!

    July 24, 2011 at 8:19 pm |
    • David Howard

      Awesome post!

      July 24, 2011 at 8:29 pm |
    • pazyfe

      amen

      July 24, 2011 at 8:33 pm |
    • Gavin Ford

      There's no way of knowing that for sure. Intelligent people's beliefs are based on what we know, not what we don't.

      July 24, 2011 at 8:57 pm |
    • Ron

      Brad,
      I guess you miss the point that not everyone believes as you do. It amuses me when conservative Christians condemn other religions but if someone denies their religion or minimalizes Jesus, then that is a completely different matter.
      You follow your religion because you choose to do so. Religion is a matter of faith, not fact.
      If you can deny other religions or faiths, don't be upset when they do the same to your beliefs.

      July 24, 2011 at 9:00 pm |
  13. Gatecrasher

    That guy on the left looks like Osama bin Laden. Hey wait...he si a terrorist, he is with Hezbollah. Funny how CNN neglects to mention this.

    July 24, 2011 at 8:18 pm |
  14. Ronald

    I would also say that for political parties to use religion as a wedge or voice for their ideology is extremely wrong. Unfortunately we are seeing more and more of this going on. The separation of church and state is vital and important. Just look at Iran if you don't believe it.

    July 24, 2011 at 8:12 pm |
  15. LC

    I love the values and teachings of Jesus, but I am sick of religion. Jesus was a uniter, not a divider. He loved ALL, not just a select FEW. Churches today wouldn't recognize the true Jesus if he walked through their doors.

    July 24, 2011 at 8:12 pm |
    • Joleen

      I have left the church. Not because I don't believe in Jesus, but I don't believe in the exclusionary condemn everyone self-rightious smirk. It is so prevalent in churches that I cannot stomach it. I agree that not only would the churches not let Jesus in, but Jesus would not recognize the church members as being of His flock. I am doubly sick because the Teabaggers occur like monsters instead of Christians.

      July 24, 2011 at 8:18 pm |
    • Joleen

      When I taught Sunday School to children, I emphasized Phariseeism. Remember that the Pharisees were not favorites or followers of Jesus Christ.

      July 24, 2011 at 8:19 pm |
    • David Howard

      This man is a false teacher espousing an image of Jesus inconsistent with the scriptures. Christians should not be warriors with swords, or even concerned with the things of this earth including their own lives, but they are to preach Christ, and Christ crucified. As He is in the scripture, not one they make up. How can anybody read this and think it will be easy or all just "let's just get along" – from Christ Himself:
      Matthew 10:
      34"Do not think that I came to [fn29] bring peace on the earth; I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.
      35 For I came to SET A MAN AGAINST HIS FATHER, AND A DAUGHTER AGAINST HER MOTHER, AND A DAUGHTER-IN-LAW AGAINST HER MOTHER-IN-LAW;
      36 and A MAN'S ENEMIES WILL BE THE MEMBERS OF HIS HOUSEHOLD.
      37 "He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me; and he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me.
      38 And he who does not take his cross and follow after Me is not worthy of Me. 39 He who has found his [fn30] life will lose it, and he who has lost his life for My sake will find it.

      It is literally eternal life and death issue. Christ was so offensive He was crucified; am I better than my master?

      July 24, 2011 at 8:23 pm |
    • frontgate

      so true

      July 24, 2011 at 8:27 pm |
  16. DaleH

    I'll just bet his church is overflowing.....

    July 24, 2011 at 8:12 pm |
  17. Lindsey

    Paul said that it's faith in Jesus Christ that matters. Jesus said to make disciples of all nations. You just said that in your statement Carl. That is exactly what an evangelist does! The problem is not Christ's teachings here, it is your criteria of judging people by doctrinal aspects.

    July 24, 2011 at 8:11 pm |
  18. Lenny Pincus

    "It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God". So taxing rich people at higher levels helps them get into heaven. Or is it a "rope"? I suppose that's part of the problem pretending that english can be the word of God.

    July 24, 2011 at 8:02 pm |
  19. Rhon

    If we are following Christ we would – Teach people what the Bible really says, letting it speak for itself. Then allow that one to make a decision based on that without these false teachings that are common in "churches". God gave free will. Those who can decern the truth from the Bible and make a personal choice without threat or force. That is the job Jesus gave to those who follow him. Not building food kitchens not hospitals not outreach. The Bible.

    July 24, 2011 at 7:58 pm |
    • CatS

      Reading the Bible to have a personal relationship with God is like reading a romance novel to have a personal relationship with your husband. The relationship part starts when you put the book DOWN.

      July 24, 2011 at 8:14 pm |
    • David Howard

      Absolutely right, how can we have a relationship unless we know him as He presents Himself in the Bible?

      July 24, 2011 at 8:25 pm |
  20. DC from NJ

    In my opinion, what evangelicals (of ALL religions) should do is: 1)forget thinking about a god and 2)start thinking about how to make THIS world better using their own brain and their own common sense.

    July 24, 2011 at 7:56 pm |
    • gene

      Just because YOUR brain doesn't have the capacity to believe in God doesn't give you the right to categorize believers as not using their brains. There are academics on both sides of the fence (Christians vs pagans) who could mop up the floor with many of the responders here, present company included. I am so tired of you non believers and your arrogance referring to Christians as sheeple, non thinkers, etc. It's a matter of the heart, and not the brain. Get over it.

      July 24, 2011 at 8:11 pm |
    • David Howard

      We are not called by our Lord to make the world better, in fact He is going to destroy this world. We are called to go in to the world and preach the gospel as it was given to us, not one we make up in the interest of making friends.

      July 24, 2011 at 8:27 pm |
    • Jason

      But, many people throughout history have made the world a better place because they did think about a god. And on an everyday level, religious people give more to charities (including to secular charities) than non-religious people do. This doesn't prove that they are correct, but it does show that thinking about a god actually facilitates making the world a better place!

      July 24, 2011 at 8:34 pm |
    • tallulah13

      I appreciate your sentiments, DC, but sadly too many "believers" are more interested in their own heavenly reward to really care about the reality of what is happening on this planet.

      July 24, 2011 at 8:49 pm |
    • Ron

      Gene,
      Respectfully, your comment, "t's a matter of the heart, and not the brain. Get over it."
      In many faiths, the mind is intellect and the heart is seen as wisdom. Intelligence should always be tempered with wisdom and wisdom always tempered with intelligence. Wisdom is using both. Our minds were not given with the intent of not using them. I truly believe that to worship God, or in my case, The Gods, wisdom and intelligence should always be used in discerning things. I realize that your bible is a holy book to you and other Christians but have you ever considered that any God can not so simply be contained in a book...any book. As a Wiccan, we have our Book of Shadows, which is similar in thought to your bible as it teaches, contains our personal experiences with our Gods, contains our thoughts on many matters but we are always taught that The Gods are bigger than all of us. Using the analogy of a book or box, The Gods are everything inside, the book/box and everything outside the book/box. Your religion, like all religions is much more than a book. If you put intelligence, wisdom, compassion, love, concern, etc., away, you only stunt yourself and limit what you can do and serve.
      (stepping off the box)

      July 24, 2011 at 9:19 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.