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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. Pinfold

    If I convinced someone to change religions, and they were punished by death for converting, I'd feel remorse for everyone involved.

    July 25, 2011 at 11:53 am |
  2. Anna Nwa

    Is the writer now saying that evangelicals are no longer a part of christaindom?

    July 25, 2011 at 11:52 am |
    • Bruce

      No, he is not. He is saying that evangelicals should stop trying to convert people to Christianity and instead they should spread the gospel.

      July 25, 2011 at 12:05 pm |
  3. cypher20

    Mr. Medearis seems to be conveniently ignoring the verses of the Bible which make it clear that Jesus Christ is the only way to God and that just believing in God isn't good enough, even the demons believe in God/Jesus Christ. While I agree that we need to approach everyone with an open mind and be wiling to include people, that doesn't mean giving up the Gospel. I see his point about the "us vs. them" mentality and this is an easy trap to fall into and hard to deal with. However, as Christians we are called to "make disciples" and disciples follow the teachings of the one they follow, so if you're a Muslim you are not following Jesus' teaching and thus not much of a disciple. Of course the world misunderstands us, Jesus Christ himself says they won't understand and will villify and persecute us. The answer isn't to give in to them though. Too many Christians seem to be shocked, just SHOCKED when people don't agree with them and don't like them and thus water down their message. This isn't what we are called to do.

    July 25, 2011 at 11:52 am |
    • Ghiselle

      you are right Cyber20 and I feel really sad that our people are trying to change the words of God. but this means we have to keep praying for people because they are getting the wrong message n trying to teach the wrong message

      July 25, 2011 at 12:06 pm |
  4. erman

    [youtube=https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r60pjTdsmj0&w=640&h=360]

    July 25, 2011 at 11:50 am |
  5. Dam

    Norway terrorist was a Chrisain. How did becoming Christain help? The bible is just bunch of ignorant rambling written by a bunch of morons. The author has raised a very important point – The damage conversion causes to local cultures, disrespect for centuries old cultures and the deep enimities it creates forever. Is this what Christ wanted. If Christ wanted this then, he deserved to die like the way he did.

    July 25, 2011 at 11:47 am |
    • Jeff

      People of any faith can be very very confused on what their faith calls of from them. Every religion has wack jobs

      July 25, 2011 at 11:51 am |
    • Common Sensitall

      As an atheist I have to say that these are the kinds of statements that make everybody hate us. I find no problem with the Bible because it's core principles were intended to help humanity. It's the literal belief in the Bible that's dangerous in my opinion.

      July 25, 2011 at 11:56 am |
    • Dustin

      "The bible is just bunch of ignorant rambling written by a bunch of morons."

      Part of the bible was written by Solomon, also known to be the wisest man that ever lived.

      July 25, 2011 at 12:06 pm |
    • Bill

      Wow, powerful stuff...

      July 25, 2011 at 12:24 pm |
  6. Jordan

    There is a major difference in preaching the gospel and shoving it down people's throats. Honestly, I believe that non-Christians would respect Christians a whole lot more if all Christians did was tell them about Jesus and leave it at that. I think, if you can tell a non-Christian is getting annoyed by your constant talk of the gospel, then you need to stop. God calls us to preach the gospel and He finishes it.

    July 25, 2011 at 11:47 am |
    • Seriousl

      Well said

      July 25, 2011 at 11:55 am |
  7. LG

    Jesus was not a "uniter". The Gospels corroborate the life of a man focused on showing people the love and righteousness of God the Father. "I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father but by me." (John 14:6) – these words are not the words of inclusion, but exclusion. To talk about Christ without the purpose of leading people to the Father is merely a history lesson. On the other side of this conversation is the need for Christians to approach spreading the Gospel as witnesses, not as prosecutor, judge, or jury. One can still spread the gospel in love and tolerance. Not all men will accept it, but at least they will have heard the truth–that there is one way to God and that is through faith in Jesus Christ.

    July 25, 2011 at 11:46 am |
  8. John from Brooklyn

    While I am a liberal Christian who, by the way, has a Jewish life partner, I can't entirely agree with Mr. Meddearis. (Although I do appreciate his they-will-know-we-are-Christians-by-our-love approach.)

    Christianity is a faith that inherently is democratic – that is, everyone is eligible, regardless of their gender, ethnicity, wealth, or – most importantly – whether their parents were also of the faith. As such, it inherently is a tradition that is offered up as "good news" to all people. To stop expressing the access to Christianity by all people would inherently be counter to its very nature.

    Interestingly, the description above also applies to Islam. People become Muslim's by faith and acts...not birthright. This is why we see Islam as the dominant faith across a large swath of the globe – from Indonesia to Morocco. It is because of its trully evanglical nature.

    The issue is not – and should not be – whether evangelism in any form is appropriate, since both Christianity and Isllam are both inherently evangelical faith traditions Instead, the issue should be how evangelists approach their missions. If one fails to understand the social, cultural, and family ramifications for someone who converts, then it is the equivalent to driving without a license. On the other hand, advocating that evangelism not take place at all – as is Medearis's assertion – simply because it may be culturally offensive, causes political backlash, or is resented as some form of imperialism is simply not an adequate response to the mandate to spread the "good news".

    July 25, 2011 at 11:45 am |
    • Dam

      Looks like a u wasted ur time reading religous nonsense and have no idea of history Go and read about how Christianity & Islam was spread. It was mostly bcoz the king accepted a certain religion and forced it down his subjects thru taxation & force. Even today in Paris,France a knowledgable guide will show u places where Jews were forced to live and attend conversion clinics all paid by additional taxes on the Jews. Almost all countries which are Islamic happened bcoz of an Islamic army conquest. Just the native people who are not converted and u will see the true picture of two voilent cults Islam & christainity. Western world has changed and become secular but that does not mean the past was like it was today. Slavery was considered okay by the christian evangelists 100 years ago.

      July 25, 2011 at 12:00 pm |
  9. DRTSAT

    I look at Evangelists as those who wear expensive suits, have huge church buildings and who say "God wants you to send more money". I saw Evangelists in El Salvador. The name of El Salvador, in English, is The Republic of our Savior in Central America". I saw the house of an "Evangelist" in El Salvador. A very nice, two story house with a two car garage with an addition being added. The man had four trucks, his trucks. All paid for on the backs of the local population. When the man says "I need a new car" the people buy it. Evangelists set the wrong example for the poor people of the world. They're in it for the money.

    July 25, 2011 at 11:45 am |
  10. Matt

    What a breath of fresh air. Thank you.

    July 25, 2011 at 11:45 am |
  11. LR

    Why can't everyone just get along? As a Catholic (an open-minded Catholic, I should clarify. And to all those who say Catholics aren’t real Christians, you’re simply wrong. We were the first Christians and a large and important branch of Christianity), I believe that acceptance is the primary belief not only in my religion, but of ALL major religions. Those who see it differently aren't following their faith properly. Believing a group of good people are damned to eternal suffering just because they weren't raised with the same understanding of God that you have is – in my mind – the very definition of evil. Jesus did not come to this world to damn good people to Hell. No one will ever convince me that someone as good and pious as Gandhi, for example, is damned to Hell (or will spend eternity in Purgatory) because he didn't accept Jesus Christ as his personal Lord and Savior. Religion can be a wonderful, loving important thing, but it can also be a horrible, ugly dividing thing if it falls into the wrong hands.

    July 25, 2011 at 11:44 am |
    • Jeff

      What you consider to be a horrible here on earth is... well nothing compared to horror of an after life in the wrong spot. Hold hands now cause its comfortable then regret it later when you know where your non christian friends ended up after they died.

      July 25, 2011 at 11:48 am |
  12. Ed

    It is time to stop evangelizing, way too much religion in the world anyway. At the same time it is time for the so called mainstream peaceful Muslims to do some evangelizing of their own and convert the extremists away from their murderous ways.

    July 25, 2011 at 11:44 am |
  13. Jeff

    ya umm... islam is the fastest growing large religion in the world and they preach and convert ppl all the time. And their extreme wing is a lot more dangerous than the christian extremists. Just sayin

    July 25, 2011 at 11:43 am |
  14. John

    Your teeth look bad in the pictures. I guess all your devil work is getting to you!

    July 25, 2011 at 11:43 am |
    • standingwave

      I never knew bad teeth were the sign of the Devil.

      July 25, 2011 at 11:53 am |
    • Bruce

      Actually what you see are braces, and they are a sign of the work of an orthodontist, not of the devil.

      July 25, 2011 at 12:07 pm |
  15. Guest

    Ezekiel 23:20

    "There she lusted after her lovers, whose genitals were like those of donkeys and whose emission was like that of horses."

    July 25, 2011 at 11:42 am |
  16. FM

    I read the article of Carl Medearis and laugh. It is very obvious by reading between the lines that this man is not and has never been a Christian.

    July 25, 2011 at 11:42 am |
    • Stephen

      If you are reading between the lines, then it's not "obvious". You are reaching your own conclusion. Look up the "No true Scotsman" fallacy to see where you err.

      July 25, 2011 at 11:49 am |
  17. Christian-by-Faith

    What part of...

    Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 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, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matthew 28:18-20 NIV)

    ...is unclear to you? Christians MUST evangelize because God Almighty, Jesus Christ, has commanded it and His words do not return void.

    July 25, 2011 at 11:42 am |
    • Stephen

      But those enemies of mine who did not want me to be king over them–bring them here and kill them in front of me.'" -Jesus, Luke 19:27.

      Your religion is poison.

      July 25, 2011 at 11:46 am |
    • smm

      Please do not take things out of context if you must use scripture quotations....Jesus did say those particular words, but not in reference to himself. He was teaching with a parable about a king who had given money to 3 servants. The king in the parable used those words, which Jesus said in the context of his teaching. That is VERY different than Jesus having said those words directly to someone else.

      July 25, 2011 at 12:10 pm |
    • Jennifer

      Seriously? Read back a few versus and you will realize that the scripture you quoted from a parable. Its not Jesus actually telling people to do that. That is what is wrong with people like you. You take the scriptures and twist them to confuse people about what the bible says. The bible answers its own questions if you will just take the time to read and study instead of picking a verse you think shows how wrong the bible is.

      July 25, 2011 at 12:11 pm |
  18. J

    Just to clarify: atheists have killed much more throughout history than religious people have (consider Stalin and Hitler) - it is incorrect to deface religion alone in this regard. These points are actually red-herrings, as you should never judge a philosophy by its abuse.

    I agree with the author here that many evangelists resort to manipulation - its a huge problem. Proposing to cease evangelism all together is to throw the baby out with the bathwater. One can share what he believes is the truth with others in a manner which is respectful and kind.

    Also, to claim that Christ sought to "unify all religions" is false, since he makes exclusive truth claims: "I am the way, the truth and the life...no one comes to the Father except through me."

    July 25, 2011 at 11:42 am |
    • Stephen

      Hitler was a Roman Catholic. Get your facts straight:

      "Hence today I believe that I am acting in accordance with the will of the Almighty Creator: by defending myself against the Jew, I am fighting for the work of the Lord."
      -Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf

      July 25, 2011 at 11:47 am |
    • HMR

      Hitler was never an atheist and was a Roman Catholic till his death. Stalin never used his atheism to kill the millions of people in the Soviet Union. Get your facts right before blurting out Fox News propaganda.

      July 25, 2011 at 11:55 am |
  19. Renaldo Dubois

    Coward.

    July 25, 2011 at 11:41 am |
  20. jjue

    This maybe all well and good, but the real problem and question which is extremely sick, is why are Christians obsessed with using and sacrificing their children to resolve the worlds problems? Why are Children always the victims of sick governments and religions all around the world? Nothing has changed since Jesus time. Everything in the Bible is simply being repeated. Why is the world obsessed with looking like the Middle East or why does the world want to look like the middle east? Why do people enjoy being victimized in the name of.. and justify being victimized in the name of some God or government or religion, etc. or are we all in fear of being labeled? It is almost as if the world has become inverted Nazi's.

    July 25, 2011 at 11:40 am |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.