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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. Itak

    It is challenging to speak of Jesus without dragging in with us all of our western Christianized language and thinking. In fact, it's kind of like asking a fish to not rely on water! When it's part of one's culture, it is extremely difficult to separate the two. The truth is that people from different cultures/nations can follow Jesus without becoming "Christians." It's just a name, but it's entrenched in dogma and ritual and rules and assumptions that aren't necessarily what Jesus intended. I am challenged by Carl and his words. Challenged to be willing to let God strip down my faith to the bare essentials, nothing more, nothing less. It's not my job to put my cultural norms on others...it is my job to point to Jesus and let him do the rest. Thank you, Carl, for questioning the water you swam in and changing it.

    July 25, 2011 at 12:54 pm |
  2. Matt

    Forget the article, someone get this cat a toothbrush and some floss, STAT!!!

    July 25, 2011 at 12:54 pm |
    • Bruce

      Dude, it's braces.

      July 25, 2011 at 12:56 pm |
  3. Realist

    http://www.GodIsImaginary and he resides in the http://www.EvilBible.com

    July 25, 2011 at 12:52 pm |
  4. Careful, lest we embrace a watered-down discipleship in place of what Jesus actually taught.

    "What he said was 'Go and make disciples of all nations."

    Let's be clear, Jesus didn't just say "go make disciples," rather, he commanded the Apostles to BAPTIZE all nations (see Matthew 28:19; KJV). Why? Because "except a man be born of water [i.e., baptism] and of the spirit [i.e., receiving the gift of the Holy Ghost] he cannot enter into the kingdom of God" (John 3:5; KJV). Christ established His Church and kingdom while on the earth (e.g., see Ephesians 2:19-20) so that we could truly come to know him (see Ephesians 4:11-15; John 17:3; KJV). Baptism is the gateway into Christ's Church and the kingdom of God.

    "I believe that doctrine is important, but it’s not more important than following Jesus."

    Jesus taught that we follow him by keeping his commandments. "If ye love me, keep my commandments." (John 14:15; see also 2 John 1:9). We need to be careful lest we embrace a watered-down discipleship in place of what Jesus actually taught. His doctrine and commandments should be taught with respect and love and without compulsion, but just because some adamantly disagree does not mean we should dilute or change our own beliefs.

    July 25, 2011 at 12:51 pm |
    • hm

      You're using the KJV. The King James Version was translated from another version, NOT the original texts. Not to mention, King James changed some of the wording to suit his tastes. It's not an accurate text.

      July 25, 2011 at 12:55 pm |
    • Josh

      Thanks so much for not being ashamed of the Gospel!

      July 25, 2011 at 12:59 pm |
    • gnodges

      Let's be clear....you have absolutely NO IDEA what Jesus said......you've been TOLD what he said, by texts that were written several hundred years after his death.....basically, it's all made up, and you're delusional.

      July 25, 2011 at 1:03 pm |
    • Careful, lest we embrace a watered-down discipleship in place of what Jesus actually taught.

      hm: I agree that the KJV is not 100% accurate; precious truths have been lost through the various translations. I believe the Bible to be the word of God as far as it has been translated correctly. Because many of the things Jesus taught have been lost or changed or misinterpreted, God has in our day called again prophets and apostles in our day to reveal the truth "for the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ (the Church)...till we all come in unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God...that we henceforth be no more children, tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine." (Ephesians 4:11-14). The Book of Mormon: Another Testament of Jesus Christ is the word of God and evidence that this is true. See http://www.mormon.org for more information.

      July 25, 2011 at 2:12 pm |
  5. Scott

    From a Christian perspective, Jesus was the Son of God.
    Jesus was not a prophet, as the Muslins believe.
    Christians are commanded, by Jesus, to tell others about him.
    If you speak people, as a Christian, about Jesus and you do not tell them he is the Son of God, you are lying to them.
    Lying is ... well, you know what lying is.

    July 25, 2011 at 12:51 pm |
    • hm

      What are "Muslins"?

      July 25, 2011 at 12:55 pm |
  6. Rainer Braendlein

    @Imam Carl Medearis

    You are a damned heretic! Repent or get lost!

    Islam and Christianity don't go together. They are totally different religions.

    Islam saves nobody, because it provides no Deliverer. The unholy Koran is a book of lie and murder and war. Muhammad was an wicked impostor. Clear enough?

    I adore Jesus Christ, the eternal Son of God, who has delivered everybody, who believes in Him, and me.

    Jesus is "Allah" (Allah as Arabic word for God).

    July 25, 2011 at 12:51 pm |
    • hm

      Rude.
      Completely rude.
      But not surprising. Fundamentalists have no room in their narrow-minded views for others. Frankly, I don't understand "adoring" some dude who has been dead for 2000 years and wouldn't know you from Adam, but whatever floats your boat!

      July 25, 2011 at 12:57 pm |
    • Rainer Braendlein

      Disaster, disaster, disaster.

      No sympathy for the devil, no sympathy for Muhammad!

      I have read the unholy Koran (really) and I know the Holy Bible.

      Muhammad sees Jews and Christians as former believers, having turned apostate (please believe me). Thus, we (the people of the Western World) are garbage, which has to be disposed of. That is the unholy mystery of the Koran.

      Mercifully, a lot of Muslims seem to be secular, and don't know the doctrine of the Koran, otherwise, I think they could behave outlandishly.

      July 25, 2011 at 1:01 pm |
  7. nsp

    ummm what.. "why don’t we simply invite people to follow Jesus "
    umm did you forget that Jesus said he would say to some who 'followed' him , i know you not?
    ok, it's a little bit more than following him.. missionaries need to gaurd themselves before they fall for the life they try to save ppl from.

    July 25, 2011 at 12:51 pm |
    • Richard S Kaiser

      We oh nsp, are going to follow Christ Jesus,,,,,,,,,,,,When we DIE!

      July 25, 2011 at 12:57 pm |
  8. Activ8a

    For me, it depends on what Carl Madearis is implying. If he is simply saying that a relationship with Jesus is more important than a religious system and that Christians should show Muslims the salvation message of Jesus through showing love, I totally agree. However, if he is suggesting that Christians no longer view Jesus as the Son of God and the Savior but rather as a nice guy or one of many positive examples, then he is dismissing Jesus's words and adopting a humanistic philosophy that waters down Jesus's message and purpose.

    July 25, 2011 at 12:50 pm |
    • Richard S Kaiser

      Hello Activ8a and all bloggers,

      Here's a King's English Canundrum. "The King's English has been dumbed down as it evolved thru Time". Therefore my asking is this, Of god and God and GOD which is Almighty and which is the lowliest and which is the middle of the road?

      July 25, 2011 at 12:55 pm |
    • bill

      I think you're very accurate in your thoughts. It depends on exactly what he means, which he doesn't say. I would think from the tone of his essay that he would have a hard time telling Muslims that Jesus is God's son and our savior, but maybe not.

      July 25, 2011 at 1:01 pm |
    • ficklemookie

      Agreed.

      July 25, 2011 at 1:06 pm |
    • ScottieB

      Agreed.

      Jesus is much more than just a prophet. When you give Jesus prophet status, He becomes just like any other man. However, He is not just another man. He is the God-man. Something you can't get from any other religion. When Jesus claimed equality with God the Father, they took up stones to kill him. And the other religions discredit Him for this. But TRUE Christianity is BASED on this statement.

      So it's not just a case of HAPPY HAPPY JOY JOY

      July 25, 2011 at 1:08 pm |
    • ScottieB

      Agreed.

      Jesus is much more than just a prophet. When you give Jesus prophet status, He becomes just like any other man. However, He is not just another man. He is the God-man. Something you can't get from any other religion. When Jesus claimed equality with God the Father, they took up stones to kill him. And the other religions discredit Him for this. But TRUE Christianity is BASED on this statement.

      So it's not just a case of "HAPPY HAPPY JOY JOY, everybody is worshiping the same God." Christianity is decidedly different in beliefs and values.

      God is not equal with Allah.

      July 25, 2011 at 1:11 pm |
  9. Colin Smith

    Great opinion piece. Intriguing and makes a lot of sense. If you are a conservative christian please finish reading the first time, then collect all your prejudicial defensive thoughts that I know for a fact just ran through your head. Delete them, and read again with an open mind the second time so you can actually see that this guy will help your cause and the rest of the world. Please I ask you because you create so many problems, this will only help your cause .

    July 25, 2011 at 12:48 pm |
  10. jdk

    This guy is exactly right. What the Christians should do is cut off the heads of anybody that's not a Christian, just like the muslims do.

    July 25, 2011 at 12:48 pm |
    • hm

      Interesting because there are a slew of Muslims living in the US and I have not once heard of someone being beheaded for not being a Muslim here. Get real.

      July 25, 2011 at 1:01 pm |
  11. lblt

    Muslims don't proselyte because "infidels" are not welcome in their religion.

    July 25, 2011 at 12:47 pm |
    • hm

      That makes no sense. Someone would no longer BE a so-called "infedel" if they joined the religion. They don't try to convert people b/c they didn't have that annoying guy Paul telling everything they should.

      July 25, 2011 at 1:00 pm |
  12. Ted from NY

    "Preach the Gospel at all times. If necessary, use words." In other words just emulate Christ, and the rest will follow without need for verbal evangelization. If the rest of the world were to see Christians and marvel at the example they set in living their daily lives, of selflessness, honesty, tolerance, generosity, etc., they would likely think "wow, I like what those people have going for them. They walk the walk, not talk the talk. They don't try to hoodwink me, or even persuade me. They just let me observe, and I like what I see. I wouldn't mind being like that myself. Or at least checking it out, seeing what makes them so authentic and admirable." (Of course, that's all "IF.")

    July 25, 2011 at 12:46 pm |
  13. Amit-Atlanta-USA

    Carl Medearis:

    PLEASE DON'T BE MISLED BY WHAT THEY (your Muslim friends) TELL U!

    JUDGE THEM BY HOW THEY ACT!

    Remember there is the Muslim concept of TAQIYYA, unlike in no other religion!

    Amit-Atlanta-USA

    July 25, 2011 at 12:44 pm |
  14. steve

    After the Centurion's faith was praised by Jesus he did convert to Christianty by professing his faith right then and there. Christianity didn't even exist then but Christ did. Your entire comment is bogus pontificating.

    July 25, 2011 at 12:44 pm |
  15. Brian Evans

    Nice article, however most Muslim militant armies are just that – muslim armies run by muslim religious leaders based on muslim faith for the good of the muslim faith where attacking the leader is attacking the faith. But the so called chrisitian militant armies are typically not run by christian ministers – they are run by generals/dictaotors who happen to be christian and are based on the will of that general/dictator and we can freely attack that general/dictator without attacking christianity.

    July 25, 2011 at 12:43 pm |
  16. Brian Leo

    I don't have time to read 2,829 comments (thus far) so maybe someone's already said this. But it's disingenuous at best to assert that Jesus never said to go and makes eveyone join Christianity. He said, "Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey all that I have commanded you." So if he wants all nations to be disciples, get baptized, and obey his teachings, isn't that the same thing as becoming Christian?
    No, what he didn't say was to join a church or a denomination. He certainly did say to teach the world to follow and obey him. Like it or not, we Christians don't get to overrule him just to make people like us more.

    July 25, 2011 at 12:42 pm |
    • Dave

      Absolutely. Thank you for this Comment.

      July 25, 2011 at 12:53 pm |
    • hm

      So you're not allowed to think for yourselves? To take into account that you *might* be annoying the crap out of people by trying to push your religion on them?
      Great religion you got there.
      No thanks!

      July 25, 2011 at 1:03 pm |
  17. gill

    I wonder how Americans would feel if all over the country there were Muslims in traditional garb going around preaching about Allah. What is good for the goose.

    My take is that religious beliefs are personal, none of anyone's business.

    July 25, 2011 at 12:42 pm |
    • Pete

      gill... AMEN ! We seem to not think about how we would feel if the shoe was on the other foot!

      I want to add that I thought it funny that Carl felt it was ok to teach anything about Jesus in a Muslim country. Using a book that was written well over 1500 years ago and applying it to modern day is, in my opinion, a core reason as why Christianity is wrong in so many ways. I prefer to respect each belief system someone has. I have mine and it serves me well. Who am I to tell them differently?

      July 25, 2011 at 12:53 pm |
  18. Believer

    I believe that Jesus is the Christ the Son of the Living God.

    July 25, 2011 at 12:41 pm |
  19. Carol in PA

    Mr. Medearas is exactly right. Most wars are fought due to religion than anything else. Right-wing Christians are a result of brainwashing, not absorbing God's love.

    July 25, 2011 at 12:41 pm |
  20. maloof

    2 questions
    1) Why are we trying to reinterpret " I am the way..."
    2) Why do we misinterpret " Love thy neighbor as thyself"

    July 25, 2011 at 12:40 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.