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. Roger

    I agree, and pray & fast that God continues to give me the smarts so that I'm not brain washed by the preachers of this time who say they hear from God but yet care more to paint the walls in the church than fill a naighboors fridge with food and milk. God is simple and not a respector of peoples ideas and HE promised an illusion, that what ever nonsense we thought of away from the truth, then HE will cause an illusion to over take your mind so that you may get more lost. I know God, know Jesus, HE desires worship, prayer, and fast for spiritual strength so that you may make it.....simple.

    July 24, 2011 at 12:25 pm |
  2. Edgar Friendly

    Proselytize all you want, just stay off my doorstep and out of my face with it. I don't begrudge people their shared delusions, but I won't have them forced upon me.

    July 24, 2011 at 12:24 pm |
    • Bibletruth

      Mr. friendly..lol...would you kindly inform us how someone has "forced" some religion or religous belief on you. How did they coerce you? How did they force you? Did they invade your house. Did they hold you against your will? Did they have a weapon? Just curious.

      July 24, 2011 at 12:40 pm |
  3. Idolgirl

    Nice article. I very much agree with it.

    July 24, 2011 at 12:23 pm |
  4. RAj

    What is important is that one becomes a compassionate, considerate human being and live a life fully by attaining your inner happiness while helping others to do the same by whichever means one chooses. Then the world would be a pleasant place. Religion is simply following one set of doctrine. One needs to break the doctrinal shell and see beyond one's belief. Truth lies not in the belief but seeing outside of your belief. Hope people of all faiths drop their beliefs for a day and see the real world. Then there is a possibility that we understand other deeply as we understand others. And from that we might experience genuine feelings of love and friendship!!

    July 24, 2011 at 12:22 pm |

    I seriously could not fill that blank you asked be filled at the start of the srticle. Not enough info. After reading the article, too many terms come to mind, none of them charitable. My sense of you is that you are an accolade seeker.

    July 24, 2011 at 12:22 pm |
  6. Mr Mark

    "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." writes the author.

    The Samaritans were a JEWISH sect, so the comparison to them being the equivalent of Muslims today is poor. A better example would have been to compare mainstream, non-violent Xian religions/sects today to the more-violent sects of Xianity whose members go around killing abortion providers, or who shoot up a bunch of innocents in Norway.

    But the author knows that calling ANY present-day Xian sect heretical or violent would be to call down the wrath of every Xian sect upon his head, so he makes a false comparison that preserves the idea among Xians that they are non-violent while Muslims are violent.

    Sadly, it's typical Xian-think...which means that there's no thinking involved.

    July 24, 2011 at 12:22 pm |
  7. Rev. Henry Bates

    If people would "study" the Bible rather than listen to those who have an agenda, they would find several references to the fact that Jesus was clearly attempting to move people out of religion and into a personal relationship with their Creator. He taught that we are to turn from the world and turn to God and God alone for our guidance and security. He taught that the "kingdom of heaven is within" and yet Christians still clamor into churches that teach that Heaven is somewhere in the sky and God is sitting on a throne of judgement. We must realize that Jesus was teaching profound truths to people who were still believing the world was flat and who were one step removed from burning the fatted calf in order to appease a god of reward and punishment. This is why Jesus said to look at Nature and in doing so we could understand our relationship with God and with the universe in which we live.

    July 24, 2011 at 12:21 pm |
    • Mr Mark

      Ever stop to think why a god (Jesus) who supposedly has been around since before the supposed "creation" took place advocated for a heavenly kingdom? Why not advocate for a heavenly democracy? Surely, Jesus knew that people's free will can and will be better exercised in a democracy than in a kingdom, no matter how benign the ruler of that kingdom happens to be (and in the case of Yahweh, we'd have to say he isn't benign at all).

      Surely, Jesus knew of democracy as it had been practiced by the Greeks (and, he's an eternal god, so he must have known of the concept before the universe came into existence), so why not set up heaven to be a democracy? Why base heaven on the oppressive model of the kingdom?

      There are no votes in heaven, and apparently, one's free will stops at the pearly gates as well, because there's no room to exercise free will when you are living as a serf under the oppression of a king.

      As Curt Flood said about baseball players of his time, a well-paid slave is still a slave, just like a well-treated heavenly serf is still a serf.

      BTW – can you explain to me why so many patriotic, flag-waving Americans are just champing at the bit to leave this world where they enjoy the benefits of democracy to take up permanent residence in a heavenly dictatorship?

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

    What then about "Go into all the world and preach the good news to all creation." (Mk 16:15). What about St. Paul's trips to evangelize...? You must be talking about a different religion/Book/Jesus/Apostles....

    July 24, 2011 at 12:20 pm |
  9. keeth

    If more Christians would teach with an open hand instead of a closed fist, we would have a lot less violence in this world today. This is why I shun Christianity. Most evangelicals I have met in America talk out of both sides of their mouth: love for those like them, hate and damnation for those not like them. "I like you Christ. I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ." ~ Mohandas Gandhi

    July 24, 2011 at 12:20 pm |
    • keeth

      Missed an "r" in that first part: "I like your Christ. I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ." ~ Mohandas Gandhi

      July 24, 2011 at 12:24 pm |
  10. Joni

    There are a few words that describe the missionary work abroad of our generation: "irresponsible, disrespectful, divisive, judgemental, and selfish." I feel that the Christian missionary work done in Sudan is a perfect example of such, and also the work in allready Christian countries like Romania (which did not have a negative impact but is an example of disrespect – they are allready Christians...and a very old Christian society that should be respected). While missionaries also help people through education, etc., the long term effects are not good, and I think people should reconsider the mission alltogether. Amazingly enough I feel really bad for people that are missionaries, I feel that they want to do something good...but in such a selfish way...just to satisfy their own spiritual needs, and all that is coupled with an ignorance of thinking highly of their work...I find this ignorance to be quite dangerous, they are so determined and any reasonable argument against it is taken on such a defensive. Please ladies and gentleman missionaries, find another way of satisfying your spiritual endeavours. Maybe one good starting point would be to help people in their daily lifes without asking for their souls. I know that you don't mean to harm anyone, but I think that when you do work for God, then the oucome of your work should have 100% good outcome, and if there is any negative effect, then it is not well done, and should not be done in His name.

    July 24, 2011 at 12:18 pm |
    • joni is smart

      nice message

      July 24, 2011 at 12:27 pm |
  11. David

    Having read a few pages of comments I am, once again, desperately disappointed with the way most people respond to this kind of opinion piece. Reading all these quotes from the bible is like watching two baseline tennis players that refuse to rush the net. Please just put the book down and use the intelligence God is supposed to have given you. Think for yourselves for once. Just listen to the wisdom of this guys words. He being doing this for twenty years. He probably knows a thing or two about that which he speaks.

    July 24, 2011 at 12:18 pm |
    • Mr Mark

      "Just listen to the wisdom of this guys words. He being doing this for twenty years. He probably knows a thing or two about that which he speaks."

      Why? Apparently he hasn't the wisdom to figure out the obvious after 20 years, ie: that Xianity is MAKE BELIEVE, so why would I expect him to have something to "know a thing or two" worth listening to?

      Would you be predisposed to listen to a person who spent 20 years of his life advocating for the god Zeus? If not, then why listen to what he has to say about some other make believe god, like Jesus?

      July 24, 2011 at 1:58 pm |
  12. Andrea

    Fabjan- Good point, and I think I can explain it. It's called cherry-picking, something every follower of religion does to justify their position.

    July 24, 2011 at 12:17 pm |
  13. Powodzenia

    I agree with you wholeheartedly, Mr. Medearis. Jesus was an open door to those who chose to listen, not a battering ram on others' doors. His hand was open in welcome, not with his finger pointed in admonition. I happen to be someone who believes that all paths lead to God, and I celebrate my Roman Catholic christian upbringing and history; however, I also celebrate the paths my brothers' and sisters' have chosen for themselves. I have arrived at my faith in God through others who love God, also. I can only hope one other person has seen God's love in me and been inspired to move in that direction for themselves. That is my mission.

    July 24, 2011 at 12:16 pm |

    Maybe thats why we dont worship matthew eh?

    July 24, 2011 at 12:16 pm |
    • modern_day_soothesayer

      Yeah – just ignore the embarrassing parts like say... stoning people to death.

      July 24, 2011 at 1:41 pm |
  15. modern_day_soothesayer

    Anybody that has studied man from the caves knows that it is obvious that man invented God. Many cultures have worshipped the sun. As they became more sophisticated, so did their God until they ended up with a God in their own image.

    July 24, 2011 at 12:15 pm |
    • JD

      You are so misinformed but there is no point trying to explain anything to a brick wall.

      July 24, 2011 at 12:22 pm |
    • kso

      @JD, it is not he, that is misinformed.

      July 24, 2011 at 12:31 pm |
    • modern_day_soothesayer

      Jim – I am misinformed? Yet you evidently believe a book that has the earth dated at 6000 years.

      July 24, 2011 at 12:32 pm |
  16. Aj

    These are thought provoking insights. Carl's Thoughts on this have greatly impacted my perspective. God didn't come to call everyone to Western Christianity. He called people to a relationship with Him in whatever cultural context they find themselves in. Good stuff!

    July 24, 2011 at 12:12 pm |
  17. Unashamed

    The fact is that Jesus did not invent the word 'Christianity'. He certainly did start the movement that now goes by that name. If people are brought into this movement by evangelizing then, Christians are commanded to evangelize by their founder and leader, Jesus Christ. It is impossible to follow Christ and not forsake other forms of worship that are out there. I don't think that this author is clear about what he talking about. Perhaps its the style of evangelizing that he needs to challenge. Jesus was never about the 'us versus them mentality' that seems to be the norm today. He had a way to penetrate the various groups of people in his day without offending them.

    July 24, 2011 at 12:09 pm |
    • J

      But Jesus "offended" the Pharisees, didn't he?

      July 24, 2011 at 12:20 pm |
    • JD

      They were self-righteous people who were always pointing out the wrong that others did while patting themselves on the back for their own good deeds. Sounds familiar? This world has millions like this only now they are called fanatics.

      July 24, 2011 at 12:26 pm |
  18. Jim Richardson

    Here we go- headlines "We, Christians should stop Evangelizing" because it is socially unacceptable or because others have abused the method or corrupted it by the messager. Didn't Jesus say, 'Follow me and I will make you fishers of men?' It really annoys me when so called 'expert' is quoted as the new authority of saying "Let's be politically correct and not offend anyone by attempting to persuading people to follow Jesus." The Devil gets a kick out of that.

    July 24, 2011 at 12:03 pm |
    • Gadfly

      Jim, you are exactly the kind of person he's talking about that ruin Christianity for people. Thanks. On a different note, you should try and consider the possibility that beating people into submission isn't the way to win their hearts and minds. You appear to be an extremist Christian and therefore, should realize you are probably more responsible for lost souls than winning hearts.

      July 24, 2011 at 12:12 pm |
    • modern_day_soothesayer

      An atheist never started a war

      July 24, 2011 at 12:15 pm |
    • Jim

      You're an idiot Jim.

      July 24, 2011 at 12:18 pm |
    • DEEBEE

      WOW Gadfly, you are extremely smart. I read Jim’s post and re-read it after reading your reply. Must repeat WOW

      July 24, 2011 at 12:19 pm |
    • Melissa

      Trying to convince others to conform to your way of thinking is not being Christ-like. Do the good works that Christ did. Show kindness and compassion to those ignored or reviled by society – as Christ did. Others will consider your way of thinking through your behavior toward others, not your yelling and screaming that yours is the only true way.

      Evangelicals spend far too much talking and not enough time listening.

      July 24, 2011 at 12:21 pm |
  19. Skeet

    There is one body and one Spirit, even as you are called in one hope of your calling. One Lord, one Faith and one Baptism. One God and father of all, who is above all, through all and in us all. There are diversities of gifts but the same Spirit. There are differances of administrations but the same Lord. There are diversities of operations but it is the same God that worketh all in all. There are three that bear record in Heaven, The Father, the Word and the Holy Ghost and these three are one. There are three that bear witness in the earth, the Spirit, the Water and the Blood and these three agree in one. Truely there is only one God and no individual in the world has access to him unless they come by and through the faith of Jesus Christ. The Gospel is this – Whosoever believeth that Jesus is the Christ, is born of God. When an individual comes to realize that they are a sinner, and they repent of their sins and ask Jesus to come into their heart/life and save them, believing that he is the risen Christ – they shall be saved/born again. Jesus told Nicodemus in the Bible – You must be born again. Unless a man/woman is born of the water and spirit, they cannot see or enter into the kingdom of God. When you ask Jesus Christ into your life and you become a Christian, the Holy Ghost moves inside of you and abides untill Christ comes for his church. The Bible says, if any man/woman has not the spirit of Christ, they are none of his. The very most important reason for Evangelism is seen in some of the posts above. Evangelism is to spread the Gospel (Good News) of Jesus Christ to all unbelievers – Informing them of the very truth. Jesus said I am the Way, the Truth and the Life, no man/woman can come to the Father but by me. The very ones that say, keep religion in the home, in the church and to yourself are the very ones that don't know the Truth. The Bible says Jesus did not come into the world to destroy lives but to save lives. The Bible says he did not come to judge lives but to save lives. The Bible says he did not come to condemn lives but to save lives. True believers of the Gospel of Jesus Christ – (The promise by faith) have a deep desire to tell others about the truth, which is what the Bible says we should do. True believers have a deep desire to help others when and as they can, to fellowship with others as much as they can and to worship God as much as they can. The Bible says God is a spirit and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth. Whosoever believeth that Jesus is the Christ, is born of God. For whatsoever is born of God overcometh the world: and this is the victory that overcometh the world, even our faith. Who is he/she that overcometh the world, but they that believe that Jesus is the Son of God. The Bible says that Heaven still has room. The Bible also says that Hell has enlarged itself and is overrunning with souls. Hell from beneath is moved for thee to meet thee at thy coming and it stirs up the dead for you. When it is all said and done and this world comes to it's end, or and individuals life comes to it's end, then it will be judgement time. The new Heavens and the new Earth or the Lake of Fire and Brimstone. Time is running out, the end of time is near, it's time to believe the Truth.

    July 24, 2011 at 12:03 pm |
    • Question everything

      If you dismiss all of the "god", "Jesus", "son of god" and all the other boogie man identifiers, the message is "be a good person". Why do you need all of these characters and books to tell you this? Religion, bible, god, is man made theocracy... Get over it!

      July 24, 2011 at 12:25 pm |
    • thanks

      Thank you so much for posting the Truth.

      July 24, 2011 at 12:30 pm |
    • malasangre

      True believers "desire" to tell and convince others of what they believe is annoying. It seems like they want you to argue with them so they can prove, by quoting ancient scripts usually,that they are qualified to be a teacher in mystical thought.The gloom and doom of dispensationalist propaganda is for people scared of dying desperately clinging to fantastical thinking. Time spent worrying about if they are "good" enough is not necessary. If you want to "convert" people be a good example

      July 24, 2011 at 12:44 pm |
    • David

      Posts like that are reason God invented paragraphs.

      July 24, 2011 at 2:19 pm |
  20. Fabjan

    Then how do you explain: Matthew 10:34-37 "Do not think I came to put peace upon the earth; I came to put, not peace, but a sword. For I came to cause division, with a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a young wife against her mother-in-law. Indeed, a man’s enemies will be persons of his own household. He that has greater affection for father or mother than for me is not worthy of me; and he that has greater affection for son or daughter than for me is not worthy of me."

    July 24, 2011 at 12:03 pm |
    • Rev. Henry Bates

      He was calling people to leave religion and that this would cause a division between them and the generation before them that were clinging to a god in man's image rather than the understanding that we are to live in the image of God.

      July 24, 2011 at 12:25 pm |
    • Jean

      And who wrote Matthew? Many people don't realize that books and letters contained in the Bible were written by different people for different audiences and different purposes. Reread the four gospels. They do differ in major ways. Many want to believe that the Bible was dictated by God. If that were the case, there would be no differences in sentence structure, style, and word usage. If one still wishes to believe the Bible was dictated, could it be that those doing the transcribing then changed the words to suit their own beliefs and purposes.

      July 24, 2011 at 12:33 pm |
    • Stephen

      as long as we're quoting matthew, does matthew 6:5-6 mean that we shouldn't go to church or pray in public?

      “and when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. truly i tell you, they have received their reward in full. but when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your father, who is unseen. then your father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you."

      quit cherry-picking the bible!

      July 24, 2011 at 12:37 pm |
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