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. Dam

    So true – Jesus never sought to convert people. The Romans when they converted to Christianity changed everything Jesus stood for and started the process of forcible conversion of Europe. The People who wrote the Bible were bunch of morons who never understood what Jesus stood for. They did not even know the earth was round and it was not the centre of the universe. So Bible is a just bunch of ignorant rambling. Islam is another religion which seeks to convert people just to increase their numbers(most converts are convicts) . But at least this is what that war monger Mohamed preached. Both these Proselytising religions dont understand the damage it causes to local cultures and creates deep enimities. Is this what any religion should be about. But Christainity & Islam both grew thru forcible conversion & taxation. But the Western societies have changed and become secular and most people in the Western world have realised there is no fcking God but Islamic countries continues living in the 8th century with their barbaric laws to persecute minorities & women. Eastern religions(Buddhism, Hindu, Confucian, Taoism, Sikism etc) are far more peaceful and dont believe in conversion but they have their own faults.

    July 25, 2011 at 11:40 am |
    • standingwave

      True,Christianity and Islam did grow through forcible conversion.But that's only half of it.Early Christians also ministered the sick.They would give the poor food and find jobs for them.If someone was incapacitated they would care for the children.Muslims,Likewise,were reknowned for their hospitality to strangers.

      July 25, 2011 at 11:48 am |
    • Thom MacMillan

      I'm curious about the source of this information on who Jesus *really* is when the Gospels are the best, and almost only source of Jesus' life and teachings. Even the search for a "historical" Jesus is based on a search for the original wording of the New Testament. There is no tell-all source that reveals Jesus as a proponent of a worldview contrary to historic Christianity and then councils of believers and the Romans distorted his teachings. Unfortunately, there's just the first century gospels, first century Christian writing, and various other literature from early (later than first century) heretics (i.e. marginalized Christians).

      July 25, 2011 at 11:52 am |
  2. jerry stroo

    there are always those who say lets just get along. but Jesus change lifes through conversion remember you must be born again. thats not all of us staying the same. there must be change, and that change in Christ. love all by evanglizing all to the love of Christ.

    July 25, 2011 at 11:38 am |
  3. jbmar1312

    When I was stationed in Iraq I had "discussions" about God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit with a Muslim friend. My aim was to introduce my friend to God, not to convince him He was wrong and I was right. I believe I am reconciled with God through Jesus and His sacrifice, but it is based on my personal experience with Jesus .... which I cannot prove to anyone . It is a spritual truth the flesh will deny. We prayed together, read the Bible together, cried together and laughed together. My job is to present the truth about God in love and peace. That is all God has asked us as Christians to do. It is the job of the Holy Spirit to testify to the heart of each person that He is who He say's He is. We walk by faith, not by sight. I do disagree about Jesus being a uniter not a divider. Jesus clearly states that because of him familys will be broken and strife will occur. This also is because of our selfesh nature.

    Jesus is Lord

    July 25, 2011 at 11:38 am |
  4. mouse

    religion is the greatest weapon ever invented and has killed more people than all the natural and man made disasters in our species history. entire cultures were wiped out 'in the name of god' simply because they were unrepentant heathens.

    July 25, 2011 at 11:37 am |
  5. Adam Hanin

    Carl sure looks happy standing with a terrorist and murderer of hundreds of Israelis (and Lebanese).

    I agree with his premise – too many try to force Christianity down my throat when I am not only comfortable but deeply satisfied with my religious choice. But at the same time, as a true Christian, he ought to carefully consider who he allies with.

    July 25, 2011 at 11:37 am |
  6. Hmm..

    So, basically you're telling us to ignore a command from Jesus to preach?

    OK, then. I'm certain that you know better, so we'd better listen to you.

    July 25, 2011 at 11:36 am |
    • Dave

      This was my same exact thought as I read this!!!

      July 25, 2011 at 11:40 am |
    • idnar

      go reread this section: 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.”

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

      READ THE ARTICLE before commenting. He does say that Christians should speak about Jesus to people.

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

      Yep. Pretty much like Islam. Preach, convert, and if you don't convert, die. I see no difference in either religion.

      July 25, 2011 at 11:48 am |
    • Jessica

      Reminds me of the verse 2 Corinthians 6:14b..."What fellowship has light with darkness?". Christians can proclaim what the Bible has to say all day long, and those who are not saved and in darkness will continue to mock regardless of what they say. It is not until an unsaved person truly seeks God and the Truth that they will be able to appreciate and understand God's will and His plan.

      Jesus said, "Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it."–Matt 7:13. Many people will have the opportunity to accept Jesus Christ as their personal Savior, but not many will choose to follow Him. It's much easier to stand at a distance and mock Christianity than it is to make a life choice to follow Christ.

      July 25, 2011 at 11:52 am |
    • Rbnlegnd101

      Did jesus command "Go out into the world and follow my words in ways certain to fail. Take my message and use it to annoy and harass strangers, to be certain they will not listen to you. Incite them in all ways, great and small. Interrupt their meals, and speak to them in restrooms, insult them, and condemn them. Do these things in my name, to be certain they hate me, and will not listen to others who seek to share the good news of salvation."

      I think I missed that part. I have a hard time understanding why people who appear to be so driven to deliver a message, go out of their way to do so in a way that ensures it will not be heard.

      July 25, 2011 at 12:04 pm |
  7. ronny

    Muslims should also stop converting people to Islam.

    July 25, 2011 at 11:35 am |
  8. Hannah

    What a profound way to view the life of Jesus, this is a complete paradigm shift to the way Christians approach evangelism. I appreciate your wisdom. By some of the comments I read above it seems that many still have their cultural lenses on, its a very humbling experience to ask God to take those off and show us the world from His point of view.

    July 25, 2011 at 11:34 am |
  9. Raul

    First thing that came to mind (in the fill in the blank) was "naive dumb a$$." However, anyone who can force such a smile has to be in the snake oil business.

    July 25, 2011 at 11:34 am |
  10. Lucy

    Stop calling the religious right "Christians". They are NOT. They are psuedo-christians. They are evil with loonie dictator mentality. They should all be thrown in the loonie bin and treated as mentally ill to remove their hateful thoughts and replace their thoughts with good loving thoughts. We need to know why they are so hateful.

    July 25, 2011 at 11:34 am |
    • Thom MacMillan

      Okay...sounds like something from 1984. If you don't like the way people think, take them to the Ministry of Love and reprogram them. Scary how polarized this country is.

      July 25, 2011 at 11:43 am |
  11. rsr

    All religions are man-made. Everyone can claim that their book is the only holy book and is the only word of god. But how does anyone know what is the truth. Everyone who is living is going by their book thinking the other to be wrong. This reminds me of the story of 7 blind men and the elephant.
    Whether you believe that god made this earth or whether the big bang created this earth, just love the beauty of the world and its differences without prejudice and hatred. If god were to come down to earth today, I am not sure if he would be too happy to see that we are killing each other over our differences. How would you like if everyone is of your religion, looks exactly like you and does things the same way. What if all the flowers, trees, animals, landscapes etc. are of the same kind and there is no diversity. Would you like that? That is not beauty. If you are so concerned about turning everyone to your religion, shorten all the fingers in your hands so they are of equal size and uniformity is achieved as you want to convert everyone to your belief.
    We have been fighting over religion for so long and are doing it even today. If you are a true believer of your religion, work towards removing hatred, poverty, famine and inequality in the world. If you think the only way to achieve this is by converting the other person to your religion then you are no better than a thief. A thief steals something from you and gives you something in return (pain) while you in the name of religion give something that the receiver doesn't need (your religion) and take away his faith/belief in his god/culture and history.

    July 25, 2011 at 11:33 am |
    • Kishore Paila

      Awesome...awesome.....what a comment...

      I am with you...whoever you are....you spoke right words. and words of wisdom.

      July 25, 2011 at 12:56 pm |
  12. dale dhillon

    To begin with and in the interest of interfaith dialog, understanding and acceptance without prejudice, the author should emphatically place all the major religions of the world on equal footing. He should also clearly state that Jesus is one avenue, however there are multiple and equal avenues available to everyone to seek peace, love, joy and harmony in the world.

    July 25, 2011 at 11:32 am |
  13. Dan G.

    I'm not concerned about evangelicals as much as I am about those wanting to kill you because you are a Christian.

    July 25, 2011 at 11:31 am |
    • Charles Chen

      Funny because it implies that Christians, throughout history, have never killed others because, a) they were not Christians, b) they were "heretics", c) they were "witches", d) they refused to convert, e) any and all of the above. Christianity has a long history soaked in the blood of non-believers. The author has it right: religion cannot and should not be coerced upon others.

      July 25, 2011 at 11:37 am |
  14. Jessica

    Carl, you are mistaken in much of your view of Christianity. If someone is a true Christian, then their desire is not to rebuild any walls that Jesus tore down. As followers of Jesus Christ, we strive to do as He did—not the opposite. As you stated yourself, spreading the gospel is at the forefront of any true Christian’s list of priorities, because it is what we are commanded to do as followers of Jesus Christ. How could one make disciples of all the nations is their focus was on building up walls? That doesn’t make sense. Missionaries give up everything they have in order to humbly and selflessly fulfill that commandment by going and immersing themselves in other culture and building personal relationships. They don’t go to “conquer” nations for Christ—they go to demonstrate the love of Christ to other nations, and it is only through demonstrating that love that hearts are won for Christ. Have you seen the movie “End of the Spear”? If not, I would recommend you watch it—that movie provides a great example of how Christians are willing to go and die so that others might be able to one day know Jesus Christ.

    Jesus said, “I am the Way and the Truth and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.”—John 14:6. It is not OK to simply believe that Jesus was a prophet (as Islam does). Jesus himself proclaimed that He was God incarnate, and that He is the ONLY way to heaven. The Bible also says that God is the only One who can forgive sins, which is more proof that Jesus was God himself in the form of man. When we have to stand before God on the Day of Judgment, there will be no arguing that “every religion is equal and OK”. There is ONE true God and only ONE true religion.

    Now, just because there is only one way to heaven doesn’t mean that Christians can’t treat people of other religions with respect and kindness—in fact, the Bible commands us all to treat each other with lovingkindness. Christians who do not do that are not following the Bible. However, Christians are not perfect—just because someone is a Christian does not mean they won’t make mistakes. It’s unfortunate that if an unsaved person sees a Christian not acting in a way that they should be, that they automatically assume that all Christians would act the same way or have the same opinion. Please just keep that in mind when writing these articles and making statements that really are not a true reflection of what Christianity is all about.

    July 25, 2011 at 11:31 am |
    • ED

      "One true way to heaven" thinking is the root of much evil, repent now or be enslaved by your closed mind. In the end, only one thing is sure: our bodies all rot the same way.

      July 25, 2011 at 11:36 am |
    • Kevin

      Your statement, "Now, just because there is only one way to heaven ...." sums up most of Christianity (and many other religions). People like yourself who are so certain that their viewpoint and take on religion is the only correct one are dangerous to us all. It is this certainty that causes young men to strap bombs to themselves or shoot up campsites in Norway.

      July 25, 2011 at 11:40 am |
    • Jason

      You do an excellent job of communicating the truth. Jesus is the ONLY way to God and it is our God-given command to share Christ with all. Evangelizing is part of being a Christian. There are of course Christians who aren't perfect examples of Christ (like, all of them!), but we still try.

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

      Hey she's only quoting Jesus when she says there's only one way to Heaven. That's exactly why Jesus said it would bring division – because Jesus doesn't leave any room for somebody to follow Him and still leave other options on the table. You're either fully trusting in Him as the only way, or you are an enemy of Jesus.

      From what you say it sounds like you believe Jesus and the Bible have no more importance than fairy tales. Fine for you, but don't think you have a right to tell us what to believe. We believe Jesus is the only way. Kind of like a skydiver believes a parachute is the only way. If they thought that "all methods lead to safe landings so why bother with this parachute" they'd be a pancake. Narrow-mindedness is VERY GOOD when it involves life and death matters. You're either right or wrong about it. You would have us believe that all people can be right (or that none of it really matters) – but you don't actually know that because you haven't been on the other side of death yet. You'd do well to consider the words of the Man Jesus Christ. There's a reason He changed human history more than anyone else.

      July 25, 2011 at 11:49 am |
  15. Peter

    Once again a reminder of how religion is a big contributing factor with everything that is wrong in the world. It's time the human race grow up from this primitive train of thought otherwise we'll just destroy ourselves.

    July 25, 2011 at 11:31 am |
  16. andrew.peter

    This author was incorrect in his interpretation of the parable of the Good Samaritan. The Samaritan was jewish by heritage but had turned away from judaism and worshipped in their own way. To the Pharisee who was fixated on works and external "righteousness" they considered them pagan filth. Jesus seeking to expose the Pharisees unrighteousness shared this parable to shame the pharisees – the Samaritan was following the law "love your neighbor" better than the Pharisees. However, this was not to say that the Samaritan was righteous. There is no mention of his belief in God, only his works. A similar present day parable would be an atheist caring for homeless people living outside of a Christian church. The reason for Jesus's condemnation of the Pharisees was not because they didn't help other people. It was because they arrogant and prideful. They thought their good works would save them and make them righteous. They didn't accept the truth that they were sinful and needed Jesus Christ as their redeemer and righteousness.

    July 25, 2011 at 11:29 am |
  17. total non sense

    how about NO RELIGION at all? Since god does not exist, what is the point? Religion only purpose is to kill and destroy. (read any history book). Maybe it's time we stop basing our life on fairy tales?

    July 25, 2011 at 11:29 am |
    • darrel

      INcorrect sir, the purpose of religion is to control your life and make life for those in power easier. Religion is simply another means to force you into a pattern of behavior that you might not really want to follow. The killing and destruction is simply a byproduct of this belief. No wonder god has abandonded the planet, he's laughing himself silly at all the self appointed prophets and religious leaders.

      July 25, 2011 at 11:36 am |
    • David

      Brilliant comment..let's build a society completely based on maximizing profit/pleasure and minimizing pain/loss. All decisions should then be made on objective cost/benefit analysis. Hey this sounds like historical materialism ( AKA communism ). It is a system devoid of moral absolutes and therefore perfect for the carrying out of mass murder, genocide, torture pretty much anything that aligns itself to the axiom stated in my first sentence.

      July 25, 2011 at 11:39 am |
    • darkside

      god does exist what are you do total nonsense when you die and face him what will you say then opps to late for for ya then you will see

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

      @David – Amen. It is so obvious, why don't people get it? I actually know the answer to that question, but just don't feel like articulating it right now.

      July 25, 2011 at 11:48 am |
  18. Paul Willson

    There are ways of evangelizing. And for the record Convert or die is not a good one.. Blazes its the worst way of showing Christianity to the world. I would not say stop it I would say watch how you show the effects of belief/
    Get on with the people about you

    July 25, 2011 at 11:28 am |
  19. myweightinwords

    The problem I have with missionaries is the arrogance of going into some country that you do not know or understand to tell the people there that they are fundamentally wrong and condemned to hell simply because they were born someplace where the missionary's brand of religion is not taught, then offering to "save" them...when in many cases that salvation comes at the cost of their lives.

    I don't care what religion you are. That is not acceptable behavior in my opinion.

    July 25, 2011 at 11:28 am |
  20. Punkass

    So your point is Muslims arent the aggressors and Christians produce just as much violence in the middle east??? Wow, as an atheist thats even hard for me to swallow. While I agree that not all christians are the pious, good for all mankind, brotherly love group they would like to promote, its a far stretch to say that the christian community in this day and age is on the same level as muslims. Your opinion seems extremely biased, almost like you are trying to punish the group you used to belong too. Blaming them instead of yourself.

    July 25, 2011 at 11:26 am |
    • CT

      Very well said. You're right on.

      July 25, 2011 at 11:31 am |
    • @punkass

      Christians HAVE killed more people than ANY other religion in history. Look at the Crusades. NOT ONLY did they kill Muslims and Jews, they killed fellow CHRISTIANS as well!!!!! Go check a history book before talking.

      July 25, 2011 at 12:53 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.