A Strategic Problems of Evangelism in Post-Atheistic Society

The seminar for the pastors of the churches in Crimea

Sergei Golovin Simferopol,Ukraine

The forgotten meaning of the familiar parable What really happened? Who created a lie?
Awakening or illusion? What does tomorrow have in store for us? A non-typical conversion
In what we believe today Forward to the past To speak or to listen?
The purpose of man Adam, where are you? The power of conviction
Road towards God Always be prepared Until when?
With whom was Paul speaking? O death, where is your sting? The one born to crawl is learning to fly.
Tell me the story

Translated from Russian by E. Molodchiy
Edited by Amy Shved

To speak or to listen?

The story of the Ethiopian official's conversion is full of excitement and hope. Unlike the gentiles of Athens or Jerusalem Jews, there is no need to convince him, a foreigner, even a eunuch. He already knows about God, he recognizes his own problems. He knows where to wait for salvation from. And Philip communicates to him exactly what he so much needs.

Had Philip been preparing in advance a program of mass evangelization of Ethiopian eunuchs, it is mostly unlikely that in his prepared sermons and booklets there would be words more needed than these. How does Philip know when and what he needs to say?

One phrase from the passage that we just looked at contains a prompt: Then Philip began (in the Synod translation: opened his mouth) with that very passage of Scripture and told him the good news about Jesus. Here we have two central points that modern evangelistic programs lack these days:

  1. Evangelism is not an art of speaking, but an art of listening. Philip listens to the eunuch; Paul studies the life of the people of Athens; Peter pays attention to what the apostles are blamed for by the Jews, who gathered together for the Pentecost. In this lies the access to people's hearts. If we do not listen to them, why would they listen to us? If we do not care what troubles them, how will they believe, that we do care about them? If we do not get in the shoes of our listener, we will not know what help he really needs. Only when we identify with him, when he starts asking questions (either in his mind or out loud), only then it will be time to open our mouth.
  2. We should start not with what we want to say, but with what our interlocutors want to listen to. In the situations mentioned above Philip starts with Isaiah's prophecies, Paul - with God, whom the people of Athens do not know, Peter - with the suggestion that the apostles are drunk. The evangelists of the New Testament are always looking at the world through the eyes of their listeners.

Paul writes,

Though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God's law but am under Christ's law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings. (1 Corinthians 9:19-23; NIV.)

What is it? An example of hypocrisy? No, a hypocrite pretends to be what he is not, in pursuit of personal gain. Paul, however, rejecting himself, becomes like his listeners for their good. This is the essence of any missionary ministry.

Evangelism is always a mission. It is always fellowship with unbelievers in their own language, within the limits of their understanding, in the context of their life. Isn't it exactly what the Son of God did, when from His eternal glory he came as a Man to this earth?

Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death - even death on a cross! (Philippians 2:6-8; NIV.)

Following His example, we too should boldly cross over to foreign ground. Of course, it is much more convenient, calmer, and comfortable to play on one's own field. But it is just impossible to win. It is impossible to save those perishing in the ocean while sitting on the shore.

The power of conviction

Let us go back to the situation in our area. The carburetor is still over flooded, and, for the most part, this is the problem we are still dealing with. But what awaits us? The fuel tank is empty. We are trying to gather in grains of the harvest, but all of this time almost nobody has been preparing the soil. The evil one, however, has been working most actively here, on the worldview level. He has been heartily trampling down the soil, paving it with stones, sowing tares. That is why it is most important now for each evangelist to be an apologist, for every believer to be ready to give an answer to anyone who asks about the hope that we have. But how can we be ready to give an answer, if we do not even know the questions? If we do not listen? If we ourselves do not ask?

An apologist's job is also complex because he rarely with his own eyes sees the fruit of his work. Maybe, that is why everybody wants to be an evangelist, so that the fruit can be seen right away? The one who prepares the soil acts in faith, believing that the Holy Spirit will send somebody to sow the seed, that there will be a person to water, that there will be harvest - no labor will be in vain if it is done for God. But, somehow or other, not very often one can see the fruit of his labor: it usually takes time for the worldview to change. One very seldom can come across people like Dionysius and Damaris. But praise God they do exist!

Twice a year we hold an international symposium "Man and Christian Worldview." It is almost like a working model of Areopagus, where every participant has an opportunity to earnestly listen to each other's worldview ideas. Formally the symposium is a purely academic undertaking, and many unbelievers gladly come to take part in it, share their thoughts, see their report published in a fashionable collection. But for us it is a short term "mission trip to the tribes of intellectuals" in order to bring to them the simple Good News in the academic language that they understand.

The most manifest result of the symposium was maybe not conversion still, but a change of attitude in many participants - scientists, doctors, pedagogues - towards Christianity and Christians. After getting acquainted with Christians who speak the same professional language as he himself does and know the subject of research not worse than he, any professor at least stops teaching his students that all Christians are uneducated idiots. This creates a totally different atmosphere for preaching the Gospel among students, which is as well a sort of soil preparation. However, in the several years of the work of the symposium there have been cases of consecutive conversion of its participants.

One of such participants was Nikolay Yevgeniyevich Aleshin, a hereditary scientist, director of a scientific research institute for the study of rice in Krasnodar. While studying the structure of rice and finding that everything that is alive bears in it traces of its origin from clay, he was very interested in this and started to carefully collect and analyze data. He reported the results of his research at our symposium, and we tried to help him make the next step. It is clear that we all are made from clay (we are dust and to dust we will return), and, by the way, I have never come across a piece of clay as good as you are. But what is next? His colleagues, scientists, rejected the results of his research. There was no place for God in their worldview. If there is no God, if everything all of a sudden came to being by itself, it is science. But when the work of the Creator is revealed in His creation, this, in their opinion, is not science.

A couple of years went by, and finally in the end of March 1999 we received good news: Nikolay Aleshin converted and entered into a covenant with God! It was a long road for him, but after he became convinced in the existence of the Creator, he no longer doubted that Christ is the Way.

It is a good testimony story for the church, isn't it? Church testimonies resemble fairy-tales, in which there is a number of misfortunes, but in the end everything ends well with a wedding. Mature men know, however, that the carefree life does not start after the wedding, but it surely ends then. It was just like that in this case as well.

Literally several days after conversion, Nikolay Yevgeniyevich was arrested and taken to an investigation jail cell in Krasnodar. In order not to speak without evidence, I will quote a passage from his letter: "On April 8th 1999 I was arrested by local fanatics, who accused me of being an Israeli spy financing the Evangelical Christian movement in Kuban out of contraband sources." This is not a result of somebody's morbid imagination or belated stories about Stalin time repressions. Anyone who is willing can read about these events in the newspaper "NG-religions" as of 11-10-1999, page 8.

At first he was accused of appropriating student stipends, but as the director of a research institute, he did not have anything to do with giving out student stipends. Then there were attempts to "cook up charges" against him in the area of political espionage. He was interrogated and tortured with electroshock in an attempt to draw out a confession (as if a confession if proof of crime). Only in September of 1999 under the pressure of the international community and with the personal intervention of the High Commissioner of the UN on the rights of man, he was released on the grounds of lack of evidence.

While in the overcrowded investigation jail, he was thrown into cells with financial schemers, sometimes - Crimean Tatars (I would never have thought that there is a cell for Crimean Tatars in the Kuban jail), sometimes - Jews or people somehow connected with Israel (it is also an interesting phenomenon). There were up to 13 people in cells designed to hold four prisoners, which means 40 square centimeters per person! Water was given one-two hours a day. What was this new convert from the intellectuals, who for the first time in his life faced the realities of life in prison, doing in breaks between tortures and interrogations? Getting arrested only a week after his conversion, he preached the Gospel in every place where he was moved! He was confirmed in his beliefs and could not help but share them. His neighbors' cell mates started turning to Christ.

In the end he was transferred to dangerous criminals. There was more room here - 60-70 people in cells designed for thirty two men. At the head of the cell was "pahan," who had everything under his control. However, Aleshin continued to evangelize, and inmates, including the "pahan" himself, started accepting Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior. After repenting, "pahan" rendered himself useless for that jail in the eyes of the management, and it was decided to transfer him to a prison camp in the Northern Urals. When Yevgeniy Kvasnikov, a former criminal authority was leaving the cell, he asked his brothers in faith to lay hands on him and ordain him for the ministry of evangelism. With the Bible in his hands he left to proclaim the Gospel where no missionary had ever been.

In just five months of being in prison, Nikolay Aleshin brought to the Lord and baptized forty two people! Right there, in the investigation jail, he started a Christian congregation, that was called "Prison brotherhood of the Lord's friends."

It is amazing how much the Lord can do through one convert, when that convert is confirmed in his beliefs and knows for sure, what he is standing on and in Whom he has believed (2 Timothy 1:12)! Apologetics prepares a foundation pit, in which the strong foundation of our faith is built.

Until when?

It is impossible to build a sky-scraper by gradually remodeling a dilapidated log-cabin - the foundation will not support it. Before building something new, the old needs to be destroyed. Of course, it is more pleasant to create than rake away piles of rubble, but this dirty work is the guarantee of a successful building project. If there is no foundation pit, there will be no strong foundation, the rain will come and rivers will rise up, winds will blow, and the house will be destroyed. That is why we are calling all believers to the apologetics ministry. Especially in the present situation, when the "fuel tank" is empty, and we need to catch up with what we have lost. That is why the priority activity of the Christian Centre for Apologetics is equipping of believers to effectively pass on their beliefs.

At times we have to hear from some ministers, "You are not doing the right thing! Just go, preach the Gospel. Why are you holding on to this theory of evolution? Leave it alone! Darwin died a long time ago, no one cares about this theory any more." Maybe it is true they themselves do not care about this theory. However, we are called to witness not to them, but to unbelievers. And it was hammered into their heads when they were school students that it is an undisputable scientific fact that man evolved from apes. And when we talk to people from the church, in reality it turns out that even half of them have not yet parted with these ideas. That is why the seed of the Word of God falls on rocky soil and sprouts up fast, because the ground is not deep. But what will happen when it starts heating up?

Without doubt, not for everyone the theory of evolution is the main obstacle on the way toward faith. We talked about it earlier. We are not involved with just this theory. But it is absolutely apparent that at the present time one of the main problems is exactly the naturalistic and atheistic education, which is still preserved in the school system. Communist slogans have been taken down, but the program remains the same. Our children are subjected daily to treatment by materialistic lies, and we are not capable of exposing them. So far we succeed in carrying out only the first part of the apostle's command, Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them (Ephesians 5:11; NIV). "Great, -- rejoices the evil one, -- have nothing to do with it, just don't intervene with what I do."

Foreseeing a similar situation, already half a century ago, C. S. Lewis put into the mouth of his literary character, the senior demon tempter, a declaration, that soon "we (i.e., demons) will no longer need to foster in people complacency and ignorance. They will do it themselves. Of course, it will work only if all the schools will be government run." Then you can tell a person about God forever, but if there is no strong foundation laid, if the soil is not prepared, if the obstacles are not removed, one should not be surprised that faith has become so shallow in our days. It is hard for sprouts to take root in rocky soil.

We are not against the theory of evolution. We are for the Good News. We are its blue collar workers, its litter removers. Whatever the litter is, we remove it. I sincerely hope that one day the theory of evolution will be mentioned only in the history of science as an ignorant fallacy, just like the idea to use bloodletting as a treatment for all diseases. From the very beginning this "theory" was based on fantasies, and its proofs were errors and falsifications. Until today the only thing that was missing from it was facts. There were premeditated forgeries aimed at misleading, there were also unpremeditated forgeries, when the researchers wanted to believe in it so much that they were deceiving themselves and through this - everybody else. Indeed, there is no pleasure in the task of raking all of this trash.

There will be time when the evolution theory will no longer be an obstacle for anyone on the way to God, and will gladly forget about it. But if it happens before the Lord Jesus returns to get us, apologists will not go without a job to do. I am sure that Satan will launch another attack against the truth. Then our goal will no longer be to continue exposing the evolution theory, but to discern this new lie, which will prevent people from coming to God, and to start fighting it. The evil one wages a constant war with the truth. Often it is a mine war, a spy war, a guerilla war. He will not calm down until the very end. Our task is to oppose his intrigues. Our task is to transform the soil that was spoiled by the father of lies.

The one born to crawl is learning to fly.

In the present situation there will always be enough work to do with people other than unbelievers. When those who come to church are not freed from their false beliefs, if the soil is not prepared for the sowing, if the worldview does not undergo a radical change (repentance – “metanoya”), we should not be surprised by the fact that in the post-soviet era, that was swarming with a multitude of social, political, trade union and other organizations, many congregations are nowadays formed in accordance with the model of organizing secular unions of citizens that we came to know from our childhood. Where would another model come from?

When the apostle treats the subject of setting up a church in his letter to the Romans, not without a reason he reminds again: Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God's will is – his good, pleasing and perfect will. (Romans 12:2.) It is necessary to depart from the worldly models and ideas through the renewing of the mind that transforms. The choice of words itself in this verse makes us consider an interesting analogy. The Greek word metamorfozo, which is translated as “be transformed,” is most often found in fairy-tales of ancient literature (in the famous works by Ovidius and Apuleius the word is even used in titles), and it carries the meaning of a magical act when one kind of entities and objects turns into another. Practically the only application of this phenomenon to the events of real world is the metamorphosis of a caterpillar into a butterfly.

When we are born into this world, we are all caterpillars, which are only capable of creeping and consuming. But God has intended for us to be butterflies. This is the truth, and probably because of this a caterpillar can theoretically be convinced that its purpose is to fly. But will it make it fly? Caterpillars can start studying the basics of aerodynamics and the laws of piloting and navigation. They can even start hopping, for practice. Then they can set up courses to prepare hopping leaders. But they will still be nothing more than hopping caterpillars. They will still not be able to flutter about – the one who is from the earth belongs to the earth (John 3:31). To be able to fly, the caterpillar has to turn into a butterfly first, it has to undergo a new birth. And before it can do this last thing, it has to die, along with its unique “caterpillar” ideas. An act of metamorphosis must take place, an act of the renewing of the mind. Only then will their flying be natural, free, and beautiful.

Tell me the story

Hearing a piece of good news, we hurry to pass it on to others. We hurry to be the first ones to tell it, because to share good news is the greatest joy. It should be much more than that for Christ's Good News, the best News we can ever pass on.

But any news has meaning only in context. And if the context is not known, the news itself loses its significance. The news that a baby is born is really a pleasant piece of news. But how pleasant is it if we do not know, where it was born, to whom, when, what distinguishes him from others? If all of it is not known, what will tell us the words "for to us a child is born" (Isaiah 9:6)? Not without a reason an old Christian hymn says, "Tell me the old, old story." The Good News is a whole story. It includes the story of the creation of the world, the fall, Jesus Christ's death and resurrection. It also talks about what God expects from us.

But just like reading the table of contents of a book does not replace reading of the book itself, in the same way a short summary of the Good News does not make you familiar with the Good News itself. Any "condensed" form of the Gospel, be it "four spiritual laws," "five steps towards eternal life," or anything else, can only be a preface to the Good News, but will never be able to replace it, will not give a chance to live it through and feel its magnificent simplicity, will not result in a changed worldview. …faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ. (Romans 10:17; NIV.)

One cannot say that "compressed" statements similar to this one are illegitimate. In his letters the apostle Paul often uses them to remind the disciples the essence of the Gospel (see, e.g., 1 Corinthians 15:3-7; Philippians 2:6-11; 1 Timothy 3:16, etc.), but they are not the only contents of his sermon. At first glance it may appear that, depending on the audience, Paul preached different ideas. But when we take a more careful look, we see that he always tells one and the same story. It is just that the apostle shows its different parts to different listeners. Following the example of the Lord, he always starts with the place of the story that is well known to his audience, and then continues to give them exactly as much as they can take in. As in a jigsaw puzzle, we can put together a full version of the "Gospel of Paul" from different pieces of this story - sermons written down in the book of Acts of the Apostles. The story is told in its fullness by the sermons written down by Luke - to the gentiles in Athens (17:22-31), Jews in Antioch of Pisidia (13:16-41), and to the faithful in Melitus (20:18-35).

The most widely spread mistake, which we make as evangelists, is a shift of focus, when the Good News turns from something that the perishing man needs to hear into something that the evangelist needs to share. It seems that the difference is not that big, but still it is very dangerous: we think about ourselves and forget about those for whose sake we minister. From ministers we turn into doers, from witnesses into agitators.

If our concern is not with our being busy with something important, but with the fate of people, not reconciled to their Creator, and we ought to go back to the biblical methods of preaching the good news: to find out what level this person's relationship with God is on, what part of the gospel he has already accepted, and, rejecting our own knowledge, habits, and traditions, talk with him using the categories of his notions, values, and priorities. Only in this way will we be able to bring to the Lord a rich harvest of people saved by Him.

Sergei Golovin