Evangelism Q&A: “We Are Always Doing Evangelism”
Napkin-sketching with James Choung
interview by Kristyn Komarnicki
James Choung serves as InterVarsity’s national director of evangelism and is ordained with the Association of Vineyard Churches. He has over two decades of extensive service in multiethnic settings in both the church and campus worlds. He is the author of True Story: A Christianity Worth Believing In and Real Life: A Christianity Worth Living Out, both published by InterVarsity Press.
He has distilled the “Big Story” of the gospel of Jesus down to a four-circle diagram, which he regularly sketches onto napkins in coffee shops, sharing the news of Christ’s love with students across the country. We asked him what he hears from folks when he’s out and about.
What are the most pressing spiritual questions that young people are asking today?
A couple of generations ago, the spiritual question of the day—especially on campuses—was, “What is true?” Absolute truth still had great value, and you could assume that if someone saw something as the truth, they would bank their lives on it. So Christians often responded to their friends and acquaintances with historical evidence and rational questions to address this question.
But a generation ago, the spiritual question of the day shifted as the idea of an absolute truth gave way to something more relative. The young people saw how their parents’ generation used the idea of absolute truth to arrogantly shut out other viewpoints, and so they asked a different question altogether: “What is real?” They didn’t want a deluge of fancy arguments or a list of historical facts, but instead wanted to know if your faith was authentic and real, because Generation Xers are, in general, the best spin detectors on the planet. So ministering to this generation meant admitting our hurt, pain, and failure in our spiritual journeys; and in our being “real,” people found connection.
Today, the spiritual question seems to have shifted once more for young people. As a campus minister for the past 20 years, I have found the shift to be drastic and sudden. Instead of asking, “What is real?” they are asking, “What is good?”
This generation is both idealistic and practical, and they want to know if the Christian faith delivers any real good to the world, and if not, then it’s not worth it. So the current blame being placed on religion for the problems of the world is a major obstacle to the Christian faith, and believers need not only an answer from our mouths but also from our lives.
In your opinion, do most Christians know the Big Story, or do they themselves need to be evangelized before they can go around telling others about it?
I think most believers who grew up in the church have some sense of the biblical story. I would guess that most can recount creation, fall, and redemption. These seem agreed upon. I’m not sure if they would have a strong picture of the end of the story—but even the picture of the end is debated in the wider church.
At the same time, I don’t think Christians often equate the gospel with the biblical story. Perhaps this is where some further teaching is necessary. The gospel is often presented as a small slice of the larger story, often lopping off the creation account. In the past, that made sense: Many people in America grew up in churches or at least had some familiarity with the Bible. So did the Jewish people of Jesus’ day. Both groups were primed for a more truncated message, because they understand the background behind it.
But today biblical literacy is in free fall. So if you just make the gospel about fall and redemption, you lose on two major counts. First, God will seem like a distant, demanding perfectionist who would kill you in a heartbeat for cheating on an exam but who provides Jesus as a way out of the trap he’s set up. That doesn’t sound like good news! When you add creation, however, then you have a picture of God who delighted in designing good for all creation and everyone in it. That’s the kind of God who is easy to worship. How someone views God will determine whether he or she worships or runs, and by lopping off creation from the gospel we unknowingly distort someone’s vision of God.
Second, a gospel that focuses only on fall and redemption also loses a sense of mission. Where is God leading the world? What happens after we get “saved”? All of these answers depend on what we think God is doing in the world now and where we think he’ll take it. Without this picture, Christians often don’t know what being with Jesus means for today. Our faith is often presented, unwittingly, as waiting to die to receive the faith’s benefits, instead of truly living an eternal kind of life today as well. Then Christians seem selfish, because they don’t care about the ills in the world, but just wait to escape it for their own piece of heaven. Again, this won’t sound like good news, but escapism.
Thankfully, our Scriptures present a bigger story. It’s not a new story—if it’s new, then it’s probably heretical. It’s an old, old story. And if we lean more powerfully on the larger biblical story, then we’ll present something that will sound more like good news to people today.
In today’s postmodern culture, what are the most effective forms of evangelism?
This seems like a trick question, as if there were certain forms that work best in any given generation. There’s no tool—not even the Big Story!—that can overcome a script, some spin, or the sense of being someone’s project. Some aids can be helpful, but they are not silver bullets or magic wands that will automatically work every time.
But if our genuine faith exudes love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control, then there may be something in our lives that our friends might want. And if our church communities have concrete expressions of that kind of love and mercy, then inviting our friends to such things would be helpful.
For example, the New England Region of InterVarsity hosts a Katrina Relief Trip each year. It asks college students to give up sunbathing in Cancun to dp things like pull out rotten floorboards and put up drywall for homes in New Orleans. All the while, they’re studying the Bible and learning more about God as well. Of the 200 or so that go every year, a third to a half are unbelievers. They love the sense of doing good in the world, and along the way they get a sense of a community that’s genuinely following Jesus in some of the hardest-hit places in our country. And they get interested in the God we love and serve.
Things like the Big Story help when the time is right, but it’s always done in the context of relationships (even if they are brand-new ones) and where the Holy Spirit might be moving.
Is evangelism optional or essential?
In reality, we are always doing evangelism. Whether or not we are actively talking about Jesus, if people know we are Christians, what we say or don’t say, do or don’t do, will inform their opinions about Jesus. If it doesn’t come from us, then they learn about Jesus through what Christians do in the media, and that often puts us in a bad light. Even our reticence to talk about spiritual matters with our friends—or evasiveness or lack of clarity when asked point-blank about what we believe—makes it seem as if we don’t have solid footing for our faith or we’re embarrassed about our faith. All of this speaks volumes about who we are and the Jesus others think we love and serve.
So, the question is not whether evangelism is optional or essential, but whether we want to do evangelism well or poorly. Because we are always sharing our faith with someone, even when we don’t know it.
Listen to James Choung explain that we are “wired to share goodness.”