Mark Mittelberg, as executive vice president of the Willow Creek
Association where you champion the area of evangelism, you're one of North
America's recognized authorities on evangelism. In your book, Becoming a
Contagious Christian, you and Bill Hybels write that people often have a mental
image of evangelism which doesn't fit their personality. And so their passion
to share Christ fades, because they assume they must act in ways which are
contrary to what they're comfortable doing.
Let's talk about how Christians can find their fit for sharing Christ
and other trends in evangelism.
On Mission: We hear a lot today about lifestyle evangelism.
Is that a legitimate approach?
Mittelberg: I believe in lifestyle evangelism properly
defined, but oftentimes people stop with the word "lifestyle" and leave out the
To be effective, we have to be living out our Christianity but with the
knowledge that we're on a mission. We have to be intentionally raising
spiritual topics and engaging people in conversations and encouraging them
toward Christ. Unashamedly, we're trying to persuade people to follow Christ.
The key verse I use on this is Romans 10:14 where Paul says, "How are they
going to hear unless someone goes to them and preaches?" My paraphrase is that
your friends are not going to see it unless you go to them and say it.
On Mission: Tell us about today's seekers.
Mittelberg: Today's seekers are more secular, which means
they do not share our beliefs or our values to nearly the degree they used to.
I grew up in an evangelical heritage, a Baptist church in North Dakota. I was
taught the Bible. Even during my prodigal son era, I just sort of thought
everybody knew John 3:16, thought it was innate knowledge.
But later in my life when I started working among more secular people here
in Chicago, I would often say, "Well, you know what John 3:16 says." But five
of the first six people I said that to didn't know.
[Researcher George] Barna's statistics bear this out, saying 54 percent of
the average church attendees don't know what John 3:16 says or means. So when
you see someone hold up a John 3:16 sign at a football game on TV, the average
person doesn't have a clue what that sign is about. That's the culture we live
If you ever watch Jay Leno do his bit where he goes out on the street and
asks people questions like "So who got swallowed by the whale?" people will
answer with things like "Pinocchio." They're serious. It's kind of funny to
watch, but it's sobering to realize that we live in a biblically illiterate
culture. And I think we're headed more and more in that direction.
Also, the secular culture doesn't share our values. When someone stands up
on a talk show and upholds the biblical value on some moral issue, what
happens? They tend to get laughed out of the room. It's like, you've got to be
kidding! Someone still believes that? How narrow-minded, how homophobic, how
judgmental, how old-fashioned.
On Mission: So compare evangelism today to 20 or 30 years
Mittelberg: The people we're trying to reach are all over
the place on the secular spectrum. We can't assume they know too much. The old
evangelism that people responded to 20 or 30 years ago consisted of kind of
reminding people what they already knew and challenging them to do something
about it. In our culture today you don't remind them of what they know. They
didn't know it in the first place.
Also, the old evangelism was often an event approach where you hit them
hard, you challenged them and they came to Christ--right then. I think the more
our society secularizes the more we need a process approach to evangelism,
something that takes them step-by-step from their spiritually distant position
to the point where they're close enough to really respond to the gospel. Some
of the ways we do that go back to what we've been saying about building
relationships, getting up close to people, building trust and walking with them
gradually toward Christ. Not that we want to slow them down. If someone's close
and ready, we'll want to lead them to Christ right then.
But if they're not ready, let's not try to push them too quickly, too far,
because if we do, they'll abort the process. They'll say, "You're trying to get
me to do something that I don't understand. I'm not ready for this. Give me
some time. Let me think about this."
So I think reaching the culture we live in requires more long-term
approaches, more relationship building, more trust building, and more
willingness to patiently communicate the gospel and biblical teachings over the
On Mission: Willow Creek is huge. Can you reduce your
successful "formula" down to a size that churches of, say, 100 or 1,000 members
Mittelberg: The core strategy, each Christian finding the
evangelistic approach that fits him or her and then taking risks to use it to
present Christ in natural ways, works everywhere, because it's biblical. A
little reminder: Willow Creek started as a small church with about 30 high
school students, so size is not really the issue.
We take a three-step approach.
First, build a relationship, get up close to people--a friend listens to a
friend. That's true everywhere for all time. Jesus was our model for
He was a friend to sinners. He pointed out that the sick need the physician to
go to them, and He risked His reputation to get out among the people He wanted
to reach. He was also condemned for it by people who didn't understand what He
Second, it's not enough just to hang out with people, to build a
relationship. We've got to present a verbal witness. We've got to put what
we're living out in front of them with words we speak to them. We have to
articulate in natural language what Christ has done for us and for our friends,
and then we have to tell them how they can come to know Him too.
Third, we provide outreach events that people can bring their friends to. We
just feel that for the average Christian it's very difficult to do the whole
process of evangelism by themselves. The woman at the well met Jesus, realized
He was the Messiah, and she bore witness to that. But she also brought her
friends to an "event," which was Jesus speaking at the well. Basically, the
"church" was partnering with her to reach out to her friends. What we've found
is that there is a synergistic, one-two punch when you have individuals in a
church building relationships, sharing their faith, and then you provide a
place they can bring those friends that will relate to them and speak the
gospel in their language.
That's true of virtually any effective evangelism, even crusades. It's
individual Christians getting out into the neighborhood, the community,
building relationships, bearing verbal witness to Christ, and then using an
event like a crusade, a concert, a worship service, a Sunday school class or a
Bible study to supplement their effort.
On Mission: What about churches with very limited
Mittelberg: It doesn't have to be complex or elaborate.
Maybe a church decides to start a seeker Sunday school class. It's for
whoever is visiting the church who has no church background or a nominal church
background or possibly came from a liberal church that didn't really teach the
gospel. So in this class seekers learn the basics of the Christian faith, kind
of a Christianity 101 class.
Or it could be a class called Tough Questions. Bring people who have tough
questions, let them ask anything. Or open up Sunday evenings to an hour of
Q&A and bring friends who have a hard time understanding how God can allow
embassies to be bombed or children to starve or evil to flourish in the world.
Or maybe they have questions about some of the bad examples in churches. Or
they want to compare the New Age Movement to Christianity.
It doesn't matter if it's 10 people or 1,000. An open discussion like that
might be more effective than 100 people in a choir singing for a big event. It
may be that you're going to scratch where some non-Christians are itching and
answer their questions.
How much programming does that take? Virtually none.
On Mission: Could you summarize?
Mittelberg: The important thing is it's a biblical model
The individual Christian finds the approach that fits, uses that approach to
build relationships and bears verbal witness to Christ. Besides training people
for this, the church can provide events that members can bring their seeking
friends to. It may take a long time, but with prayer, patience and persistence,
the Holy Spirit will get through to many of them, and lead them to Christ.
Needless to say, the effort will all be worth it.
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