In the 1980s, the denomination I served encouraged me to attend a conference on evangelism presented by Evangelism Explosion (known familiarly as EE). This enormously popular approach to personal evangelism was pioneered in the 1960s by D. James Kennedy, the pastor of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church, and was and is used throughout the world.
It was hard for a shy introvert like me to strike up conversations with people I didn’t know. It was even harder to strike up conversations about spiritual matters with people I assumed didn’t care. EE was designed to help people start and guide conversations to a particular end: the acceptance of receive Jesus Christ as one’s personal savior.
At the EE conference, attendees were taught to ask people two questions, designed to coordinate with one another, and both including the prepositional phrase, “if you were to die tonight.” Both questions also included the idea of going to heaven.
There were things about the training I appreciated and things that made me uncomfortable. The discomfort came largely from the similarity between the EE program and programs that teach sales techniques. I wasn’t comfortable with the idea that I was selling Jesus the way the kid at the front door sells vacuum cleaners. It seemed to me that, in both cases, the immediate goal was to get the person on the other side of the door to say yes to something they might not really want and probably didn’t understand.
Today, my approach to evangelism has changed. I don’t try to sell Jesus after dangling the promise of heaven (or the threat of hell) in front of someone’s eyes. Don’t get me wrong: I think heaven and hell are real possibilities for each of us; I just don’t see Jesus or his apostles doing evangelism that way. I have not found such an approach to be effective, nor does it prepare people to live the authentic and rewarding life of a Jesus-follower now.
I’ve come to think it better to ask people a different question, one the philosopher Dallas Willard suggested. Instead of asking, “If you were to die tonight, would you go to heaven?” we might ask, “If you were to live forever, what would you do? What kind of person would you become if you continued on the trajectory you are now following? Would you love being that person forever - or would you hate it? Would living forever with you - as you - be more like heaven or hell?”
I’m afraid we’ve tailored our evangelistic message to people who think about the fact they are going to die, while Jesus tailored his message to people who were going to live - forever. That alone is enough to make us reconsider our approach, but add to that the fact that we live a culture that is in denial about death. People are not thinking about dying. They distract themselves throughout their waking hours to prevent themselves from thinking about death - and pretty much everything else.
What would evangelism look like if we started using Jesus’s approach? His invitation was not, “Say ‘Yes,’ and you can go heaven when you die.” It was, “Join me in the kingdom of God now.” Heaven someday? Yes, of course, but also a transformational life on earth now; a life that transforms both the person and his or her world. Jesus invited people to a radically different kind of life now, not just after they died.
Willard defined a human being as “a never ceasing spiritual being with an eternal destiny in God’s great universe.” That way of putting it is certainly in sync with the biblical understanding of human nature. That I will live forever is a given; that I will I’ll enjoy living forever is not. Living forever is a great thing - if I am an everlasting blessing to myself, to others and to God. Otherwise, it is a curse.
To become an everlasting blessing, or even to avoid being an everlasting pain, requires a good deal of transformation. Jesus understood how to guide his students into that transformation. He knew how to live - and to live well - forever, and he can help others do the same.
Shayne Looper is the pastor of Lockwood Community Church in Branch County, Michigan. Read more at shaynelooper.com.