It's been 40 years since Becky Pippert wrote her best-selling book on evangelism, Out of the Saltshaker & Into The World, and a lot has changed since that time.
In Britain at least, neither nominal Christianity nor sceptics have even a basic knowledge of the main people and stories in the Bible stories.
In the US, where Pippert is from, Christianity is still a visible part of the social fabric, but there too, secularism has been gaining ground, church attendance has been in consistent decline while religious 'nones' are on the rise.
As a seasoned evangelist, she's all too aware of these dramatic shifts, but her calling, she says, remains the same.
Hence the title of her new book, Stay Salt: The World Has Changed, Our Message Must Not.
Becky speaks to Christian Today about how the Church can continue to witness in times that seem to have become only more challenging since the outbreak of coronavirus.
CT: How do you think the world has changed since you first wrote Out of the Saltshaker?
Becky: We in the West have been living in a culture that's been dominated by the lethal distortions of post-modernity in a way that wasn't true when I first wrote Out of the Saltshaker. For example, the collapse of absolute truth; the shift from objective authority to personal preference; a designer religion approach that picks 'cafeteria-style' various beliefs, no matter if the beliefs collide or are completely contradictory.
The sexual revolution has also had a tremendous impact, and I think we have allowed ourselves to be intimidated by media and cultural elites that are increasingly hostile to true Christianity
CT: With all of these challenges, why should we even bother still trying to share our faith?
Becky: Because Jesus commands us to! And His command - "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations" has nothing to do with our gifting, or what kind of temperament we have. We are all called to make disciples, whether we're extroverts, introverts, and whether we are gifted as evangelists or not.
We also need to remember that secularism doesn't really address or answer our deepest human longings. God has placed a longing for identity and meaning and purpose in all human hearts. Even when unbelievers can't quite articulate what they feel they're missing, the longings are there.
My husband and I saw this over and over again when we recently lived in the UK for seven years, and ministered throughout Europe. I spoke to so many unbelievers who were more spiritually open than Christians even realized.
Despite all our cultural challenges, I believe our age is the greatest opportunity for Christian witness since the time of Jesus and the apostles.
CT: Why as Christians do you think we are so often reluctant to share our faith?
Becky: I think our trouble is three-fold. First, we don't realize that God is the Great Evangelist who is delighted to use us in our weakness! Second, say the word 'evangelism' and some Christians still think it means preaching a memorised outline to a victim and then running away! Which means we aren't paying attention to who people are. What are their questions and their particular obstacles to faith?
Thirdly, we've often redefined evangelism in a way that isn't biblical. What I hear all the time in the West is: "well, our task is to demonstrate the Gospel, not tell the Gospel."
And what I hear endlessly quoted is the idea, attributed to Francis of Assisi, that we are to "preach the Gospel and if necessary use words."
There is no historical evidence that Assisi ever even said that, and if he did say it, he was wrong! Biblical evangelism is bearing witness to Christ in 3 ways: through who we are, what we do and what we say. All three are required. Our evangelistic witness must be visual (engaging in acts of compassion and caring about justice) but primarily it must be verbal, and this is where we are so weak in the West. The world is changing so we must know how to communicate the Good News for such a time as this.
CT: You mention 'such a time as this'. It seems the times we live in have changed more dramatically than any of us could have imagined in the last few weeks with Covid-19. How do you think the world is changing through this?
Becky: What I am seeing and what I am hearing, not just in America, but from other parts of the world, is that many unbelievers are asking questions and re-examining their own beliefs. And churches are reporting that their online services have increased dramatically.
Why is this? Because catastrophe at this level gets everybody's attention. It's as if the fog has lifted and we can see reality more clearly. People are seeing they're not in charge. They are afraid. They need help. And they want hope.
An agnostic friend phoned me and said, "I always thought I was in charge of my destiny. But the coronavirus has opened my eyes to see that I am not in control. And to tell you the truth, I have always known it. Because if I am god then what kind of god needs to take meds for anxiety? The truth is I make a lousy god!"
And I said, "So do I! We all do! I remember as an agnostic when I finally conceded that trying to be god was way above my paygrade. It was freeing – and it was the first step in my journey to becoming a Christian."
CT: Coronavirus has caused many countries to go into lockdown. For Christians who are living in lockdown, how can they use this time of self-isolation?
Becky: There are two things. First, we need to rediscover how to pray for revival, as Christians did in the past. The First and Second Great Awakenings were preceded by believers crying out in desperation to God to bring a revival because their times were desperate. Furthermore, they learned a great deal about how to pray in calamitous times. This is too big a topic of this interview but we need to learn from them.
Second, we need to prepare ourselves for evangelism. The world is changing rapidly and we will have tremendous evangelistic opportunities after the crisis. But there is real spiritual openness right now! That is precisely why I wrote Stay Salt, to strengthen believers to share their faith in this new age. Never imagining, of course, that Covid-19 was just around the corner!
CT: So what can we do right now?
Becky: Pray! Ask God to give us opportunities to share the gospel and to give us a holy boldness as we've never had before. As we take walks in our neighborhood pray and ask God to reach our neighbors. Call your neighbors, family members, friends whom you know are not believers. Ask them how they are doing; how are they handling the stress? Listen and express compassion. Take a risk and ask if they would like you to pray for them.
Perhaps not in the first conversation but later on, why not invite them to take a look at Jesus and what He had to say? Even in times of social-isolation we now have so many ways to communicate that we didn't have in times past. And I have written seeker Bible studies for non-Christians that might be helpful.
CT: You've been in so many countries and involved in evangelism for decades. Across all the countries you have been to, do you see a universal struggle or a pattern in terms of what people struggle with when it comes to evangelism?
Becky: The number one thing I hear is: "I would witness but I can't because I'm so inadequate." But we are inadequate! What did the Risen Christ say to the Apostle Paul?: "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness" Then Paul says, "Therefore, I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses so that Christ's power may rest on me." That is why the first section of my book is on: The Means: learning to celebrate our smallness as we lean on the power of the Spirit.
The second thing I hear is: "I just don't know enough, I don't understand the Gospel well enough, I don't know how to defend it.' That's why the second section of Stay Salt is: The Message. What is the gospel? What kind of pushback might we hear from sceptics and how do we answer them? How do we help them see that their longings are so beautifully met in the gospel?
The third thing I hear is: "I'm just not confident, I'm afraid. How do I start? How do I bring up the topic of faith, naturally? What if they bring up a question I can't answer?" The last section of my book is: The Model. How did Jesus engage in evangelism? How do we deal with our fears; how do we reach spiritually closed people etc.
CT: So what would you say to someone who doesn't know where to start?
Becky: I like the model of "Prayer – Care – Share" - because it's exactly the right order.
Pray: ask the Holy Spirit to lead you to the right person and help you in every aspect of witness. Also ask the Lord to open the eyes of your non-Christian friends to understand the gospel and recognize their need.
Care: befriend people, establish real relationships and demonstrate compassion, just as Jesus did. Jesus never treated people like they were 'Evangelistic projects.'
Share: At the right time share the gospel. Remember that Jesus listened to people, asked lots of questions, and roused their curiosity. He wasn't in a hurry to move on to the next person. Nor did he have three set questions and a formula. And he spoke the truth of the gospel in love.
CT: If it sounds like Christians are struggling to share their faith on a personal level, what can pastors and church leaders be doing to support their congregations in evangelism and give them that confidence?
Becky: First, the vision for evangelism always starts at the top. Ministers often say, "But I'm not gifted as an evangelist." But they don't have to be! They will cast a vision for evangelism by sharing from the pulpit their own stories of witnessing – and it doesn't always have to be success stories! When congregations see that their minister is engaged in evangelism – and they too have fears - it makes a huge difference.
Second, pastors must equip their flock through training. Especially in times like this, when we need confidence and competence. It's why we filmed our evangelism training that we've done around the world called "Empowered".
Empowered isn't a video for unbelievers – it's training Christians who usually feel totally inadequate when it comes to evangelism.
CT: We live in such a technologically equipped era and have so many tools at our disposal and yet at the end of the day, evangelism is something more simple. It's just sharing our faith. Do you think we can overcomplicate evangelism?
Becky: Yes, I think that's true. The church in the West is the best resourced in all of history - yet we've been very feeble in evangelism. But the gift of these terribly challenging times is that it causes even Christians - clergy and laity – to see how desperately we need God. We must rely on God and cry out to God in prayer in ways we've never done before. Then we'll see afresh that God is with us - He is the agent of evangelism – and He's given us all we need.
CT: Looking back over the last 40 years, what has struck you the most about evangelism?
Becky: First: evangelism is easier than I thought, especially when we follow Jesus' way of witness. People are often more open to having a spiritual conversation than we assumed, and we have the power of the Holy Spirit working in us and through us.
Second: evangelism is harder than I imagined! Because we have an enemy who will harass and intimidate and try to scare us to death. So we mustn't be surprised when difficulties arise, but remember that Jesus defeated the enemy at the cross!
Third: We need to accept our weakness and lean on the power of the Holy Spirit – trust the power of the gospel and God's Word to reach people - and acknowledge in every situation that God's presence is always with us. Then reach out to others in compassion with the glorious message of the Good News in the tremendous power of God.