Evangelism Paradigm Shifts

Is evangelism a lost cause? This is the question our friends at Exponential are asking this season and we (Dave and Gábor) are here to answer with a resounding “no!” In our decades of ministry, including in Soviet Bloc countries, we have seen the bright light of the gospel shine in very dark places. 

The Iron Curtain is Torn – the context to our paradigm shift

After the fall of communism in 1989, there was new freedom to travel within the former Eastern Bloc nations.  In 1993 over 16 million visitors crossed the Hungarian border.  This new migration brought grave concerns to Hungarian health, civil and political officials.  

From 1990 (just a year after the revolution) to 1993 many destructive industries were growing and beginning to destroy the fabric of Hungarian society.  The prostitution, crime and drug industries were showing signs for exponential growth. Sexually transmitted diseases and teen-age pregnancies were on the rise.  Young people in their mid-twenties were contracting AIDS.   

These were great concerns of the Hungarian government.

In 1994 we had a chance to step into a new paradigm of ministry when the Hungarian government requested we partner with them to develop a sex-education, character-and-values curriculum for public schools and deploy a mult-faceted program called Youth at the Threshold of Life (YTL). More than 315,000 middle and high school students in Hungary have been exposed to the gospel through this program since its inception. In public schools! 

YTL broke our ministry paradigm in every way – transforming our campus-focused ministry into a national movement. 

Prior to finalizing our arrangement with the government to create this program, prayer was already in the fabric of our ministry. We sought the Lord with extraordinary dependence in united, broken, earnest intercessory prayer. But when the Hungarian government asked us to develop this curriculum we needed wisdom as never before – wisdom in handling media requests and networking with government officials and non-believers. We asked the corners of the globe to pray that our program would be used in schools across Hungary, that it would be accredited, that thousands of students would put their faith in Christ, that disciples would multiply, that churches would be planted from a growing youth movement, and that our budget would receive additional funding to take advantage of this incredible opportunity! 

But beyond this expanded focus on prayer, God wanted us to think and act differently as we reached out to the lost in this particular context. Our organization (Cru) values taking the initiative. We believed then (as we still do) that a simple, direct, gracious, wise and conversationally mature proclamation of the gospel is one of the most important first steps in ministry. Proclamation leads to eternal life. Sharing the truth of God’s Word and the gospel is the most relevant thing we can do. 

Alongside sharing the gospel, we realized we needed to expand our capacity in three key areas to meet the needs of Hungarian youth and answer this specific request from educational leaders in Hungary through the YTL project. We needed a renewed focus on our ability to do good, to love well, and to serve with excellence. 

Doing Good

Peter summarized Jesus’ ministry in Acts 10:36-38, He “preached the gospel” and “went about doing good.” 

We need to share the gospel with the lost around us. This is at the heart of the Great Commission but that’s not where our evangelism responsibility ends. God also wants to do good works through us – visible good works that those far from God can see and appreciate. 

Presence and persuasion belong together. If we are present, actually with the people, we will learn their needs. If we reach out in love, doing the work of meeting those needs, persuasion of epic proportions will result. 

After its first year, YTL really connected. Non-Christian educators were calling us all the time to invite us to be guest lecturers in public schools, to share the gospel in their classrooms. Now, in its third decade, Christians mobilized to teach YTL are still receiving those invitations.

Pause for a second. That’s right, non-Christian educators are inviting Christian YTL teachers into public classrooms to share the gospel.

Connecting with these educators helped us continue refining our curriculum and ministry efforts. We learned more about the felt needs of parents, politicians, educators, military educators and the medical world because of their focus on youth problems. Doing this work allowed us to enter their world, study their needs, share their burdens, and help in meaningful and practical ways. 

Throughout this entire experience as we followed Jesus, we were careful to never compromise the gospel as we met needs. We shared our faith often, and as clearly, graciously and directly as possible. Everyone we met quickly understood we were Christians. 

Loving Well 

We would not have been able to develop and grow the YTL movement without a firm grounding in love. Jesus loved like no other and we felt strongly He wanted to express His love through us. 

So many people suffer privately. We discovered over and over again that they respond to people who authentically relate to their world. They’ll wait in line saying “influence me!” to people who understand and give hope, who share the truth in love, who relate to them authentically. If they are leaders, like those connected to YTL, they will walk with you for a very long time as you meet their needs and as you produce something that is excellent, intriguing, and smart. 

The more we were able to lean into this paradigm-shifting posture of love and community awareness, the more our ministry opportunities seemed to grow. 

Serving with Excellence 

In Acts 2:47 the early church had “the favor of the people.” How did this come about? We surmise, as we look back at the history of YTL, that it had something to do with love and truth being lived out as the church rubbed shoulders with the world. 

As we spoke the truth and loved people well, we saw that God allowed us to develop a reputation of excellence that began to open more doors. The more effectively we served one group of people, the more others wanted to connect with us. The YTL movement now collaborates with educators, teacher-parent communities, medical personnel, the military, the police, artists, church-planters, youth development programs and more. 

These experiences taught us that impressions matter. Never forget this important lesson about reaching the lost, as you seek to expand the Kingdom. We knew we needed God’s wisdom when we began YTL. Each time we met with a government leader, the media, or an educator, we asked God for help. Why? We wanted to serve their needs with excellence, while not compromising the gospel. And God blessed us by giving others a great first impression of us. 

As you seek opportunities to follow Jesus into His Luke 19:10 mission “to seek and save the lost,” we hope you find our story encouraging. Your story won’t unfold like ours but no matter how we’re currently serving, let’s not forget the relevance of the gospel, as we do good. Love will keep it real. Excellence will keep it working. The gospel’s power will make it fruitful. 

Content adapted with permission from The Outrageous Promise: A Story of God’s Love Behind the Iron Curtain by David M. Robinson and Gábor Grész.

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