My daughter, the oldest of three, is about to fly out of her Christian home and youth group nest and head off to college next fall. As she filled out a questionnaire designed to help her narrow down her college search, she checked off the box indicating a desire for Christian faith organizations on the campuses in her search.
I breathed an audible sigh of relief, and I asked her if she would rule out schools that did not have a Christian fellowship on campus.
"Mom, don't worry. There are Christians and churches everywhere," she said confidently.
"But will everyone know you are a Christian?" I asked.
It's a question worth asking ourselves. Every day.
A different (Millennial) world
I am the mother of three Millennials (also known as the Me or Y Generation)—those born between the early 1980s and the early 2000s. My kids are 18, 14, and 12, and they have grown up being told by the world that they can be and do anything they want. In a box somewhere in the closet are my kids' ribbons and certificates they've received for just showing up—participation and attendance awards.
Technological advances have made communication almost immediate as e-mailing evolved into chatting and then texting, changing the way this generation perceives relationships, communication, time, and patience. They have grown up with the Internet, cell phones, texting, memes, and selfies.
If parents can afford the technology, they can track their child's location by following their cell phone. In the schools my children attend, parents can keep track of their children's grades on a daily basis, logging into an instant update of assignments and grades rather than phoning the teacher or asking your child for the information. Becoming a success and becoming a celebrity are often synonymous for this generation, which can also measure popularity or relevance by the number of followers, likes, or retweets. Somehow—even though they seem to know and be connected to everyone, we are a world still struggling to be known.
It's this different world that has forced me as a parent, neighbor, and campus minister to reconsider the relevance, language, and importance of evangelism. In my work with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship/USA I pay attention to what happens when kids like mine arrive at one of the more than 4,100 U.S. colleges and universities. With a combined enrollment of more than 17 million students, these campuses are the physical space in which the future artists, CEOs, salespeople, scientists, and neighbors are, at a very basic level, trying to figure out not just what they want to do when they grow up but what and how they want to be when they grow up. These students are often away from "home," living on or spending a significant amount of time on campus with little to no direct influence from their parents. Their "helicopter parents" (as those of us with Millennial children have been called) have been known to call professors and even bosses, but in their day-to-day lives these young people are having to make the same decisions generations past have had to make: What do I believe in? How will my beliefs affect my decisions? Do I believe in God, or even in a god? What kind of impact on the world will I make?
If that isn't an opportunity for evangelism—for proclaiming the gospel—I don't know what is. It's certainly not a matter of taking advantage of young people's vulnerability in this period of searching and questioning in their lives. It's not about forcing people to believe something. It's not about proving I'm right and you're wrong. But it is an opportunity to connect with this generation's openness to the very things living out the gospel should lead to: generosity, volunteerism, and justice.
But even as a "professional" Christian, I have found it challenging and a bit frightening to evangelize. For me, it can start out as easily as explaining what I do; my job as a campus minister can either open up or fatally end a conversation depending on how willing I am to carefully direct the conversation to safe places. Sometimes I cheat— I tell people I am a diversity officer with a non-profit. Sometimes I tell the fuller version of my role with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship.
But all in all, I have found the best way to share the gospel—to "do" evangelism with Millennials and with others—has been to stick with these core principles:
1. Never assume someone is or isn't a Christian, but instead ask lots of questions before offering answers.
2. Live as an evangelist by both proclaiming your faith publicly and aligning your actions, big and small, with the gospel.
3. Invite people to make small steps towards Jesus.
A better question
Last fall, my blogging life converged with my neighborhood life when a controversy I was writing about started creeping into my personal time with family and friends. Running terribly late to dinner with our circle of family friends, I opted to send my children ahead with the explanation that I was on the phone with a religion reporter. My friends know that I am a Christian, and because we are close they have seen me both at my best and at my worst Christian moments. Arriving late to dinner offered up an opportunity to engage in one of the more deeper evangelistic conversations we've had because I chose to be honest about the controversy, sharing why and how my Christian faith compelled me to respond privately and publicly, to ask for prayer from those who were willing, and to invite friends who have had equally frustrating experiences with the church and organized religion to consider how a personal faith might and could be different.
No one wanted to be instantly baptized that night. But the rich and lively conversation we had made me remember the question I asked my daughter months ago: "But will everyone know you are a Christian?"
I have since changed that question to "Will others know more of Christ through their interactions with you?"
When I train student and staff leaders in evangelism, I remind them (just as I have been reminded) that it isn't about forcing people to believe something. It's not about proving Christians are right and everyone else is wrong. It's about proclaiming Christ through our words, deeds, and yes, our tweets and status updates.
Kathy Khang is the Regional Multiethnic Ministries Director at InterVarsity Christian Fellowship/USA. She is the co-author of More Than Serving Tea, and blogs at http://www.MoreThanServingTea.wordpress.com