number of years ago in Europe, I was talking with a British friend of mine about all the changes we were witnessing in the various cultures we had visited. Change was the order of the day as old views, beliefs, and values were discarded and new ones ushered in with unfettered enthusiasm. As with many seasons in life, we saw opposing schools. Some embraced all change as essentially good, to be welcomed without hesitation. Others saw change as a threat and were anxious about what was being lost and the implications of those losses.
My friend coined the phrase “cultural vaporization,” which drew on the analogy of boiling water. Water, while remaining water, disappears into the air at a designated temperature. The phrase “cultural vaporization” actually reflects a statement used by Karl Marx when he spoke of a set of conditions “where all that is solid melts into air.” It is a descriptive phrase, and when applied to various contexts, provides helpful insight.
One area where I have noticed a definite shift, or “vaporization,” is in evangelism. Here I am not talking about the programmatic emphasis of special days, socalled “missions,” or guest speakers at church. I mean the heartfelt, Spirit-led, and biblically shaped personal desire to share with others, as often as possible, the good news of the gospel.
Writing to Timothy, the Apostle Paul reminded him, “For God did not give us a spirit of timidity, but a spirit of power, of love, and of self discipline” (1 Tim. 1:7, NIV). He followed with the clear exhortation: “So do not be ashamed to testify about our Lord” (1 Tim. 1:8). When I first became a Christian in Scotland over 30 years ago, the climate was one of biblical faithfulness, a serious life and lifestyle, and a strong commitment to the proclamation and advance of the gospel. I was encouraged to give my “testimony” to others. We gave out tracts, visited homes, and shared scripture when we could. Were there mistakes? Of course. Was some of it culturally insensitive and at times possibly a bit rude? Yes. But it was not all bad, nor was it all flawed or ineffective.
Let me back up a bit now to where I began, that is, with the notion of change or cultural vaporization. The experience of modernity and the growth of technological, political, economic, and social developments have all had a massive impact upon society and culture. We have experienced what Philip Rieff calls “the triumph of the therapeutic.” Other social commentators such as David Brooks speak about living “On Paradise Drive” and how consumerism frames and defines so much of what we do or want. It is an age where looking good and feeling good are the major goals in life, and where being good and doing good are notions that carry less weight, concern, or power.
What does this have to do with evangelism? Clearly, for many, the very idea of publicly sharing their faith with a stranger or of getting into a reasoned disagreement about God, Christ, the Bible, or truth is one of the worst things they could contemplate. Despite the fact that they are daily the target of constant communication trying to sell some product or another, or of someone’s views and values being trumpeted as the latest solution for our problems, many Christians opt for silence, for the “stealth” approach. Perhaps, they imagine, if we just live quiet, consistent, good lives, our example will do all that is needed and onlookers can “choose” if they want to. However, Paul would say otherwise: “Faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ” (Rom. 10:17).
The issue I want to highlight is how our current cultural realities undermine many of our core convictions, dampen our biblical enthusiasm, and lead us to redefine our behavior and commitments. What do I mean? We may still pay lip service to certain beliefs or to particular values (Bible study, prayer, evangelism, etc.), but in practice we often give them little or no thought. We relax in the knowledge that these things are covered by the professionals whose job it is to do them. We still believe in them, we just don’t feel any urgency or need to personally engage in them.
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