How to Share the Gospel with a Generation that Doesn’t Care About Heaven feat. Josh Chen
Welcome Josh Chen to this week’s episode of the City Gospel Movements podcast. Josh is a dreamer and a storyteller. He finds the story that God invites us into captivating, and he is passionate about inviting others into that story. Josh has been on staff with Cru, formerly known as Campus Crusade for Christ, for over 15 years. For the first 10 years he served with Epic, which is Cru’s ministry focused on reaching Asian-Americans.
Now he leads a team with his wife Wendy in Portland where they are raising their two beautiful children. Their team here is focused on better understanding the deeper questions of Millennials and how to explain the gospel in a way that resonates with them.
Lizzie: In a conversation we had last week, I remember you saying, “I was a bad youth group kid.” How did a bad youth group kid end up working for Cru?
Josh: Well funny enough I was the youth group president, but on the side, I was kind of a troublemaker. I was an outcast in the Chinese church. My sister was a missionary when I graduated high school and I told her, “I don’t think this Christian thing is for me anymore,” and I walked away from my faith.
During my sophomore year of college, I had an experience where I was longing for something more. I realized my identity was in things that were stripped away from me and I sensed God pursuing me. I actually tested God and he showed up in significant ways. I realized this was a God I wanted to follow.
L: What did some of the testing look like during that season?
J: I was on a long road trip, about five hours, and there was no radio and I started to become bored. I was in the middle of nowhere and there was still snow on the ground in Eastern Washington. I start praying, “God, if you are real, show me something. Show me you are real.” I close my eyes and I see these numbers flash behind my eyes. The numbers are 93.3 and I think to myself, “Maybe it’s a radio station.”
I turned on my radio, knowing I had turned my radio off and started praying because there was nothing on the radio. I hit seek and it goes through all the numbers, past 93.3, and all the way until the end. I was thinking, “What a fluke.” Without me realizing, the seek begins all over again and it lands on 93.3. It’s a song and the lyrics say, “I want to be your hands. I want to be your feet. I’ll go where you send me.”
It’s a Christian guy singing to God about following Him. After the song finishes, the radio just goes static again. I studied computer-science, so my mind is trying to reason it and blame it on the mountains. I decide to test God again. I tell God, “I want you to put a car on the side of the road. I want you to have someone standing outside the driver side door and I want them to wave me down.”
My thought process in it was, “God, let me serve you by serving somebody else.” I was hoping that nothing would happen because if something did, I knew I would have to change my life. I’m driving down the road and its midnight in the middle of nowhere and I hadn’t seen a car for over an hour. About five minutes later, I see tiny little flashing lights. I’m thinking, “No way.” I turn on my bright lights and as I get closer, I see there is nobody there. When I pass the car, I look outside my passenger window and I see a hand fly up. I’m still thinking, “There is nobody there” and it takes me some time to slow down and pull over to the side. I’m way ahead of the car and I start freaking out a little thinking it might have been a ghost.
I say a quick prayer, “God, if that is a ghost back there and he kills me, my blood is on your hands and you better let me into heaven.” I back up and get out of the car and there is a guy standing outside his car. He is wearing a black leather jacket, black jeans, and leaning against a black van. He tells me, “My wife and three-year-old daughter are in my van freezing to death literally.” They had been out there for three hours. He opens the van and they are violently shaking because of the cold. I tell him, “I don’t know anything about cars, but you and your family can hop into my car. My dorm is about an hour and a half away. You can stay with me for as long as you like.”
I took this family back to my dorm and they stayed with me. One thing he said to me that woke me up was, “I don’t know if there is a God or not, but I know this: If you are ever in a situation like I was in, God will send you an angel to help you as you have helped me.” For me, everything I had prayed about before this, I had forgotten in the moment, but it came back to me like a movie. I saw all the things that had led up to this point and I thought, “God orchestrated all these events so I could meet His prayers and he could meet mine.”
This was the moment I seriously started following Christ.
L: Wow. It’s an amazing moment when you realize God has been pursuing you, your entire life. Tell us what the first couple of years were like working with Cru.
J: I interned here in Portland, Oregon and I spent the first three years starting new ministries because Cru did not have any Asian-American ministries at the time in Oregon. In the midst of doing this, I was supposed to identify leaders to train and help mobilize them. I found incredible leaders throughout Oregon at University of Oregon, Portland State University, and Oregon State University. These leaders are the ones who worked with the college students. I would come to coach and train them on evangelism, but they were the ones who were doing the heavy lifting.
L: Yeah, oftentimes it is other students who are reaching their peers. Cru has various tools to use when sharing the Gospel like the “Four Spiritual Laws” and surveys. What was it like for you to live in that flow of sharing the Gospel?
J: When I was still in college, I had signed up to go on a summer missions trip with Cru. In order to train for this mission trip, I had to read the “Four Spiritual Laws”, now it is known as the “Knowing God Personally” booklet. Since I had grown up in the church, when I read the spiritual laws I thought, “How come I have never heard this in church growing up?” I had heard pieces of this, but I didn’t get the whole picture until then. I had been following Jesus at this point faithfully, but after reading the spiritual laws, it was a cognitive decision for me.
L: We had Greg Stier here a couple of weeks ago and he said to us, “If you put the mic in front of a group of teenagers and asked them what the Gospel was, you would get so many different answers.” What is the balance between people knowing what the Gospel is and then them sharing it in their own way?
J: Great question. I think it was Tim Keller who said, “The Gospel is not the A, B, C’s, but it is the A to Z.” With tools like the “Four Spiritual Laws” it is straightforward and is very A, B, C, and it is a great entry point, but it only works with specific people. It works for people who have a church background and for people who grew up really wrestling with guilt. But the issue is that people believe that is the full Gospel. They stay their entire Christian life in the A, B, C’s. I believe God is calling us into a much larger Gospel, the A to Z’s. When we live into this, we experience this robust Gospel which resonates with different people.
L: You spoke at our Palau team Chapel and one thing I was encouraged to hear is that you decided to do a deep dive study on Millennials a handful of years ago. You wanted to understand what questions they were asking when it comes to life and God. Can you help us understand why you chose to do this study and what surprised you about the results?
J: After 10 years of doing campus ministry, you start to see some trends. I spent some time in Portland, Austin, Texas, and Eastern Washington sharing the Gospel the same way over and over again. You begin to see that way only works with the same people and that group of people is shrinking. I’m convinced in my heart that the Gospel is Good News to every human being, so I felt like we needed to learn how to share the Gospel with the Millennial Generation and Gen Z.
I would ask students what ministry looks like for them after college and they had no clue. I thought, “Wow. We are not preparing our college grads for ministry in the real world.” Very few of them will pull out a booklet to share their faith. I wanted to figure out a way to share the Gospel that worked for people to share their faith in their workplace and neighborhoods.
I went from graduating college and straight into ministry, so I never had to figure out what it looked like to share my faith outside of this context. About six years ago, I started asking, “What does it look like to share our faith in a different context?” I would do crazy things like signing up to be an extra on a television show because I couldn’t emulate it in my own environment in full time ministry. I would have conversations with all kinds of people and learn how to talk in a way that is “salty.” I don’t mean in the Millennial way of talking about salty, that definition is angry. The salty I am referring to makes people thirsty and they want more of what you are saying.
L: What are the key things you found that made people receptive to talk to you about Jesus?
J: Cru City did a huge study on this and found some significant information. When living in a progressive city like Portland our assumption is that people don’t want to talk about Jesus. We often start our spiritual conversations apologetically. The study was across gender, socio-economic, and political spectrums. It was diverse in every aspect. What they found is that 84% of people are willing to have a conversation about Jesus if we have certain postures. Postures like:
- People being empathetic towards their story and putting themselves in the other person’s shoes.
- Talking like a real human being because we have too much Christian jargon and they don’t understand what we are even trying to communicate to them!
- Creating a better story for their lives. Every human being on earth is trying to find what narrative fits their life and a lot of times they find life where there is none. The story we are inviting them into causes them to live out of who they are created to be to flourish as a human being.
- Finding common ground with them.
These are things we would do in a normal conversation, but when it comes to evangelism, we throw it out the window!
L: How did the way you share the Gospel change after this study?
J: My research started out with the hypothesis that Millennials are asking questions that Christians are no longer answering. We have packaged the Gospel in a way that resonated well with the Baby Boomers. I spent a lot of time trying to figure out what questions we are trying to answer as the Church and what questions Millennials are asking.
I found that fundamentally we are trying to answer questions like, “How do I get to heaven? What do I do with my guilt?” Millennials just don’t care about these things. Heaven was so far outside their realm of thought that they just shrugged. I found that guilt was not a question people were concerned about anymore. The questions they were asking were, “What does it mean for me to thrive as a human being? What does it mean for humanity to flourish?”
I went back to Scripture and spent two years in the Book of Matthew trying to answer the question, “How does Jesus answer these questions?” I tried to strip away any bias I had from the Scripture, it was hard and almost impossible, but I tried from the ground up to recreate a theological structure that answered the questions, “What is sin? What is repentance? What is salvation? What is the problem of this story line? What is the climax?” I wanted to recreate those elements to better understand how Jesus answers those questions.
I found Jesus pursued answering those questions even more so than answering the questions of heaven and guilt. This was one piece of the research that I found significant to me. The second was that Millennials and Gen Z are shifting away from a guilt and innocence culture towards a shame and honor culture. Missiologist see three cultures in our world: guilt and innocence, shame and honor, and fear and power. Traditionally, Western culture is guilt and innocence, Eastern is shame and honor, and tribal cultures are fear and power.
I had an aha moment when I heard my wife speak at a conference. We spent 10 years in Asian-American ministry sharing the Gospel in the light of shame and honor because that is the language that resonates with Asian-Americans. She was speaking to 1,000 college students about sharing the Gospel considering shame and honor and afterwards staff and students were telling her, “You are putting words to how I have felt all my life.”
I felt like something significant was happening and I decided to test this theory. I came up with 3 statements to reflect the three worldviews.
- Guilt and innocence: “Jesus Christ paid the penalty for my sin, allowing me access to heaven.”
- Shame and honor: “Jesus Christ freed me from my shame and allows me to be who I was created to be.”
- Fear and power: “Jesus Christ defeated the principalities of this world, freeing us from demonic oppression.”
As I tested this group of people, 11 raised their hand for the first, 21 raised their hand for the second, and six raised their hand for the third. The more I did this test in different groups, I found it was consistent. We are moving from a guilt and innocence culture to a shame and honor culture. Our language and understanding of the Gospel need to reflect that.
L: That is so helpful and shows how we need to be able to communicate the Gospel, not just to Millennials, but to all three of those cultures. Jesus was so masterful at doing this! He sees how we view the world and offers to show us a different way. How would you encourage leaders who are working in multi-sectors and need to be multilingual to speak the Gospel in a multifaceted way?
J: That is a good and heavy question. I’m convinced that the Gospel answers the question of every human heart. Everyone has different longings because we are different human beings and we have to understand what the person sitting across from us is longing for. Then we need to answer that longing with the way the Gospel fills it because they are probably searching for that longing somewhere where there is no life.
The hard part of this is that it is hard for me to communicate what the Good News is to that person, if I haven’t experienced the Good News in a similar way in my own heart. How we kind of figure out what those longings are is thinking through a sin tree. A sin tree is a tree with roots, a trunk, branches, and with fruit. You look at the fruit to find the symptoms. Symptoms from our sin tree might express our thought life and behavior, however, the symptom (fruit), are not the problem. The problem is much deeper. The branches are where you find life where there is no life, the trunk stands for the lies you are believing, and the roots are what you worship. The deeper down you can get into this tree, the more you can make it whole again.
I remember one gal telling me how stressed she was at work and I told her, “I feel for you, six months ago, I was totally stressed out.” At that point in my life, the Gospel had relieved me of a lot of anxiety. She says, “Six months ago? I’m always stressed at work. Did your job get any easier?” I told her, “No, it actually got harder.” She asked what happened and I told her, “Honestly, it was a Bible verse that I read and as I was reading this verse it changed my perspective on everything.”
She asked me what the Bible verse was that I read, and I said, “It says, ‘But God demonstrates his love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us’” (Romans 5:8). What I had received from this verse was the idea that I am inherently valuable, and God demonstrates his own value for us that while we were still sinners, God became man in order to pursue us to the point of death. As I started to believe I was inherently valuable, I wondered, why do I care so much about what other people think of me and how I do my job?
I realized my mind shifted from valuing external things to believing that I am inherently valuable because I reflect the imago dei, my anxiety just melted away. She says, “That is amazing.” A few weeks later I hear her talking to her friend, “I had so much stress at work and then Josh told me this thing and all my stress kind of melted away.” She believed a similar lie to what I believed, though our fruit can look completely different. For example, the way we coped with the stress. I might have binge watched Netflix and she would numb her pain with alcohol, I don’t think she did that, but the point is that the fruit can look different. When we allow the Gospel to deal with us at such a deep level, we can see how people are finding life in similar ways and speak truth into their lives.
L: You and our team have talked about how as we look at how Jesus interacted with different people. We begin to see not only how he speaks to the deepest part of other people’s souls but speaks to the deepest part of our soul too. Then, when we are around other people who do not know Jesus and who are on the fence, we are able to draw from our own personal experience of the Gospel. As we continually allow Jesus to widen and deepen our understanding of the Gospel only empowers us to share more personally and be empowered by the Spirit when it comes to meeting people where they are at.
J: We often think we have to share our conversion testimony, but if we are honest with ourselves, our conversion speaks to the deepest parts of us, but it won’t always resonate with the person we are talking to. This is why we have to develop more than just our conversion testimony, but actually develop micro-testimonies. As we identify the different aspects of the sin tree, like our fruit, the lies we are believing, and what we are worshipping, and we allow the truth to transform us, we develop these micro-testimonies. We can share with people who might be having a similar experience.
L: Micro-testimonies allow people to look at their daily life and seek to see where God is at work and how we can verbalize that to people who we are around. I want to shift gears a little bit and get super honest. Do you get nervous when you share the Gospel? We find that people often feel like sharing the Gospel is an obligation, instead of seeing it as something that God is inviting us into. What is some advice you would give to people who feel forced to share the Gospel instead of invited?
J: I don’t consider myself an evangelist. I am very passionate about evangelism, but I get nervous every time I strike up a spiritual conversation. Yet, the more I buy into what I am saying, the more natural it is. The woman that I shared with who had anxiety and stress… it was a natural conversation. More often now than ever I ask for permission. For example, I would say, “Hey, there is this passage that resonated with me, can I share that with you?”
When I was sharing the “Four Spiritual Laws” I felt like I had an agenda and I felt like they knew I had an agenda! I think the agenda keeps a lot of Millennials from wanting to participate. What if the obligation wasn’t, “I need to share my faith to be a good Christian,” but “I need to share my faith because I want this person to thrive as a human being?”
If I believe that I have something to help people become more whole, why wouldn’t I tell them? When people read my agenda now, they read that I want what is best for them. Their willingness to listen changes completely because they know this person is for them. The more I begin to live out of this place, the more natural it becomes to have these conversations.
I am moving from guilt and innocence and shame and honor. I am experiencing the Good News in a new way and want to tell people about it! It’s becoming less anxiety-driven, but those first few words are always the hardest and after that, it seems to flow.
L: A lot of leaders expect to talk about the agenda, but then they realize this person just wants relationship. I was listening to a sermon where the woman said, “So many people have never told their full story because people don’t ask!” We get to invite people to tell their story and discover what the longings are.
J: I’m realizing Millennials are searching for a sense of belonging. They church hop because if they don’t find it at this church, they look for it at the next place. We need to flip that consumerist mindset on its head. As Christian Millennials, just as much as we want belonging, are we creating space for others to belong? How do we learn what it means to belong to the Kingdom of God? We need to know how to make a space of belonging for all kinds of people, no matter their background.
L: I so appreciate how Cru as a staff normalizes Gospel presentation. One of our team members, Kaedyn House, was a part of Cru when she was studying in college at Arizona. She said for two and a half years, it was normal, and they were having spiritual conversations every week. I appreciate that when sharing the Gospel, Cru values doing it regularly. How do you encourage leaders who want to create a culture of regularly having Gospel conversations?
J: There are a lot of barriers to evangelism. It is scary! When you think about having an evangelistic conversation, you shrink back. One thing I like to do is take people to have a conversation, I just tell them to watch me. The same thing happens almost every time. They say, “That wasn’t so hard, I can do that.” I tell them to do it and they do, the same day.
As leaders, we need to model evangelism. We don’t need to be experts, but we need to model that we are having spiritual conversations and follow the flow of a conversation even if it’s not the way we wanted to take it. Leaders should model it for their staff, their congregation, or their organization. Just make it a regular practice. Cru has taken a means and created a culture of initiating constantly, multiple times a week and that is the culture that you can only build from.
L: Thank you so much Josh for being on this podcast. How can we stay in touch with you?
J: You can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I would love to hear from you!