Evangelists Adapt to a New Era, Preaching the Gospel to Skeptics

The Rev. Bijan Mirtolooi, left, and Craig Ellis, the pastor’s assistant, at WS Café, a weekly session at Redeemer Presbyterian Church on the Upper West Side. The sessions explore faith with those who are skeptical about it.

When Craig Ellis was growing up, he picked up the sort of adventure book meant for a boy looking to serve God. The book, “Shadow of the Almighty,” told the story of Jim Elliot, a young American evangelist killed while doing mission work in Ecuador.

The narrative of this Christian martyr did for Mr. Ellis what a superhero comic might have done for his peers: It got him pondering purpose, struggle and sacrifice. The book also provided a model for how a Christian should spread the news of salvation while working in treacherous territory, at great personal risk.

Very little in “Shadow of the Almighty,” however, prepared Mr. Ellis for where he stood on a recent Tuesday, in a room with industrial carpet and a dropped ceiling at Redeemer Presbyterian Church on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, where people lined up on Sunday morning are more likely awaiting a table for brunch than taking communion.

Mr. Ellis, 39, welcomed the dozen men and women seated before him. “This is a space,” he said, “for people who consider themselves non-Christian and are coming in from the outside.”

His weekly sessions, called the WS Café in a reference to the neighborhood, are at a new frontier of evangelism, one that seeks converts among a fervent and growing number of atheists in this country. The sessions started in September as a push by Redeemer Presbyterian’s prominent pastor, the Rev. Tim Keller, to preach the gospel to skeptics.

Such efforts proceed amid a rare moment in both Christian and American history. At the origin of Christianity, its apostles sought to convert adherents of other faiths, whether Judaism or Roman paganism. Missionaries of the last few centuries journeyed to China or Africa or the Americas to encounter the followers of other faiths, whether Buddhist or Yoruba or Aztec. In every case, the Christian evangelist seeking converts was at least dealing with listeners who embraced the concept of a divine being involved in the world.

Modern America has presented an entirely different scenario. A study last year by the Pew Research Center found that 23 percent of respondents identified themselves as “nones” — a term meaning atheistic, agnostic or religiously unaffiliated. The pop culture success of such prominent atheists as the talk-show host Bill Maher and the author Christopher Hitchens attests in a different way to the same trend.

“This falling away from faith is unprecedented in American history,” said Randall Balmer, a professor of religion at Dartmouth College. “We are, always have been, and remain, a religious people — but less so than before.” Another historian of American religion, Christopher H. Evans of Boston University, traced the current boom in nones to such smaller predecessors as the Transcendentalists of the 19th century. Both movements, he said, espoused “a belief that ultimate meaning is found within the individual, as opposed to an external God or deity.”

Against the current demographic odds, old-style evangelism must adapt. “Christian communities of faith will still be vitally important in reaching ‘nones’ and so will patterns of formation into faith,” said Bryan P. Stone, a Boston University professor who specializes in evangelism. “But evangelism no longer means that the job of Christians is to secure formal affiliations, shore up denominational identities, and expand Christian hegemony in Western culture. Evangelism is less and less about programming and institutions, more about relationships and authenticity.”

Dr. Keller of Redeemer Presbyterian has built his ministry very much on confronting the challenge. His books include “The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism.” He periodically teaches an adult-ed class titled “Questioning Christianity” and sometimes holds question-and-answer sessions with attendees after Redeemer’s Sunday worship services.

His decision to open a branch of Redeemer on West 83rd Street in 2012 — the first new church built in the neighborhood in decades — was a brick-and-mortar way of meeting nonbelievers where they live. And he prepared his young ministers and staff members for the Upper West Side by studying together such books as the philosopher Charles Taylor’s “A Secular Age.”

On that recent Tuesday evening, Mr. Ellis, the pastor’s assistant, was sharing a lectern with the Rev. Bijan Mirtolooi, the assistant pastor for the 83rd Street church. In the chairs around them sat people like Frank Ying, 33, who works for a technology start-up. Brought up in the Dallas area by immigrant parents who had been raised amid the official atheism of the People’s Republic of China, Mr. Ying tried exploring Christianity with his high school classmates, even accompanying them to megachurches, only to be put off by their fundamentalism.

“You have all these questions,” he recalled. “And you have all these long, drawn-out conversations. ‘What do you believe? How much of the Bible do you take literally?’ And these people stop short and say, ‘You’ve just got to have faith.’ But I’ve always been more pragmatic, so that wasn’t good enough.”

Mr. Ying heard about Redeemer Presbyterian from a few acquaintances after moving to Manhattan several years ago. He dipped his toe slowly, watching a YouTube video of Dr. Keller in conversation with a journalist and a historian, emissaries of the secular world. By now, Mr. Ying is a regular at the WS Café, not because he believes, but because his doubts get heard.

Each session has a central topic, and on the recent Tuesday it was about why Jesus needed to be crucified. As part of framing a wide-open conversation, a list of quotations on the subject even included this zinger from Mr. Hitchens: “I find something repulsive about the idea of vicarious redemption.”

Mr. Ellis and Mr. Mirtolooi cited popular culture (movies like “The Revenant,” “Inside Out”) and real-life examples (the way a parent sacrifices free time to raise a child) in order to make palpable the concept of suffering leading to the remission of sin. Very deliberately, they did not lean heavily on Scripture.

“The difference with the Café is what you’re using as your authorities,” Mr. Ellis said later. “Typically, in a Christian class, the Bible is your authenticity. To this group, the Bible is just another book. You can use it, but it’s just one piece of the puzzle. You rely on those your listeners would find credible — scientists, philosophers, authors — and you show how Christianity makes sense.”

At least that is the theory. “It doesn’t work for me,” one woman, a recent college graduate, told Mr. Ellis and Mr. Mirtolooi. “God created us and then says, ‘No, you sinned and I have to punish you’? You’re making it very transactional. But it’s not transactional if you remember the pain.” She paused and added in a soft voice, “Sorry.”

Mr. Mirtolooi assured her no apology was necessary. “You’re asking the right question,” he said. “There’s a balance between the sovereignty of God and the role of human action. You have to hold both of these things in your mind.”

The point of their exchange was not winning a soul now as much as keeping a mind open to the possibility someday. “Now I find that I’m very comfortable going to church on a Sunday, listening to the sermons,” Mr. Ying said. “I can explore more and not have religious people put down their foot and say, ‘This is how it is.’ ”

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