Last post I looked at evangelism methods commonly used in the last 50 years (in my experience) and some reasons why they may be less effective now and in the future.
So what should churches be doing now?
Straws in the wind
I see a number of new emphases ….
A renewed understanding of “the gospel”
Evangelical christians have developed a very simple understanding of the gospel – made up of something like (1) you are a sinner, (2) Jesus died on the cross to save you, and (3) repent and believe in Jesus and you’ll go to heaven when you die.
While this may be true as far as it goes, it is well short of the gospel that Jesus announced – the coming of Jesus the Messiah to bring the Kingdom (rule) of God on earth – which is good news to the poor, the oppressed, the prisoners and the blind, whether we see these as physical or spiritual bondages (Luke 4:18-21).
Emphasise grace rather than sin
“God is love” is just about the primary truth of the christian faith, but an emphasis on sin can lead people to think that God is more judgmental than gracious. A little historical knowledge is helpful here.
- In Jesus’ day, “sinner” didn’t so much mean someone who fell short of the moral perfection God requires, but rather someone who violated social norms by not living according to the law of Israel as interpreted by the scribes and rabbis of the day.
- We should note how Jesus dealt with people seen as sinners in a very gracious way, emphasising forgiveness and peace while only gently, if at all, reminding them to leave their sin.
- Jesus promised that the Holy Spirit would convict people of sin (John 16:7-11). If we are too quick to point out sin, we may be moving ahead of the Spirit.
One size doesn’t fit all
In the gospels, Jesus gave different answers to every person he spoke to. He spoke to each person’s character and needs. Different ways of presenting the christian faith will be relevant to different people:
- Those with a sense of guilt need to know of God’s willingness to forgive.
- Those lacking a sense of their own worth need to know God loves them.
- Activists, and those feeling life is meaningless, may both be attracted by the opportunity to make a positive difference in the world.
- Many people need to be accepted and valued in a loving community.
Tell stories, don’t preach
Jesus told stories to attract people’s attention, and invite them to think about the meaning. He was interested in a ‘heart’ response more than intellectual knowledge.
Stories, whether Gospel stories or our own, may work the same today, whereas preaching generally turns people off.
Emphasise following more than just believing
Jesus called people to believe in him, but also to follow him. Following (which starts with belief but moves on from there) is much more active than just believing, and much more exciting!
Not so much a decision as a journey
Modern evangelicalism has sometimes become almost fixated on getting people to “make a decision” – even if this is done via emotion and without much thought. But Jesus said the one who endures to the end will be saved.
Many people make “decisions” but don’t grow in their faith as they mature in their lives and characters. We should be emphasising that following Jesus means keeping on going, not resting on our one-time decision. And we should be training, equipping and encouraging people to keep submitting to Jesus each day.
First they belong, then they believe
Evangelism, and church life generally, can easily tend to separate believers from non-believers, thinking belonging follows believing. But missiologists observe that these days many people become accepted as part of a christian community and then slowly come to belief.
Faith can grow slowly, and not everyone can nominate the day when they first started to believe and follow Jesus. Welcoming and involving non-believers into our communities without barrier can be a very good way to evangelise.
Incarnational, not attractional
God sent Jesus to “pitch his tent among us”, he didn’t require us to find our way to him. Jesus commanded us to “go into all the world”. Yet many churches build a lot of their evangelism around inviting non-believers to events at church or run by the church, despite the fact that surveys show that (in UK and Australia at least) this is a fairly ineffective tactic.
More and more christians are recognising the need to meet unbelievers on their own turf and bring the life of Jesus with us.
Many of the biggest barriers to belief are the problems people see in the church, not with Jesus. The biggest barrier of all may be apathy – christian faith just doesn’t seem relevant in the 21st century. And let’s face it, the way we live often isn’t.
But if we see our mandate to renew the whole of creation and bring hope to the poor and oppressed, we can be serving the community in many practical ways that will also begin to break down barriers.
Take your time, trust the Spirit
Events calling for quick “decisions” seem to be less effective these days. It seems preferable to give people time to think things through, to allow the Spirit to work and pray more and talk less.
Every community is different, and ideas need to be researched prayerfully to suit the needs and demographics of your area, and the gifts and abilities of the church. I am not expert at all this, and I am not a good evangelist, but my reading and experience indicates many of these ideas are worthy of consideration.
Support community events
- Local festivals and markets – set up a stall showing community services available at church or selling craft made by members.
- Community clean-ups (‘Clean Up Australia Day’).
- Landcare, bushcare – local environmental groups doing practical work.
- There are many other community events which the church or members could support.
Organise community events
- Start a Clean Up Australia Day site and advertise so the community will join in. If there is no equivalent in your country, could you start one?
- Community garden – a great place to make friends and grow your own vegetables.
- Men’s shed.
- Start a community group to meet a clear need in your community.
- In poorer neighbourhoods, community renewal and formation projects (environmental and street renewal, education programs, poverty alleviation, etc) may benefit the community. This may involve moving into a poor community – like Urban Neighbours of Hope and The Simple Way.
Serve the community
- Backyard blitzes – help those who struggle to maintain their property.
- Free legal and financial advice for those who can’t afford it.
- Self esteem groups.
- After school care.
- Homework clubs.
- Emergency meals
- Groups and public seminars on parenthood, surviving divorce, Teens and drugs, depression and suicide, etc.
- Environmental restoration such as A Rocha in the UK.
Many of these will require professional counsellors, and probably some sort of separate organisation, finance and insurance.
- Street parties.
- Help to neighbours in need – e.g. emergency meals.
- Invite neighbours to dinner.
National and international
- Advocacy for the poor and victimised.
- Living simply.
Motives and expectations
In all these activities, we need to get beyond the thought that anything other than direct evangelism is a waste of time. We do these things for several good reasons:
- Jesus commanded us to love our neighbours as ourselves. That ought to be sufficient reason.
- Loving service provides a living picture of the kingdom of God in action.
- Many people have been hurt by the church, and the church has a bad name in many people’s eyes, and we need to remobve that barrier if we can. People often need to see the love of God in action before they are willing to listen to our message.
- Doing constructive things alongside other people builds community and relationships.
- This approach allows us to get to know people and what issues are important to them.
- Opportunities for sharing faith will arise in time.
- Doing good in the world gives credibility in the eyes of those watching.
Training and equipping
These sort of programs require a whole-hearted commitment by the church – pastors, professional counsellor, tradespeople and ordinary members. All need to be equipped for these tasks.
Don’t cast pearls before swine
- Jesus said we should only offer the good news to those who want to hear it (Matthew 7:6).
- Serving people pleases God. If people are going to awaken to him, we need to give them time.
- We need patience and prayer.
- After decades of being pushed to evangelise at every opportunity, we need to train christians to be more sensitive and allow the Spirit to lead.
Bring your church services to life
- Don’t let them be dominated by long monologue sermons that are unrelated to life and mission. Cut the Bible teaching to 15 minutes (that’s all most people can remember anyway) and give time for more urgent things, such as ….
- encouraging testimony of growth in people;
- reports of mission activities and prayer for them;
- practical training in apologetics and evangelism – the pastors tend to be treated differently by the public, so they may not be so useful here – find lay people gifted in evangelism.
Be ready to give a reason
- Train members in apologetics that is aimed at honestly answering enquirers’ questions (much apologetics is weak and only satisfies christians).
Evangelism in the 21st century?
Will all this work? Is it worth the effort?
It seems to me that this approach addresses a lot of the problems in current evangelism I identified in the previous post, and follows the principles I outlined above. It doesn’t replace other methods, but it will be relevant to many people for whom traditional approaches are not helpful.
It is slower as a form of evangelism, but it ticks a lot of other boxes – and God doesn’t seem to be in a hurry!