20 May, 2012 A 21st Century approach to evangelism
I am reading a 20 year old book (“Vision New Zealand”, 1993). It reflects on what is needed in evangelism in New Zealand, and is very thought provoking – as much as anything because the book it entirely relevant for today, containing the kind of wisdom that we still need.
What this reveals is that the needed wisdom for reaching people in NZ already exists within the Christian Church. All that is needed is already there, somewhere, for us to be far more mobilised and effective – it’s just that that knowledge and wisdom it hasn’t spread wide enough yet. We are caught up in our traditions and routines – and I suggest that this applies as much to pentecostals and ‘middle evangelicals’ (like Baptist and Salvation Army), as much as to the more conservative Churches (like Anglican and Presbyterian). We’re all caught up in traditions!
What we are failing to do:
Sharing of what Jesus did at the cross, in a clear and understandable way, is something that Christians must do. It is a ‘religious duty’. Yet few Churches are strongly focused on this, and sometimes, in the Churches that do have this focus, it’s only a few members who have this focus. May God change our hearts!
Our challenge in 21st Century post-modern West is how to share the faith in a way that is understandable and receivable – and yet still authentically conveys the same true message.
1. The manner in which that communication takes place is all-important.
In Chapter 10 of ’Vision New Zealand (1993) Barry Tetley writes “The medium is the message!” And, describing various street-evangelism methods of the early 1990’s writes that – to a non-believer – it appears that “…the church owns a disturbing number of ‘strange’ people, and that many of the self-appointed spokespersons of the church do not understand the first principles of communication.” He then suggests that one of the tests of evangelism is “…does the method convey and clarify the gospel message? Or does it confuse and even contradict the message of Christ?” [p159[
“We can only be ashamed of the ineptitude of some Christian witnessing: of the outdoor preacher talking to an invisible audience; of packaging the good news in meaningless jargon; of presenting a canned gospel which presses a person to make an uninformed decision about a life-changing allegiance after fifteen minutes…” [p169]
If street evangelism is at all forceful, or ‘judgemental’ in it’s feel – this can turn people off. Fortunately such people are a minority among those who witness on streets today.
I note that this does not mean that street evangelism is a ‘wrong’ approach – but does mean that those seeking to encourage those they have never met before toward faith in a first conversation on a street will need wisdom, exceptional positive relational skills, and a manner that shows high respect for the variety of views that are out there. They also need bigger ears than mouths because, while sharing the gospel is correctly said to be the most loving thing a Christian can do for another (from the assumption that God did reveal Himself to us through Jesus), it will not be received as a message of love if love is not shown – and love starts with listening, not talking (the medium is the message).
…the need for a grace-filled, relational, approach
Barry Tetley then reflects upon Jesus. He was known as ‘a friend of sinners’ – rather than one who judges them. While he did disagree with immorality and dishonesty, he didn’t feel the need to say so at every opportunity. He spoke wisely, and loved much. He related gently, genuinely cared, and accepted. All this gave him the opportunity to speak, and, in a sense, ‘earned’ Him the right to do so (as there was no reason to be defensive). He is a hard act to follow!
How can we be like that? Where does the ‘right’ manner come from?
Well – there is an answer. Very simply it is by truly loving people!
While there is much we can learn from sermons and seminars, and they are likely needed in many areas, they will only be effective to the limit of our love!
i. Conversational, relational and team approaches do need teaching.
ii. However, there needs to be a national ‘reviving’ of love for those without Christ, as (i) will
be ineffective without love – as this is the motive from which the right manner naturally comes!
2. The primary place in which evangelism takes place, now needs to be outside the Church.
This is not to say that we should not have ‘gospel services’ in our Churches, or run Alpha… Doing these is a given (i.e. please do these).
However, this is to say that sustained effectiveness will only come as the result of a body of believers who are intentionally encouraging those around them toward faith every day through the way they love, encourage, serve and share. It’s like wanting everyone to swim in a town swimming pool. The encouragement at the pool complex will amount to nothing if people aren’t encouraged to go to the pool complex in the first place. What happens outside the Church ‘feeds’ what happens inside the Church. Without the former the latter will have little effect (and this is the case in many Churches outreaching). (I think the weakness of our Christian witness in the community is the primary, and foundational, issue for New Zealand).
Tetley comments that Christians have build sanctuaries, and that with them has often grown a ‘fortress mentality’. We have wanted, “…to evangelise from on our own terms, on our own territory.” In contrast Jesus said to ‘go out, be involved in society, let them be in control, and then you communicate with them.’
In evangelism we are bringing ‘light to darkness’ – but a Church is where the light gathers. The very assumption behind the ‘light’ and ‘salt’ illustrations which Jesus gave is that we are to go out!
i. Yet again, believers need motivating, equipping and mobilising to contextualised witness
wherever they are each week (workplace, school community, neighborhood).
Without this nothing will change! Endless offers of all manner of ‘programs’ will not change our current situation. The gospel must be returned to the center of every believing Church and pulpit!
3. The gospel cannot, and must not, be forced
Our culture has grown sceptical of manipulative methods – even though we may not mean to be manipulative. Tetley writes of a unbelieving friend who, at a Christian meeting, found himself putting his hand up in response to an evangelistic message when he didn’t want to – such was the ‘flow’ of things… (he resonded when he had no intent to). Needless to say, this friend left the Christian meeting as quick as he could afterwards…
While our services can have good ‘flows’ to them, and be well programmed… Tetley points out, “…that converting is a matter of considered decisions, a [final] decision [being] reached on a basis of adequate information and understood implications” (see Luke 14:25-33 where Jesus compares converting to a man who considers whether he has sufficient resources to pull off a large building project before starting the project).
As such, he writes that conversion is about a lot more than “wishy-washy emotions”. It is not “the report of an emotional moment.” It is a change of allegiance – and so, understanding is crucial!
He write of Jesus, our role model, who was a, “…transparently open, honest, and sincere evangelist. He abhorred people coming to him under false pretenses…” …and so, it is incongruent with Christianity that we would come to people with false pretenses, ‘trapping’ them to share the faith. We must be open and honest and real and authentic…
“The gospel is about human dignity, an offered path of atonement, and a considered allegiance to the living God. Evangelism that forces, manipulates, and coerces betrays the gospel.” [Pg 168]
What is the solution?
I believe the reason some tend toward more forceful or ‘manipulative’ approaches/methods is a desire to see people being responsive to the gospel. Because people are not responding Churches and preachers consider how they could be more effective in challenging people toward a decision – but this maybe results in some manipulative methods and approaches (because this is the only thing that seems to yield any improvement in results), even though this is not the intention or motivation. Could it be that we are addressing the problem (the lack of responses) at the wrong conceptual level? Could it also be that we’re looking for a quick-fix, instead of accepting responsibility for the motivating, equipping and mobilising of our members in this area?
What is the solution? How are we to see more people responding? Sadly, I believe the answer is through a national reform in Christendom. The gospel needs to get back into the heart of every believer! For example, with at least 25% of those attending Church not even believing the fundamentals of Christianity, we even have a belief crisis inside the Church – and that needs addressing. [See an article on postmodernism inside the Christian Church here]. We simply can’t continue to go on as if nothing is wrong. We need to address the ‘belief’ crisis in our Churches – and the fact that the gospel is NOT central in most Churches.
i. I believe some preachers are too ‘forceful’ in their encouragements toward responsiveness, having
come to the conclusion (justification) that this was acceptable because they (and others) found
this to be the only way to see more fruit. However, this addresses the problem at the wrong level.
(It fails to address the real issue – which is the lack of effective evangelistic witness by believers
in our communities on a day-to-day basis). Yet again I see the overwhelming need for pastors
to accept responsibility for, and to prioritise, the motivating, equipping and mobilising of
members to relevant, contextualised, witness in their daily lives.
ii. Because people do need more time and opportunity to consider, we do need a variety of
programs in our Churches to help people connect with believers and Christianity, taking
slow but steady steps toward faith – but at their own pace. We need community ministries,
counselling centres, age-specific programs, family programs and seminars, and then programs
like Alpha for those getting nearer to a place of readiness for faith.
When will the responses come?
They will come when all true believers are taking Jesus with them to their neighborhoods and work-places and schools every day in a truly authentic way. Then, those visiting our Churches will be ready to respond. Then, clear presentations of Christian belief, and God’s love in Christ, will yield fruit.
The heart issue
Today, evangelism is seen as an activity. Christian faith is likewise reduced to a list of activities, including Bible reading and Church attendance… But we are not yet broken in our hearts for the ‘plight of the lost’. Our hearts are not yet ‘filled with compassion’ like Jesus’ was in Matthew 9.
Christianity is not merely about making us ‘good’ – because many unbelievers are good people. It is about making us radically ‘good’ – and most believers are not. The gospel is not ‘in’ us!
It is not merely about loving others – because many unbelievers love others, and give to charities (though statistically much less that believers – while I want to make my point this needs admitting). However, the Christian is called to a RADICAL love, and that goes beyond giving a bit more money. How about our loving of our enemies who have maybe murdered a family member, forgiving those who have maybe raped us, and speaking gracefully of those who have robbed them (such as finance companies, or dishonest people/business people). All these crimes have happened against people I know. These responses are the real stuff of Christianity.
True Christianity is about love that has eyes to see the needs in the world around. Then that moment comes when one is awakened to a real need, and the heart stirs – and faith stirs to match, causing the Christian to act sacrificially in a way that unbeliever never could, because of the love and power of God within them. True believers can genuinely give away ALL that they own – because the love for others is greater than the love for money.
When we are like this as a body – the world will be ready to respond to our message.
Summary: What is a 21st Century approach to evangelism?
1. An active approach, because evangelising is a religious obligation for all Christians.
A Christian who believes the Bible but does not witness can have no love in their heart (or doesn’t realise they don’t actually believe the Bible). It is possible to witness in a manner that does not cause undue offense – though there will always be people who take offense because of their own issues… Jesus spoke the truth yet was winsome manner, and a friend of sinners. This balance is possible with love.
The gospel must be clear, the needed response must be clear, and even some of the implications of that a little clear also – but the actual decision uncoerced.
While we may urge toward a response (to preach in any other way would be insincere), we must also urge that that it be a considered decision.
And, having done all this, if they do not respond, it simply means they are not ready!
2. A gentle approach, because true conversion is a considered decision.
–There are no methods for quick responses. All such methods yield is insincere responses (they may even be sincere on the day, but will not follow through as they are not considered). Our preaching of the gospel, and the way we give altar calls, needs to be faithful to God over and above ‘coercing’ results.
–‘Salvation’ is the product of a journey. Westerners are further from faith than perviously. This process needs recognising.
What is the greatest need?
It is surely the motivating, equipping and mobilising of believers for relevant, contextualised, evangelism. When this is being done responses in our outreach programs will be more forthcoming.