28 Nov, 2011 Report of a ‘missionary’ to NZ
Next Friday (9th December) will be a year since we arrived back in NZ.
I title this the report of a ‘missionary’ because our primary support is currently from Singapore – so I thought the irony was worthy of note. After a year back in NZ, here are a few reflections
My summary would be that while I’ve heard much about the weakness of the NZ Church, in terms of outreach, I’ve met many amazing people who believe in the need for contextual evangelism, and many pastors who are more than willing to try something to strengthen this area in their congregations.
It seems to me that NZ is ready for something.
(I note this is the second time I’ve written this blog – I deleted the first as it was a collection of things people had said to me, but was altogether too negative. I read it later on and thought “I don’t actually think that!” Hopefully this is more faith-building, while also honest).
A snap shot of the challenges to ‘evangelism’ (sharing and inspiring faith in God) in New Zealand
[Culture] New Zealand is noted as a post-Christian country, with a general scepticism toward religious truth claims. Yet people are friendly. Those few who do ‘street evangelism’ note that they receive a positive reception from most people (though I note that I suspect a more gentle, conversational approach is used these days than the ‘blunt’ street evangelism of thirty or more years ago). That positive reception is worthy of note. While there is antagonism toward Christianity (such as many community Christmas parades not allowing mention of Jesus), there is also an ironic openness in many people to discuss such things.
[Evangelism equipping] A UK based study reflected that less than 5% of Churches had equipped their members in any way for ‘evangelism’ in the previous 10 years! In the contact I’ve had with Churches I suspect it would not be a lot different here.
However – some Churches are significantly different, including the Church we are attending where personal outreach gets a great profile.
I also positively note the positive reception Michael Harvey of ‘Back to Church Sunday’ is receiving in some circles. I don’t know how many years he has engaged with NZ Churches, but noted that Churches willingly engaged with his material and message (which is simply about challenging believers to invite people to Church). It reflects a desire and willingness to try to move forward.
[Evangelistic preaching ] While this area in the Church we attend is strong, others have suggested this is very weak in many Churches. It is notable that evangelism is not discussed in most NZ Bible colleges, or taught as a topic. One leader could only confirm it was a topic in 2 of 8 Bible Colleges he listed. I heard the comment that some would not engage with the topic because it was controversial. So it may be true to say there might not be a lot of equipping of future leaders in the Bible colleges for the mission of the Church – making disciples out of non-disciples.
[Belief in gospel fundamentals] Some denominations are struggling with liberal theology. At a guess, a number of people in evangelical Churches would be influenced by our cultures embracing of the ‘all roads lead to God‘ kind of thinking. Talk of hell is rare -as is preaching about sin and holiness… I’ve heard considerable feedback on the weakness of some pulpits, with messages geared entirely for the ‘consumer’, but weak in the ‘depth’ of their challenge, and not teaching such topics as are fundamental to basic Christian belief. Jesus’ preaching divided crowds – offending some, while drawing others nearer to God with humility. Could it be that attempts to be more culturally relevant have unexpectedly led to neglect of core ‘material’?
[A financial squeeze] There are apparently 4600 Churches in NZ. There might be 3000 or more pastors. With decreasing attendance the math isn’t hard to work out. The place I see this most clearly reflected in is the weakness of the Church at large in its ability to employ / mobilise / occupy the talents of possible evangelists. There aren’t any ‘left overs‘ in finances for any role to be funded but for that of pastor, as well as other roles necessary to the week-to-week running of local Churches.
Add to that that there may be as many as 400 other Christian organisations – 150 of which are ‘mission organisations’, and the financial squeeze is clear. There is a lot of work going on – but evangelism is noticeably weak, and noticeably important, yet is the focus of a very small amount of that work. Could it be that we’re scared of failure, so keep investing more and more into areas the feel fruitful (namely, working with Christians or community work rather than gospel work)?
[A leadership ‘squeeze’] The majority of the Churches are also ‘sole-pastorates’ – meaning they are a ‘one man show’. In some cases, one pastor oversees 2 to 4 different Churches, because of the size of the congregations. Few of those pastors are gifted in evangelism, while many are passionate about caring for people (i.e. passionate about pastoral care or community ministry). So there is very little focus on the gospel, but also vey little leadership energy available in most places to step back and consider how God’s Mission might better be accomplished in that place.
[A leadership shortage?] I’m not personally sure on this, but heard it commented that few of the ‘brightest and best’ among our young consider careers in Christian ministry – as compared to 100 years ago… Traditionally Christian ministry was a career for a bright mind. Would it be fair to say it is a second career for many ‘loving’ people today? I suspect that is the trend, but is that a bad thing? I don’t feel qualified to say any more on that really, other than to note it. Strength of leadership is not the same as intelligence – yet well meaning ‘nice’ people can be practically ‘eaten alive’ by Churches with perennial suspicions and imbalanced expectations of their pastors.
If the previous paragraph was on the ‘quality’ of leaders, regarding the number of them, pastoral vacancies do verify that the supply of pastors is not quite up with the demand.
[A lack of evangelistically focused organisations] I mentioned there are maybe 500 Christian organisations. The only one to really employ evangelists is OAC. Some other evangelists work independently, but the number would not be large. Evangelism is a part of the agenda of many organisations, but the sole focus of very few. Is this imbalanced? I don’t know, because God’s primary strategy is the local Church. Should there be more evangelists employed? To me, ‘should’ is too loaded a word – but my understanding of Ephesians 4 does suggest we’re missing something. The role of the evangelist is hugely under estimated – but it is also poorly represented. I do think we need more evangelists, but how to create a sustainable ‘system’ that could provide ‘credible’ ones that can really help churches… is not easy to work out.
[A scepticism of ‘evangelists’] This one was an irony to observe. There are some great ‘evangelists’ (who equip through seminars in NZ) – but also maybe some ‘dodgy’ ones. I was saddened to sense a general scepticism of evangelists from pastors. Many are no longer open to working with them due to bad experiences or things they’ve heard. I think ‘evangelists’ and ‘evangelism’ could benefit from a publicity campaign 😉 But old methods, and still-existing personalities… would only serve to yet again reinforce the old stereotypes…
[The need for ‘new’ methods]
My estimation is that it was due to changing culture that many churches became involved in more community ministries 20 and 30 years ago. Today most churches are active in such areas, but there is very weak connection between this and the Christian message. New methods exist – such as ‘relationship evangelism’ and ‘conversational evangelism’ – but that is using the word ‘new’ in the broadest possible sense. I call them ‘new’ because there seem to be a lack of strong advocates for these approaches – yet these are the approaches that most pastors (and members) are convinced are needed. It’s as if some evangelists are talking in a different language to that many pastors and believers are talking. The pastors are wanting an assurance that the evangelist will be ‘moderate’, and will promote ‘gentle’ methods – but the styles of many ‘evangelists’ is not assuring the pastors of this – so the doors remain considerably closed. Could the ‘new’ methods become mainstream and yet without compromising the gospel? I feel quite strongly that this is what is needed.
Other positive observations…
[Excellent denominational leaders]
I’ve connected with leaders of a few denominations over coffee (and have met a few others in passing). They were all sincere and godly men who I respect. They all shared a sincere passion for Christian outreach. It’s all positive.
[Wise ‘para Church’ and ‘inter-Church’ leaders]
Those I’ve met from inter-Church organisations have likewise had a genuine desire to see our churches strengthened in this area. While philosophies might differ, and some might possibly talk for a few years before getting to action (said with a smile – noting differences), the heart is the same – and God uses all sorts of people! Everyone has their place, and every organisation their place.
[Some really effective ministries]
…and these definitely exist. Some groups are seeing people come to faith. Some Churches are seeing definite first-generation growth. Growth is possible in the NZ environment – but it does seem a bit like a ‘old wine skin’ Vs ‘new wine skin’ thing. The ‘old’ and ‘new’ do not relate to the age of the people or Church – but rather to the freedom that exists to share Christ naturally, and to the central place the good news of Jesus takes, again, naturally.
So, I feel positive. I have heard from others that there may be a changing tide in the area of ‘evangelism’ and our Church mission here in NZ. My experiences in this first year would concur with that.
NZ Churches may not be strong in outreach – but there is an openness to change. There is, in particular, a hunger for gentle approaches to evangelism. I perceive that those offering them will find doors pretty open in Churches.
The Church at large may not be strong in gospel proclamation – but there are people with that passion, and good networks of them too. With the Lord’s favour, different things can happen in different seasons.
The place of prayer cannot be underestimated. To share something entirely subjective – it has been my personal conviction that ministries rise up and see favour in outreach in certain times and places as a result of people who have prayed in those places for long periods of time. In Revelation we have a picture of bowls ‘full of the prayers of the saints’ that – having become full – thus became ready to be poured out. The prayers were ‘stored up’ for that time. In other words, God answers prayers – but not immediately. Prayers can be like investment that are later ‘drawn upon’ in a ‘move of God’.
While some are at the ‘front lines’ seeking to do the work of the evangelist in churches and in the community… It remains a team effort.
–the prayers of the saints give favour and anointing to the preachers
–the finances of the saints enable evangelists to exist, instead of just pastors 😉
–and while only some are called to be evangelists – everyone is called to ‘evangelise’
Positively in NZ a restoration to this recognition seems to be going on. It can only bear fruit if it continues. Let’s pray – and lets’ do whatever else it is that the Lord puts on our hearts to help this cause.
If Christianity is true – which we ‘evangelical’ Christians obviously believe it is – it is our God given responsibility to give every person in this nation, at the very least, the opportunity to hear the Christian message in words that will make sense to them. This is not happening here, and also not in a HUGE part of the world – but if God has called us to do this, then it is possible. So miracles are possible for those who will step under the ‘mantle’ that exists for the fulfillment of this commission (if that makes sense to you). That’s a picture of hope – because all it needs is a few believing people!