21 Nov, 2016 What does it take to turn culture?
This 1500 word reflection will share some positive stories to demonstrate ways in which we see outreaching culture changing in local NZ churches, after which I will assess it briefly.
A NZ pastor realized his members were not sharing their faith, so he decided to do something about it. Firstly he began to consistently preach about outreach, training them in a conversational approach. Secondly, their church reinforced this learning in their church small groups; thirdly they modeled good application through testimonies; and (fourthly) ran regular gospel outreach programs to support it all. As a result of these habits over two to three years the members became friendlier to new comers – and they randomly began to get more visitors too; there was an increase in the number of members coming back with stories of spiritual conversations; and an increase in the number of people coming to faith. And all this happened without any extra programs being run. Who could have believed?
This is the kind of story we’re hearing from a number of NZ churches right now. Pastors throughout the nation have been trying out the ‘members mobilisation strategy’ that the Hope Project team proposed – and its been working. The statistics are so clear that the trust board behind the Hope Project agreed to continue these efforts for another five years to support what is happening!
How wide-spread is this change? 650 churches partnered with the Hope Project, with the average of these being partnered for less than 2 years. When asked if they were more evangelistic than when they first partnered with the project, the average church gave themselves an astounding 6.1 out of 10 (where 10 meant ‘totally changed’ and 0 meant ‘not at all’). With hundreds of churches affected, from Kaitaia to Invercargill, this represents a profound turn in a tide that has not shifted for many years.
What led to this? As above, the difference is in the approach. Many of these pastors are embracing some simple leadership habits – rather than looking for the ‘next best program’. They’ve understood that a talented pastor who runs great programs for a church is no match for 100 mobilised members. And so they’ve intentionally begun to shift their focus from motivation alone to the intentional equipping and mobiling of their members for a conversational approach to outreach… …and it’s been working!
Another key amongst this is the way that an emphasis on the conversational skill-set has been changing things. Jesus’ ‘methodology’ in ministry with people could be summarised as (1) a conversational approach with (2) an ear open to the Spirit. Because many Christians would not willingly attend an evangelism training on a Saturday these churches moved this training into their pulpits. And instead of only teaching about the gospel they’ve deliberately spoken into the key area members struggle; namely, how to start and lead a non-threatening two-way conversation about spiritual things with a multi-religious New Zealander. They’ve worked out that church members don’t want to know how to share the gospel with a stranger – as much as they want to know how to engage a relaxed spiritual conversation with the people they see every day. Through enabling this with practical equipping, things are changing.
To reflect on some of the changes, would you believe that more NZ pastors have begun to do door-to-door visitation around their neighbourhoods – and some churches have begun to purposefully visit every house in their community? In addition the ‘Hope for all’ booklets could not be put in a letterbox with a ‘no circulars’ sticker on it. An incredible 64% of the churches who partnered with the Hope Project had people who were bold enough to take these booklets to people at the doors of these homes. What was shown is that as conversational skills are learnt, and timely resources provided, fears subside – and people hear about Jesus! In fact, 1.4m homes received booklets on 3 occasions during the Hope Project, and then more than 180,000 spare copies of each booklet went out to churches and individuals upon request (including many non-Christians, libraries, cafes, hospital chapels, op shops and much more). One amazing affirmation came from an overseas gospel web ministry that noticed a change in the spiritual environment in NZ. How you ask? Because they are now seeing more people saved per capita via their websites here in NZ than in Australia – and can only put it down to the national gospel efforts that have happened, and the intentional equipping so many pastors have given via their pulpits!
Even the word ‘evangelism’ is returning to common use in many churches after years of awkwardness. And all of this is what also enabled a first national evangelism conference in NZ after a 15-year gap. ‘Engage Conference’ was initiated this year. Hosted at City Church Tauranga, it endeared the involvement and partnership of the leaders of more than 17 outreaching organisations – many of whom had not met before. A remarkable unity resulted, which flowed over into the full conference when many pastors and their key leaders and members arrived.
Assessing the change: What is needed looking forward?
Shining Lights Trust Director (and Hope Project Coordinator) Dave Mann commented, “About five years ago I read about a study that shows that if just 10 percent of a population becomes fundamentally convinced of something, the majority will end up following their view. In other words, most people simply follow the ‘strongest’ viewpoint – and they found that 10% is where the ‘tipping point’ is. So the fact that Christian influence is losing its sway in the public square simply reflects that less than 10% are fundamentally convinced Christianity is true – while those fundamentally believing the ‘atheistic-secular’ viewpoint may now represent more than 10%. But if culture can change one way it can also change the other, right?”
“I recall a scene in the movie ‘Finding Nemo’ where Nemo convinces a large school of fish caught in a trauler net to swim in the same direction. As a result they almost sunk the ship and broke free. We somehow need 1000 churches in New Zealand to become convinced that the intentional equipping and mobilising of their members for ‘every-day conversational witness’ needs to become a priority – and to do so with a sustainable approach like in the four habits shown in the opening example (or at AllTogether.co.nz/ATConsulting). This kind of effort could actually turn the Church. And we might even get 10% fundamentally convinced!”
…including a presence in the media
At the same time, we’ve been told that religion isn’t welcome in the public square – but this isn’t actually true. What isn’t welcome is prejudicial, judgemental religion. If our manner abides by the principles of clarity, gentleness, humility and authenticity the Hope Project demonstrated that most New Zealanders have no problem with it at all. You’d know the saying ‘use it or lose it’. This applies in this sector. If we could unite together to have a more visible presence in our nation, this also can have a subtle ‘rebranding’ effect upon the perception of the church. (I point out that any such effort would need to build upon the above ‘mobilisation’ effort – and would be of no point without it, because it still is ‘all about the conversation’. The ‘big idea’ has little power without the grass roots connection!). We could ‘reclaim’ Easter, as the Hope Project demonstrated could be done in a broad-reaching way – and then Christmas. And then wisely consider messages we’d like heard and known related to other parts of our society – like our gospel history, or the origins of our esteeming of things like humility, forgiveness and kindness (i.e. we are decidedly ‘Christian’ in values – though the average person is unaware, just like a fish unaware of the water they swim in). There are many challenges to this however – especially in the seeming inability of many key church leaders to come to theological unity in some foundational things like, ‘what is the gospel?’ – amongst others. Ideally key strategic leaders would unite. In reality, it might need to come from a more-costly networking exercise like the Hope Project, connecting relationally with pastors throughout the nation to enable a visionary grass-roots initiative.
For the local church…
…what the Hope Project team suggest – based on the surveys, is that it’s sometimes the simplest things that have the greatest effect. After decades of prayer and motivating for outreach, and with an incalculable number of outreach programs and events behind us, the team suggest we have been neglecting to provide basic conversational equipping through our pulpits and small groups that could enable church members to engage in spiritual conversations in this day and age. Beyond the lights, enthusiasm, famed speakers and music of our churches, might it be that what we’ve been lacking is a practical and strategic approach that is realistic for mobilising Christians as every-day witnesses for Jesus?
To find out go to AllTogether.co.nz and where you can subscribe for the monthly ‘news and prayer updates’ (or the ‘pastors updates’) at the bottom of the webpage.