Don’t Use the E-word
There is no doubt that many Christians find both the concept and the practice of evangelism difficult. In this article we shall try to explore why this is so and to outline the sort of evangelism which might be effective in the 21st century.
Why is it difficult? There are a number of reasons but like all good preachers, I shall restrict myself to three: the world in which we live, the church and the nature of evangelism.
The world in which we liveL~
There is a lot of evidence that people outside the church are more open to spiritual things than they have been for a long time. However, most people outside the church do not think of church as spiritual – church is religious (which is bad) not spiritual (which is good). The media portrays Christians as narrow-minded, old-fashioned and hypocritical. Many people know individual Christians who are not like that, but it does not change their general perception of Christians and church. If our evangelism seems to be trying to persuade people to come to church, it will be resisted. If on the other hand our evangelism is trying to help people make sense of their lives in the company of like-minded people, they are likely to be much more receptive.
The church (and the Methodist Church in particular)L~
A survey in 2001 discovered that Methodists are almost twice as likely as other Christians to be involved in community action, but half as likely to be involved in evangelism. It is fruitless to spend too much time exploring the historical reasons for this – it is the sort of church we have become. If this is a true reflection of the Methodist church, then there are positives as well as negatives. The positive is that our involvement in the community does not go unnoticed by people outside the church and that we are often held in much higher regard than we realise. People see our practical expression of love and are impressed – our problem is in finding both the confidence to explain the source of that love and appropriate ways of sharing it.
A further difficulty with church as we know it is that any one church is only likely to meet the spiritual needs of a small percentage of the community around it. The nature of our consumer society means that if people do not feel their needs are met, they vote with their feet.This is why so many churches are beginning fresh expressions of church to complement traditional church.
The nature of evangelismL~
Many Christians have rejected a form of evangelism that they feel unable to engage in. An evangelism that seems to preach down at people or place them under emotional pressure to make a ‘decision’ that they don’t want to make. Rebecca Manley Pippert spoke of this sort of evangelism: “Evangelism is something you shouldn’t do to a dog let alone a good friend.” However, this does not mean that all evangelism is bad and that we cannot find forms of evangelism that will restore our confidence and help people outside the church to become followers of Jesus Christ. Rejecting bad forms of evangelism is not an excuse for not engaging in it at all, it’s a reason to find a better way.
Evangelism for the 21st Century?L~
What does a good model of evangelism look like? There are lots of good courses around, both to equip Christians to share their faith and to invite people from outside the church to attend to explore faith.1 Here, we are more concerned to highlight some basic principles:
- Don’t just offer answers, offer mysteries
Our primary aim is not to answer people’s questions but to help them live a life of faith in the midst of all life’s confusions.
- Don’t debate minutiae, focus on essentials
Ask big questions of people – is there a God? What is God like? What are the benefits of believing?
- Don’t push credibility alone, stress plausibility
A ‘modern’ approach to religion emphasises the question ‘Is it true?’ A ‘post-modern approach emphasises the question ‘does it work?’ Emphasising truth tends to give the impression ‘I’m right (& you are wrong)!’ Emphasising plausibility says ‘this works for me – why don’t you try it?’
- Don’t condemn others, reason with them with gentleness and respect
People who do not share our faith beliefs are often delighted to make common cause with us in areas like justice and social action. We should work with people whenever possible, yet at the same time seek out opportunities to share our experience of Jesus Christ with them, asking them what they believe and why in an open way.
- Don’t rush people, help them at a healthy pace2
Most people take two years or more to come to faith. In that period they will hear the good news of Jesus Christ explained clearly several times – how can that happen in your church?
- Take religious experience seriously
Most people have life changing spiritual experiences – if we are willing to explore these with people, we will find common ground. We also need to examine our corporate worship life to ensure that mystery and experience are present as well as verbal/cerebral worship.
- Offer opportunities for people to make commitments
It is helpful to have a regular programme (once a quarter?) when people can hear what it means to be a Christian in an appropriate way. If they can hear this in a reasonably large group so that they can choose whether or not to respond, it becomes a safe place to think about faith. It is often easier for us to invite friends to hear about Christianity in this way than always doing the explanation ourselves.
1. For equipping Christians try ‘Lost for Words’ (www.cpas.org.uk). Alpha is the best known course about faith but there are many more, Methodists have had a large part to play in the developing of Essence (www.sharejesusinternational.com) and Journey (Ashram Press, 178 Abbeyfield Road, Sheffield, S4 7AY)
2. The five themes above are taken from The Church on the other side, Brian McLaren, Zondervan, 2000, pp78-85