In a recent guest post at Ed Stetzer’s blog, Rick Richardson points out barriers to evangelism faced by today’s conservative (evangelical) churches but also some signs of improvement and hope for more effective and vigorous evangelism in the near future.
You should read the entire article at Christianity Today, but here are the bullet points:
#1. Our old paradigms and methods of evangelism feel outmoded, intrusive, and inauthentic for too many people.
#2. Many people and ministries have decided we need to stop sharing the gospel and only show it.
#3. There is a downward trending life-cycle of many Evangelical denominations.
#4. We think no one wants to hear what we have to say.
#1. Evangelism is being rethought and reimagined by many groups and contexts, whether campus, church, urban, or global.
#2. Compassion and justice are being combined with evangelism in creative and influential ways,
#3. Evangelical churches and pastors are seeking ways to increase their evangelism temperature and impact.
#4. Our research on the unchurched is clearly showing that people in our country are far more open and responsive to the church, Christians, and the faith than we had imagined, especially when they are approached personally and relationally.
Now, here’s today’s thought question.
First, let’s redefine the Church of Christ notion of evangelism as NOT including transfers of committed Jesus followers from other churches and denominations. We’re talking exclusively about the so-called “unchurched.” The lost. The damned for all eternity. Not Jesus followers who disagree about apostolic succession or instrumental worship.
Second, by that definition, how is your congregation doing in terms of evangelism? And I’d give points for a church that is trying but utterly failing, so long as they are overtly preaching the need for evangelism and talking about how to do it — even if they don’t have it figured out yet.
My impression is that most churches don’t speak about evangelism at all. We talk about “church growth,” because we Americans, raised on the free enterprise system (and I’m as capitalistic as they come) know how to compete for customers. It’s who we are and so it’s what we’re good at. I can write you a year’s worth of essays on how to grow your church and be pretty much right. But it would all be transfer “growth” — because that’s what I know how to do.
And I think Richardson has put his finger on some of the barriers faced by the typical Church of Christ. The old methods don’t work any more. Gospel meetings, the Jule Miller filmstrips, Sunday night services, mournfully led hymns from the 1930s, and door knocking just don’t work — and yet our churches have potent constituencies who want to preserve our traditions at any cost. Effective evangelism requires change. And we’ve got a bad case of anti-changeness.
On the other hand, we have a new generation of ministers who are all about short-term mission trips, digging wells, painting houses, and other such good works — which are easy to raise money and volunteers for and yet produce next to nothing in terms of souls because we don’t bother to preach Jesus while we’re doing our good works. I observe this but utterly fail to understand it.
And with the recent demise of the Tulsa Workshop, formerly known as the Tulsa Soul-Winning Workshop, the denominational mood seems to me to be one of frustration if not fatalism. We seem to be giving up.
But there is good news about the good news. There are churches and denominations that are figuring this thing out. And it’s not that hard to find out what they’re doing. We just have to get connected with the larger Christian community and stop limiting ourselves to Church of Christ denominated resources. Lots of other denominations are struggling to find out how to do evangelism in today’s world, and some are having success. (For example, my series on Direct Hit a while ago.)
Nonetheless, the fact remains that you’re unlikely to accomplish what you don’t even try to accomplish. I think the biggest barrier to evangelism in the Churches of Christ is not the members’ intransigence on change (as bad as it is, and it’s bad) but the refusal of many of our preachers to preach and set an example of evangelism and the failure of many of our elders to make this a congregational or personal priority.
We don’t study the research. We don’t model ourselves on churches that have had success. And we don’t preach the gospel, even to our own members.
I mean, Five Acts of Worship and the Five Steps of Salvation aren’t the gospel as the Bible uses “gospel.” The good news is not the good news of baptism by immersion for the remission of sins (not that I disagree with that, but agreeing doesn’t make it gospel).
Neither are painted houses and newly dug wells — not that the gospel shouldn’t produce such things. But merely improving people’s lives is not the good news.
Rather, we in the Churches of Christ need a large dose of Kingdom theology. The gospel is “Your God reigns” (Isa 52:7). God’s in charge, and it’s time to pick a side, the Kingdom or the world. And there are some very good reasons to choose God’s side, reasons that speak both to the afterlife and the right-now-life.
But we’ll never persuade anyone that the right-now-life is better because God reigns and we’ve submitted to his reign unless our churches start acting like the good news is good news. The church must become the Kingdom. We have to take the early chapters of Acts as a model about how to live as servants of a God who reigns.
It’s not really about methods and classes on how to speak to your neighbor about Jesus. It’s more helping our members’ understand the blessings they already have in Jesus and helping them realize those blessings in their lives today. Blessed people who know they’re blessed will not struggle to share their blessings.