With all of our talk of being vital congregations, have we ever thought to sit down and really question how we practice evangelism in our local churches and across the denomination? If evangelism is our initial point of exposure to the Christian community, then surely that would be a good place to start our conversations about congregational vitality. And if we’ve seen a decline in involvement across the denomination across the last 40 years or so, then isn’t it time to ask hard questions of how we approach our practices of sharing faith with others?
To evangelize means literally to offer “good news” or a “welcome message.” To speak of this as a Christian practice means we have to analyze how the good news is proclaimed in and through the entire life of the church. I am proposing that now, more than ever, we take very seriously the question of how to most faithfully offer the good news of God in the world.
The resource, Faith Sharing by Dr. Eddie Fox and Dr. George Morris, offers an approach to evangelism that seeks to prioritize it as the essential practice of the church. If the church exists for the proclamation of the gospel, then evangelism is thought to be at the heart of what it means to be the church. This books has been widely-used across our denomination for many years. However, I would like to offer some serious critiques of the views offered in this books in light of what it means to rethink evangelism as a faithful practice of the church.
In actual practice it can be difficult to see the view proposed in Faith Sharing as very much beyond a propositional approach. We “offer people Christ” expecting a response. The book even co-opts terms like “relational evangelism,” that describe “faith sharing” as little more than a relationship with an agenda. Make no mistake, however, any relationship built directly on an underlying agenda is not a relationship but is instead a sales pitch.
I think it’s now time that we ask tough questions about our institutional language of evangelism that speaks in volumes about people “making decisions for Christ” and then offers very little in terms of Wesleyan sanctification as the means for one’s life being transformed. I’m choosing to highlight the shortcomings of Faith Sharing but there are many other resources that follow a similar approach. “Winning souls” means nothing without the hard task of a transformed life. Too often we speak of conversion as an event with the life that follows simply being one of only “trusting in Jesus.” The funny thing is we tend to leave it ambiguous while we concentrate on the “conversion event” more. Wesleyan evangelism that does not include a vivid description of Wesleyan discipleship is not Wesleyan at all. And discipleship that does not speak to the formative practices of the church, the need for small group accountability and the process of becoming more than just a member of a church is not discipleship at all.
Rather than a model based on a linear formula, why can’t we describe evangelism as the witness of all of our Christian practices? It’s not about accumulating more members as much as it’s about faithfully practicing the Christian life in such a way that others will be drawn to it. In fact, if we practice Christianity well, it will often turn people off more than it might turn people on to such a peculiar way of life.
Why can’t we tell the Christian narrative with room for someone to doubt? The Christian narrative isn’t some set of beliefs that we offer others in the hopes that they might “buy into” what we’re convinced of. It’s an invitation to take part in a journey that requires trust, humility and friends to help us along the way. It’s also one that requires a practice of evangelism to be both the gateway into a life of discipleship as well as the fruits of that life when it’s proclaimed in living color. Instead of beginning “where others are” in the hopes that we can lead them to where we are, why can’t we see evangelism as a means to begin where others are in the hope that together, God will lead us all into new and exciting places through mutual love and edification?
Please hear me that I’m not advocating for a “live and let live” approach to evangelism that would seek to hide from our calling to share the gospel with all people. But I am advocating that we seriously look at how we share the good news in a faithful way. This may or may not produce the most church members, but it will surely yield the most disciples. Either way, it’s a discussion that we need to have in our local churches, annual conferences and across the denomination lest we get caught in the undertow of desperation caused by decline.
As Wesleyan Christians we’re called to a life of study, sacrifice, social engagement, radical inclusion, and mutual accountability. One might rather say that our evangelism comes from a life, expressed in word and deed, which points to a radical way of existing in this world. And that can’t be shared faithfully if it’s boiled down to a simplistic formula and sold as some sort of commodity on the Christian market.
Before we jump to a reality of “vital congregations” can we please ask some hard questions about how we share our faith? It’s past time that we critically look at our practices of evangelism if we’re to have any hope of seeing where God might be leading us, the people called Methodists, in a new and exciting time of being the church.
Part of the crisis happening in the mainline church is that we’re losing membership. It’s as though we’ve got holes in the hull of our ship and the patches we fashioned years ago have slowly deteriorated, growing from small leaks to very large gaping holes. A couple of the major areas this is showing up is in when we look at worship attendance and giving trends.
As part of my ongoing process of (re)defining what it means to practice evangelism, I want to explore what it means to address the needs of a denomination struggling to sustain a particular way of life, and how it’s important that we ultimately draw distinctions between the practice of evangelism and what it means to recruit new members.
Mike Breen notes, “If you make disciples, you always get the church. But if you make a church, you rarely get disciples” (“Building a Discipling Culture, Zondervan Press, 2009). And yet the subtle undertones of all of the talk these days has to do with the decline in membership in our local churches. I want to say from the outset that this is not intended to be a soapbox against numbers. It’s not even meant to be an argument against church growth, per se. The distinctions drawn here are to illustrate that the practice of evangelism and the recruitment of new members are more effectively implemented when they are regarded as two different, and distinct, features of ministry in the local setting.
One could say that it’s in our DNA as United Methodists and Wesleyan Christians to view this as an obvious distinction. It’s been said that Wesley himself reduced the membership rolls of early Methodist societies to distinguish the idea that numbers and faithfulness in commitment are often two different concepts. A major question we face as a 21st Century mostly American institution is, what does it mean to join a church?
David Lowes Watson notes:
Membership in the church is regarded by most churchgoers in the U.S. as a commitment. It is a commitment, however, to the church as it functions in the culture–a place where fellowship can be sought…emotional and spiritual needs met…moral standards can be affirmed…and where God can be worshipped.
As a measure of organizational needs, it’s important to see membership stats as very important. But the question of faithfulness in the living out of the message of faith begs a different response. In other words, membership emphases can only take us so far into constructing a vision of faithfulness in proclaiming and living the gospel story. But when we merge the practice of evangelism with the recruitment of church members, the effectiveness of a church becomes measured strictly by the growth in membership rather than by its faithfulness to proclaiming the good news of the gospel through the words and life of the community.
It’s very important that these two areas of ministry remain separate because it can be very easy to inadvertently mistake salvation found in the good news of the gospel for a salvation found in the church itself. A church centered on fostering a self-centered and self-serving mindset of survival at any cost has inevitably crossed the line in misappropriating the practice of evangelism as simply the recruitment of new members that will sustain the life of the organization. Furthermore, when the recruitment of new members becomes the sole focus of our evangelism, then we inevitably allow the gospel to morph into whatever is attractional in order to gain more members. We refuse people the right to say “no” by not offering the space to refuse the invitation. Recruiting members is very important to meet organizational needs but it must be done so as an off-shoot of what it means to practice evangelism on a larger, communal level.
If evangelism is to be understood as a practice of the church, it must be understood as a practice much larger than that which would seek to simply grow the church numerically. The practice of evangelism speaks to the very nature a community exists embodying the virtues of the body of Christ–generosity to all, radical inclusion, the confession and forgiving of sins, sharing of mutual goods, and a peaceful orientation to the world around us. This is a witness made to the world that is both invitational and faithful.
Next Post: Sharing Faith–It’s More Than a Sales Pitch
This post will run on the website for The Progressive Christian Magazine on September 11, 2011
How We Can Offer Hope in a Land of Mixed Messages
Like many of you, I will never forget where I was the day the sky turned dark, the earth heaved, and death seemed to reign as far as eye could see and ear could hear. I was a freshman in college on that day, and like many others in their late 20s, I’ve “come of age” in the aftermath of 9/11. For me, these ten years have provided ample cases where tough questions should have been asked about how we see ourselves as Christians in a post-9/11 America.
In the past 10 years we’ve built a new legacy of violence in the face of chaos. My mother taught me by example when I was very young that on days when confusion and the unknown seem to have a stranglehold on us, we can turn to something that is routine and known for comfort. As a culture facing the confusion of terrorist attacks and the loss of meaning in light of the chaos of violence, we turned to that which is known and easy to understand for our comfort: war. We can’t be too critical of this. We were not misled by some evil regime or a bloodthirsty administration dying to go to war (no matter how much Michael Moore tries to convince us otherwise). It was our natural reaction. When you’ve had the world pulled out from under you, it’s natural that irrationality and fear become second nature.
In the past 10 years, many of us have grown stronger and more visceral in our polarization of ideology. It’s ironic, really, that in the face of mass confusion and no sign of ultimate meaning, it has become easier to polarize ourselves around particular ideologies
I remember the months and even years immediately following 9/11. During those confusing times it seemed that the only meaning and source of guidance came in the form of national allegiance. And that allegiance could only be proven by one’s utter support of violent measures of national defense. If you dared to oppose the war, you were, in effect, deemed “un-American.”
After a few years went by and some of the knee-jerk grief subsided, a second shift occurred. By 2008 a majority of Americans seemed ready to move beyond the ideological trends of the previous eight years in the name of “change we can believe in.” A funny thing happened on the way to that change, we seemed to veer off the road and we soon found ourselves back in the neighborhood of violence as the source of all comfort through military skirmishes in Libya and ramped up efforts in Afghanistan.
Please know that I don’t write this as one seeking to support a political claim or cause. I don’t write this as one who would dare to define (or redefine?) what it means to be American after 9/11. All I can speak to, instead, is what I believe it means to be a Christian in America after 9/11.
In the book The Sunday After Tuesday, an anthology of 9/11 reflections edited by William H. Willimon, Stanley Hauerwas writes, “September 11, 2001, is not the day that changed our world. The world, the cosmos, what we call history, was changed in A.D. 33.” If we claim to be Christian, then September 11, 2001, must be understood in light of the cross and the resurrection of Jesus. So much of our contemporary understanding of faith, however, seems to be understood in light of what it means to be an American. When our national identity takes priority over our baptismal identity then it’s only natural that war and violence become our answer when horrors like terrorism render us speechless.
For me, as a young adult who claims to be Christian living in America, the lasting legacy of 9/11 is learning how to navigate those situations where our vulnerability as a people are brought to light. In these instances we have to ask ourselves the fundamental question: Will we wrap our grief and confusion in the flag or in the cross? This is not to say that somehow those who died that day did so in vain. It’s not even to say that those courageous people (most of whom are around my age) who have lost their lives in war have done so in vain.
However I am critiquing the church for being lazy following 9/11. We have been guilty time and time again of confusing and refusing to identify how our lives are caught in the chasm between the reality of the world and who God calls us to be. Too often we’ve lost our identity as those who witness to the reign of God in our world, as people marked by peace and love for all, in exchange for being just another voice for national political causes.
As 9/11 approaches for now the tenth time since 2001, I hope we mark it with the proper somber attitudes and observances. But more than that I hope Christians resist the temptation for the triumphalism and national pride that can be so easy to accept. I hope we see the day, instead, as a day to remember what it means to be communities marked by the Eucharistic life that calls us to welcome all people, forgive the sins of one another, and share who we are with the entire world.
If we do that, I truly believe it to be about as clear a message as we could ever hope to offer the world.
For as long as I can remember I’ve been a baseball fan. Baseball is a wonderful analogy for life and faith: it takes a team effort to win games; home runs happen but they’re rare, more often than not we’re dependent on our teammates to get us home; “home” is both where we start and also our destination. I could go on but you get the picture. As I continue to study and reflect on the practice of evangelism I would like to use baseball (at least how it’s depicted in movies) to illustrate both a right and a wrong way to practice evangelism in our local churches.
Alasdair MacIntyre defines a practice as:
any coherent and complex form of socially established cooperative human activity through which goods internal to that form of activity are realized in the course of trying to achieve those standards of excellence which are appropriate to, and partially definitive of, that form of activity (After Virtue, 1984, p. 187)
To better understand this definition of practice, I turn to the work of Bryan Stone who breaks this definition offered by MacIntyre into four characteristics of how to understand a practice:
What does this mean for evangelism in The United Methodist Church? For starters, it means we have to decide whether we’ll practice evangelism with what I call a “Field of Dreams” approach or a “Major League” approach.
You’ll remember the great speech by James Earl Jones where he tells the stirring account of how baseball has both evolved with and transcended American history. The story of baseball is presented as something larger than any particular team, league, or event. It is that which was here before we were and it will move forward into the future even after we’re gone. What Ray had to do, in essence, was simply have faith that his project would stir something in the hearts of those others–so much so they would come from far and wide to experience it. The character Terrance’s speech speaks to the fact that even on our best days we can only simply hope to participate in and witness to something grander than we are as individuals. Baseball, in its purest form, is the grand vision Ray’s park hopes to witness to. And Terrance reminds us that when this is done faithfully, people will come–they won’t be able to stay away.
The “Major League” approach is very different. It’s a great movie that tells the tale of an inspiring team who, when they band together, can out perform themselves in order to keep from being sold away. It’s an entertaining account of a bunch of misfits who learn to work together, amid the vast diversity present, for a higher goal. In the end they triumph over great odds to achieve their goal.
On the surface this sounds like a worthy analogy for the church in its practice of evangelism. But we need to go back to MacIntyre’s understanding of a practice because there’s a difference between a practice being “good” and being “faithful.”
The “goods internal” to a practice help to define the practice itself. The practice of baseball requires particular goods such as hitting, throwing, pitching, and fielding. To practice it well, you must be able to perform these activities at a particular level. It’s the combination of these activities, within a certain set of rules and standards, that dictates how faithfully you can play baseball.
If evangelism is a practice then it too can be understood as employing a number of skills and activities. But, just like with baseball, you cannot reduce the practice of evangelism to any one of these activities and you have to judge it in terms of how well all of the activities serve the overall practice.
On the other hand, there are activities that we can call external to a practice. For example, The Atlanta Braves are external to the practice of baseball. You can be a fan of the Braves and they can spark your love for the game. But the Atlanta Braves do not define baseball because the game, in essence, will go on even if the Braves no longer existed. In terms of evangelism there are external goods as well. Church growth, buildings, and increased budgets are examples of external goods in the practice of evangelism. They are worthy aspects that can help us appreciate the practice of evangelism.
But there’s a big temptation to make our external goods the ends, or goals, we seek in our practice. If external goods become the aim of our practice, the practice will lose its integrity, and the virtues required for excellence, or faithfulness, will be replaced by a drive for “effectiveness.” External goods can often be measured whereas internal goods can only be appreciated and cultivated, much like art. Therefore one of the most important tasks we have in understanding any practice is distinguishing the difference between internal and external goods.
This distinction doesn’t set one against the other. But it does require us to prioritize the importance various aspects of how we practice evangelism. If, as United Methodists, we are called to lives marked by holiness of heart and life (John Wesley’s terminology), then we must decide what is more important, growth in numbers, power and prestige or growth in the faithfulness of how we live as the church. The emphasis on numbers and growth, while an important emphasis, inevitably leads us down a road similar to the Cleveland Indians in Major League. We’re playing for the preservation of what we already have. On the other hand, the emphasis on being a church marked by an emphasis on holiness of heart and life calls us to participate in a grander vision of God’s ongoing activity in the world. This is an activity that will live long after our buildings, budgets, and members are gone. And it is a participation that, if done faithfully and with the right perspective, will inevitably draw people around us closer as we are drawn closer to the heart of God’s transforming presence in our world.
[I am indebted to my good friend and "office next door neighbor", Rev. Tommy Perkins, who gave me the movie analogies during one of our conversations where he lets me interupt his work to banter about these sorts of topics]
Often my morning routine involves turning on the news to catch up on what’s happening in the world. Frankly, I could probably get better news on the Internet, but for some reason I keep coming back to television news. This morning I turned on the news for yet another report/reflection on the meaning of 9/11 ten years later already in-progress. I have a post that I will run on 9/11 itself with my in-depth thoughts. But what struck me this morning is the fact that if the news is trying to offer some sort of meaning in light of tragedy, they’re doing a pretty terrible job of it. Ten years later and we seem to find comfort in acknowledging the depressing fact that evil exists in our world-as though we didn’t know that before 9/11.
When I got to work this morning I had a quick conversation with my Senior Pastor on how we’re going to approach worship this Sunday-the actual 10 year anniversary of 9/11. We bantered back and forth about the difficulty of worshipping in light of what the news is telling us. We talked about where we were on Sept. 11, 2001 and how we’ve been impacted by it in the years that have followed. The real struggle, we decided, is finding how each community of faith is called to navigate that divide between perpetually “remembering” and moving forward in the hope of the love and grace of God found in the aftermath of tragedy. It’s not an easy task for any pastor to undertake.
As I was walking to my office it I rememered–I have a doctor’s appointment with my wife in a little while where we’ll hear the heartbeat of our first child to be born in less than 6 months. In the silence of the hallway that leads to my office it occured to me, maybe hope won’t ever be found in simply “remembering.” Maybe, just maybe hope comes in the form of new life that will be born in spite of all of the chaos and confusion in our world. In finding these instances we don’t diminsh the depth of tragedy and heartache that comes in remembering. But it does mean that we dare to use the eyes of faith to see where God is present in our lives, in the often unseen ways, creating life in the midst of death and transforming the world all around us.
I guess you could say that’s food for thought as I drive to the doctor’s office in a minute–I don’t know. Either way, I most definitely don’t want to be late for this!