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.