As I’ve read, studied and thought about this idea over the last few months I’ve found that the more I ask questions, the more questions I seem to have about the practice of evangelism. I suppose that’s a faithful response to a subject one is passionate about–or a stupid one, I don’t really know yet.
In a previous post, I argue that the primary aim of evangelism must always be proclaiming the good news of God’s reign in the world. This is in response to our compulsion to saddle the practice of evangelism with other exterior, yet important, goods such as conversion, discipleship and membership growth. All of these work with and are even sometimes dependent upon the practice of evangelism. But they are not the primary aim of evangelism.
Today I’m let to another caveat in rediscovering the practice of evangelism. If the primary aim of evangelism is proclaiming the good news of God’s reign in the world, then who is the primary actor in this practice?
Have you ever noticed how much of our faith life is devoted to the individual Christian? We set up our organizational structure around meeting individual needs. Churches become one-stop-shops of small groups, mission opportunities and programs all designed to be at the whim of any individual who might grace the doors. I’m a United Methodist and we gave ourselves over to this mentality when we crafted a mission statement declaring: “The mission of the church is to make disciples for the transformation of the world.” Worship wars continue to rage in local churches and communities over which style of worship is most “effective”–nevermind that effectiveness in the church has been reduced to what can attract the most people at a given moment. All of these would point to the idea that church culture seeks to promote the idea of being in the business of meeting individual needs in Christian community. And evangelism is no less subject to this trend. Think about what evangelism looks like in your community. Is it simply a marketing campaign designed to attract people to worship? Is it a one-on-one campaign of meeting people in the community? Is it the measurement of new members in your local church?
The problem with this individualistic view is not so much that we’re willing to use worship, authentic relationship, and mission as “tools” to “assimilate” persons to our way of thinking–though that’s pretty bad. The real problem with these methods of evangelism is the priority it places on human effort in carrying out the practice of evangelism.
For instance, take the example of one-stop-shop church programming. At what point do we offer so many programs that we stop doing anything well? Churches live by the example set by mega-churches who portray utopian church communities where all the needs we’ll ever have can be met under one roof. This “Willy Wonka view” of church becomes tainted when we use it as a means of separating ourselves from the world we live in. Church can quickly become an elitist community where one must “belong” to be welcomed. This all points to the compelling narrative that we must first be “attractional” to be “successful.” Unfortunately we often miss it when this takes the place of being faithful.
Secondly, look at the example of my denomination, The United Methodist Church, and our mission statement. It sounds well and good to consider the primary role of the church being the “making of disciples.” The problem with this is that it places evangelism in the place of searching out new people by those already in the church. It creates a binary world where you are either churched (disciple) or unchurched (not a disciple yet). In this world we become consumed with evangelism as corporate growth. If you aren’t churched, we’re coming to find you. And the life and breath of the church becomes reduced to the simple ideology of producing new products.
Finally, consider worship wars. Again this is rooted in the obsession of being attractional as the primary goal of the church. The practice of evangelism is measured by its “relevance” in the greater society, thereby defanging any hope of pointing to God’s presence as something different or counter-cultural. Proclaiming the reign of God becomes the candy-coated task where one hopes not to offend anyone while trying to be appealing to everyone. The gospel message is portrayed as one that hopes to make people feel good through a worship “high” (contemporary worship) or feel safe through a harkening back to “the good ‘ol days” (traditional worship). The sharp edges of evangelism as the proclamation of something new and challenging are smoothed out in order to make it easier to swallow and digest.
Therefore, I argue that God must always be the primary actor in the practice of evangelism. All hopes of human ingenuity, work ethic, and narcissism are put into proper perspective in light of God’s transformative presence in the world; a presence that comes not from within, but from without, as a gift of grace. This type of perspective would seek not to create a message of hope but rather simply point to the existence of hope in world. The evangelist can, at best, hope to discern God’s activity in the world and then boldly point to it for all to see. It’s not our message to craft. It’s not we who “make disciples” and it’s not us who sit at the heart of the life of the church. Church survival need not be a goal of evangelism because as our United Methodist Baptismal Covenant declares, “the church is of God and will be preserved to the end of time.” Evangelism is the art of boldly proclaiming this narrative to all who would have ears to hear and eyes to see.
The primary actor in the practice of evangelism is always God. The message is that God in Jesus Christ is reconciling the world and making it new. Our best hope as evangelists, then, is to boldly witness to this message in all that we say and do.
One of the great misconceptions in the church is that evangelism is a practice that is saddled by what I call “para-practices.” It is my evolving argument that if evangelism is to be practiced with both integrity and effectiveness, we must understand what it is and also what it is NOT.
I remember talking with the leadership at the local church where I serve as I was coming on board as the Associate Pastor of Evangelism. Through our conversations it became very clear that this title was to be understood in terms of recruiting new church members. It’s a fine practice to seek to grow the church. But if evangelism is riddled with membership growth alone, then one is judged by the measurable growth of the local congregation. Growing a local congregation is a very worthy task that we should take seriously. But it’s NOT primary to the practice of evangelism.
To combat my apprehension to embrace the “church growth” mentality, I’ve worked to intrinsically link discipleship to the practice of evangelism. Before one joins a local church it’s vital that they are linked into some sort of small group that focusses on discipleship. However, we have to be clear that discipleship, while incredibly vital to the life of the local church, is NOT primary to the practice of evangelism.
A third misconception of evangelism is rooting it in the practice of initiation into the Christian community. William Abraham makes a wonderful case for this in his classic textbook, “The Logic of Evangelism.” But this view inherently goes against the Wesleyan belief in prevenient grace. If God is already present and active in the world and in the lives of all people (universality of grace), then evangelism is not properly defined if initiation is the primary concern of evangelism. Initiation begins the process of recognizing one’s self as the person God intends them to be and then learning the language of life in the world of faith lived out in the church. But initiation is always a secondary concern to the practice of evangelism.
Another misconception of evangelism is riddling it with the primary concern of converting others. This is a classic idea of what evangelism is and it always comes with countless destructive stories laced with judgment and misplacing the importance of the gospel as an assurance (insurance?) of where a non-believer will spend the after life. Conversion is very important in the life of faith. One must learn a new orientation to life if one is to grow in discipleship. But this is not a primary concern of evangelism.
So what is the primary concern of evangelism?
The root of “evangelism” is the noun “evangel.” This word comes from the Greek word, “euangelos,” meaning “messenger bringing good news.” This root stakes the claim that the primary concern of evangelism is two-fold: 1) Know the story; and 2) Tell the story.
My new friend, Dr. David Lowes Watson, told me the story of his work with a church evangelism team. He said that this team met on a weekly basis and had a single task that they observed each week. They were to find two examples: one example of God’s kingdom breaking forth into the world and one example of God’s kingdom being stifled in the world. The group would meet and choose one example of each type every week. These examples were printed in the church’s weekly newsletter. This practice eventually raised the consciousness of the local congregation in that it helped them develop a lens to discern the presence of God around them as well as ways that presence is ignored or stifled.
On a larger level this story has challenged my perspective on the primary concern of evangelism. Too often I’ve allowed the practice of evangelism to be saddled with issues of discipleship, initiation, church growth, and conversion. While these are important, it’s equally important to treat these areas as secondary to the practice of evangelism.
Evangelism is at its heart primarily concerned with announcing the reign of God in the world as a means of identifying God’s vision FOR the world. Therefore the role of the evangelist, or the evangelizing community, is one of discernment. If evangelism is to have any integrity at all it has to separate itself from a transactional understanding that seeks to convert others to a particular way of believing through the means of manipulation. We also haveto be suspicious of linking the practice of evangelism too closely with growing and sustaining the organization we call the church.
Evangelism is, first and foremost, an announcement. Plain and simple evangelism announces to the world the good news that God, through Jesus Christ, is reconciling the world and making all things new. That’s a high and holy call to tell that sort of news through word and deed. We have to trust that the Holy Spirit will be present and work through this pronouncement in ways beyond our finite imaginations. This isn’t about growing the church, although the church’s growth ensures that more and more can be empowered to tell this story and participate in God’s ongoing work of reconciliation. This isn’t about deepening people’s faith in discipleship, although people will surely be called to a deeper understanding of faith upon hearing this kind of news. This isn’t even about converting or initiating others to a particular way of believing and living, although through the power of the Holy Spirit this kind of good news compels others to see their lives in a new way–through the eyes of a loving and holy God.
What’s the primary concern of evangelism? Learn the story of God’s mighty acts of reconciliation with the world and find ways to live and tell this incredible story because it’s of vital concern that the world hear this story. That seems to be a good place to start to me.
It seems as thought I need to clarify some thoughts from my previous post where I declared: Congregations can’t make disciples. Apparently this phrase was a little offensive so let me offer some follow up thoughts to clarify my point:
This past week I attended the Wesleyan Leadership Conference in Nashville. TN. It was a wonderful experience that not only stretched my understanding of discipleship but also allowed me to integrate into a community of leaders who share my convictions about the importance of discipleship as a focal point of revitalization in the church.
In considering my take-aways from the week, I found myself coming back again and again to an exchange that we had on Friday morning. Somewhere late that morning we took a few minutes to talk about what we learned over the course of the first day and a half or so. Dr. David Lowes Watson stood and shared some words that have stuck with me for the past few days. He said, “Congregations are a place where grace is already at work and where people may not have been called to be disciples…YET.” And it occured to me, everything I’ve been taught recently in my local area has been taught with the intent to build congregations. But instead of saying we’re building congregations, we call it ”making disciples.”
What if being a church member and being a disciple are NOT one in the same? And what if our local churches can house BOTH church members AND disciples?
I want to be clear about the fact that I’m not opposed to building the local church. There are organizational needs that must be met if the church is to survive. Strengthening the local church means we can offer more effective pastoral care. It also means we can proclaim the gospel week in and week out as the essential practice of evangelism (future post to come on that thought).
But meeting these needs by growing the church cannot be disguised as forming disciples–those are two separate activities.
Consider for a moment the assumption that small groups are essential in the life of the church. Most church leaders I know would agree with this statement, if for no other reason than most churches that are growing quickly have put this element into their DNA as a congregation. It’s good to be a part of a small group for many reasons. We can meet and get to know new people. We can participate in a study that enhances our knowledge and understanding of Scripture. We can even enjoy life-giving fellowship through small groups. But we have to be honest that not all small groups necessarily form disciples.
As Wesleyans we’re reminded that our movement began as one of small groups meeting outside of the worship hour in the church. But these small group had specific requirements and expectations. They were NOT necessarily small groups as we might define them today. These groups were orgainzed around a particular order of life that persons were committed to living out. They met regularly for accountability and the assurance that they had the support of a community in living this alternative lifestyle. Small groups were never meant to be used as a means to build up a congregation. Instead they were seen as a specific calling to greater depth within the life of the congregation. And often, these class meetings were gateways into the congregation. Essentially the “new order of living” served as an existential foundation for the acts of worship and giving within the life of the congregation.
I suppose one of the most crucial points I took away from this conference is that people are not disciples when they join our church. They are not disciples when they volunteer for a committees or to support activities. And this doesn’t make them any less a memeber of the local church. Being a disciple is a calling that is different than one to come and experience the grace of God. Instead, it’s one to come and “carry a cross…” dying to self that one might live in Christ. Being a disciple means we seek to order our lives in a community in such a way that we look different even in the corporate worship setting on Sunday mornings.
It’s the job of pastoral leaders to find creative ways to empower lay people to lead these groups. Pastors need to energize a lay movement that would seek to form other lay people in the ways of Christ beyond simply observing the rites of ritual and enjoying the fellowship. We need congregations, yes. But we also need covenant groups within our congregations to ensure that people who are called to be disciples will have a place of nurture, growth and accountability they can turn to. And we have to be serious about the fact that being a disciples means we dare to live differently than the status quo we observe in our affluent American churches.
Adding new church members is very important to the vitality of our organization. It’s a worthy task that we should not take lightly. But please, let’s call it what it is and stop trying to fool ourselves into thinking that “making disciples” and making church members are one in the same. Church members are disciples who live in the midst of grace awaiting a call to come and die to the way they’ve always lived their lives. But they are NOT the same as disciples…and that’s okay.
[UPDATE: Here's a follow-up piece that I hope will clarify my thoughts even more]
What does it mean to be a member of a church? You see, 50 or 60 years ago church membership meant you were a member of a society of sorts. Life seemingly found its heartbeat inside the walls of the church–or at least that’s howI’ve been told it was back then. As we face declining numbers in a new century and we have reached a point where we must face facts: if life centered around the church 2 generations ago and now seems to have found its origins elsewhere, what sort of life were teaching in the first place? Did we invite people to just join a church, or did we challenge them to be disciples? I think there’s a big difference between the two.
In the United Methodist Church we define church membership as the “uniting of people to a local church through the profession of faith in God…thus making known their desire to live daily as disciples of Jesus Christ” (paragrpaph 217 UM Discipline). The question I want to raise is whether or not this has been the reality for the majority of members in the United Methodist Church.
I believe it to be everyone’s desire to want to have a vibrant faith life. But what does that mean? An intellectual assent to a set of beliefs? Or do we want people to adopt a particular way of living because of a unique set of beliefs? It’s my contention that if we want to address issues of vitality in our church we have to address issues of discipleship and the lack thereof. And, in doing so, we have to examine the realities of church membership as practiced in our local congregations.
A later paragraph in our disciple defines growth in faithful discipleship as:
“Faithful membership in the local church is essential for personal growth and for developing a deeper commitment to the will and grace of God. As members involve themselves in private and public prayer, worship, the sacraments, study, Christian action, systematic giving, and holy discipline, they grow in their appreciation of Christ, understanding of God at work in history and the natural order, and an understanding of themselves” (paragraph 218 UM Discipline).
The problem here is that this paragraph sounds great but I’m not sure it speaks to the actual realities of our local congregations. What about members who join churches for networking purposes? What about members who keep their names on the role out of family obligations? What about members who are quite content attending worship regularly but not engaging the deeper work of discipleship through small groups?
You see, congregations as a whole cannot disciple people in a meaningful way. Mass corporate worship alone cannot make disciples. So what if corporate worship is only one form of edification in the Body of Christ? And what if a person needs more than merely weekly worship to truly grow as a disciple?
I want to propose a different way of classifying membership in a local congregation: Baptized Members and Professing/Practicing Members.
A baptized member would be for of an entry-level membership. This membership type would be for newer Christians who are continuing to grow in the initial stages of Christian faith. It would could be a type for one who has been away from the church for some time and is now back rediscovering faith anew. Also, it would be a type for one who wants to affiliate and even worship in a local church but who recognizes that they do not want to delve into the depths of discipleship through small groups.
A professing member would be one who wants to “take the extra step” toward discipleship. Many churches celebrate a Wesleyan Covenant Service when they install new leaders at the beginning of a calendar year. Instituting this new way of classifying members would allow for that service to be a meaningful opportunity for baptized members to become professing members and for professing members to re-evaluate and renew their commitments. Doing this would also bring to life the words of the Wesleyan Covenant Service in a new and tangible way. Church leaders would also be selected from the ranks of professing members.
I realize that this is a bit of a long shot logistically. There are so many small churches that wouldn’t survive if the adoption of such a rigid way of selecting leaders was adopted. This would also require that many churches look at how to structurally prepare for professing members to have a place to grow in Wesleyan Small Groups. That might even mean creating new places for the first time.
But there are pluses to this idea. For starters, it’s more Wesleyan than the methods of membership accountability in place now among most Methodist Churches. Too often we reduce membership to a process that reflects something about as challenging as joining a civic club. One can merely take a pledge of membership and they’re in. The great hope is that this pledge comes with a built-in desire to “pay dues” in the form of financial offerings. But we may or may not see these folks over the course of the year.
What I’m proposing doesn’t deny anyone the ability to join by affiliation, be exposed to worship and the sacraments (the means of grace) or give. What it does do is challenge professing members by requiring habitual practice of the means of grace (works of piety AND works of mercy) and participation in at least one small group for support and accountability for discipleship.
In other words, if discipleship is the great “elephant in the room” when it comes to discussions of church vitality, then let’s get serious and talk about it in ways to both address the reality we’re in and pushes us “on towards perfection.”
**I’m indebted to Steve Manskar for engaging me in a discussion that brought me to this working theory**