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!
In the first post in this series on evangelism, I wrote about the temptation to view evangelism as an exercise of relational power. What could begin as a legitimate mission of spreading the gospel can quickly run amuck when we choose to carry this mission out by means of manipulation, superiority, and inflexibility in terms of how we view “the church” and “the world.” I argue that much of this is due to a misguided priority we place on protecting the institutional church at all costs.
In the second post in this series, I argue that the way we view the idea of Radical Hospitality can serve as an example of our practice of evangelism from a posture of power and superiority. This practice of existing as the church is a fundamental testimony of the God who calls and welcomes us together. When it is used as a means of attractional evangelism, however, it becomes nothing more than a polite ploy to bring people into our church buildings.
In moving toward my own understanding of evangelism in a contemporary society, I want to begin by defining the practice evangelism in terms of narrative.
If we are to have any hope of redefining the practice of evangelism in a contemporary society, we have to begin by understanding what exactly evangelism is in light of the overall life of the church. To do this, we must talk in terms of narrative, or story, both for us as individuals as well as the church and even creation as a whole.
For any activity or practice to be understood, or explained, it must be considered within its appropriate context. As Bryan Stone points out, “narrative is an intrinsically historical genre that embodies the unity of a life across time and points toward some end, or telos” (Stone 2007:39) Therefore, we can argue that to become a Christian is to join a story and to allow that story to begin to narrate our lives. In other words, conversion is the process whereby I grow to understand my personal story in light of the gospel story–past, present, and future. It is the reorienting of our lives as we gradually exchange our story as we’ve always understood it for a new story, born out of the light of the love and grace of God.
I emphasize the term process because more times than not we not converted in a single moment or event, but we are instead gradually changed–transformed if you will–into something new over time and through practice.
One way we have to understand evangelism in terms of narrative is to address how we see ourselves in light of the larger story of history and creation. We must ask ourselves whether the church merely a collection of individuals who happen to be sojourning at the same time and in the same place, or is the church something larger? I would argue for the latter. In order to further the process of conversion, we must shift away from our modern notion that the individual is at the center of creation and social order and see ourselves in light of the much larger story of history and creation.
In the end, we have to ultimately view our narrative in terms of where it will end. The telos of any narrative plays the guiding role of how the story ends. As Christians, we believe the telos, or ending, of the story of creation is salvation: humanity and creation fully restored; God’s shalom. It is quite literally the kingdom of God being revealed on earth.
Salvation is understood as both a present and future possibility. It is a future possibility because we recall that time will end with the culmination of “a new heaven and a new earth”–one where God has triumphed over tears, pain, sorrow, weeping, and death (read Revelation 21:1-6). It is the end, or telos, that narrates where we are headed.
But salvation is also very present in our current time. It’s what happens when love, grace, forgiveness, reconciliation, and ultimate unity triumph in a world that would offer a different trajectory of its story. Salvation offered by God to the world is not a set of ideas that people then are able to deem as credible or incredible. Salvation in this life is quite literally a community that finds its life source in its being shared together, and with the world, and into which people are invited to be welcomed and incorporated by the Holy Spirit. It’s a visible expression of life as it was meant to be from the beginning of creation–shared together in union with all people and creation. The church is made capable of witnessing to God’s salvation only when it becomes a witness itself. In this, the story of salvation becomes the message expressed and made visible to the entire world; one that goes well beyond programs, cliches, “attractional” emphases.
Next Post: Evangelism Beyond “Conservative” and “Liberal” Approaches
If you’ve read much of my writing here you will recall that I’m a major proponent of the concept that has come to be known as Radical Hospitality. In a previous post I defined this concept as: the abnormally gracious and exceedingly surprising way we receive, accept, nurture, and commission others in the name of Jesus Christ. It is our call as Christians to graciously accept strangers as we would accept Christ. And we do this as a response to how Christ has accepted us. Radical Hospitality is one of the distinctive marks that identifies us as Christian–we accept and love people without pretense. It is a practice marked by humility and generosity.
But what happens when we abuse the practice of radical hospitality?
Bishop Robert Schnase has now made famous the concept of radical hospitality, at least among those in United Methodist circles. It’s widely viewed as a different way of “being church” or a new way of “relating to the outside world.” In a society that is so steeped in Christian tradition it can be easy to become oblivious to the fact that often we don’t know how to relate to those outside of the confines of our close-knit communities of faith. We find that too often we’re guilty of acting as though it’s strange if someone darkens our doors who has never experienced worship, sung hymns, or listened to a sermon. This isn’t an overt act, mind you, but it’s revealed in how closed we treat our worship services or ministries within the life of the community. One must be an “insider” to understand what’s going on and we fail to recognize that “outsiders” might be in our midst. Our language of worship and organization carries with it inherent boundaries to anyone not familiar to “the way we do things.” It’s imperative that we look for ways to break down walls in our communities. Otherwise we’ll find ourselves doomed to a quiet life of exclusivity in how we do church.
Recently I’ve been in multiple meetings and group conversations where the idea of radical hospitality came up. And I’ve since noticed a subtle, yet profound flaw that is common in how we view this practice. These conversations lead me to ask: When did the practice of radical hospitality become yet another ploy to attract people to our churches?
There is a distinct emphasis radical hospitality carries with it that’s easy to miss. It is one of the marks of the Christian community. Now this cannot be confused with the imperialistic notion that we, in the Christian community, know exactly what people are looking for therefore we practice radical hospitality because it’s somehow at attractional. The emphasis of Christian hospitality is not to grow our churches. Instead, it’s part of what it means to be a baptized member of the Body of Christ. We welcome others in the same way that Christ welcomes us. It’s who we are called to be, not how we’re to grow our churches.
In the end church growth isn’t of our primary concern when it comes to radical Christian hospitality. At the same time, when we truly extend the hand of hospitality above and beyond the expectations of others, it is inherently evangelistic in character. People are drawn to and compelled by a community bold enough to live by a story different than that which the world around us says is “normal.”
Hospitality as a means to an end of church growth is manipulative and unfaithful. It puts the preservation of our institution or buildings above the lives of everyone around us. It leads us to believe that “being nice” or, dare I say it, welcoming others is a worthy task insofar as it helps serve our own purposes of preservation and self gain. And people can find that empty promise most anywhere in life.
On the other hand, hospitality as a defining practice of the community is a sign of a community willing to align itself around a narrative contrary to much else life has to offer. It dares to form a community around a story that cares more for people than it does it’s own life. This is an odd way to exist in a world that calls us to preserve and protect our own lives at all costs.
Our great fear is, however, that we won’t be bold enough to define our lives around such a practice that would lead us beyond ourselves, into something new and different, self-sacrificing and self-emptying–a life like, well, Jesus.
Next Post- Colonialism and the Life of Evangelism: A Tale of Two Stories
What if I told you that much of the current language of evangelism in the Church is rooted in colonialism? What if I told you that the way we toss terms like “making disciples” and “taking the gospel outside of our church walls” were rooted in a language that invokes images of colonial powers entering “savage lands” in order to civilize them? Would you believe me?
I’ve written about this before but I feel the need to touch on it again, if for nothing else than to refresh my own memory. When we talk about evangelism in the United Methodist Church we need to understand what we’re saying and what images we’re projecting. You can tell a room full of “church insiders” that it’s important to “make disciples;” you can even say you’ll hold them accountable for the work. But we need to be really careful how we say this lest we all begin to believe what we’re actually saying.
To “make disciples” leads us to believe it’s our mission to convert those who we deem as “not yet converted” and “make them a disciple of Jesus Christ.” There are a couple of fundamental disconnects with this mindset.
First, operating under these terms sets up an inherent position of power on the part of the “one who makes” and a position of subjectivity on the part of the “one who is made.” Being a disciple does not put us into a position of power entitling us to “take” the Gospel anywhere. Just like with colonialism, this sort of system is based in a misguided use of assumed power over those we deem “different.”
Secondly, if our so-called mission is to “make” disciples, the implicit idea is that in order to “make a disciple” one must already “be made.” Just like colonial nations believed their so-called “enlightenment” justified their transforming foreign lands as they exerted power, so the Church also falls into the trap of thinking we’re the enlightened ones who are called to enlighten the world around us. I would invite anyone who would disagree with that to go on a foreign mission trip or ask someone who’s been on one. Find out who’s being transformed on such a trip and then try to decide who actually enlightened and who’s really being enlightened. Transformation is never a one-way street in community. Anytime one experiences transformation it is a shared experience that, in turn, transforms the community and its members in return.
If the Church is going to find ways to renew itself we have to rid ourselves of this mindset that says if we bear down and dig in hard enough, we’ll bring enough people to where we are. How about we go about the mission of finding out where God is in the world and then tell that story? Jesus didn’t seem to have a whole lot of time for the pious and religious institution and maybe we shouldn’t focus so much on its health lest we forsake the fundamental task of theology–finding and articulating God’s action in the world. And we can’t fool ourselves into believing that evangelism is ever going to be easy and neat–if it were it probably wouldn’t be faithful.
What frustrations do you have with how the Church practices evangelism?
Next Post: How Radical Hospitality Can Become a Recipe for Colonial Evangelism