The heart of evangelism is always the same—helping people take steps towards faith in Jesus—but the ways in which it happens can change from culture to culture, and decade to decade.
Example 1: I am currently editing the letters of Vincent Donovan for Orbis Books. Donovan was a Catholic missionary among the Maasai in Tanzania in the 1960’s and 1970’s. He went from village to village, asking if the people would be interested in talking about God. Their response? “Who can refuse to talk about God?” Donovan went back week by week to teach the Christian faith, and at the end of a year invited the people for baptism. He had an amazing ministry (the story is told in his 1978 book, Christianity Rediscovered)—but I can hardly imagine an equivalent in Canada.
Example 2: Bill was a Baptist pastor I used to know who became a Christian as a teenager. Several of his friends had made a Christian commitment, and Bill was the last holdout. So, one Saturday night, the group got into their van, and told the unsuspecting Bill they were simply going to drive round and round until he gave his to following Jesus. I forget how long it took, but eventually he gave in. Twenty years later, his commitment was still real, though by then he could laugh about the way it happened. (I hasten to add that this is not a method that we teach or recommend at the Institute of Evangelism.)
If those are two ways of evangelism—both fruitful, but neither exactly repeatable—there are others. Christianity Today recently ran an article by Tim Stafford (http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2007/september/36.68.html) , suggesting that, while crusade evangelism had been popular in the 1950’s and 60’s, by the 70’s the emphasis had switched to relational, one-on-one, “friendship evangelism.” Today, suggested Stafford, the emphasis in many denominations is on church planting as the most effective way of helping people take steps towards Christian faith. (This is why the Institute was a co-sponsor with the Diocese of Toronto of the 2007 and 2008 Anglican Church Planting Conferences.)
However, two other ways of evangelism occur to me. One is congregation-centred evangelism. The principle is that, if congregations are healthy, then they will be a natural focus for evangelism: those who are exploring their spirituality will be drawn there, feel comfortable there, find opportunities to explore and understand discipleship, and finally become Christians. This has been the thrust of the Institute’s ministry since its inception, and it remains a central and effective strategy.
Recently, however, I have begun to hear people contrasting a “come” style of evangelism (“Come to our special service”) with a “go” form of evangelism (“Go . . . make disciples”). I am not convinced that the distinction is all that hard and fast. It seems to me, for example, that before people will “come,” someone normally has to “go” to them and invite them. But the question has at least alerted me to the thought that there is no reason to put all our evangelistic eggs in the congregation-centred basket—or any other single basket.
Here are some examples of the “go” approach to evangelism I have come across recently:
• The Rev. Rob Hurkmans, in Port Colbourne ON, recently started up a monthly church service in the pub called Church on Tap—an informal service where people can sip a beer as they listen to a talk. You can read more about it here: www.niagarathisweek.com/news/business/article/129542.
• Mike Wilkins, a Baptist pastor friend in Toronto, has been running “Alpha in the Pub” for some years. People pay $140 upfront for a weekly drink and a burger in the upper room (yes, really) of a local pub, and watch the Alpha videos. A number of people have been baptized in Mike’s church as a result of this initiative. You can read more about this at www.Godatthepub.com.
• After the First Annual Church Planting Conference in 2007, the Rev. Chris Snow returned to St. John’s NF, and (after discussion with his bishop) hired a curate to start a monthly Saturday night service for families. The name? “Messy Church.” One hundred and ten came to the first one. You can read more about it here: www.toronto.anglican.ca/index.asp?navid=78&fid3=919&layid=18&fid2=-888.
None of these really fits into any of the previously described categories of evangelism. What unites them (apart from the fact that two take place in a pub—which may be significant in itself) is that they are (a) informal (b) not conventional forms of doing church or of doing evangelism (c) meet people where they are—either in the pub or trying to do the best for their children and (d) nurture a slow process of coming to faith.
The Church of England has been promoting such “fresh expressions” of faith in recent years. You can read about them on the fresh expressions website (www.freshexpressions.org.uk) One story I came across was of a priest who has begun leading a monthly Eucharist in his local police station. Twenty or so officers attend, many of whom would not otherwise be regular church attendees.
I am not suggesting that such fresh expressions are “the new wave” of evangelism, and where we should be putting all our efforts. In any case, unless those “free-floating” efforts at evangelism are linked to healthy congregations, they will simply be an evangelistic arm unattached to a church body. And unless there is a strong relational component, they will fossilize and die. So there is actually a natural symbiosis between different forms of evangelism, particularly congregational health, relational evangelism, and fresh expressions.
But such new ventures do encourage us to think freshly about our mission field, to ask questions like: Where do people gather in this neighbourhood? What are their interests? What are their questions? What would pique their curiosity? Why has God put us just here in our neighbourhood? What would be a good venue for those who are not ready for church (however friendly) to begin the journey to faith?
Such adventures will require creativity and courage. But the benefits could be out of this world.
4 thoughts on “One Size Does Not Fit All: Seven Ways to Evangelize”
John – I’d like to emphasize your point that “come” and “go” are two sides of the same coin. I believe that the fulness of the Christian life can only be experienced within community. It is that life-giving community (dare we call it the kingdom of God?) through which Jesus proclaimed that the Holy Spirit would change the world. Such communities/congregations are necessary for sustained growth of individuals towards/in Christ.
At the same time, it is rare that people will spontaneously seek a church community. Our congregations need to have “hard-wired” into them the practice of reaching out to our larger surrounding communities in service and truth speaking for anyone to think that our congregations are worth being part of.
“Come” and “go” as such might just be misleading words, introducing a false dichotomy. Perhaps, simply “Baptize in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit”. “Baptize” has both elements, wouldn’t you agree?
My concern is the same as always. I am concerned now, as is often the case, to see a primary emphasis on style and techniques. Philosophically, it is little different than church growth approaches. I am trying to think of the last time, and church where, during the intercessions, there was expressed a longing for those who are lost and broken. I’m sure you would counter that this is a given-it isn’t! Surely, we need to emphasize in discipleship how the Holy Spirit creates in us a desire to follow after the heart of God (John 3:16) I hear very little of having a yearning heart for the lost; I hear very little of the rejoicing when one lost person comes to Jesus. God’s heart for relationships is at the heart of the Gospel-first. Techniques may or may not follow. I have no problem at all with techniques (they can be very helpful) but they must take a secondary place to a motivated heart for the heart of Jesus. How many N.American Christians gladly share Jesus in the work place on a regular basis? It’s not hard for the ordinary Christian to lead someone to Christ-at the right time, but when did it last happen in our own market-place life?
Charles Alexander (Timothy Institute of Ministry)
Charlie: Thanks for your comments. I am certainly not going to argue with you about the centrality of passion for the ministry of evangelism. Like you, I don’t often find it in churches. Unlike you, I don’t find it in myself as often as I would wish. So I am challenged by your words, and I am grateful for that.
But at the same time I do have some quibbles. For one thing, I am having a hard time seeing how the things I discuss are “techniques” or “strategies” (with the exception of the second—but that’s not one I’m recommending!). Take, for instance, the crusade evangelism of the mid-20th century: those crusades only worked because Christian people cared enough and prayed enough to bring their friends. Or take church planting: most church planters are motivated by a desire to take the church to people who do not yet know the Gospel. (Why else would you do such a risky thing?) And I could say the same about the other examples I give.
Then, as I have thought about what you say about passion, I wonder whether the emphasis is in the wrong place. I do not discover passion by being told I must have passion. I get passion for evangelism when I am told the Gospel! (It’s similar to C.S.Lewis’ comment that you don’t get joy by setting out to get joy. You do what God tells you to do, and joy comes along when you least expect it.) The problem for a lot of Christians, I suspect, is not that they lack passion for evangelism but that they are not excited by the Gospel. But I have a feeling you would agree with me on this.
Maybe that’s enough for now. Perhaps others would like to join the conversation.
I do want to say too that I have the highest respect for you and your ministry, and I look forward to the next time our paths cross.
While I have no disagreement with the notion of praying for and seeking those who are broken and are either unaware of or have rejected Jesus – what Christian would be? – I am concerned about the possible consquences of referring to people as “lost”.
I am particularly thinking of the reaction of a person who does not feel broken or in any need of Christ – surely a large portion of our population these days – being told that they are “lost” becuase they do not acknowledge Jesus as Lord. Doing so might just “lose” them before we have had a chance to engage them in such a way as to lead them to Jesus.
My reading of Scripture is that Jesus always met people where they were and continues to do so. As His agents, we too need to meet people where they are and go from there. Suggesting either directrly or indirectly to some that they are “lost” when they don’t feel or acknowledge that they are in need may not be the best thing.
So, as we seek new and innovative ways to evangilize the environments in which we live, I guess I’m trying to say that we need to be aware of the possible effect our words and attitudes will have on the people we are seeking to bring to Jesus.
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