on evangelism

Back to evangelism again.  Since I returned to Nashville a few years ago, a number of things have become clear to me:

  • Church of Christ congregations in this city have made a mess of things.  In this city, long recognized as a sort of CofC “Jerusalem,” more congregations, especially in the urban core, close yearly.  The collective reputation of the congregations is extremely poor, due in large part to our collective decision to air all of our dirty laundry in public.
  • In light of this, evangelism has become very difficult.  This has led many congregations (especially mainline ones) to withdraw from the pursuit entirely.  Gone are the days, in many congregations, of gospel meetings, tracts, door-knocking efforts and the like.  Now, you might say at this point that that is all to the good, that those things didn’t work anyway and best left in the past.  But, the reality is that they aren’t being replaced by anything.

Michael Spencer hit the nail on the head again today on the question of evangelism.  He speaks of his own Southern Baptist context, but what I read here easily applies to many (perhaps not all) mainline Churches of Christ in my own city:

No, the problem is who we have become. I think most of us know this. We knew it when we watched Penn Gillette’s video about the Christian who was willing to confront and proselytize him. We aren’t that guy and we aren’t those people. Oh, we want somebody to be like that, or we want someone to think of a way to evangelize people that we can participate in with a generous financial contribution. But most of us aren’t people who actually try to influence other people toward faith.

Are we universalists? Relativists? Postmodernists? Emergers who have abandoned a belief in hell? Your guess is as good as mine, but I don’t think we are missing information or even motivation. We’re missing the key component of reality. We (a lot of us) REALLY aren’t evangelistic people in the SBC anymore. Study it all you want, but something just isn’t there.

This is where I’m surprised that the pundits commenting on this situation aren’t willing to connect the dots. A big reason that the average evangelical isn’t evangelistic is the focus on the issues and tactics of the culture war. According to the culture war advocates, “those unbelievers” are the enemies of Christians and the kind of Christian culture we believe we are supposed to fight for. Are atheists, gays, Democrats, progressives and non-evangelicals in America actually people evangelicals are looking at as potential Christians? Give me a break.

The people in my friend’s church who haven’t seen a new member in 6 years? I’ll guarantee you that the discussion in those Sunday School classes are about how hard it is to be a good Christian witness in these terrible times with the liberals running the country. Being a witness = opposing the agenda of the anti-Christians trying to destroy the culture and corrupt our children.

The new “evangelism” is the culture war. We aren’t winning souls. We’re protecting out culture. If the other side wants to admit we’re right and come on over, great. (To see that mindset, read the Andrew Marin discussion thread.)

When I was a pastor, I got this great idea of starting a Bible study in a large, crowded trailer park near our church. There were a couple of hundred pre-fab homes, lots of families and I wanted to find someone willing to let our church host a Bible study one night a week. Simple outreach, right? No cost. No controversy. Local missions, etc.

So, I promoted this every way I knew how, and I’m pretty good at promotion after being a youth minister for all those years. My church- a church that had assured me they wanted nothing so much as to reach their community and grow- looked back at me with the deer in the headlights look you get when you’ve suggested we actually go knock on doors in the community.

Only one church member came out to help me. (One deacon, as I recall. God bless him.) It was amazing what would come up on a person’s schedule when you said the words “trailer park” in the context of the church’s mission. For most of a month, I covered that trailer park a couple of days a week, knocking on doors, finding no interest and getting no help. I stopped harping and made it my project.

Then I not only discovered a home willing to host the Bible study. I found a family- an entire family with kids- willing to visit our church.

They were, as we would have said, “trailer park people,” and our church was middle class, blue collar; all very proud to not be as low as those “trailer park people.” I should have noticed that no one from our church lived there, but back in those days, my optimism occasionally got out of hand and I missed the obvious. These people weren’t from our side of the tracks.

Do I have to tell you how this worked out? I didn’t think so.

One Sunday visit was all it took to make the indelible and correct impression that they were not “like us” and were not going to get a warm reception. Despite the stalwart attempts of a few good people, my “trailer park” people never came back.

This incident remains with me because my church had, previous to my coming, experienced quite a bit of growth under the previous pastor. Like most other Kentucky Baptist churches, that growth was along the lines of family, marriage and children; reaching “unchurched” members of the clans that dominated our church. Because this kind of growth was facilitated by the popularity of the previous pastor and it resulted in family pride, it was the kind of growth the church embraced. It gave them exactly what they wanted: their families next to them in the pews.

But when I asked our church to do baby steps of evangelism outside of those lines and into a different culture right out our back door, I got nothing, even though many of our people were mature Christians, trained in evangelism and genuinely wanted church growth. I would get a hundred for a gospel singing on any rainy Saturday night, but go do evangelistic work in a trailer park? See you Sunday, pastor.

This is not a conversation about understanding the content of the Gospel. It’s not a conversation about methods. Even though it should be, it’s not a conversation about the role of the pastor. (It’s ridiculous that we’ve become so enamored of preachers that church members will openly say their church is growing because the pastor and his wife are “cute.”)

This needs to be a conversation about who we are, and if the average Christian in our churches would be willing to do anything, personally, in the cause of evangelism?

We have become a denomination whose leaders talk about evangelism, but whose people actually want little to nothing to do with it.

Our decline is because of who we want to be and how we want things to operate. We want the culture to adjust to us. We want our families to be saved. We don’t want to cross any barriers and we don’t want to have do something we decided the pastor is paid to do.

Get ready for many, many years of this. I think most churches will die before they will change this pattern.

Do any of you see this where you are?

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7 responses to “on evangelism

  1. This type of stagnation is what often happens among third and fourth generation disciples and that in turn shows how desperately we need new blood. May God have mercy on us.

  2. I hear you. Insightful comments from bro. Spencer. It may be that door-knocking and the like worked in large part because they knew who they were. If you know who you are you can more easily cross boundaries…and be genuine about it. If not, no matter the method it comes across fake and forced. Discerning how to reach folks in today’s context is one thing, but if we aren’t genuine in our relationships and willing to embody the good news in life, whatever we do will look foolish and reflect very poorly on the gospel. I’m enjoying your return to the blogosphere; keep it coming.

  3. Spencer is hitting on a couple of different problems, all related to each other:

    1) We expect the pastor/minister/”evangelist” to do all the work.

    2) Our faith is becoming cultural and Family oriented in the negative sense of both.

    3) We are unwilling to love.

    4) We don’t know who we really are. I think this one might be the most insidious. We don’t really believe anymore. We are so thoroughly secularized that we’ve forgotten why the gospel should be good news to us.

    I agree with Spencer thoroughly, but I’m afraid I have few solutions. Maybe after I think on it some more.

    We are doing little-to-no actual evangelism at our congregation, but I think that has less to do with the culture wars and more to do with our somewhat inward focus on our own families and on spiritual formation. Either way, though, evangelism has become something terrifying, something that we would have to manufacture enthusiasm for.

    Are there early church models that can help us? Can we get a Macedonian call today?

  4. Pingback: The New Trek Movie « The Gourd Reborn

  5. A few discursive thoughts:

    Thanks for all of your input.

    Gardner,

    I think you’re right on the generational thing. That seems to be what is at work in this city. Our faith isn’t really ours anymore; it’s a museum piece inherited from our grandparents.

    Mac,

    You said, “It may be that door-knocking and the like worked in large part because they knew who they were. If you know who you are you can more easily cross boundaries…and be genuine about it.”

    I like that. It fits my experience in terms of the congregation I currently attend. We’re sort of a spaceship that has landed in the midst of a neighborhood to which we have no meaningful connection. I think this seriously hampers the already-weak efforts we make at evangelism in the neighborhood.

    Justin,

    Yes, yes, yes, and yes. It’s really hard to evangelize when you don’t know what you believe in the first place or are uncomfortable with what you’re supposed to believe.

  6. This is an area of concern for our congregation. It is made difficult by cultural issues. Where I live I am more likely to run into a Muslim than a Methodist or a Buddhist than an Episcopalian. On top of that using older methods such as gospel meetings and door knocking haven’t really worked.

    Nevertheless I don’t know if that is really the problem. As mentioned above we definitely have a lack of fervor (and sadly I have to include myself among that “we” at times). Also, being in the suburbs there is definitely plenty of material things to distract us. Many of us seem to be so busy- just not busy doing what we need to do.

  7. I’m of the opinion that most people aren’t cut out to be evangelists. That’s not to say people couldn’t share in spreading the gospel, but it is to say that the body of Christ is made up of many members with different abilities, talents and gifts. To expect success for congregational wide progammatic evangelism efforts may be the wrong way.

    Of course, all Christians are to be the “salt of the earth” which appears to be a reference to good works of charity, and that, I believe is key to bringing people to Christ. Unfortunately, Christians have a bad reputation, some if it earned and some of it not. In many cases our salt is tasteless and good for nothing other than to be trampled underfoot.

    Finally, I think that much depends on charismatic leadership (I thinking of Billy Graham type not Benny Hinn type). History would suggest that most conversions, reversions, etc. occur under that type of evangelism, even in the context of the Restoration Movement. It seems that NI and conservative churches don’t go for that style of leadership therefore your evangelistic growth is lacking.

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