Friday, May 25, 2012

Evangelism doesn't work?

Here at MBC we're in the middle of a very full week of guest meetings with evangelist Roger Carswell.  It's been a lot of effort, and a lot of money.  The meetings have been excellent - believers and unbelievers agree - but attendance (of believers and unbelievers) has been poor and disappointing so far.  So I was interested to see that John Stevens over at his blog today is interacting with Andrew Evans who critiqued an earlier post of John's.  OK - with me so far?  Stay with me - go on, make the effort - 'cos it's important.

John had suggested that 'the attractional model' of evangelism - getting the unconverted to come into the church - isn't all that good an idea; it doesn't work.  Here's the quote:

  • I was very struck by Julian's vision for training the members of the congregation to do the work of evangelism out in the community. He rightly questions the viability of an "attractional" model of evangelism where churches are seeking to reach the "never-churched" rather than the "de-churched", as people simply will not come in to the church. As he put it, the church seems to have nothing to offer them that is not done better by the world. Instead they want to equip the members of the church to share the good news of the gospel with the community where they are. I think this is a ministry shift we will increasingly need to make in our secular and post-Christendom society if we are to reach the lost all around us. We have taken it for granted that unbelievers will come to church, and that we ought to invite them to come in as our primary evangelistic strategy (or even worse to give up and wait for revival when they will come in without being invited!) and as a result tend to treat our church gatherings as if they are a cross between a meeting for committed believers and the lecture hall of Tyrannus (Acts 19v11) where we are addressing interested unbelievers. We have acted as if the church IS the market place or public square for evangelism. It may have been in the past, but in most communities it is not today. This doesn't seem to be the New Testament model. In the NT,  "church" is the gathering for committed believers, designed to encourage and edify them. Occasionally an unbeliever might come in amongst them (1 Corinthians 14v24). The gospel is to be taken and proclaimed outside of the church, whether in the public square, house to house, or in individual personal witness. We need to face up to the fact that we have to take the gospel to people, and not just invite them to come to where we preach it. This is going to be essential if we are to reach the nation.

I know, like and respect John but have never (as far as I know) heard of Andrew before today.  But I want to say that I'm completely with Andrew on this.  His reflections on what John says are very clear, while John himself isn't being particularly helpful.  Here's some random thoughts why:

First, his follow-up post contains the statement 'Many of the ordinary local churches [that I have visited or am in contact with] have expressed their feeling that event based and invitational evangelism has involved a lot of effort for little return.'

Oh, dear - how awful.  Because it's not what the New Testament teaches, is it?  The New Testament teaches that proper, God-approved evangelism is a little bit of effort for a lot of return, doesn't it?  No, hang on - wait a minute!  It doesn't teach that at all; sorry, my bad.  The parable of the sower explicitly teaches that evangelism IS a lot of effort for little return.  And the apostle Paul walked, struggled, prayed, wrote, suffered, was stoned and imprisoned - that was a lot of effort.  And the churches he founded were weak and contemptible.  A lot of effort, Paul - a little return.  What's that you say?  'Unless a seed falls into the ground and dies...'?  You'll never reach the nation like that.  If you go into that town Paul you'll be stoned and left for dead - and the only 'converts' you get will be a major disappointment.  It's a lot of effort for very little return.  Find a better model, I implore you.

Second, John's contrasting model is that of Julian Ribera - the 'Julian' in the quote - a fine man, doing a fine work in the difficult community of Moulescombe in Brighton.  There is no way I want to criticise Julian, OK?  Fine man, fine work.  BUT - by his own admission, the church there is unlikely to grow beyond 40-50 people.  One could argue 'you'll never reach a nation like that...'  More seriously, John extols the advantage of 'alternative models' without being very explicit as to what they are, look:  

  • I do think that the NT pattern of evangelism is primarily to take the gospel out from the gathering of God's people into the public sphere wherever people are (and that will also vary in different cultural contexts). "Preaching" (i.e. heralding the gospel) almost invariably happens outside the church gathering in the NT - whether to the crowds in the open, in the market square, in the synagogue, or in individual encounter. One of the key features of the 18th Century evangelical revival was the Whitefield and Wesley took the gospel out of the church and to the people. I don't necessarily think that "open air" is the way to achieve this today...
So - open air was a primary NT method that worked in the days of Whitefield and Wesley but 'isn't necessarily... the'.  And neither is 'attractional evangelism' - so what is?  As far as I can see, he doesn't tell us.  

Thirdly, though he's (in effect) arguing that the ways we take for granted 'don't work', he doesn't define what 'works' means in this context, or point us to any examples of churches that are using other models that do work.  Where are there flourishing churches, growing by conversions, that don't use the 'attractional' model - and what are they doing?  We need to be told.

Fourth, John doesn't acknowledge the possibility that a vibrant preaching ministry might actually draw - in the long-term - a congregation.  It's at least possible.  If you want to see a crowd next week, I don't know how to help you.  If you want to see a crowd in ten years, try getting a good, committed preacher who'll work at it.  (I know - it's really difficult, especially since so many of them are now stuck in offices in the FIEC different places...)  

Fifth, John tries to make a case on very little Scriptural evidence.  Andrew deals with some of this, but here's another point.  Though John seems to prefer 'open-air' - even with his reservations - I think I'm right in saying that there isn't a single example, in the New Testament, of open-air preaching once a local church is formed.  Can anyone show me one?  Now, I'm not therefore opposed to open-air preaching.  My only point is that we need to be careful what we think we're demonstrating from the New Testament when there isn't that much evidence to go on!

Sixth, John suggests that Anglicanism works better, which is a strange thing for the FIEC Supremo to say.  He does, honest:  

  • I agree there are counter examples, but these tend to be in major cities and student centres, and in Anglican situations where the church still has an automatic role in the community. This is why "Back to Church Sunday" works for Anglican churches, but not most free churches.
Oh dear - again.  What's the Bishop's phone number - does anybody know?

1 comment:

Martin Walker said...

Hi Gary – my two penneth

I agree with at least one of the points I think you’re making – evangelism isn’t easy. I remember a season of renewed commitment to reach work colleagues when I worked in an office of 400+ and part of me seemed to expect the day to be filled with people streaming to my desk asking questions. The reality was the ratio of prayer and conscious readiness compared to opportunities surprised me. Never mind invites to this or that or whatever, just opportunities to talk with one of the hundreds of people I naturally rubbed shoulders with was hard.

For me the biggest challenge in this for the church is willing hearts – willing to be shaped by the Biblical call to reach out as we have been reached. Other than that I say preach, invite, do events, do courses, pray for, pray with, befriend, knock on doors, train & strain, love, serve, REACH!