No more whining, handwringing over evangelism — just do it now

Even as many leaders feel their churches are “doomed to inevitable decline,” author of a study brings hope and energy to the task.

By Ronald E. Keener

Martha Grace Reese doesn’t mince words when it comes to the E-word — evangelism. Her study of American evangelism within seven mainline churches, and the subsequent books, leaves her with strong convictions:

“It’s a discouraging landscape. Let’s get over it. We don’t have time to fuss and whine. But no age has time to act pouty and shut down. No matter when or where we’re born, we have one life to live. If we’re doing something real with God, it’s always going to be hard.”

Unbinding the Gospel: Real Life Evangelism (Chalice Press, 2006) is the book she has written about her findings (with subsequent books for pastors and for congregation study). Evangelism is something that everyone talks about but few do much about.

“Some people have been talking about it for years,” she says. “Others of us have had our heads buried moderately deeply in sand. And some of the talking that has gone on has consisted of ineffectual handwringing. Somehow we’re starting to hook up the engine to the machine. We’re starting to talk and we’re beginning to take some steps to change.”

Large churches get to be part of the Unbinding the Gospel Project, the new Lilly Endowment study of church transformation she is now undertaking. She is studying the dynamics of transformation through a yearlong coaching process in evangelism, working with small groups of highly observant, reflective pastors in interesting churches. She is happy to be contacted about possible participation at her Web site GraceNet.info.

Church Executive posed questions with Reese, who funded her study with Lilly endowment and is president of GraceNet Inc., a consulting and coaching firm.

You say the book is about “breaking the curse.” In what way?

In a metaphor, I opened the book with the story of the Red Sox winning the 2004 Series. But lots of our churches are stuck and discouraged. Tens of thousands of pastors and lay leaders feel doomed to inevitable decline. But we know there really is a God! And God will transform our lives and our churches if we’ll ask to be healed, ask God to open our eyes to see the realities, and if we’ll be available to the Spirit.

The recent Duke Clergy Study showed that “pastors’ greatest discouragement is that they feel ineffective in sharing the Gospel.”

First, a lot of seminaries don’t cover it. Our study showed that out of 72 mainline seminaries, only 10 require even half a course in evangelism for an M.Div. degree, and that’s usually combined with stewardship. Second, many pastors don’t have a personal experience of participating in inspiring, relational faith sharing.

They just have the bad cartoons in their heads. Many pastors hear the “E-word” and are hit with immediate flashbacks of haranguing total strangers with tracts. Third, the culture is changing dramatically, so old ways of sharing our faith aren’t working.

You say too that “a vivid relationship with God lies at the heart of real evangelism.” What is it that makes the “ask” of evangelism so hard for most of us, pastors included?

Most people think of evangelism as “talking people into some right answer.”  That may have worked 50 years ago, but today faith sharing is about faith and relationships. Evangelism is having a vibrant, growing relationship with God, and learning to talk about it naturally with our friends.

You do say that “evangelism is people sharing with others their personal understandings that life is better, richer, truer if one has faith in Christ and lives in a faith community.” That’s a pretty powerful rationale.

It starts with pastors. Pastors must lead out of profound, growing faith or it doesn’t much matter what else they do. We must train our people in spiritual disciplines and in talking about their faith, slowly, consistently, over and over and over. We’re talking about a sea change for most churches. It’s going to be hard. It’s going to take time.

We know evangelism matters, why don’t we do it?

Lots of reasons. Some people don’t have a flexible, viable, growing faith. Others are shy and think evangelism is about talking people into a set of propositions. Most don’t pray much. Others are discouraged by the failures of techniques that worked beautifully 40 years ago. It’s not about persuasion — it’s about telling our
own stories.

Mormons and Muslims seem to have a passion for evangelism as fast growing faiths. What can mainline and evangelical churches learn from them?

We can learn from Mormons and Muslims to be focused and intentional. We can also step up to the plate and learn that our faith can be heroic — like Corrie ten Boom’s, like Bonhoeffer’s, like St. Paul’s, like Mother Teresa of Calcutta’s. We each have been given one precious life to live with Christ and for Christ. Let’s do it for real. This matters.

You do say, “We only dabble our toes at the edges of the waters of faith. Few of us have a clue how vivid and powerful life with Christ can be.” What’s holding us back from feeling that experience?

Fear. Habit. A lack of leadership steeped in courageous faith.

One solution you give is disconcertingly honest: “We’re going to have to say it in words.”

We sure are! A huge percentage of Christians were raised with the express teaching that “ … if you live a loving, Christian life, people around you will see Christ in your actions. Your life will show others the gospel and you’ll never need to say a word … ”  Gosh, I just wish that worked!

What evangelism techniques are working today where there is growth?

There’s no formula, no fail-safe checklist. It would be great if there were. But the churches showing real growth are (a) alive in Christ — people have growing, vivid relationships with God, (b) they teach their people to talk about their faith with their friends, and (c) they think a lot about how they can connect with people outside the church and systematically move them into faith. The best “technique” is prayer — so that we are attuned to the unbelievable opportunities the Spirit will create for us. Then when the Spirit nudges us, we get to speak for real about our own experience of God and our faith.

The new Pew U.S. Religions Landscape Study released in late February “confirms that the United States is on the verge of becoming a minority Protestant country; the number of Americans who report that they are members of Protestant denominations now stands at barely 51 percent.” What are we to make of that given your optimism from your study?

Actually, a University of Chicago study from three years ago showed that the U.S. had already lost its Protestant majority. We’ve seen these statistical trends for decades. Sometimes, looking at church stats is like staring into a black hole! Yet, my hope and optimism rest in God, in the reality of Christ, not in our setting. I have seen God moving in people’s and churches’ lives. That’s our focal point.

You looked at evangelism under the “hardest conditions;” what were they and what did you conclude?

We found that the “hardest” (maybe the better word for it is “rarest”) kind of evangelism is for primarily Caucasian churches outside the South to try to reach people with no church background. We concluded that it’s possible. I also laid out six other kinds of evangelism, and suggest that churches start where they are. Remember:  faith sharing is always context dependent. Be yourself. God can reach a specific bandwidth of people through you!

In a few words what are the other hopeful areas you see?

First, I see interesting examples of people beginning to cross old denominational and theological lines. Second, there are some great efforts cropping up in middle judicatories to train pastors and lay leaders in leadership and specific skills. I want to add a third sign of hopeful change. In December, the Lilly Endowment gave us a new major grant to work intensively with 1000+ congregations, using the Real Life Evangelism resources. We have been overwhelmed with the response. It looks as if we may be able to double that number. I find hope in momentum.

The “star power” of a pastor seems to bring people back to a church. Should we care about that?

I wouldn’t characterize it as “star power.” I’d say that “excellent leadership and authenticity” is the critical component to drawing people into effective churches.  Visitors say that they resonate to someone real, smart, spiritually authentic. And that is probably a scarier prospect for most of us than being a star.

Pastoral leadership is critically important. When I talk about excellent leadership, I’m talking about deep-wired characteristics like intelligence, flexibility, the ability to read systems, curiosity, and energy. And I’m talking about practices like having a spiritual life, physical and psychological health, doing ministry by developing relational leadership teams, preaching very well, all undergirded with a deep love of God and of people. If that puts pressure on people, it’s not so much a pressure to perform as a pressure to be the fullest, most powerful, most committed person we can allow God to lead us into being.

‘We are not winning the battle. We’ve got to declare war.’

Evangelism and Mark Mittelberg go together like food and churches. His book, Becoming a Contagious Christian (Zondervan), is widely respected and he has recently updated the course’s training materials, as well his leader-oriented book, Becoming a Contagious Church. His new book with Tyndale, Choosing Your Faith … In a World of Spiritual Options is designed to deepen the faith of believers and help seekers sort out what to believe. He spent 16 years at Willow Creek church and its association and now works from California. Excerpts from the interview:

We really have to raise the urgency on evangelism. I know you’d expect me to say that because this is my area and everyone thinks their area is important. But this is the survival of the church, not to mention the fulfillment of our mission.

In parts of the world the church is growing rapidly and many people are coming to Christ, but not here in the West. Even though we have some shining exceptions and there are some churches that are growing, as a whole statistically speaking, the church is not doing well in evangelism. We are not winning the battle. What happens is far too often church leaders get either frustrated or feel a little uncomfortable with evangelism, and sort of wring their hands and turn their attention elsewhere.

I see a lot of that happening in churches where there is a substitution of other values for the value of evangelism. Churches will say we’re really more of a teaching church, or we’re known for worship, or I’m a pastor and it’s not my spiritual gift so I’ll focus on my preaching, or we’ll be a sending church. So we have all these good, other things we do, that are biblical, but they’re not substitutes. The Bible really doesn’t give us a multiple choice option.

Biblically defined, the church must be an evangelizing church, as well as a discipling and worshipping and sending and — you fill in the blank — church. But far too often the part that gets thrown out is the outreach, the evangelism. We feel uncomfortable or in some cases perhaps we’ve tried things and now we feel frustrated. We don’t know what to do so we move on.

We don’t have that option biblically and when you look at what’s happening in our culture, again for our own survival, not to mention keeping our kids and grandkids in the church and fulfilling our mission of going into our world and preaching the gospel, we’ve got to declare war in this area of evangelism, we’ve got to raise the priority of reaching lost people. That includes leaders saying this will be a priority. That includes pastors who say I will teach about this until something happens. That includes small group leaders and Sunday school teachers saying we’re going to talk about this in our group or class. It is really fighting the battle on all fronts and it starts with leaders.

As I study effective evangelism in history and in the world today it seems to me it always involves personal evangelism mixed with church wide efforts or corporate team efforts. Going back to the day of Pentecost, ordinary believers were out telling people about Christ and that was combined with what became a kind of team effort, when their leader Peter got up and preached the Gospel. That combination of personal evangelism and corporate or team evangelism was highly effective and 3,000 people came into the faith.

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