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Just say the word 'evangelism' and many Christians either feel guilt or apathy. Andy Peck talks to Mark Mittelberg, Executive Vice-President of the Willow Creek Association, about ways to encourage an infectious enthusiasm and appetite for evangelism among ordinary believers.

Willow Creek Community Church is based in the north west suburbs of Chicago. Every weekend 17,000-plus people attend six services programmed with cutting-edge music, drama, and teaching to reach the unchurched. Its phenomenal growth since 1975, under its founding Pastor Bill Hybels has interested churches worldwide. The Willow Creek Association runs conferences and seminars for Christians from all denominational backgrounds who are keen to learn from the church's distinctives. Mark Mittelberg served for seven years Willow Creek staff as Director of Evangelism, before become Executive Vice President of the Willow Creek Association. He is co-writer with Bill Hybels of the book and training material 'Becoming a Contagious Christian' and was in the UK in June leading seminars based on his latest book 'Building a Contagious Church'.

Andy Peck You use the word contagious in your writings about evangelism. What do you want people to catch?

Mark Mittelberg We want them to catch a genuine relationship with the risen Christ and spread that kind of relationship with others. We chose the word "contagious" intentionally. As Chuck Colson observed many years ago, Christianity spreads like an epidemic — person to person to person. Some Christians put all their confidence in big, widespread events. I would say they are missing out on what the Bible primarily focuses on. They should put more confidence in reaching lost people one at a time, sharing the love and truth of God, and, in co-operation with the Holy Spirit, leading them to receive the forgiveness and leadership of Jesus. I am not putting down large events — in fact, we often use them ourselves as supplements to personal evangelism — but generally the kingdom grows when one Christian shares the gospel with one non-Christian.

AP Your church has held evangelism as a priority from the very start. What is your assessment of the priority given to evangelism by most churches?

MM In the United States and most other countries, evangelism as a value has slipped far down on the list of priorities. I have coined a phrase to describe it. I call it 'evangelistic entropy', or 'the second law of spiritual dynamics'. Here it is: any Christian, any church, any denomination that is left to itself for long enough will tend to see the value of evangelism diminish to the point where it becomes almost normal not to reach out to people for Christ. The sad thing is that in many churches evangelistic entropy set in so long ago, that people don’t remember what it was like to be in a church that is evangelistically red-hot. When most churches were first planted they had evangelism at the heart of their mission. Why else would they go to the effort and cost and risk of setting up a new church? The problem is that 20 or 50 years ago (or in the UK perhaps centuries!?) this value has diminished. So my ministry with the Willow Creek Association is about trying to help leaders push back this evangelistic entropy and restore the priority of evangelism to the middle of church life - not just on a mission statement, but in daily reality.

AP Why is there a lack of focus on evangelism? Is it a spiritual issue, a leadership issue?

MM I'm sure it’s both, but the solution is often a leadership issue. Let's look first at the problem. The problem is an insipid self-centredness. Over time we all start looking to our own concerns. We ask, 'what has the church done for me lately? - and for my family?' This self-centeredness is one of the greatest battles in my life too. Despite the fact that I teach and write about evangelism and evangelistic strategy, there are many days when I don't care about lost people as I should. I need to keep praying that God will kindle my heart to serve him and reach others. And I'll let you in on a secret: this is the same problem we face at Willow Creek. By God's grace we see 1,000 people baptised every year, and there are a lot of great things happening. But we too have to fight to keep the value high.

I put it like this: We all have to declare war in order to raise this value. We have to say we are not going to keep falling into spiritual self-centredness, and make sure we keep the mission of Christ central to all we do.

AP In your writings you stress the importance of what you call an evangelistic point person. Do you think it is possible for a leader/pastor with strong evangelistic commitment to maintain an evangelistic vision?

MM That's a huge question, and it comes back to what you asked earlier about leadership. Let me answer in two ways. First, you can't have contagious church without a contagious leader. As we often say, 'speed of the leader speed of the team.' Or, in Biblical terms, as Jesus said in Luke 6:40 'Everyone who is fully trained will be like his teacher.' People don't do what we say as much as they do what we do. So it has to start with Pastors and Senior Leaders saying: 'I have to own and model evangelistic values'.

In my book Building a Contagious Church I spell out a six-stage process for helping churches becoming the evangelistic places the Bible says they should be. It starts with Stage 1: Pastors and Senior Leaders doing what it takes to model and promote evangelistic values. But Senior Pastors cannot do the whole thing. They can't do all their pastoral duties well, and then turn around and do everything else required to turn the tide and make their church a place that effectively reaches people in secular culture. The Pastor needs a partner.

Over the last decade I have become increasingly convinced that every church, large or small,needs to designate and empower an evangelistic point leader. In most churches this will be a layperson, though over time we should make it a goal, if possible,to make this a staff person. This person should be an evangelistically impassioned leader who relates well to the whole spectrum of members in the church. Not an evangelistic fanatic who everyone avoids, but a leader who people are attracted to and trust, with proven leadership ability.

AP You hint in your book that you understand that people are tired of feeling beaten up about their failure to evangelise. How could leaders increase the value without increasing the guilt?

MM This goes back to what Bill Hybels, Willow Creek's Senior Pastor and I taught in the Becoming a Contagious Christian book, and then in the training course of the same name. We increase motivation and decrease guilt by teaching people that there's a diversity in the body of Christ that's God-ordained. They don't have to be like the pastor or evangelism coordinator or some evangelistic zealot. They can be themselves.

Evangelism really can look like you. God gave you your personality on purpose. I think we liberate people when we show them that in the pages of the Bible believers did not all take the same approach. Some, like the apostle Peter in Acts 2, were confrontational and direct. Those people love doing door-to-door evangelism or being out on the streets. That is a God-given style, but only a limited number of people have that style. Others are more like Paul, with an intellectual style as in Acts 17. Paul reasoned with people. He had a logical approach. This is my style, and I was liberated through this teaching some years ago when Bill Hybels first spoke about it. I am not made to knock on doors, but I am made to answer questions. I love dealing with intellectual issues, and I have led people to Jesus Christ using this approach. Others are more like the blind man in John 9 who uses a testimonial style and says, 'look,this is what God has done in my life; he can do that for you, too'. These are just three of the styles we unpack in the Becoming a Contagious Christian course (the others are interpersonal, invitational, and serving). In our training we try to help everyone discover their style, free them up, and commission them to go and be who God made them to be, knowing they are going to have the most impact when they take a natural approach.

AP You moved from being Director of Evangelism at Willow Creek, to being Vice President of the Willow Creek Association, helping other churches with evangelism. Have there been things you have learned about this area through observation of Association churches that have helped your work at Willow Creek?

MM One thing is that I have seen is how different churches have taken different aspects of evangelism and flourished in those areas. So, in effect we have taken the discussion of evangelistic styles and elevated it to a church-wide level. For example, D. James Kennedy's Church in Fort Lauderdale, Florida has made an art out of what we would call the 'confrontational' style. Evangelism Explosion is their programme, and it teaches believers to knock on doors and ask two diagnostic questions and then to present the gospel (Do you know for certain that if you were to die today you would go to heaven? If God asked you why he should let you into heaven what would you say?).

Another church, Xenos Christian Fellowship in Ohio, has majored on the intellectual style. They train everyone, as it says in 1 Peter 3:15, to give an answer to everyone who asks them to give a reason for the hope that is within them. And they reach a lot of sceptical people. Rick Warren at Saddleback Community Church, in Orange County, California, uses the testimonial style in a powerful way. He incorporates testimonies into virtually every church service. He pauses when he's preaching and has someone give a testimony, a real life story on the theme he’s speaking about.

Alpha has built on a combination of the invitational style, which says ‘come and check this out’ and the interpersonal style, which says 'let's get up close and build trust and respect'. Salvation Army churches are good examples of the serving style. In Building a Contagious Church I have six chapters filled with examples from churches doing outreach ministry around the six styles. And much of this was learned just by observing the good things happening in other churches and ministries.

AP It seems almost impossible to have a serious conversation about evangelism without mentioning post-modernism. Many are confused by the whole concept. Has the person in the street’s thinking really shifted from, say, the 70s? If so, how should our approach to evangelism change?

MM I think we're all confused on this one! So I would approach change based purely on discussions of postmodernism very cautiously. I fear much of what is being taught about reaching postmoderns to be speculative theories which move from scholar to scholar to scholar, without any of them really talking to the people who are actually in the middle of the post modern culture! In particular,there is an idea floating among Christian leaders and writers which says that since people in a post modern culture no longer believe in absolute truth, therefore the use of apologetics and logical approaches is out of date. I couldn't disagree more with that.

I do agree that there's a weakening in confidence in truth and logic and that people have an aversion to saying they believe in absolute truth - even though their disbelief in it is absolute and therefore self-contradictory! People absolutely believe in lots of things, though it's more fashionable to say they don't. But if we were to over-react and simply stop presenting reasons for our beliefs, I believe we would be taking an unbiblical approach - and removing some of the best weapons from our evangelistic arsenal.

In our secular culture the need for giving a reason for our faith is going up - not down. And, ironically, the intellectually-based small groups and outreach events at Willow Creek are some of the highest impact things we do. For example, we booked our auditorium for an event we called 'Darwin on Trial', named after the book with that same title. Author Philip Johnson and I were on stage to answer questions, and 4,300 people showed up for it - the majority of which were Generation X folks from the 'post-modern' generation! Many leaders in apologetics ministries around the world say what I'm saying: the need for biblical apologetics is going up. The gospel needs to be declared, but it also needs to be defined and defended.

I would add that people in the post-modern culture are increasingly sceptical of bold declarations of truth. They require greater degrees of relational interaction and longer periods of time to build trust. They relate well to a multi-faceted approach which touches the heart as well as the senses, which is why we use tend to use lots of multi-media and drama and movie clips. We don't use these to entertain, but to better communicate the uncompromised gospel message. These people also tend to process information in community, which is why small groups are more and more important.

AP Much has been made about the different spiritual temperatures in the UK and the US. It is said that a higher proportion of the American population attend church and/or have a knowledge of Christianity than is typical in the UK, and in parts of western Europe where the situation is even more bleak. So some argue that approaches used in the US are not apt for here. Do you agree with this analysis? If so, how do you respond to the implications?

MM I would agree that the UK is generally more secular than the US. The proportion who attend church is lower and you probably are in a post-Christian (some call it pre-Christian) culture. But there is a danger in concluding that people are therefore not interested in spiritual truth. Too often we use this situation as an excuse not to speak to people, assuming they wouldn't be interested anyway. From my experience of chatting with people here in the UK in hotels, restaurants and taxis, if I am bold enough to bring it up, they are often open enough to talk.

AP Next year it will be ten years since Willow Creek was first invited to present a conference in the UK. Since then, there have been other conferences, and a number of staff have come to the UK to give seminars, notably Bill Hybels on leadership. Many churches in the UK have incorporated some of your principles and approaches. But almost ten years later, there are few if any churches in the UK that are a British model of Willow Creek. Why is this? From an Association point of view how do you evaluate the effect of the considerable effort expended by Bill and others?

MM The Association is concerned with teaching transferable principles that will help churches be more effective in reaching people and growing them up in the faith. We are seeking to lift values like evangelism, spiritual growth, leadership, genuine community, ministry according to spiritual gifts, and stewardship so they become hallmarks of ordinary church life. We mean it when we say 'don't try to be like us, but apply whatever biblical values you see in us in ways that fit your leadership, your culture, and the unique calling of God on your ministry'. In that respect, I am encouraged that we do see many churches that are effectively modeling the values we hold dear and seek to promote to others.