Research indicates British Christians believe evangelism is important, but struggle to do it effectively. Does the Church need a new approach?
Members of my congregation used to tell me that they would far sooner hear a sermon on sex or death than on evangelism. But before you flick over to Maggie’s column or go looking for the obituaries, I want to let you into a secret. Nobody likes evangelism. Not you. Not me. Not Christians. Not non-Christians. Of course, everyone celebrates when somebody is converted. We all long for our friends and family to know the hope that somebody once shared with us. But the business of actually telling them about God often ends up feeling awkward, politically incorrect, frightening, messy and time-consuming. Why is it so difficult to talk about the most central and significant part of our lives? Why do so many of us feel timid, but appear arrogant? Or feel unqualified, but appear Biblebashing? What does evangelism need to look like to be biblically faithful and culturally relevant, an integral and inspirational part of our walk with God, and a natural part of our relationships with others? Evangelism is important, but it isn’t happening We know that evangelism is in crisis when on any given day we are more likely to have had a conversation about the weather, sport, the price of petrol, or the relative merits of hair products than about God, eternity or the meaning of life. Statistically, this will only get worse with age. According to a recent Evangelical Alliance survey of 17,000 UK evangelical Christians, the older we are in years and faith, the less likely we are to share our beliefs. The survey, 21st Century Evangelicals, also showed that although 90% of us are convinced that we should be active in evangelism, the likelihood that we will speak to anyone this month about God is no more than 60%. The survey confirmed what many of us already feel: evangelism is important – but it just isn’t happening (Find out more at eauk.org/snapshot). While the word ‘evangelism’ is quickly disappearing from our church notice sheets, there are some fantastic new initiatives filling the empty spaces: reports of street pastor patrols, debt-counselling dropin mornings, language classes for asylum seekers, parenting seminars, alternative curriculum mentoring for children on the brink of exclusion, and hundreds of other ways the Church is changing our communities. When it comes to opening our hearts, Christians are making a huge impact calculated at over £2 billion worth of welfare provision (using figures extrapolated from a survey of Welsh evangelical churches). However, when it comes to opening our mouths the silence is overwhelming. The reason for this dichotomy may be an over-correction to the words-only-mission that came to dominate evangelical churches in recent decades. Or perhaps it is because the gospel is almost as foreign to us as it is to the people around us. Why is it difficult? There are a host of factors that may have affected our willingness to share the gospel. • New Atheism It has been argued that it is the vociferous onslaught of the New Atheists which has silenced the Church. Fearful of being asked penetrating questions, being accused of insubstantial debate, or having the vitriolic attacks on the God of the Old Testament thrown in our faces, Christians have gone quiet. But even before Dawkins and Hitchens and friends were on the scene, evangelism was a struggle. John Stott’s book on the topic entitled Our Guilty Silence was written way back in 1967. We may well be nervous about a response to hardened atheists, but this is not the only reason for our current awkwardness in evangelism. • Political Correctness Nadia Eweida was forbidden from wearing her cross visibly on her British Airways uniform in 2006. In 2009, Caroline Petrie, a nurse, was suspended by her North Somerset Primary Care Trust for offering to pray with a patient. The same year Caroline Gammel, a primary school receptionist, was reprimanded for emailing a request for prayer for her five-year-old daughter who was sharing her faith at school. Could it be that these high-profile stories produce a culture of fear for those of us wanting to open up a conversation about Jesus at work, school, or with neighbours? I spoke recently with a believer from Ethiopia who laughed out loud when I shared this theory with him, because I had casually used the word ‘persecution’ in relation to these stories. The Church in his country has remained resilient despite the constant threat of violence. In the town of Besheno, Ethiopia, for example, all of the Christians received notes under their doors telling them to convert to Islam, leave their homes or face death. Persecution is normal for the Church in many parts of the world and for the most part of its 2,000-year history, and so our current politically correct climate cannot be held responsible for our reticence to pass on the good news. • Awkwardness As a young person I was briefed in an evangelistic technique that began with a short survey. Most of the questions were irrelevant fillers in preparation for the killer question at the end: ‘If God exists would you like to know how you can know him personally?’ If the victim then said yes, they would be subjected to me reading an evangelistic tract ending in another yes/no question: ‘Would you like to become a Christian now?’ I had that presentation down to a fine art. I could read the survey and tract upside down for the benefit of the pre-convert, and the whole process could be completed in less than four minutes from patter to pitch to prayer. Any Christian watching would be able to immediately pick the method up, so I was soon multiplying my ministry exponentially. Our God, who can speak through donkeys, mercifully brought some of us to faith through this method. But this manipulative, mechanical, and meaningless technique in (im-)personal evangelism feels so inauthentic that we have been quick to distance ourselves from it. • Lack of authenticity The four-point gospel I signed up to when I became a Christian had some merits. It had a simplicity of style, a clarity of challenge, and definitely showed the centrality of Jesus. However, it failed to explain the consequences of believing in Jesus; there was little mention of the cost of discipleship, the calling God has for us in the world, the significance of the Church, or the work of the Holy Spirit. It is this individualistic and simplistic presentation of the gospel that most of us imagine when thinking about evangelism. It may be easy to script, but very difficult to substantiate. It does not take into consideration the complexities of people’s lives in a broken world. Although the tract-style presentation may appear to equip people for evangelism, we quickly discover that we are in battle with no more than a plastic sword. There is no doubt that courses such as Alpha and Christianity Explored have responded to the problems raised by inauthentic and ineffective forms of evangelism. They have released pressure on the individual by showing that evangelism is a team effort. They have shown that evangelism and discipleship is more of a process than an event. They have allowed us to find a way to invite friends to explore, discuss and discover the faith of the Bible over a period of time, over a relaxed meal and with a community. However, despite their huge success, we must also acknowledge the weaknesses and limitations of these types of courses. Any off-the-shelf package comes with the risk of an over-reliance on the technique at the expense of relationship, and the risk of neglecting the parts of the gospel that are not covered by the programme. The other challenge is that people are messy and don’t always attend, let alone fit into neat courses or timetables. Not everyone relates to well-spoken Oxbridge-educated middle-aged men. And the further afield the course spreads, the less relevant it becomes. Unfortunately our British, urban, middle-class explanations of the gospel fail to engage sufficiently with the big issues of poverty, justice, sexism and inter-religious conflict that face millions of people worldwide, while simultaneously reinforcing a colonial West-knows-best mindset as we export our cultural assumptions globally. How did Jesus do it? Just as Alpha and Christianity Explored freed us from previously held assumptions that had shackled evangelism and gagged the Church, I believe it is time to expand our horizons, raise the stakes and find our gospel voice once more. The great thing is that we don’t have to reinvent the wheel – we just need to rediscover something of our Lord Jesus. Jesus demonstrated the good news of God in his actions centering on his life, death and resurrection, but also in the way he touched lepers, challenged hypocrisy, fed the hungry and healed the sick. Jesus’ perfect actions spoke louder than our words ever could. But he didn’t stop there – he explained his actions, finding the right words for the right people and modelling for us the fact that, just as we push back the boundaries of social action, equally we need to be pushing back the boundaries of our conversations. Sometimes Jesus told a story, sometimes he engaged in discussion, sometimes he reminded people of Old Testament ideas, sometimes preaching, sometimes provoking, sometimes walking away with a punchline. He never used long words, he was never patronising. He was always accessible, always loving, always gracious. Evangelism doesn’t have to mean arm-twisting our neighbours into attending church meetings, or forcing our colleagues to come to terms with their own mortality in their coffee break. Evangelism doesn’t have to be formulaic, middle class, manipulative or misleading. Evangelism doesn’t have to be a war of words or wills. Evangelism should not be a chore, a challenge – or a choice. Evangelism Jesus-style is for all his disciples as we live authentic, humble lives. No one programme, book, DVD, evangelist or website is going to win the lost in the UK. Recognising there is a problem is the first step to recovery. It will take us a while to detox from the quickfix, mechanistic solutions we have used in the past, and realise that we are all enlisted in this enormous task. As we go through this shift in thinking, I would like to propose five questions to help us begin an open and honest conversation regarding what will happen next with evangelism in the UK: See questions