God Uses Little Leaguers
When we hear the word “evangelism,” we turn away thinking we don’t have the talent or time. But a fresh understanding can dispel those obstacles.
Imagine for a moment that Wayne Gretzky, instead of being the all-time leading goal scorer in the NHL, is the world’s greatest evangelist. Replacing trophies on his shelf at home are photos of the many souls he helped lead to Jesus. In lieu of personal stats on assists and goals are oodles of stories of transformed lives.
What if Gretzky was the most effective mass-evangelist who ever lived? When most of us think of evangelists, isn’t that the sort of person we think of? The professionals, the Wayne Gretzkys of the Christian world. We think evangelism is a waste when it’s attempted by amateurs, by those who merely play in pick-up leagues at the local rink.
Statistics suggest Canadian Evangelicals are mixed in their feelings about evangelism. About 59 percent agree that “it is very important to encourage non-Christians to become Christian,” compared to 26 percent in the overall Canadian population, according to a 2007 poll by Ipsos Reid for The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada (EFC).
The same poll asked, “Would you be willing to invite a friend or acquaintance to a Christian church?” and 73 percent of Evangelicals were “very willing,” compared to 50 percent for all Canadians. Despite our good intentions, other polls suggest the majority of North Americans have never been invited to church.
Something isn’t right here, but before we feel pressured to evangelize more or buy some new evangelism program-in-a-box, let’s think a bit more broadly about evangelism. Do we need to consider it in a fresh way?
Changing view of evangelism
Eric Stolte is president of Navigators Canada, an evangelism and discipleship ministry. He agrees that a new way of thinking about evangelism is necessary and is already becoming common. “We have moved from a transactional model of evangelism to a transformational model.” A transactional model is more about us and our ability to convince someone of something, while a transformational model is about inviting others to enter into a trusting relationship with Jesus.
“Today we are less interested in getting the individual to do business with us over a napkin and more interested in journeying with them, allowing them to set the agenda, ask questions and control how fast the process goes,” Stolte says. For some of us this mental shift is difficult because it makes it harder to keep score. We can no longer simply count and stress the number of conversions or baptisms. One might say the “evangelism economy” has changed, and conversations are key to the new scorecard.
Clockwise from left: Merv Budd, director of Equipping Evangelists; Eric Stolte, president of Navigators Canada; Kervin Raugust, executive pastor of Centre Street Church in Calgary.
That may mean a little less emphasis on the moment of conversion – we don’t want asking Jesus to forgive sins to become the start line and the finish line – and a little more emphasis on the process of discipleship.
Curious outsiders, in relationship with a community, are asked to count the cost before they make a commitment to follow Jesus. “We should make it more difficult for people to become Christians, not easier,” says Bill Fietje, president of the Associated Gospel Churches of Canada. “We don’t have to push people to a decision, because it isn’t our eloquence or persistence that opens hearts – only God does that.”
“Having conversations” that God can work through certainly seems less forbidding than “doing evangelism.” Could such a shift in our thinking encourage more Christians to participate?
We can all benefit from the reminder that evangelism “is for the average, ordinary person who has experienced the extraordinary Jesus,” to use the words of Geri Rodman, president of Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship Canada. Rodman says indeed that everyone can be involved in ordinary conversations without worrying about having all of the answers.
George Hunter, an evangelism expert at Asbury Seminary in Kentucky, affirms conversation in his book The Celtic Way of Evangelism. In a pluralistic society, Hunter says, the possibility of conversion is opened up through conversations with people who live with a contrasting view of reality.
This is not to say that bringing people to a point of decision regarding Jesus Christ is not a primary concern. Rather, it is to say that this is only the starting point of a much richer, broader and longer conversational process.
It can be helpful for churches to compare the energies they focus on the process of discipleship with those they spend on one-time conversion events.
“If you embrace Christ as Lord, the bonus is you get him as Saviour. But, if you just want him as your Saviour, you will find he may be neither,” warns Tim Day, executive pastor of The Meeting House, a multi-site Mennonite Brethren church in Ontario.
The Meeting House encourages attendees to prioritize Home Church attendance where people can turn their chairs inward and face one another. Day is convinced that as people gather in homes and work out what it means to be a follower of Christ, they’ll wrestle through questions like, “What shall I do, Lord?” instead of asking themselves, “Am I forgiven?”
Being the Church, not “doing church”
Other churches are dealing with philosophical shifts stemming from deflated ministry models. In other words, the culture has changed and the church needs to respond to this change. “In the past we faithfully pursued an evangelism model that was attractional,” says Kervin Raugust, executive pastor of Centre Street Church in Calgary, a large congregation in The Evangelical Missionary Church of Canada. “This model worked for us because our people were building relational bridges and inviting people to church.
“Now, however, there is a turning toward a missional lifestyle and building on people’s networks.” Out of the strength of these ordinary relationships people find Christ, get connected to a small group and only then become part of the larger church experience, Raugust adds.
Clockwise from top: Tim Day, executive pastor of The Meeting House, a multi-site Mennonite Brethren church in Ontario; Geri Rodman, president of Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship Canada; Bill Fietje, president of the Associated Gospel Churches of Canada.
Evangelism must move from trying to do church to being the church, says Merv Budd, director of Equipping Evangelists, a national network supported by the EFC.
In the past, Budd says, evangelism has been positioned as something that one person did to another person. “But it shouldn’t be seen as something you do by yourself in isolation apart from a community.” He thinks the more churches work at being the church and giving themselves away, the more people will be drawn.
Not all churches are at the point where they feel they can turn their focus outside their walls. In today’s economy pastors who have let staff go and retracted budgets feel pressure to turn inward. Yet, the irony is that thriving churches – of all shapes and sizes – are continuing to align their people towards local and global mission: more money, more involvement and more prayer.
Leonard Buhler is president of Power to Change, an evangelism ministry formerly known as Campus Crusade. He says, “The whole shift taking place with evangelism in Canada is massive.”
Buhler’s organization trained thousands of Christians to share their faith at the Olympic Games. “We need to rethink our approach to people,” Buhler states. “People don’t want to be simply injected with information – they want to interact, question and process what they hear.” He believes those who are outside the church don’t care what we believe, but they watch us to discover what Jesus can do with a person’s life when it is given to Him.
Action speaks louder
The Tangible Kingdom: Creating Incarnational Community is a recent book about missional living by American authors Hugh Halter and Matt Smay (Jossey-Bass, 2008). They ask, “Why did pagan onlookers hold the early church in such high re-spect, but today’s non-Christians view the modern-day church with such disdain?”
In response they say one of the main culprits has been our paradigm of evangelism. They suggest we reprioritize the non-verbals over the verbals, the medium over the message and the posture over the proclamation to reach this generation. Canada’s biannual church-planting event took place in Calgary a few months ago. The theme was Renovate: Transforming Neighbourhoods.
Adrian Van Giessen, pastor of a Christian Reformed church plant in Kitchener, Ontario, hasn’t missed a single congress. He reports on one of the key themes: “The future of evangelism requires a new paradigm because it is no longer enough to simply speak – we must do the hard work and get involved.”
This view matches the one put forward by a Street Level statement on evangelism earlier this year. (Street Level is an EFC supported ministry roundtable on poverty and homelessness.) The Street Level statement includes these lines: “Verbalizing the good news is only a part of the larger whole of bearing witness to the compassionate embrace God extends to His world. We also believe our actions and lifestyle bear witness to the Gospel.”
Dion Oxford, director of the Salvation Army’s Gateway shelter in Toronto, elaborates on the Street Level statement: “We believe mercy and evangelism exist in an interdependent relationship and cannot be separated from each other.”
Some churches across Canada are beginning to move beyond the safety of their buildings and the familiarity of programs to get more involved in their neighbourhoods, regions and world. In these places, average, ordinary followers of Christ are being encouraged to notice more, ask great questions and pay attention to the answers. The world is watching. This means we don’t love people and spend time with them in order to evangelize them. We evangelize them as we love them.
A recent example comes from a couple in a church that wanted to reach out to their neighbours. This couple loved their Muslim neighbours by bringing them food during a crisis and serving them in practical ways – even so far as providing them with a car. After several months, this Muslim family converted to Christianity.
It was not on account of great preaching or a novel program but simply because of the extraordinary love of ordinary people. (The person who shared this story is David Macfarlane, director of national initiatives for the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association of Canada.)
Words still needed
Some observers caution that current trends can risk underemphasizing proclamation in favour of living a Christian lifestyle that contributes to the good of our neighbours. (Proclamation can include public preaching and one-to-one witnessing that explain Christian belief and challenge others to believe.)
“The new emphasis on living the Gospel is good,” says Rick Hiemstra, director of the EFC’s Centre for Research on Canadian Evangelicalism, “but if we strip it of proclamation, we’ll still have an anaemic evangelism and we’ll be pushing to swing the pendulum back in 20 years.”
Hiemstra suggests that if evangelism efforts are currently weak, there may be a different reason for it: “We Canadian Christians have been too influenced by our culture’s emphasis on personal choice. We’ve accepted our culture’s idea that challenging another person’s choice or opinion is essentially an attack on someone’s personhood, rather than an attempt to advance a proposition.
Choice and identity have become fused, and we don’t know how to penetrate it. That is why we’re fundamentally uncomfortable with evangelism.” And that’s one more reason for emphasizing discipleship and ongoing relationships – at least there you have a chance to discuss choices openly without evoking defensiveness.
Such relationships depend not on superstars of Wayne Gretzky’s stature, but on ordinary Christians willing to get involved. Those ordinary Christians don’t need more strategies to memorize. They don’t need to manipulate their friends. They just have to love Jesus and share that love with others.
Instead of making evangelism seem like a professional sport, let’s change the way we think about it and make it a normal part of everyday Christian life.
Gary Cymbaluk of Waterloo, Ontario, is the director of church relations for www.iteams.ca.
Originally published in Faith Today, July/August 2010.
Used with permission. Copyright © 2010 Christianity.ca.