By Jack Jackson, Special Contributor…
Last Christmas season, my family walked through the downtown community where we live. In one of the store windows we passed were a small set of woodcarvings that included a baby, two adults right next to the baby, three kingly-looking persons nearby and a scattering of cows, donkeys and ducks. I still am not sure of the significance of the ducks, but we were looking at a crèche.
One of my children’s friends pointed out the Nativity scene. He said it was the strangest thing he had ever seen. Cows never hang out with ducks, much less people, he said.
“What is this?” he asked.
My wife responded by saying it was the Nativity scene.
“What is that?” came the response.
“It is the story of Jesus’ birth in the stable.”
To which our friend said, “Never heard of it.”
It is not necessary to recap the growth trends of people leaving Christian places of worship. Recent polls suggesting that 20 percent of U.S. citizens have no connection to any religious tradition surprise few. Most of us also know that there are people in our communities, like my child’s friend, with virtually no awareness of the basics of the Christian gospel. And yet evangelistic and missional practices in many churches seem to assume an awareness of the Christian story that clouds effective evangelism.
While “unchurched” was the term to describe the majority of people outside of the church a generation ago, a term that better describes people not part of a church is “never-churched.” This term reflects the reality that new generations did not grow up as part of a community of faith, and in turn never became part of a church to leave. Evangelistic ministry that brings never-churched people into the Christian faith and initiates them into the reign of God is different than in the past.
The long road
Evangelism is a journey, not a moment. Over the past century, evangelism came to be seen as a quick process where people heard the gospel and were expected to make an instant response of conversion and faith. Churches today that effectively incorporate never-churched populations realize discipleship, and in turn evangelism, takes time.
Servant evangelism has grown in importance in recent years, and will continue to do so, because it acknowledges that many never-churched people truly see the church as first and foremost out for itself. Servant evangelism is a practice that seeks to serve individuals and communities regardless of their ultimate response to the gospel, while at the same time inviting people to faith or into a community of faith. Servant evangelism links practices that serve (such as handing out free water bottles at a community event or cleaning up a neighborhood after a storm) with the reasons why people serve (living out the gospel through a local church), and an invitation (to faith and/or to a local community of faith).
Yet servant evangelism exemplifies the reality of evangelism as a journey. Most people don’t respond to the gospel story the first time, but rather must hear the story multiple times before knowing enough to even “awaken” to the idea that faith is important. Evangelism in never-churched populations that assumes instant conversion to be normative is destined to feel hollow to those who hear the message. The normative path toward repentance and faith is one that meanders through the ups and downs of life for a season, facing questions and doubts, and that in time draws people to a place where they can make real, life-changing turnings towards Christ.
Evangelism in never-churched populations looks more like a series of coffee-shop conversations that builds a friendship between people, and ultimately invites them into friendship with God, as opposed to a street corner evangelist announcing that hell is the destination for all who don’t profess Christ.
Churches are encouraging the relational aspects of evangelism in a number of ways. Some offer a simple Q&A time with the preacher after the sermon. Others establish an online forum for those more comfortable in a digital environment. Other churches find that never-churched people will often help serve at community work projects such as Habitat for Humanity; the door is open for church volunteers to have conversations with those outside the church while they work together to help others. Still other churches design a small group ministry that is as much for those who don’t believe as for those who do, so that never-churched persons can address their questions and doubts, which are often much different from those of longtime Christians.
Centered on listening
Churches that acknowledge and build evangelistic ministries around the first two traits are then ready to incorporate the critical next three traits of evangelism, the first of which is listening. In never-churched populations, listening requires the most emphasis. Many people imagine an evangelist as one who only proclaims the gospel, but it is important to listen first.
Churches today are listening in a variety of unique ways. Some churches set up tables at community events that specifically ask, “How has the church hurt you?” And the church people at the tables simply listen to stories and apologize. They don’t argue and they don’t defend; they simply apologize for how the church has hurt people.
Other churches invite guest speakers, not always Christians, to speak at special events on contemporary issues, providing a forum through which church leaders can hear the questions and concerns of never-churched persons. Most importantly, churches are building into small groups and pastoral responsibility an environment for never-churched people to tell their stories before hearing the story of Christ. By listening, evangelists will learn the thoughts, hopes, fears and dreams of those evangelized, allowing the evangelist to articulate the gospel in pointed ways appropriate to those persons and their specific concerns.
Listening is never the end of Christian evangelism. Listening must be accompanied by a specific articulation of the gospel and an invitation to life in Christ. Churches that articulate the gospel to never-churched populations do two things very well.
First, they make no assumptions about what others know of the gospel and their commitment to God in Christ. The lack of biblical knowledge and awareness is well documented in contemporary Western culture. Yet Christians who journey with others in their life, build relationships, and listen to other’s stories, know which basic aspects of the gospel must be articulated with specific people, and can over time articulate Christian hope, repentance and faith. Second, these churches clearly identify the gospel’s uniqueness, even as they acknowledge the church’s failings. Critical to evangelism of never-churched populations is a clear and specific articulation of the revelation of God in Christ.
Blossoming from this articulation is the invitation to this gospel story.
Invitation to repentance and faith has been part of evangelism for many years, but in never-churched populations, the invitation to awakening and sanctification is critical as well. John Wesley understood the first phase of discipleship as a gradual awakening from the “natural state” to a place of awareness that God might be real and that Christ was perhaps the unique representation of God on earth. If someone was in the “natural state,” then the invitation and subsequent response to the gospel represented an awakening. People were then invited to repentance and faith, and finally to an ever-deepening relationship of love in sanctification. Still today, the invitation is not to experience instantaneous conversion, but to take the next step on a journey of faith.
One tool that many churches find helpful for invitation is The Alpha Course. Alpha is a short course on Christianity that helps people intentionally engage the Christian story in a relational community where their questions can be addressed and where they are invited to awaken, repent and believe, and then grow in holiness. While many churches tweak Alpha to fit into their own theological spectrum, its emphasis on a natural and personal invitation to Christ is effective for many churches.
These five traits of evangelism with the never-churched today build on methods that were central to early Methodist evangelism. Spiritual maturation from ignorance to awakening, through an evangelical conversion from repentance to faith, to the culmination of Christian discipleship, namely sanctification, was clearly seen as a journey. Wesley, of course, never believed justification to be the endpoint of Christian discipleship, but rather a precursor to sanctification. Some early Methodists were only “awakened” for a few weeks before repenting. But some spent years struggling with faith, sharing their questions and fears, all within a relational community that listened, and then proclaimed the gospel and invited them to life in Christ.
When evangelism is seen as a journey lived in relationships, never-churched persons can address their questions, hear the gospel articulated, and then respond to the invitation to take the next step in faith.
The Rev. Jackson is E. Stanley Jones Assistant Professor of Evangelism, Mission and Global Methodism at Claremont School of Theology and an ordained elder in the Florida Conference. This piece was written for Circuit Rider. See www.ministrymatters.com/circuit_rider.