In December, my new book on Evangelism will be released by Chalice Press. Hitchhiker’s Guide to Evangelism takes a peek at the “new” evangelism needed for reaching today’s world. Let’s face it, if the ways we do evangelism were really working, our churches would be filling up. But that’s clearly not the case. Indeed, in North America we’re not just losing the battle of the church, we’re losing the war. Less than 15% of North Americans will find their way to a church this weekend … and the numbers are dropping sharply.
What’s not working is trying to cajole our church members into doing evangelism like it was done “back then.” Back then you could knock at a door, do a quasi-real survey about checking the religion practices of the neighborhood, and then dropping “the” question towards the end: “If you died tonight, do you know for sure you’d go to heaven?”
It’s not that this method never works anymore. It still does in some communities and with some people. The question to ask is this: Is it worth alienating 98 people, people who will have had their worst fears about the church realized when you show up at their door, in order to share the Gospel effectively with 2 people?
The main problem with this kind of evangelism is that in some circles, this is the only “method” of conversion. I call this the Paul method … conversion happens at a specific moment in time. Paul’s version of conversion has become the model, and yet it is the most invasive, most intrusive, and most aggressive of almost all other evangelism models. And, I’d add, that if Jesus was the one who’s knocking you off your horse, that’s one thing … but I’m not Jesus – and neither are the many “evangelists” who press for a conversion “experience.”
The second problem with this kind of evangelism is that it bolsters the notion that being a Christian is mostly a matter about what you believe. The problem with “believing” Christianity is that this is what’s gotten us into this black hole. Seventy-eight percent of USAmericans “claim” to be Christian. And by the definition that a Christian is someone who believes in Jesus, they are Christians. So praying the “sinner’s prayer,” walking an aisle, or even being baptized doesn’t necessarily mean much. I won’t argue about the salvific value of these actions … I’ll even surmise that they may be all that is “necessary” (but I’m not the one doing the judging – see Matthew 25). However, the “conversion” model of evangelism puts so much emphasis on the act of conversion that too often living a Christian life becomes of secondary importance and emphasis.
Now, I’m not advocating that we stop … there are times and places for conversion invitations (see Glenn Kelley’s recent blog entry on Youth Evangelism). But I am suggesting that there’s a better way for the rest of us.
The “New” evangelism is really a very old evangelism. Instead of it being about conversion, it’s about having spiritual conversations. It’s about first being a part of something, such as a friendship, a small group, a work group, a service group, a cause, etc. It’s about exploring the faith by watching it modeled, by associating with it, by practicing it before deciding it’s about believing and accepting and converting. This “new” evangelism is what the twelve apostles experienced. There is no discernable moment when Peter or Andrew of John or James or Matthew or Thadeus or any of the others “became” a Christian. Was it when they left their professions? When they made the great confession? When they walked on water (or not)? When they denied or fled at Jesus’ arrest? When they ate breakfast after the resurrection? When they were on the road and Jesus ascended, even though some doubted? After Pentecost? The fact is, we don’t know. We can guess. We can speculate. But we simply cannot be sure.
Conversations. Modeling. Living such a radically different life that someone actually does ask us about the reason for our hope … people are asking you, aren’t they? Living in community. All this is part of the “new” evangelism.