2018: Now is the Time for Evangelism

About two weeks ago, scrolling through my kindle library, I noticed a certain theme developing. See if you can spot it:

The Disappearing Church
That Was the Church that Was
Losing my Religion
How the West Really Lost God
The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post Christian Society
How to Survive the Zombie Apocalypse
The Death of Christian Britain

And so on…

Whatever else historians make of our age, they will at least think this: ours was an age in which there was a widespread perception, at least in the west, that Christians were in trouble. Our book titles, our conference theme, our podcasts all point to the truth: We feel afraid. We fear decline. We are under pressure.

I feel it too. And to some extend I agree that the perception corresponds to an actual state of affairs.

I was born in 1975, and I would go so far as to say this is the best evangelistic environment in Australia in my lifetime. We should be proclaiming the gospel with confidence. We should expect fruit.

But in this culture of fear, I want to argue a counter-intuitive thesis: I think evangelistically, we are living through a great period, and we should rejoice. I was born in 1975, and I would go so far as to say this is the best evangelistic environment in Australia in my lifetime. We should be proclaiming the gospel with confidence. We should expect fruit. And we must not allow our fear about the institutional and legal environment to bleed into a pessimism about evangelism as such.

Two Laments (and Four Encouragements)

Our slightly dour attitude comes from two laments: First, that we face a unique pressure from the outside culture; and, second, that we might be dropping the ball evangelistically. I think both claims are, to a large degree, false. Here are four reasons to be encouraged:

1. Outside Pressures aren’t stopping evangelism

Consider the first complaint. Since about 1963 there has been a fairly relentless downward trend in a whole bunch of things that matter to us—church attendance, Sunday schools, biblical literacy and so on.

And I think we all perceive that in the last five-to-ten years the process of secularisation has taken a sharp turn—a move from Christians being goody goodies to being, in some sense a force for evil. Our legal and political environment has changed dramatically. It has become easy for critics to make trouble for us (all they need to do it spend half an hour trawling through your church’s sermon archive for the last time someone spoke on Romans 1 or 1 Corinthians 6).

Things have gotten more awkward and embarrassing for Christians who have grown up with an unquestioning acceptance of biblical marriage and sexuality. They have new questions and doubts, and Christian leaders need to help them. We need to do new work building a credible Christian account of these things.[1]

Things have gotten more awkward and embarrassing for Christians. They have new questions and doubts, and Christian leaders need to help them. But this is a challenge of discipleship—of helping Christians live according to the truth. It’s not about evangelism.

But this is a challenge of discipleship—of helping Christians live according to the truth. It’s not about evangelism. In fact, it looks like it’s becoming easier to preach the gospel.

Talk to student workers in AFES, for example. They are the ones on the front line, sharing the gospel with the very generation who have been raised on intersectionality and gender fluidity and the whole bit. And yet, again and again, from campus to campus, these student workers are saying that this is the best and the freshest evangelistic environment they’ve seen in their life time.

People are so post-Christian that the gospel is fresh and interesting. They know so little that there’s less prejudice. And if they have an impression of Christians at all, it’s so outrageously negative that all you have to do is offer them a cup of tea and not punch them in the face and you seem like Mother Theresa.

Is it possible that an AFES group will get kicked off campus in the next few years? Absolutely. Are they seeing evangelistic fruit? Totally. Both those things can be true at the same time.

There are dark clouds on the horizon: legally, politically, economically—we’re not in Kansas anymore. There’s plenty to worry about. But don’t assume that means we need to worry about evangelism. I think we are seeing a fresh and glorious openness to the gospel.

2. We aren’t the failures we assume we are

The second lament goes like this. We used to evangelise a lot: guest services, commitment cards, jazz nights with testimonies. But somewhere along the way, we lost the plot. We aren’t producing people like Chappo any more. We’ve become distracted by church politics or liturgy or cultural renewal or GAFCON or buying property (insert whichever is your current bug-bear).

Now, I agree that it is hard to think who the next John Chapman is—I can’t see him either. But it’s a different audience too. Non-Christians need a slower approach and there are tools are helping with that. We now have so many fantastic courses that do a great job of offering patient, intelligent, coherent accounts of the faith in context of hospitality and friendship.[2] These week-by-week courses provide a natural path for people to move seamlessly from basic gospelling to catechesis to being established in the life of a local church. They ensure that the very church that evangelised them is the same church who then takes responsibility for nurturing and establishing them in Christ. It’s genius!

And some of us love evangelism. I vastly prefer it to a massive number of other tasks that fall to me as a pastor. Far from being something I am distracted from, I’ve regularly used evangelism to distract myself from other tasks I find particularly loathsome. Spend a night talking to a non-Christian about Jesus? Yes please! Organise the roster for kids’ church or produce the budget update? There be dragons!

I don’t say any of that to win credit points. Choosing the easy over the hard probably reflects poorly on my character. But I genuinely like evangelism. And whenever I confess to this guilty pleasure, I find others who harbour the same secret. Not everyone, but not no one. We’re out there.

Let’s stop talking evangelism down. I’m yet to find a verse in the Bible that tells me that evangelism itself is essentially and necessarily hard.

3. Church planting is working!

Another encouragement is the growth of church-planting. Maybe six years ago you could have argued that church planting was a flash-in-the-pan fad that would run its course and fade away.

Although some of the romance around church planting has faded, the movement is still going—mature, well-resourced, evangelistically-driven. They meet in schools and warehouses. Some do kids church in tents. When the venue is not available, they have church outdoors. They’re not mucking around.

But today, although some of the romance around church planting has faded, the movement is still going—mature, well-resourced, evangelistically-driven. Just this week, at a conference of independent evangelical churches, I found myself talking to dozens of pastors who have planted churches in country towns, in mining towns, in under-resources parts of cities and regional centres, as well as in the big cities. They meet in schools and warehouses. Some do kids church in tents. When the venue is not available, they have church outdoors. They’re not mucking around. They’re not (just) reaching hipsters. And they are hungry to see people won to Jesus.

4. Specialised evangelists are helping

Come back with me to the dim dark days of the 1990s. We had some itinerant evangelists like Chappo, but they were very rare. Apart from them, hardly anyone was employed full-time in evangelism. There were associate ministers who were supposed to (on top of all their other responsibilities) “focus on evangelism”. Sometimes a keen odd-bod with a gift for evangelism would be brought onto a staff, only to be swamped by admin and meetings.

But the dice were loaded from the start. People were told to do something but not given the power to do it. And then it fell back to the senior pastor to “make evangelism a priority”. How, exactly? By not running safe-church courses? By cancelling staff meeting? By skipping AGMs? By plagiarising sermons?

But look today. Through the adoption of specialised team ministry approaches (the 5 Ms and equivalent systems), we now have local churches where gifted staff can give their main time and energy to evangelism and to equipping the church for evangelism. It’s not just what they ought to do. It’s what they are empowered to do.

In terms of effectively deployed, gifted local evangelists in churches, I suspect we have never had so many. Praise God.

Where are the Chappos? I don’t think we have one. And if anyone knows where you can get them we’ll take six. But thanklessness is a sin, and I thank God as I look out on the church landscape and see so many great people working hard and effectively, specifically in the evangelisation of the lost.

No doubt we are dropping the ball in some areas. No doubt the price of theological faithfulness is eternal vigilance. No doubt we all long for more fruitful days.

But allow me to be provocatively optimistic. This is a great time for evangelism in Australia.


Photo: Joe More, flickr

[1] And great work is being done in this space. Christians like Sam Allberry, Ed Shaw, and Wes Hill had provided powerful and gracious accounts of the Christian vision of sex and sexuality from the perspective of homosexual orientation. Writers and preachers like Greg Lee, Glynn Harrison, and Dan Patterson have brought theological rigour and grace to the topic.

[2] For example, Introducing God, Christianity Explored, Life, Simply Christianity, The God Who Speaks Life etc.

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