Part two of Tony Wright’s series on evangelistic strategies. See part 1 here
One of the greatest military strategists of all time was the Prussian general and military theorist Carl von Clausewitz. You might not know his name, but you may well be familiar with his statement that, “war is a mere continuation of politics by other means.” In my last article I contrasted two approaches to evangelism. Here I want to broaden out our consideration by applying the strategic insights of von Clausewitz.
On War was von Clausewitz’s great work, in which he outlined four different approaches to war. There are four basic strategies, he said, and the determination of which to employ in any particular situation should depend upon two related factors: your position and your strength relative to those of your opponent. Here they are:
1. Defence (evangelism in a church building)
This is the position of a leader with a superior-sized force that is strong and secure enough to allow the opposing force to attack. Think of the middle-ages when a military force could sit safely ensconced in their castle while the invaders wasted their energies struggling to gain the battlements, only to be easily repelled.
In terms of evangelism, defence was the approach of the church when it was the only game in town. One village. One church. Everyone in attendance. No viable alternatives. Evangelism happened as people turned up to church and heard the Bible read and preached.
2. Offence (evangelism in a tent or a stadium)
This is the approach that a strong military force should use against a foe that is stronger still. Offence relies on an attack launched on as narrow a front as possible—think the movie “300” where a tiny band of Spartan warriors forces the larger Persian army to fight them in a narrow pass: the pass both negates the Persian numerical advantage and, in turn, favours the Spartan heavy infantry over their light infantry opponents. The Spartans are able to hold fast here even though they would have been easily overrun on an open plain.
In terms of evangelism, the big rally is an offence strategy. We’re not in the majority, but there are lots of us who can unite together and make a big impact. When Billy Graham was the not-so secret weapon, significant ground was made using this strategy.
3. Flanking (evangelism in a home or a hall)
This is the approach to be adopted by an inferior force against one that is much stronger. Although there is no hope of success through open offense, victories can still be achieved by aiming at weak points in the opponent’s line. By its nature, a flank attack is indirect and should contain an element of surprise. Flanking manoeuvers were once the province of cavalry—and nowadays of tanks. The aim is to strike hard and fast from an unexpected direction.
I think we should see course-based evangelism as a flanking maneuver. The courses weren’t (by and large) a frontal assault on a non-Christian worldview. Rather, they offered a “taste and see” approach: engage and enter into the Christian worldview over the span of a few weeks and observe how Christians relate and practice Christian community. The surprise of this approach to the outsider was amplified by the packaging of the course: church buildings were avoided in favour of halls and homes; food and drink were a mainstay. Dynamic presenters, professional looking materials and videos, small groups (with an emphasis on listening from the leaders) all combined to outflank the potential negative expectations and prejudices of those coming along.
This flanking manoeuver has worked really well. Success breeds success, and we have seen a proliferation of courses and churches adopting (and adapting) them.*
4. Guerilla (evangelism in a coffee shop)
Finally, outnumbered and outgunned, the guerilla force use its flexibility to maximum advantage. It strikes hard and fast and then retreates quickly to regather. And then it does it all again in a completely different location. It engages the enemy where they are weak—or draws them out and engages them in a way that maximises its advantage. Methods, targets, weaponry … these are negotiable. The focus is on the larger long-term goal (i.e. victory). The relatively small and technologically inferior Viet Cong successfully deployed guerilla tactics to defeat the military might of the U.S. and their allies in the Vietnam War.
Personal evangelism is the guerilla warfare equivalent. Every willing man, woman and child is equipped and encouraged to share the Word of God with their friends, neighbours, colleagues, family and contacts.
Fighting to win: evangelism anywhere and everywhere
In my role, I speak with church pastors and church members about evangelistic strategy adopted by their church. It seems to me that—while most churches deploy a mix of defence, offence and flanking—very few train, equip and encourage their people in a guerilla approach to evangelism.
Is this because we have fallen too in love with a course-based approach to evangelism? I fear that such churches are in danger of repeating the mistakes of previous generations; of holding too tightly to one strategy to the exclusion of others and failing to recognise that the times have changed. Others have noted the increasingly secular and fragmented nature of Australian society: people are simply further away from a Christian worldview and from Christian people than they once were.
This is reflected in a number of problems church leaders tell me they have with courses. One is that they are generally speaking “too long”. A course is as long as it is to give people sufficient time to “get it and get on board.” But many people are just not prepared to commit for that length of time—and so many leaders are cutting them down to around four weeks to get sufficient buy-in. But that creates the further problem of people completing a course but not being ready to make a commitment. Christianity Explored has found that, on average, people need to do their full course 2-3 times before they reach that point. Some churches are simply finding it hard to get a course up and running (simply not able to get a critical mass of non-believers to attend). Others are finding that their course attendance is slowly diminishing over time, and are wondering what they will do when they dip below that critical mass.
The simple brilliance of von Clausewitz is that he pays equal attention to both sides of the military equation—us and them. There is not “one right way” to wage war and achieve victory. For us, I suggest there is no silver bullet; no one solution to the challenge of evangelism. Rather, we need to understand how and when a particular strategy is to be employed, The rightness of the strategy is a function of both our situation and that of those we’re trying to reach. In this, the four strategies are complementary rather than exclusive. Churches might do well to adopt all four strategies:
- week to week preaching in church to those who are in attendance (defence);
- occasion-based public gatherings where the gospel is preached (offence);
- course-based evangelism (flanking), and;
- personal evangelism (guerilla).
Now is not the time to neglect any one strategic approach to evangelism. But we may have have entered the era when our best approach is our most neglected: guerrilla style, personal evangelism.
* Editor’s note: The first-published version of this article contained a quote and example of this form of evangelism which has been disputed by the person being quoted. We do apologise for not confirming this in advance of publication and have removed the sentence.