Faith sharing and evangelism have fallen on hard times in The United Methodist Church. For the most part, we don’t do them — except with people who already believe what we do. As part of our research on spiritual practices, we asked 922 United Methodist lay people to share their evangelism attitudes and practices with us. The responses we received fell into five broad, basic categories:
- faith sharing with others in their congregation, or other churches (316, or 34%)
- those who define evangelism as something their church does for them (287, or 31%)
- those who weren’t clear what evangelism is (164, or 18%)
- those who define evangelism as the way they behave, but don’t talk about their faith (and generally don’t let others know that their faith is their primary motivation to behave the way they do) (128, or 14%)
- those who have spoken with a non-Christian about making a faith commitment within the past 12 months (27, or 3%)
Additionally, almost one-third display Christian symbols (jewelry, bumper stickers, flags/banners, magnets, etc.) and feel that is a public witness to their faith.
The more traditional and historic definition of evangelism — sharing the “good news” of Jesus Christ with non-believers and extending to them the invitation to accept Christ into their lives — seems to have given way to two modern expressions: representational evangelism and passive evangelism. Representational evangelism shifts the responsibility for faith sharing from the members of the community of faith onto the structure of the congregation. Leaders, and in some cases a small representative body (such as an ‘evangelism committee’), do evangelism for the whole congregation. In such cases, evangelism as an expression of Christian witness in the world is de-emphasized, and often not taught or encouraged at all. Occasionally, congregations will promote an emphasis or campaign (Invite a Friend to Church!), but generally as an event or program, not an integrated practice of life together as the community of faith. Over two-thirds of the respondents in this survey (638, or 69%) report that they have no memory of ever having been encouraged to share faith or ‘evangelize’ outside of the church. A very similar number (644, or 70%) say that the only times they talk about their faith are in church or at home with family. One-third (316, or 34%) claim that the only time they share their faith is at church.
Passive evangelism is defined as non-interactive displays of faith and invitations — usually to come to church, not to enter into a relationship with Jesus Christ. The messages are all one-way, with virtually no opportunity for dialogue, discussion, or personal disclosure. On a personal level, people are proud of the fish symbols and bumper stickers they put on their cars, the cross necklaces and What Would Jesus Do? (W.W.J.D?) bracelets they wear, and lawn decorations they put out for holidays. (However, 4-out-of-5 (767, or 83%) also display lawn decorations for non-Christian observances such as Halloween, Thanksgiving, and flag-related holidays.) People commonly explain that these symbols are a clear witness to the world about what they believe.
On a congregational level, passive evangelism most usually takes the form of newspaper ads, websites, billboards, radio and TV spots, and outdoor signage. Church members are generally aware of the ways their church self-promotes, and include these efforts in their definition of faith-sharing and evangelism. A vast majority of the laity in the sample (785, or 85%) do not differentiate between “inviting people to church” from “inviting people into relationship with Jesus Christ.” They see an invitation to church as a pathway to a relationship with Jesus Christ, even though 38% (346) shared that they became Christian first, which motivated them to begin attending church.
Just under 20% (179) of the participants in the study started going to church because someone they liked and/or respected invited them. Having such an experience in ones own personal history apparently has no influence on their own likelihood of inviting someone to come to church with them — only 1-in-19 (9, or 5% of the 179) have ever invited someone other than a family member to join them at church.
The reasons people give for not sharing faith are simple, and fall into four areas:
- embarrassment/fear of being made fun of (359, or 39%)
- feeling ill-equipped, unprepared, or lacking enough knowledge (321, or 35%)
- not wanting to force personal beliefs or faith on other people (194, or 21%)
- indifference or feeling it isn’t necessary (48, or 5%)
The good news is that 95% of the reasons given can be dealt with by training, teaching, encouragement and support. Not everyone wants to share their faith, and not everyone is equally gifted, but there is obviously great room for improvement in the ways we help people learn to talk about their faith with others.
Representational and passive evangelism are simple and easy and non-threatening. However, they tend to generate the kind of results you might expect. Many different surveys and studies indicate that far-and-away, the best form of evangelism is personal, relational evangelism. There needs to be a basic level of trust. There needs to be an opportunity to ask questions. The most powerful witnesses to the greatness of God and the love of Christ are personal stories. Also powerful are the willingness to pray for and with others, and openness to listen to people and their life challenges. This can’t be done with a television ad or a billboard. It doesn’t happen because of decals and bumper stickers.
A brief digression:
Year’s ago, I followed a car with a “Honk If You Love Jesus” bumper sticker. Feeling in a playful mood, I pulled up behind the car at a stop light and tooted my horn. The man driving the car looked in the rear-view mirror, didn’t recognize me, so he ignored me. We drove a couple blocks, pulled to a stop, and I tooted again. He looked intently in his mirror, then gunned his car across the intersection. I did this about three more times, and the driver got more agitated. Finally, at the last stop sign, he jumped out of his car and offered me a less-than-Christian outward and visible sign of his fury, saluting me with a single finger. He drove away and I figured he was driving his wife’s car.
If our good news is really good news we need to learn to share it. There are friendly, open, non-agressive, non-obnoxious ways to let people know about the love of God. And if people don’t learn them at church, where are they likely to learn them?
This shouldn’t be reduced to inviting people to church. Evangelism isn’t about filling sanctuaries on Sunday mornings. It is about introducing people to the most awesome, grand, glorious, and loving relationship they might ever have in their entire life. Done well, many will want to join us in our faith communities. We say we want to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. This isn’t likely to happen if no one is willing to talk about their faith. This brief study, as small as the sample is, still raises a challenge for our church today — to send our people out into the world ready, willing and able to offer Christ to anyone and everyone we meet when the opportunity arises.
Check out more in Evangelisn’t Part II!