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:

  1. faith sharing with others in their congregation, or other churches (316, or 34%)
  2. those who define evangelism as something their church does for them (287, or 31%)
  3. those who weren’t clear what evangelism is (164, or 18%)
  4. 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%)
  5. 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.  CB044705Representational 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.

stk108794cor_previewThe reasons people give for not sharing faith are simple, and fall into four areas:

  1. embarrassment/fear of being made fun of  (359, or 39%)
  2. feeling ill-equipped, unprepared, or lacking enough knowledge (321, or 35%)
  3. not wanting to force personal beliefs or faith on other people (194, or 21%)
  4. 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!

13 replies

  1. I wonder if the lousy job we UMs do at evangelism can be traced in part to a wishy-washy-ness about our own faith. Those 18th- and 19th- century “shouting Methodists” on the American frontier were in possession of a sense of certainty about their faith, and about the positive necessity of sharing it, that seems to be lost to us forever.
    Maybe that’s not altogether a bad thing – the circuit riders probably weren’t very nuanced theologians, and we might not recognize much of today’s Methodism in the societies they created.But man, their hearts had been warmed!! Better teaching + better preaching = better evangelism?

  2. That sounds a lot like my home congregation. We’ve got 2,000+ on the roll, lots of programs, a busy physical plant with something going on every night, all sorts of departments and “areas of ministry”. I think everything they decide to do is termed a “ministry”, whether it does any ministering or not. We have a great baby-sitting service, and programs to keep the youth busy. The seniors ride the big church bus and go to on church trips frequently.

    If we do mission work, it’s always in another state, or even another country. We don’t tend to our brothers and sisters in our own back yard, or in our own town. I’ve never gotten a good answer as to why that is. We’ll spend thousands of dollars to send 30 youth across country to do “mission work” and sight-seeing for a week, but won’t allocate $500 to feed the local poor.

    I firmly believe that if John Wesley showed up one Sunday morning for worship, the ushers would toss him out and call the cops on him as being disruptive. Our services are Sunday morning shows, with a cast of characters in front, and the audience being dutifully silent in their reserved seats. The big SRO performances are Easter and Christmas Eve, when the the usual attendees opt out of attending so the twice/year devotees can have a seat.

    I’ve never heard anyone tell of their salvation experience from the pulpit or any other speaking position in the sanctuary. That would be way too Baptist for us. We talk about Jesus, but we studiously avoid any mention of Him in one on one conversations.

    The pastor follows a word-for-word text, and never just speaks off the cuff. I guess that’s okay at some level, but I wasn’t wanting to attend a lecture, I wanted to hear some preaching. I doubt John Wesley would recognize anything that goes on in our congregations today. He’d probably think we were more like 18th century Anglicans than the shouting Methodists he left behind.

    Thank goodness for our Emmaus community. On many occasions, they are the only ones who bring the Light into our building.

  3. I use feedburner for my subscribe on my blog if you care to look at that. It is a free widget and works great with wordpress. I would also like to share your blog post today on my blog and of course give you credit if that is OK.

    • The easiest way is to subscribe to the RSS feed, then each time a new post goes up, it comes straight into your inbox. Otherwise, I am not sure what options WordPress offers. If the RSS feed doesn’t do it, let me know and I will check out other options. And thanks for the support!

  4. The meta-pattern being repeated here is that of the congregational format of church beginning at least in the 6th century. Christianity was the legal religion in the Roman Empire (or what was left of it), so everyone in the community was part of a Christian congregation more or less by birth.

    Basically, the only places where people were still experiencing significant formation as disciples– and so the only congregations still doing it– were on the fringes of the Empire, where the people had not yet been assimilated into Christianity as official religion.

    This also meant that basically the only people being formed intentially as disciples of Jesus Christ able to join God’s mission of transforming the world were either these on the fringes, clergy, or, more broadly, persons in the monastic movements. Congregations did not intentionally form many disciples. Congregations were simply the public format of the Christian faith, carrying on public worship, some kind of basic instruction in doctrine, offering some system of care, and functioning as a public institutional player in the local community.

    Methodism began not as congregations, but as a paracongregational movement of groups whose purpose was precisely to form people to live their whole lives as disciples of Jesus and missionaries in his name wherever they were while also staying connected with congregations. Since Methodism traded its “fringe-but-connected” status for mainstream congregational life, beginning in the late 18th century in North America, is it no wonder that United Methodists today are either suspicious of or feel unequipped to engage in active forms or personal evangelism.

    The congregational format itself might be able to generate the representational and passive means of evangelism you describe. It is simply not designed– and with the exceptions of those who have lived on the fringe, hasn’t been designed for 1500 years– to support serious formation of disciples of Jesus who join God’s mission to transform the world– by their deeds and their words, including evangelism.

    I see this not as something to be lamented, but something simply to be recognized. Expecting congregations to train people in evangelism well– unless those congregations expect to function in a more sectarian (fringe) way– is unrealistic. Early Methodism’s solution to this is still viable, however– small groups, connected to but not controlled by the congregations, whose vision and mission is precisely disciple formation and deployment in mission, grounded in scripture and the General Rules– can be found, created and redeployed. In some places in North America, they are. In many places in Africa and the Philippines they have been and continue to thrive– so it is no wonder that both evangelistic fervor and vibrancy of congregational life thrive there as well.

  5. Sounds to me like you know what it isn’t and what it should be. May I suggest that you pray and ask God if he wants you to take the lead in your church to encourage them to get out there and evangelize. Maybe you could even do some teaching on the subject.
    Sad to say, your statistics are appalling. But pastors need to invite someone if they themselves are not teaching about evangelism. The congregation needs to be encouraged along this line as far as what it isn’t and what it is.

    Thanks, and may you be blessed as you go out,

    • Ooh, sounds like I pushed a guilt button hard! In my work with spiritual seekers and college students I have been very fortunate to talk to people about their beliefs and have invited many people into a deeper relationship — or even an initial relationship — with God in Christ, and have encouraged people not to go it alone, but to find authentic, meaningful Christian community. What amazes me is how very easy this is, and it is doubly frustrating to then discover and confirm through research, that we have so few United Methodists who share their faith with others. I am teaching church leaders about the importance of, and the basic hunger in the world for, evangelism. Do I encounter people who don’t care, who are hostile, or who don’t appreciate the conversation? Of course. It is the same as every other human encounter around important issues. But I have dozens of letters and emails thanking me for sharing my faith, for inviting others to build a relationship with God, and for emphasizing the importance of Christian community. Hey, Richard, be careful about the assumptions you make and then acting on them as fact.

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