Evangelisn’t – Part Two

My commentary on the research on evangelism and faith sharing in The United Methodist Church generated some interesting response — some defensive, some reflective, but no one really surprised by the conjecture that we’re not doing very much in the way of inviting people into chp_conversationrelationship with Jesus Christ.  I indicated that I think this might be a problem, but that is only my opinion.  I wanted to follow up with a ‘part two’ that shares the opinions of some of the people we interviewed.  Two of my colleagues — retired researchers Harold Jones and Tom Perry (and I don’t want to hear any jokes about research being done by any old Tom, Dick & Harry…) — helped me conduct 47 telephone interviews, and these conversations shaped some of the conclusions I drew in the last post.

Let me just set the stage, then I will get out of the way and present a collection of quotes from active United Methodists.  We recorded each 20-30 minute conversation, so the quotes are essentially verbatim (though we cleaned up the ‘uhs,’ ‘ers,’ “likes,’ and other quirks of conversation.  There were some common themes and shared feelings among the 47 interviewees.  Here are a few distinctions that may help along the way:

  1. Evangelism tends to be heard as either a negative term — based on negative stereotypes of people pushing their faith on others or televangelists — or something that the church should do, but that the individuals do not view as their responsibility.
  2. Faith sharing is a much more acceptable term than evangelism, but it is interpreted as talking about their faith within their own congregation or family.
  3. Four-out-of-five (39 of 47, or 82.9%) people interviewed define evangelism as “inviting people to come to church.”
  4. Virtually no one (2 of 47, or 4%) remembers ever being taught how to share their faith with people outside the church.
  5. Not many more (4 of 47, or 8.5%) say that they would like to be taught how to share their faith with people outside the church.
  6. Three-out-of-four people interviewed said they don’t think it is their responsibility to share their faith with others; that faith is essentially both a personal and a private matter.

Okay, here are some of the things people told us…

I never invite people to church because all the people I know already go to church.  The people at my office… I don’t know if they go to church, but it would be completely inappropriate for me to ask.

I don’t know enough about the Bible to talk about it with other people.  I am sure people will ask me questions I won’t be able to answer.  (We asked if knowing more Bible would help build confidence?) You know?  Not really.  I’m still not sure I would feel comfortable talking to other people about the Bible.

brasil-330x220-lac-young-people-talkingMy church does evangelism.  I don’t do evangelism.  Anyway, I think it is up to each individual person to decide whether they want to go to church or not.

I’m not a knock-on-doors, hand-out-tracts kind of person.  It turns me off when people do it to me, and I have no desire to do it to others.

I think my church has offered a class on evangelism, but I didn’t go.  I really don’t have any interest in that holy-roller stuff.

I keep things on my desk — you know, like I have an angel and a crucifix (yes, this is a United Methodist), and on my wall I have the poem “Footprints” — and so people know I am a Christian if they care to find out.

I used to listen to a Christian radio station at work, but I overheard people making fun of me, so I switched to an oldies station.  I can’t stand it when people mock me, and my faith is way too important to me to be made fun of for it.

I can’t remember the last time I talked to anybody about God.  I personally feel that my faith is nobodies business but mine.

I would love for everyone to know God like I know God, but I would never force my beliefs on anyone else.

I would be really embarrassed to talk about religion.  It’s like politics.  All it does is start fights.

I do try to talk to people about God, but not many people care or want to talk about it.  It’s like, ‘that’s nice,’ then people just go on doing what they’re doing.

I asked a neighbor to church once year’s ago and it really made him uncomfortable.  I learned my lesson.  I don’t want to put people on the spot.

No one is interested in my beliefs.  If people haven’t checked out the church by now, nothing I say is going to make any difference.

I have three girlfriends who go to a holiness church who are asking people to come to church all the time.  I see the way other people make fun of them and I keep my mouth shut. (We asked if these three women have gotten anyone to attend their church?) Oh, yeah, like twenty people have gone!

I have a small group at church.  We share our faith all the time.  We talk about Jesus Christ every week.  I feel very good about talking about God.

Our pastor told us that evangelism is a spiritual gift and that most people don’t have it, and that if you don’t have the gift you shouldn’t try to do evangelism.  My gift is caring.

Our church does great evangelism.  We have both a public access television broadcast and a radio ministry and our conference has put up billboards inviting people to church.  (We asked if individuals in the congregation ‘did’ evangelism in addition to the church’s efforts?) Not so much.  It’s better to leave the invitations to the professionals.

Our pastor brings in lots of new people and we have visitors, so I guess we are pretty effective at evangelism.

bible studyThese quotes provide a sampling of the kinds of attitudes and perspectives United Methodists hold concerning the sharing of our faith.  They are not intended to chastise or condemn anyone — everyone has a right to their opinion.  However, they provide a snapshot of our current reality, and they may provide insight into the numeric decline within the denomination, as well as a challenge to share the good news of Jesus Christ with the world.  It is interesting how “the church” has displaced “Jesus Christ” as the object and subject of our evangelism, and it is worth noting that most spiritual seekers are looking for help building a relationship with God and Christ, not the institutional church.

7 replies

  1. Faith has to be natural and normal. Alot of folks get into trouble because their words go far beyond what they’re actually living.

    To me , evangelism goes to heart of the kind of people and community we are. If people are joyful and excited about their church, they become “customer” evangelists in a very positive sense and so how can sharing their community/church experience NOT also be faith sharing?

    People turned off by religion, church, and Christians number in the millions…it’s not because no one has witnessed or preached to them in words the Gospel of Jesus. For many, no one or no church ever really witnessed the good news to them in a away that was healing and life-giving! Some are wounded by our “witness.”

    We need to look at the lives of saints, who reached others by their words but mostly their life and experience. The trouble is we can’t offer what we don’t have: if we don’t have a spiritual life or a community life that leads us beyond ourselves, then we cannot offer it. And we probably would do more harm than good.

    Therefore, I think that faith sharing does apply to all who are in Christ, and it is in the faith community where we learn to do it in a way that is helpful and genuine and authentic. We have to learn by practicing it with intention in all small groups communities, and maybe NOT offering a class in methodology, which is an invitation for people to choose if it’s for them or not.

  2. Dan — As chairperson of our Evangelism Committee, I heartily concur with your findings. I realize that I have to work with our Adult Spiritual Formation (Education) chair to offer and lead classes about evangelism, starting with the Evangelism Committee and Church Council members. The Senior Pastor and I are considering implementing the following program:

  3. In the UMC we seem to be doing well at service and social justice issues, but evangelism seems seriously lacking. I am a youth pastor in Maumee Ohio and have found that if you couple service with evangelism the hearers are open to the gospel. It is not much different then Jesus going out in Matthew 4 preaching everywhere that men should repent, but at the same time He was healing all sorts of disease and sickness.

    We hit the streets of downtown toledo every thursday night over the winter with press pots of cocoa and coffee and take them to anyone on the street, homeless or affluent pass out the warm beverage and talk about Christ. we have encountered hundreds of people and have been insulted or chastised maybe 5 times if that over the last 2 years.

    We must begin to share our faith effectively… it is a shame to see that Christ endured agonies unthinkable for the world, and that we would be passive about making sure that He receives the people for whom He suffered.

    • Thank you so much for sharing this. One of the most surprising aspects of the decline in evangelism and personal faith sharing is how easy it is and how many people truly are open to it vs. how reluctant and fearful people are to do it…

  4. We went through a period where I refused to use the word evangelism. For a while we used the moniker, “Ministries of Welcome and Embrace,” but of course this limits the focus to a church growth understanding of evangelism. After a year of so I publicly told folks that we would no longer be scared of the “E” word (the word Methodists refuse to say) and that we would be embracing it in all its glory.

    The reticence that I experience in the Bible Belt is that United Methodist folks are hesitant about embracing evangelism because of the examples of our more “evangelical” friends, who sometimes embrace evangelism strategies that are heavy handed and manipulative. As is true of so many things, in a desire to avoid being “like the Baptists or Churches of Christ,” we over react and completely lose any sense of calling to evangelize in an intentional way. The goal from my perspective is to swing the pendulum back toward the center without finding ourselves in the oppressive models (did I ever tell you about reading “Soul Winning Made Easy” when I was 13? 🙂 )

    The best thing I think that I have done in all this is to both model and create a climate that encourages open, non-judgmental conversation about the difficult things of faith. This has created an expectation among some in the congregation (generally the younger demographic) that theological conversation is normal and that they can talk about hard questions without getting into an argument. This frees them to talk with others without a concern that they need to follow a script or use a particular method of evangelism. When folks understand that it is simply talking with others about their struggles of faith, then they are empowered to evangelize.

    This is, of course, a work in progress, so I can’t demonstrate this as a successful model. My prayer is that over the long haul, this will lead to a generation of folks for whom talking about their faith in much more normative.

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