Near-Miss Evangelism

signWhen did “evangelism” become “marketing?”  At what point did the church rise up and say, “You know?  Evangelism doesn’t have to be personal.  We can phone (email, billboard, television, webcast) it in!”  The shift from relational evangelism to representational evangelism is almost complete in some areas.  At the School of Congregational Development I listened to one woman jubilantly explain about the “agency” her church hired to “do” its evangelism.  She gushed about the slick brochures, the professional quality 30 second TV spots and web videos, the phoning push they contracted with a telemarketer to conduct on behalf of the church, and their direct mail strategy.  She boiled it down to “once we receive 82 new giving units, the campaign will pay for itself in 3 years!”  Praise Jesus.

I asked what the substance of their message was, and she immediately parroted, “Church for people who hate church!”  I pushed a little deeper.  “But, what is your invitation?  What are you offering to people as “good news.”  She cocked her head and said, “We’re leaving that to the professionals.”

My question is: who are “the professionals” when it comes to evangelism?

Historically, evangelism — the “sharing of the good news” — as a spiritual gift (charismata) was a personal and intimate expression of faith.  Evangelists told the good news of Jesus the Christ in their own lives.  They were first-hand witnesses to the power of Jesus Christ to change lives.  Evangelism at its finest happened one-on-one and was grounded in a two-fold personal relationship invitation: invitation to relationship with God and invitation to enter a supportive spiritual community.  Evangelism wasn’t preaching, it wasn’t teaching, it wasn’t a stadium crusade, it wasn’t handing out “The Four Spiritual Laws,” (though this is closer than many definitions), and it wasn’t a pathway to institutional growth and support.  Evangelism was evangelism — the heart and soul of the Christian movement.  It was a positive viral Christianity.  In the premodern world, the writers of the gospels were evangelists because they were sharing personal, unique, supposedly eye-witness accounts of their experience of Jesus the Christ.

But something has happened to our understanding of evangelism.  It corresponds directly with the shifts from church as Christian community to church as corporation, from worship as liturgy (the work of the people) to worship as performance art evangelism, and from missional outreach as identity to missional outreach as growth strategy.  The past 150 years have been a time of transition from Organic Expression to Ecclesial Industrial Revolution — from family to business.

We live in a different world.  To stay relevant and attractive we find ourselves needing to assimilate new technologies and techniques, but always with the risk of assimilating values and worldviews as well.  For centuries, churches held clear identities within their communities.  A town might boast a Presbyterian, a Lutheran, a Baptist, a Methodist, and a Roman Catholic church and everyone in town knew where each church was, what it was up to, and who went where.  Not long ago I was in a small town of 6,200 people and there were 79 churches/temples/mosques listed in their little phone book!  It would be impossible to know about every one of them.  In today’s terms, this is a highly competitive market.

rethinkbrochure-300x225Churches used to establish a missional identity — a congregation was known for its key ministries or lack of same.  Today, this is no longer true.  Many churches lack any kind of communal reputation.  New churches have no reputation, so they must create a “public image.”  Adam Hamilton in his book “Leading Beyond the Walls,” does an excellent job describing what a church must do if it lacks a missional identity or an evangelistic witness: marketing.  Today, churches create their image.  What a church does is less important than what it says it does.  This is true as a denomination as well as a congregation or conference.  It pushes us to find a “brand” identity.  We need to distinguish ourselves.  I remember talking with a Christian marketer while doing some research a few years ago who said, “Every church has Jesus.  What you need is to find something else no one else has, or that they haven’t thought to exploit.  The only Jesus that sells is a new and different Jesus.  If you can discover that, you have a winner.”

But what if you’re stuck with the Jesus you’ve got?  What if you don’t think creating a new Jesus is such a good idea?  ReThink Church, maybe.  ReThink Jesus? Okay, changing the way WE think about Jesus would be a great thing.  It’s changing JESUS that I’m concerned about.  And that is what I so often see happen.  Marketing is selective.  We focus on a few catchy positives and downplay the costs.  Christian Life — blessings abound (yes!), comfort and security (yes!!), healing and wholeness (yes!!!), Jesus is your best friend (yes!!!!), cost of discipleship (not so much).

Is marketing evangelism?  The answer is not a simple yes or no.  Marketing is a form of evangelism.  It is representational evangelism.  Representational evangelism is evangelism done for us, not by us.  It lifts the burden of having to tell another person the good news and inviting them into relationship.  It shifts focus from dialogue to monologue.  Generally it is not invitation into community so much as an invitation to a church, where “the professionals” will take over — leading worship, teaching Bible studies, etc.  It is less focused on Good news and more focused on Church news.  Representational evangelism makes the local church the mediator between a person and their relationship with God.  Growing up in the Midwest, I was taught (yes, part of our Sunday school program was being taught to share our faith with others…) that we NEVER invite a person to “church;” we invite people into a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, emphasize the importance of Christian community, and then encourage them to go to a church of their own choosing — even offering to accompany them.  Then, and only then, is it okay to invite them to “your” church.  By the time I entered ministry in New Jersey, one of the leading evangelists in that conference, Doug Miller, offered a very different perspective: “We don’t just make Christians; it is our mission to make United Methodists!”  Today, the leading evangelists are less concerned with making United Methodists than they are swelling their own rolls.

The risk of representational evangelism is that it isn’t “real” evangelism.  It is partial, incomplete evangelism.  Faith sharing requires reciprocity.  Relationship.  Dialogue.  Partnership.  Journey.  It is grounded in community.  It is about integration.  Evangelism is about more than the message — it is about a radical reorientation of a person’s life and worldview.  You cannot do this adequately on a billboard, television, or computer.  And it isn’t the job of the pastors and preachers.  Evangelism is the work of the whole body.  Not everyone can speak the message well, but everyone can witness to the influence of Jesus the Christ in their lives.  Every person should have a witness (especially now that we made it part of our membership vows.  We all know how seriously United Methodists take THOSE…)  No one can do our evangelism for us.  Jesus asked the twelve and continues to ask millions today to be his witnesses.  We can’t pay someone to do it for us.  Surely we can pay people to create wonderful messages and witnesses about us, but it isn’t about us — it’s about Jesus the Christ and God’s will for the world.  Can I get a witness?  Anyone?  Please?

9 replies

  1. Amen and amen! Evangelism starts at the kitchen table of a friend. The love and acceptance of Jesus is not just Good News, it’s GREAT news and who wouldn’t want to share great news with a friend? Staying current with marketing and technology is fine but the rubber meets the road in that one on one relationahip!

  2. Dan,
    This is another excellent post. The UM Church needs to get over fear and loathing of evangelism. I once met with a conference staff person who had the portfolio for discipleship. When I asked how the conference was helping congregations practice evangelism, the response was “We don’t do that. We don’t believe we should impose our beliefs on others.” This was a very revealing statement. This conference leader did not understand the true nature of evangelism. All he knew of it was the bad practices he had experienced in his life or seen and heard on tv and radio. He, like many, confuse evangelism with proselytizing. Now we have leaders trying to coax pastors and lay leaders to beging thinking about the “E” word. But the motivation for invoking the “E” word is, I fear, more fear than it is mission. It is more about institutional preservation than it is about participating in Christ’s mission for the world.

    I also have a little quibble with the evantelism you advocate in this post. I did not see anything about proclaiming the good news of the reign of God that is among us now and is coming. The reign of God is the good news Jesus proclaimed and lived. It is also seldom included in discussions about evangelism today. Contemporary evangelism is too often reduced to telling people about Jesus and accepting a personal releatoinship with him. Certainly the person of Jesus is good news for the world. But he did not come proclaiming himself. He proclaimed the good news of the reign of God. Jesus’ invitation was to join him in preparing this world for the reign of God that is coming. In other words he invited his followers to take on new citizenship in the reign of God. Loyalty to God’s reign supersedes loyalty to any temporal king, potentate, or nation-state. It is Jesus’ proclamation of the reign of God that got him crucified. This means that evangelism, when it focuses on the gospel of Jesus Christ, and less on the gospel about Jesus, is radical and sometimes offensive and dangerous to people who are deeply invested in the world as it is and threatened by the world as it will be.

    Such evangelism is difficult to market. It is countercultural to dominant culture and to the church that has allowed the culture to set its agenda and determine its mission.

    Thanks for another excellent post. You’ve got me thinking.

    • Thanks, Steve. I think we agree, and I didn’t mean to leave things unclear. The kind of “evangelism I advocate” isn’t the 20th century conservative evangelical “to YOU know Jesus Christ a your PERSONAL Lord and Savior. Historically, and I am kind of fim here, the roots of evangelism were about relationship to God and relationship with the spiritual/practical/intimate community awaiting an imminent end. All of our apocalyptic eschatological speculation over the centuries that has gotten lumped into the mix has its place, but my basic rant here is the rapid displacement of relational evangelism by representative evangelism, to the point where “we don’t do that” is the default answer to “how do you do evangelism?” It even pushes for me a scurilous question: Is evangelism something we “do” or is it the natural expression of who we are as Christian disciples? Do we have a choice in the matter, and if we do have a choice, then have we really taken up the mantle of the Christian disciple? If we do not witness to what we believe through our words, actions, and interactions, how real is the commitment? There is no way for me to have any kind of meaningful conversation with another human being that does not touch on what I believe and what I value most deeply. My Christian witness is a natural expression of who I am, and it is fairly transparent. To know me is to know that I believe in God and follow Jesus Christ through the leading and empowerment of the Holy Spirit. (I love the effect this has on many people, but it is there nonetheless.) For me the ultimate question for Christians isn’t “do you evangelize,” but “what is the quality of your evangelism?”

      • Dan,
        Thanks for the response. Your comments bring to mind this quote from John Wesley: “‘Ye’ Christians ‘are the light of the world,’ with regard both to your tempers and actions. Your holiness makes you as conspicuous as the sun in the midst of heaven. As ye cannot go out of the world, so neither can ye stay in it without appearing to all mankind. Ye may not flee from men, and while ye are among them it is impossible to hide your lowliness and meekness and those other dispositions whereby ye aspire to be perfect, as your Father which is in heaven is perfect. Love cannot be hid any more than light; and least of all when it shines forth in action, when ye exercise yourselves in the labour of love, in beneficence of every kind. As well may men think to hide a city as to hide a Christian: yea, as well may they conceal a city set upon a hill as a holy, zealous, active lover of God and man.” (from Sermon 24: Upon Our Lord’s Sermon Upon the Mount-4, based on Matthew 5:13-16).

  3. Part of the problem people have with evangelism is even more than confusion with proselytizing and a fear of imposing our beliefs on others. I have used the example that when we have a great experience at a restaurant or with a car dealer we are not reluctant to tell others for fear of imposing our dining preferences or sales tactic preferences on others. As I delved deeper it became clear that there are many people who come to church out of a sense that it is the right thing to do, but have never have learned to name experiences in their lives as God active and alive in their midst. They can’t share their faith in the same way that they can share the stories of a great meal or other experiences, because they don’t have the stories to tell.

  4. I’ve attended some leadership seminars and church planting seminars this year. The same presenter emphasized that PERSONAL INVITATION is far more effective than costly marketing. Yes, brochures, mailers, fliers, etc can be effective tools but nothing like the personal relationship.

  5. “We don’t do that. We don’t believe we should impose our beliefs on others.”

    This kind of thinking is rampant in the mainline churches, and can be corrected with a change in thinking and teaching at our schools of theology. It’s OK to be a Christian. Our Christian faith is not defined by a what generally makes secular news in a secular society.

    “As I delved deeper it became clear that there are many people who come to church out of a sense that it is the right thing to do, but have never have learned to name experiences in their lives as God active and alive in their midst. They can’t share their faith in the same way that they can share the stories of a great meal or other experiences, because they don’t have the stories to tell.”

    I agree totally. How can one share what one does not know how to express? We are planning to use the Real Life Evangelism series by Marth Grace Reese, in a church-wide effort to help people become comfortable about relating their life experiences in the context of their Christian faith. http://www.GraceNet.info. My Pastor wisely selected he series, and I will help him implement it church-wide.

    Grace and peace

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