passion for the Great Commission
From the outset of this article, I want to be clear that I believe in and promote evangelism. One of my ministries offered to our FEB churches through Northwest and Fellowship International is that of coaching for evangelism following the grassroots method of encouraging Significant Conversations. Furthermore, it is not my intention in any way to discourage those who want to reach their community for Christ and are experimenting in creative ways to do so. Obedience to and passion for the Great Commission (Mt 28:18-20) is to be commended and encouraged when it is found in our churches.
At the same time, it is also important to interact with each other to stimulate strategic and critical thinking about the way we approach our communities and the message we are communicating. During our time in Pakistan – a country with little response to the gospel message – we learned to appreciate the challenges and critique of others with respect to our methodologies. It is wise to seek and welcome questions and perspectives that cause us to evaluate our approach, so that our efforts can be as effective as possible. It is in this spirit that the following thoughts are offered.
Challenges concerning Priorities in Evangelism
I received a CD from an influential evangelical association recently. On the cover was a picture of bouncy castles and people eating hotdogs. The intent was to promote the idea of churches doing “acts of kindness” and planning church-sponsored events in the community. The promoters of the CD believe that through such community events the relevance of the church can be demonstrated and fruitful relationships with the unchurched established. Following this methodology, 3 churches in the area in which I live each held separate community fun days during the summer.
I want to challenge the community fun day approach and explain why these church organized events, to a large extent, distract from, rather than encourage evangelism. The issue is not one of right and wrong, but a matter of considering our priorities in light of what we have to offer as followers of Christ.
priorities and strategy in evangelism
In the early days of our church planting ministry in Pakistan, I spent considerable time explaining the gospel message to young men who came to visit me. Later on, I realized that my priority was misplaced as relationships with the “power brokers” in the family hierarchy were not being developed; it was the relationships the leaders of the families that would have guaranteed a reproducible and lasting impact in that context. Similarly, it is possible for Canadian churches to have misplaced priorities and engage in outreach activities that distract from more strategic and impacting evangelistic methodologies.
Consider the following:
1. Most of our communities offer many opportunities for entertainment and activity. Anyone with children knows that one of the primary tasks of a parent is as taxi driver, taking children from one activity to the next. In this context, organizing a community fun day means that the church has put itself in a position of competition with all of the other activities and programs available to the community. Rather than filling a vacuum by providing much needed entertainment – a possibility in some rural or impoverished communities – most churches add one more opportunity to an excess of amusement options.
I would challenge churches to take a different approach: infiltrate community programs that already exist and support events organized by other groups. Volunteering demonstrates the desire of the church to serve and to see others succeed. It builds bridges of appreciation with the organizers of those groups, which can lead to the establishment of relationships and open the door to significant conversations.
2. For the most part, church-based community fun days do not meet the real needs of the community by bringing positive change in another person’s life.
My challenge to churches is to identify a truly needy segment of the population, discover who is already meeting the needs of that group and then partner with them to make a difference. This allows for good stewardship of church resources while encouraging synergy with others in the community. Strong relationships are built when people work together for a common purpose. In addition, significant ministry to those in need benefits both the giver and receiver (recognizing that significance must be measured according to the recipient of the service, not the ones serving).
3. A community fun day is not evangelism. Although the point of the program is to connect with the community, the forum is not conducive for people to engage each other about significant spiritual issues. Instead, energy is put into running a smooth program and ensuring that people feel satisfied and happy, like a Sunday School picnic to which the community is invited.
I encourage churches to recognize that their primary evangelistic outreach is already occurring through the congregation. Consider those activities, opportunities and relationships that people experience on a daily basis throughout the week as the best forum through which Jesus can be introduced. Significant conversations already occur in our lives. Set the primary evangelism program of the church to be the support and development of those existing relationships.
4. Community fun days misrepresent the church’s purpose if they are an attempt to promote or reinvent the church in the eyes of the community. Church is about the gospel of Jesus Christ and the difference he makes as we live in obedience to him. The message of a fun day, on the other hand, is that church provides the community with a good time, and thus obscures the primary agenda. A message that we are a community-oriented social organization whose presence is inoffensive and consistent with the goals of society, is a misrepresentation. We are seeking to be counter-cultural: change agents with a mission to turn people’s perspective towards God.
The challenge churches need to keep in the forefront is to discover those people who have a spiritual hunger and engage them in conversation. A community fun day environment promotes fleeting, surface level interaction between strangers. However, the majority of any congregation has daily contact with friends, co-workers and relatives whose spiritual interest is known to them. Leaders who spend their energies on supporting and guiding believers to make the most of their naturally occurring conversations will find themselves pulling with the congregation, rather than being frustrated by a lack of enthusiastic participation in outreach programs.
5. Busy lives can leave little time for relationships and relationships take time. Programs that involve people in activities with strangers leave less time and energy to develop those relationships that are already significant in their lives.
It is important that people have the time and encouragement to develop their current relationships and to fulfill what they perceive as significant service to others. A man connected with our church died a short while ago and over 600 people attended his funeral. Each of those 600 people who took time out of their schedules in order to say good-bye represents a significant relationship. While he was alive, these were the people that he could talk to at a level deeper than the surface pleasantries common to the interaction of strangers. Instead of encouraging people to participate in programs through which they interact with strangers or develop new relationships, it is usually more productive to begin with the relationships that already mean something, those relationships in which conversations on a deeper spiritual level can more naturally occur.
6. Community fun days are an advertisement, like the sign in front of a church. Advertising seeks to connect with a desire of the consumer. Through the exposure to fun, family-oriented activities, the church communicates its value and benefit to the participant. It is possible that, seeing the fun programs, some will decide to pursue a connection with the church.
However, I believe that it is more important to allow the relevance and significance of the gospel to be the attraction. People are looking for meaning and purpose in order to make sense of their lives. They are not likely to discover this in a bouncy castle setting, nor even in a church service, which is often the next invitation they receive. Rather, it occurs in those informal, natural settings in which people engage in conversation and speak freely about their questions, concerns and beliefs.
7. Community fun days are one example of programs that encourage people to get involved with a goal of encouraging church unity. It is true that when people work together they can develop strong relationships, as noted above, and this is a good thing. But when the program does not reflect the essence of our faith, the connections fail to fulfill the spiritual unity prayed for by Christ (John 17).
I would challenge churches to consider the content of what unites us as believers. Church unity and fellowship are experienced around expressions of the Christian message. For example, because a key desire of believers is to live as intentional Christians within their current relationships, leaders have the opportunity to develop and encourage networks of prayer and support for believers to aid in the process of discovering how to live out their faith. Participation in each other’s lives that leads us closer to Christ is the fellowship for which Jesus prayed.
8. Church programs, such as community fun days, are “safe.” We maintain full control and can run them according to our beliefs and values. We can have the last word and ensure that it fits our perspective.
Nonetheless, I encourage churches to participate in community run programs where they have little power, limited opportunity to set the agenda and cannot overtly preach the gospel. We need to discover how to influence those we interact with through relationships, rather than through controlling the agenda. We need to engage in dialogue, rather than insist upon our message having pre-eminence. As E. Stanley Jones noted, when there is round table dialogue with all religions having equal opportunity to present their beliefs, it is Jesus who shines. We do not need to fear an even playing field, or even one in which we are discriminated against. For it is through relationships, significant conversations and love that people will come to Christ.
An Alternative: Recognize the Untapped Outreach Potential of Your Church
lead from behind = empower
When we lead from behind, the definition of leadership becomes “empower.” Rather than creating programs for people to become involved in, I suggest that the current involvement people have in the lives of others be considered their primary ministry. Because people already engage others in significant conversations at a grassroots level, pastoral leadership can put their efforts towards empowering them to fulfill their God-given vision of Christian life and ministry.
As followers of Christ, believers have a desire to live relevantly and to impact their culture, and so they struggle to discover how Jesus makes a difference in their daily relationships. They want to understand and express how their faith makes sense within this pluralist context, and they look to pastoral leadership to help them understand how God speaks into their situation.
Without intending to criticize the sermons or teaching found in church services, I nonetheless suggest that there is a gap between the instruction people receive in church and the life that they live, a gap that needs to be addressed from the perspective of the daily challenges they face. That is, the questions need to be first understood within their environment before the relevance of biblical teaching can be identified. The priority is to first listen to and understand the conversations that are taking place and then discover how the God’s word provides relevant teaching. This requires personal, one-on-one interaction. One metaphor I find particularly relevant is that of filling bottles with water. Throwing a bucket of water over a number of bottles will result in some water getting into the bottles. However, the more effective approach is to spend time pouring water into each bottle – slower, but far more effective and lasting.
Therefore, instead of encouraging people to be busy in church programs, consider the following:
- Identify those people in the congregation who are already speaking to others about spiritual things. There are probably more people than you realize who engage others in significant conversations. By being attentive to what is already happening, you are validating people’s passion to live significant lives in relationship with others.
- Meet with them on an individual basis to hear their stories, to encourage them and to pray with them.
- Coordinate networks of support and prayer for them with others in the congregation.
- Affirm and celebrate publicly their investment in other’s lives as the primary ministry of those church members.
Mark spends part of his time coaching churches in Significant Conversations. If you are interested in this method of evangelism, please contact him via the Contact Me form. If you would like to leave a comment, please use the “comment” link at the bottom of this article.