21ST Century Evangelism: It is all about relationships
Evangelism. It is a word as polarizing as it is powerful; it both attracts and repels. Central to the mission of the Christian faith, it is rooted in Christ's Great Commission to "go ... and make disciples of all nations" (Matthew 28:19a, NRSV). Yet, for 21st-century United Methodists, evangelism is experiencing an identity crisis. Archetypal images of the itinerant preacher roaring to throngs of frontier families gathered under a meeting tent have morphed into the modern televangelist. Most modern United Methodist leaders fit neither stereotype. Those who do run the risk of being dismissed as disingenuous or, worse still, irrelevant.
For today's pastor looking onto aging faces and half-filled pews, the dilemma is real enough, especially if just across the street a coffee house is humming with espresso-fueled conversation, tweets and FaceTime calls.
Looking around, the pastor thinks, "Maybe we could paint the place, get an espresso machine and wire the fellowship hall for Internet access. If budget and talent allow, we'll put together a praise concert to rival the Grammy awards." The brainstorming continues. "We'll set up a Facebook page; have the youth minister get us on YouTube and Instagram. Heck, I might even start tweeting."
A year later, the coffee house congregation is expanding. The long-established church is not. The pastor gazes at the portrait of John Wesley on the study wall. "What do YOU know? You lived in a four-mile-an-hour world and had no competition. Try evangelizing the gospel in THIS environment!"
The truth is, John Wesley knew more than a little about evangelism. For him, evangelism was far more relevant, welcoming and demanding than most United Methodists today realize. For Wesley, evangelism was never a compartmentalized function reserved for the eloquent few, but rather was the responsibility and the privilege of every Christian.
For the most part, 19th- and early 20th-century Methodist preachers embraced the fear-ridden, soul-scorching "Just as I Am" style of evangelism. Despite the moderating influence of the Harry Denman-era of the late 1930s and 1940s, it had a long run. How did it happen?
A short history
The Rev. Heather Heinzman Lear, director of evangelism ministries at Discipleship Ministries in Nashville, Tennessee, explains. "When the first Methodists came over from England, it was during a time of rampant revivalism. It was all about going to heaven when you die, not sanctification, going on to perfection, lifelong discipleship or growing in the love of God and neighbor. The original Methodist circuit riders were sucked into that mindset, which eventually became the Methodist model of evangelism in America."
While the approach to evangelism has steadily evolved, Lear says, "It has only been in the last 30 or 40 years that we have begun to reexamine Wesley's approach."
In areas such as education and social justice, she says, the denomination has lived up to Wesley's vision of faith in action. However, while Methodism's founder did not consider saving souls unimportant, he believed the biblical model of evangelism was one of lifelong discipleship rooted in an abiding relationship with Christ, one another and a world in need. Every decision for Christ requires a commitment from the new believer – and the entire community of faith.
"For Wesley," Lear observes, "it was not about just a one-time conversion but, rather, bringing people into relationship with both God and community. It's in community where we learn from one another, grow in grace and accountability with one another, and it's in community where we go out and serve with one another as well."
‘It's the world that God loves'
The Rev. Timothy Bias, general secretary of Discipleship Ministries, also urges thinking beyond evangelism as outreach only and embracing the gifts that come through relationships.
"Evangelism is really a way of living," Bias says. "How we relate to others gives us a chance to practice being the kind person we want to be and to allow the gifts of others to enrich us in return. It's vital for us to be in relationship with the world. After all, it's the world that God loves, and it is only through modeling Christ through genuine relationships that we earn the right to talk about the most important force in our lives – Jesus Christ."
The average American is pummeled with 5,000 ads a day. Few churches can out-market Madison Avenue, and churches that approach evangelism the way a company would mount an ad campaign are quickly disappointed. Even "social media allows us to enter into relationship with people on a certain level," Bias observes, "but it's no substitute for genuine relationships."
Jane Boatwright Wood, president of the Foundation for Evangelism, agrees with Bias.
"Evangelism is not simple marketing," she explains "Marketing is encouraging people to come into the church. ... The activity is on the part of the seeker.
"The faith community should be the one reaching out to others so they can help seekers outside the walls to come to understanding God's transforming love through Jesus Christ. We do that through the way we live and how we serve, but we must make sure to take Christ with us. That is the only way people can know who animates us and why."
An Anchor for the soul
The Anchor Church, a United Methodist faith community in Wilmington, North Carolina, meets on a barge at the city's Riverwalk. It is an example of relationship evangelism through what the Rev. Philip Chryst calls a "missional community."
The church began as a ministerial "parachute drop" into the community where Chryst discovered a group of Burmese refugees who craved connection and community.
Initially, he says, "It was a gathering of people who just wanted to do good. We would meet a couple of times a week to support each other and to do good works together, and eventually, we invited others to join us. It became a discipleship vehicle in which we supported one another, prayed with one another and held each other accountable. Finally, when we reached about 60 in number, we decided it might be a good idea to worship together." A friend who owns the riverboat allows the group to hold services there.
"That's how we started," Chryst continues. "The name ‘Anchor Church' really has nothing to do with the riverboat. The anchor is the Christian symbol for safety and security (Hebrews 6:19)." The missional community is the primary focus.
"Evangelism is less about the introduction to Jesus on the front end and more about an invitation to do good," Chryst says. "In the midst of doing good together, we then have the opportunity to talk about Jesus Christ. It's traditional evangelism flipped on its head."
‘And are we yet alive?'
In California's San Bernardino Valley, the Rev. Bill Johnson created LIFT Renewal Ministries to help pastors and congregations deepen their experience of Jesus Christ through study, covenant accountability and relationships in the Wesleyan tradition. Their mission is to challenge churches to examine their ministry at every level – including their perception of evangelism.
"For me, the question isn't how can we save The United Methodist Church, but rather, how can we use the United Methodism we have for a godly purpose?" says Johnson, now senior pastor of First United Methodist Church in Orange, California. "For me, the key word is 'abide.' Evangelism needs to take the form of lasting, abiding relationships with people. In the age of social media, it's too easy to claim relationships based on fantasy or fabrication, but there is a profound need to experience what we sing about, ‘And are we yet alive' and particularly the next verse, ‘and see each other's face.'"
Johnson emphasizes the need for Christians to be accountable to one another – for their deeds and for nurturing their faith. "We can't separate who we are from what we do," he says, "and for that, we need each other."
Bias agrees. "The church is an instrument for moving us into the world which God loves and is seeking to bring into at-one-ment as Christ created the world to be. Jesus is already there, in the world, inviting us into the world. It's not so much that we need a church that satisfies its members – there is a place for that – but to me, the church is healthiest when it reaches out and welcomes all people. It means being hospitable at the very core of the word's meaning. It's Romans 15:7 (‘Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.'). Are there any Christ has not welcomed?" he asks.
A historical emphasis on making members rather than forming disciples is one of the roots of current denominational struggles, Lear believes. "The church was never meant to be the end, but (rather) the means to help people to answer their call to discipleship and serve as partners in transforming the world. The church is a vessel."
‘Send us the people nobody else wants'
Asked how a church can know where to target its evangelical energies, Bias replies, "I have prayed the prayer, ‘Send us the people nobody else wants, and help us receive the people you send to us.' Those are prayers of hospitality. And it's not just a prayer for those people – it is also a prayer to receive the gifts they bring to us.
"How cool would it be that everyone we meet we would ask them to pray for us? We know that God hears their prayers, even though there are people who feel that God neither hears nor cares about them. If I can interact with people who will pray for me, because they have that holy connection, then I am the one who is transformed. And who needs prayer more than me?"
Bias says the church can practice receiving the gifts of all by developing relationships where "we can go out and not do things TO and FOR, but WITH people so that we can be shaped into the community of believers that reflects Jesus Christ. Sometimes that means ... allowing (those outside the church) to bring their gifts to the community and shape it into something different from what we may have envisioned."
"In the end," says Lear, "evangelism is really the art of paying attention. Paying attention to God at work in our lives and the lives of others, and paying attention to how God is calling and using others in ways that they may not recognize. God is already there at work in their lives, and part of what we are called to do is to pay attention so that we can help people to see God's hand already in theirs, how they are caring for other people already, using their gifts for good."
Vince Isner is a writer, media producer and founder of PowerTools™ for Fathers, who lives in Franklin, Tennessee. He has served with United Methodist Communications and the General Board of Church and Society and is founding director of Faithful America.