I recently had a conversation with a woman who used to be a church-goer when she was young, but hasn't found herself in a church setting in a while. When I told her I lead worship at a nearby church, she was interested in coming to visit. We in the church have theories about where we go wrong in bringing new faces into our buildings. Out in the world people go about their everyday lives, and we watch to see if they are a part of the church or outside of it.
If your church is suddenly overtaken by millennials with their heads stuck in their phones, you can thank Pokemon.
Yes, Pokemon. The Nintendo-owned franchise, which produced colorful cards and later video games, is back — this time luring young adults out of their apartments and into museums, parks, and places of worship.
LifeWay Research has taken a close look at what might draw them in, zeroing in on people who say they have not attended a religious service in the past six months except for special events or holidays.
Worship? Not particularly interested, two in three people told the evangelical research firm in a survey released June 28.
Ask Wah Nay Htoo how an evangelical church helped her refugee family after they arrived in Colorado and her list is long.
“Oh my goodness, Cornerstone helped our family a lot — everything,” said Htoo, 38, a Burmese woman who lived most of her life in a refugee camp in Thailand before moving to the Denver suburb of Lafayette in 2008.
One out of five Southern Baptist missionaries overseas — or nearly 1,000 total — have volunteered to leave their posts to help the denomination’s mission board deal with its financial straits. That’s in addition to the departure of a third of the staff of the International Mission Board, also mostly through a voluntary program.
Alongside programs like Orange Is the New Black and House of Cards, Netflix now offers users another type of content: Christian sermons. The online video streaming service added lectures by four popular Christian pastors in early December.
“I believe if Jesus were on planet Earth today in the flesh he’d be on Netflix,” said Ed Young, one of the pastors, in a phone interview.
One of Germany’s largest Protestant regional churches has come under fire from other Christians for speaking out against efforts to convert Muslims just as tens of thousands of refugees from the Islamic world are streaming into the country.
In a new position paper, the Evangelical Church in the Rhineland says the passage in the Gospel of Matthew known as the Great Commission — “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” — does not mean Christians must try to convert others to their faith.
“A strategic mission to Islam or meeting Muslims to convert them threatens social peace and contradicts the spirit and mandate of Jesus Christ and is therefore to be firmly rejected,” the paper entitled “Pilgrim Fellowship and Witness in Dialogue with Muslims” argues.
I got to thinking about evangelism this month in particular as part of My Jesus Project, a year-long practice I’m engaged in to more deeply understand what it really means to follow Jesus. This month I’m studying what I call “Jesus the Evangelist,” with Alan Chambers as my mentor. Chambers is best known as the founder and longtime head of Exodus International, an organization that emphasized conversion therapy, or helping people who were gay become — for lack of a better term — un-gay.
But it didn’t work. Chambers said so himself, as he is gay too, and he knows firsthand that he is still very much the same sexual being he was before. Further, the organization’s form of evangelism did a lot of damage, which he now seeks to repair.
Here are some all-too-common examples of how we misstep when trying in one way or another to share our faith with others.
I gave up street evangelizing a long time ago. It was a short-lived career — a few weekends into town with a friend, praying for God to help us meet someone we could share Jesus with. It quickly (thankfully) became clear to me that this business of following God is much better done in the context of long-term relationships with a broader understanding of salvation and mission.
Any time we try to confine the big and beautiful Good News of God into a simplistic message small enough to fit onto a tract or a 10-minute awkward conversation, we cut out too many important details. The truncated gospel of the Four Spiritual Laws requires that we get to the point — Jesus is the answer — as quickly as possible, lest our conversion, I mean, conversation partner gets away from us.
For Jesus to be the answer, there’s got to be a problem, and so we belabor the problem in order to solve it.
The mathematical equation of the gospel made sense to me when I was a child and perhaps into young adulthood. Prove the problem and solve the equation. Everything was simple, organized, and neatly categorized.
Somewhere along the way, it stopped making sense.
I was recently talking with friends about looking people up online. I told the story of being unpleasantly surprised to find, on someone’s Facebook profile, that he was affiliated with a sports-themed summer camp in the Middle East run by Christians with the not-as-subtle-as-they-think motivation of converting (or at least … influencing) young Muslim campers. As I told the story, I could see that I had probably picked the wrong audience: friends who, while they might not have signed up for such a project themselves, certainly knew people who would. I trailed off lamely, debating with myself whether to bother noting the obvious as an excuse for my reaction: that they had grown up in conservative churches and I in a liberal one.
But thinking about it later, I realized it was more than that. “I don’t believe in converting people,” I wanted to go back and say to them. “Not in the way that I don’t believe in wearing white after Labor Day — like a personal preference or moral objection — but in the way that I don’t believe in Santa Claus.” I do not believe it happens.
To be more specific, I don’t believe in people converting people. Conversion, obviously, happens. And other people may be there, even standing by and handing the convert a pamphlet. The convert may even be saying, “Because of you, I am converting!” But I don’t buy it.
When I ask people to describe a typical “missionary,” the usual response includes that of a young man with black pants and a white collared shirt (with a name tag attached) that knocks on doors, or perhaps an evangelical preacher who stands on (and shouts from) street corners, or possibly one who travels the far ends of the earth to help the poor and plant new churches. But just because some are more vocal and visible than others, such missionaries should not be acknowledged as the totality of all that exists, because:
All people in all places are missionaries, for all people in all places participate within a particular mission in some shape or form. Missionaries are as diverse as the human community itself.
While most missionaries do not self-define as such, the world is filled with them, many of whom serve with a high degree of commitment and faithfulness. For instance, if a missionary is – by definition – one who participates within a particular mission, then those who consume Coca-Cola are not merely consumers, but they are – by definition – missionaries of the Coca-Cola brand and its corporate mission. Similarly, there are countless political missionaries in all corners of the globe. As election cycles draw close, such missionaries multiply in mass numbers, and their energetic zeal often rivals – and sometimes far exceeds – the determination of many religious clergy labeled as extreme.
The world consists of countless missions and innumerable missionaries. As stated from the onset, all people in all places are missionaries, so not only should we hesitate to assume we know what a “typical missionary” is, we should also attempt to distinguish who a Christian missionary is to be within the context of countless other (complementary and competing) missions and missionaries. So what follows is a brief reflection on what the focus of God’s mission might be, and an exploration of how Christian missionaries may be able to function as a result.
I went to the mecca of evangelicalism for college — beautiful campus in the suburbs of Chicago, where I received a scholarship from none other than the Pope of Evangelicalism, Billy Graham, for my work in street evangelism. As in, speaking to random strangers on the street in order to convert them to Christianity. Post graduation, I became a missionary, the Protestant equivalent of achieving sainthood.
I look back on that girl on fire and marvel at her earnest faith. If I could, I would reach back and massage the tense knots out of her high-strung shoulders, weary from carrying the weight of her neighbors’ eternal destinies. I would wistfully explain to her that the first person she tried to witness to, that gentle, drunken, homeless woman named Kathy, needed more than my rehearsed Roman Road to salvation. Then I would break the Temporal Prime Directive and reveal to her that one day she would become more interested in being evangelized than evangelizing.
The truth is, I’m just better at being evangelized. It’s probably how I was so easily converted at the tender age of 12. The young Christian is expected to learn how to share their testimony: their story of how God changes your life. By the time I was in my twenties, I had given my testimony a bajillion times.
But my own story often bored me.
ALEXANDRIA, Va. — Rhonda Rowe and her team gathered around a diagram of the nursing home’s floor plan and determined how to split up to avoid praying with anyone twice.
Rowe made her way to a room where a 93-year-old woman lay in her bed while her 87-year-old roommate sat in a wheelchair. Rowe knelt between them and went through her “Nursing Home Gospel Soul-Winning Script.”
“Fill me with your Holy Spirit and fire of God,” the 93-year-old repeated. “I’m on my way to heaven. I have Jesus in my heart.”
Rowe was soon off to the next room, but before she left, acknowledged that she might never see them again on earth. “I’ll see you girls in heaven!” she chirped.
Welcome to the world of nursing home evangelism, where teams of lay evangelists target senior citizens for one last chance in this life for glory in the next.
Our son, Mattias, is a complicated kid. He’s sweet, creative and remarkably intelligent. But to say he is strong willed would be underselling his capacity for intransigence.
When he was in preschool he, like many kids, went through a “naked phase.” He never wanted to have his clothes on at home (which was no small issue with regard to our furniture’s upkeep), and getting him dressed in the morning was part chore and part all-out war.
“We have one of these kids every year,” said his teacher, a seasoned veteran. “What you have to do is call his bluff.”
I have never really understood personal evangelism. Maybe it’s because I have never really been good at sharing my faith — at least not with complete strangers. I have never stood on the street corner preaching to all within earshot. I’m not the guy with numerous stories about how I shared my life story with the person sitting next to me on the plane, inducing a tearful admission that he needs Jesus. (I am not condemning these types of encounters, nor am I condemning these practices altogether.) To be completely honest, I don’t think I have even one story like that.
Recently, I have been trying to better understand the Great Commission. I have to tell you what I hear Jesus telling me in that particular passage. You might be surprised to find that he isn’t telling me to share the Gospel with all who will listen (although, that is part of it); rather he is telling me (and you) to go and make disciples. The former is really just words; the latter is words and actions, ultimately culminating in a relationship.
I became interested in the politics of immigration in about the most innocent way possible for a student at a conservative Christian college — good ol’ fashioned evangelism. Working on an “impact team” with a local Columbian pastor, we had a few nights of evangelism in large apartment complex that was almost exclusively Honduran. On the first night, I struck up a conversation with a (very) drunk man sitting on a park bench named Carlos. Over the next few months our relationship grew, and we became close friends. Eventually, he had an experience with Christ that changed his life and we came brothers. As members of the same body, this now meant that his burdens were my burdens (Rom 12:15; Gal. 6:2). As Carlos was an undocumented immigrant living in the south, this means that it sure didn’t take long for my burden to become immigration reform
Months after our initial meeting, I looked down at my phone and saw that Carlos was calling—but as I picked it up, the voice on the other line didn’t sound anything like my friend. Instead of a loud and happy voice calling me gringo, the voice was strained, quiet, emotional. I tensed up at the sound of his quivering voice — recognizing immediately that something serious was wrong.
To the dying church,
I think I missed the moment. It was a pretty big moment, too. At least here in the United States, you were a force to be reckoned with until a few years ago. You helped form the fabric of our society. Pastors were well-respected people of authority. They built great big sanctuaries, and people wore respectable clothing on Sunday mornings. To be fair, you didn’t — and don’t now — always live up to the hype. Sometimes you hide your head in the ground when it’s time to stand up against racism and homophobia. You’re still not so sure about the equality of women. You sometimes sell out to political agendas.
But regardless of the good and the bad, the moment is now over, and you’re dying. Or that’s what they tell me. All that power and influence is fading away. It sounds like some churches are having trouble even keeping the lights on. I know I should mourn for you, but allow me a moment of self-pity here too. What, you thought it was all about you?
You see, I’ve been getting ready for a few years now. A bunch of us have. Some of us have grown up with you, and some of us have just met you recently, but we’re all lining up to serve you. Somehow we all have this nagging sense that we’re supposed to be with you in these days, so some of us went to seminary and some went to college to learn youth ministry. We went to conferences and gave up our evenings and weekends to church basements with committees and youth groups. We read books and studied Scripture and prayed and imagined the kingdom of God breaking into the world through you. They call us emerging leaders, and we had a lot of hopes for you.
To the dying church,
The ongoing decline of American Christianity is well documented. A quick Google search of “mainline decline” provides statistics, commentary, and variously tried and discarded solutions related to the struggles of liberal protestantism in the United States. More recently, these trends are showing up in conservative Christian circles as well. The attention of the media, religious scholars, and cultural warriors has been captured by the rise of the “nones,” the “spiritual but not religious,” humanists, and evangelistic atheists.
It is clear who’s ascending and who’s falling. Organized religion is doomed. You, dying church, are in trouble.
I have seen your sickness up close. The congregation where I was baptized — once full on Sunday mornings — now barely hangs on. The church where I preached in college has long since closed its doors. My pastor friends spend their days worrying about shrinking worship attendance and a lack of financial resources for carrying out their ministry. Denominations pause from fighting and splitting just long enough to make budget cuts and lay off staff.
What can be done? What should be done? Is this a new reality that we simply must accept?