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Giving up on Evangelism – Now what?

A couple of years prior to the pandemic, I was an unwilling participant in an ‘evangelism’ experiment.  I found myself walking along Elizabeth Street in the Melbourne CBD.  Although the footpath was packed with peak-hour pedestrians, up ahead I could see that the six-person wide throng was narrowing to a single file, pressed against a bluestone wall on the right, as if repelled by a force-field emanating from the kerb on the left.  The source of the repellent force turned out to be a young man, armed with a portable PA, solemnly reading aloud from the bible open in his hands.  I admired his commitment to evangelism.  His missiology – not so much. Research by Stark and Finke[1] found that conversion (i.e. adopting a new religious belief) most often takes place in a close social network, be it familial or friendship-based.  People generally adopt the prevailing faith of their social group.  Belonging to the group precedes religious conversion.  Joining a new social network where strong relational ties are formed is frequently the precursor to adopting a new faith.  George Hunter III[2] demonstrates how well this dynamic was put to work by the Celtic monks who effectively Christianised the British Isles and Northern Europe.  My own straw-poll research has shown that the overwhelming majority of people who profess Christian faith knew three or more believers before they made their first profession. People adopt the faith of their friends and family. Moreover, Stark and Finke observe that they are more open to adopting the faith of newfound friends when their pre-existing relational ties have been disrupted.  A change of life circumstance, such as becoming a parent or moving to a new...

Giving up on evangelism

“I won’t do evangelism.”  Genuine fear played across the face of the church council member.  When I asked what he thought evangelism meant, he described someone preaching on a street corner.  If that’s evangelism, I’m unlikely to do it either. Evangelism is not a neutral word.  Some see it as an imperative, others as the preserve of judgemental fundamentalists.  While the church generally has a sense that it should somehow be announcing the good news of Jesus, the exact content of that good news and the means by which it should be communicated are far from settled.  For as long as I’ve been hanging around the church (and that’s nearly fifty years), there has been a succession of tools, techniques, programs and products all designed to mobilise the church toward evangelism.  All the while, the church as a proportion of the population has halved.  If we’re honest with ourselves, most of us are pretty happy to leave evangelism to evangelists. What if we could be effective in helping unchurched people become followers of Jesus without learning scripts, without ‘steering’ conversations, without campaigns, crusades or anything else that seems like relational kryptonite? At the end of Luke’s gospel, Jesus states that repentance and forgiveness will be preached (and there’s another article in that) to all nations.  And then he told the gathered disciples, “You are witnesses of these things.” In court, reliable witnesses have a degree neutrality: “This is what I saw, this is what I heard, this is what I experienced.”  Unreliable witnesses try to craft their testimony to get an outcome.  Hostile witnesses resist giving testimony to the extent they can. When I run a Pathways workshop I often conduct a straw poll as to how many people...