‘If we were doing it the 90s, we shouldn’t be doing it now’
I recently watched a video which showed a debate between proponents of two different approaches to evangelism that their churches were committed to – one was running Evangelistic courses for people wnting to explore Christianity, the other used a ‘One to One’ bible reading program. The two participants were engaged in a discussion of the merits of their different approaches, as well as honestly discussing the challenges involved. Both could celebrate success, as we should together with the Angels in heaven (Luke 15:10), in that they had seen people coming to Christ. However, as I listened to the debate on the merits of their different approaches, I couldn’t help asking ‘is this really the debate to be having?’
As I watched it seemed to me that both missed a bigger point. These evangelistic strategies have been commonly used since the 1990s (even 1980s), where they were developed for the far more Christianized and Gospel-friendly culture of the late 20th century, and I myself was a keen proponent of them in that time. However, through the lens of several decades of experience, analysis of church attendance trends and the National Census-measured levels of Christian-affiliation, they both fall foul of my general rule of thumb that
‘If we were doing it the 90s (80s) we shouldn’t be doing it now’
Not that both ‘courses’ and ‘One to One’ don’t have their place, they do, indeed they are the way some people come to Christ, however this is in far fewer (and declining) numbers than in the last century. They are no longer very effective as tools of primary evangelism. This is simply because there has been a massive, tumultuous and continuing cultural and spiritual earthquake since the 1990s when those tools were far more effective. An especially relevant aspect of this is that for the most part (there are exceptions) most Australians are now largely biblically illiterate and increasingly Christian-hostile than was the case even at the end of the last century.
Modern mission generally, because of this seismic cultural shift, has to start without much use being made of the bible or gospel presentations but with building real relationships with non-Christians. This means seeking to create situations where Christians, instead of being considered weird or even being the objects of some hostility, are ‘enjoying the favour of all the people’ (Acts 2:47). To put that another way, where Christians are viewed as ‘good people to have around’.
So rather than using any one, or even several, 1990s (or earlier) style missional strategy such as an evangelistic course, or the offer of ‘one to one’ bible reading, or a gospel presentation at an evangelistic dinner etc (all ultimately ‘In-Drag’ into ‘church’ strategies), Christians need to spend, usually protracted, time winning that ‘favour’ with an attitude of friendship, listening and particularly service. This I call ‘drip-feed’ evangelism because it is a slow and long-haul approach which calls for great patience and perseverance, but which statistics show is highly fruitful, and at very low cost (See Gleanings).
This is the ‘Missional Community’ strategy, which involves the embedding of micro-Christian communities in the ‘Live, Work and Play’ sub-cultural places where non-Christians happily spend their time, in which after an often protracted time of friendship-building, listening and service, relationships can be built and developed. Those relationships can then provide the environment in which the non-Christian may be drawn into the ‘Missional Community’ in which all aspects of discipleship can take place.
Both video-contributors acknowledged that one of the key difficulties of their, and most other current, evangelistic strategies, is that of the ‘what next’ issue. This is the problem that those who have finished a course or a period of ‘One to One’ bible reading, or attended an evangelistic event, will need to be encouraged to move onto ‘something else’. That means a hoop or two or three that needs to be jumped through, i.e. the reached person will have to move to another group, follow up course or to a church service all of which will probably meet at a different location, and time, with a largely new set of people. Many will find such ‘hoops’ difficult to navigate. (See One Stop Shop)
This contrasts with the Missional Community approach where connecting, gathering and discipling are all carried out at the same time, at the same venue (their cultural space not ours) and with the same people. i.e. no Hoops!
Another highly significant difficulty in regard to current (nearly all 20th century) missional strategies such as the video portrayed is that, because of the rapidly revolving kaleidoscope cultural future that faces us, the only ‘certainty’ is ‘uncertainty’. In this, any largely fixed strategy for mission, whether it be evangelistic courses, one on one bible reading programs, event evangelism or whatever, is simply not going to work, as all the data shows they are not. Future mission will need to be highly flexible and ‘Messy’ in its instigation, development and practice, because the future revolving kaleidoscope missional landscape will be ‘Messy’ with its chief characteristic being ‘Unpredictability’.
More than that, the people required for future mission will not be those who are trained to use one or two certain types of missional strategy but Missionaries. These are people who can do ‘Messy’ i.e. they need to be highly flexible such that they have a facility to adjust to the requirements of a rapidly changing ‘Messy’ culture. They must be equipped not with one or two but a Toolbox of skills so that they can employ any one, or several, of a whole range of evangelistic ‘tools’ contained in that ‘Box’ as the changing cultural context demands.
Then there is the biggest issue of all, and the ‘Point being Missed’, that of the ‘Big Picture’ which the proponents of all evangelism approaches originating in the 1990s and earlier generally seem to fail to recognise. The ‘Big picture’, what might be called the ‘elephant in the room’, is that though they may have some success (and do), such approaches are just not capable of producing sufficient missional fruit (in terms of adding the de-churched and unchurched to the Kingdom) such as to increase the ‘SALT’ Index (SI) which has now been in catastrophic decline for decades (Matthew 5:13).
The ‘SI’ is the ratio of Church Attendance to Population in any given population centre, and its decline represents a trend of diminishing Gospel influence on Australian society. This is made even worse by the evidence of a parallel decline the ‘SALTINESS’ Index (SNI), that is the fact that what ‘Salt’ there is has to a great degree lost its ‘saltiness’, (Luke 14:34,35) with surveys indicating that less than 20% of church members are willing to talk about their faith.
This ongoing decline in the SALT index, represents a decline in the Gospel influence in society, and this has practical negative outcomes as shown by what is being taught in schools and universities, modelled in families, as well as the legislation being enacted in parliaments.
We can debate which of the many current approaches to reaching the lost are most effective. However, ‘Is that the right debate to have?’ For surely that is to miss what all the statistical evidence shows is the main point. That is, in the light of the ‘Big Picture’ that none of them are producing, or can produce, anything like the degree of fruit required to even stabilize, let alone, reverse the catastrophic decline in the ‘SALT’ Index.
Therefore, as much as Evangelistic courses, One to One bible reading programs, and other 20th century-originating strategies can still produce some fruit, in the dire context of a catastrophically declining (SALT Index) they are not the place to start in mission to the de-churched and unchurched of the 21st century. It is surely evident that Something Completely Different, whatever form that takes, is required which will involve a complete ‘re-imagining’ of church and mission. Very importantly, those who lead it will need themselves to be capable of ‘re-imagining’ missional vehicles for a Messy missional future the chief characteristic of which is – Uncertainty. Tragically, one looks in vain for much sign of such re-imagination!
Then there is of course the most important question of all. Missional fruitfulness is ultimately totally dependent on the Grace of God. This begs the question as to whether He will bless us with that Grace if we refuse to use our God-given brains to re-imagine new culturally appropriate, and more fruitful, missional strategies and continue to insist on clinging to the limited and declining fruit of the strategies of yesteryear?