The High Cost of Evangelism

I find myself in a denomination that is concerned about it’s life. In North America, attendance is down, membership is down, churches are closing and it seems like it is a stretch to find things to celebrate. Statistics are watched closely. Any church that has growth is studied and, at times, used as a model. Books are written. Conference are formed. All this takes place so that churches, who aren’t having statistical success, can discover the secrets of healthy growth. After all, no one wants to die, not even a denomination.

In this type of culture, one fixated on life and survival, evangelism is seen as the key. If we would evangelize, people would come to Christ and to the church. That is the belief anyway. Of course we look past the fact that there are many Christians who do not attend weekly services at all, but that is another issue. Yet, it seems feasible that if we were able to evangelize well, then our churches (and statistics) would be healthy.

Evangelism has always seemed mysterious to me. At various times Jesus was more interested in sending people away, or saying things that caused them to leave (see John 6) than getting them to sign up for his mission. I don’t think it was that he didn’t want people to respond to his message. I think he just knew that people needed to hear what he was really saying and respond to that. He didn’t sugar coat things. If they were going to be followers, well, he wanted them to know that it was going to be hard, and require much sacrifice.

As I contemplate evangelism, I wonder if we have the same edge that Jesus had. We are wanting our churches to grow. Our evangelism usually focuses around someone’s felt needs. We are to discover those felt needs, and help them see how Jesus (or actually the church) can meet those needs. While I agree that Jesus can meet our needs I wonder if our felt needs are the ones that really need to be met.

I was in a worship service not too long ago where the Youth Pastor announced they needed quite a few Wiis, Xbox 360s, Playstations, and HD TVs. He wasn’t asking for one or two, but for many. Why? Because they wanted to evangelize the youth of their city and the felt those things were needed to accomplish that task. The thought was, if they don’t come, how can we evangelize them? We need these things so that they will want to come.

To be honest, I’m torn on this. One part of me applauds the church, but another part of me wonders if it has really come down to this? It isn’t just the kids though. We do the same thing with our special services, events, concerts, etc. Yet many churches discover that while some might respond, many turn a deaf ear.

I don’t think we have taken time to really understand why our evangelism doesn’t always work. I’m not sure we understand the deep roots of our culture that causes people to take what we give them, but never really meet Christ in a way that transforms their lives. They might have their felt needs met, they might be able to play the newest XBox game, they might even begin coming to church….but is that really what we are after? Do we really need another church member? Do we really need another tick on our statistic that one more person showed up on Sunday morning? Yes, it might make us feel good, but deep down aren’t we really after something more?

Like Jesus, we want to see disciples. We want to see people transformed, not only on the outside, but also on the inside. We want to see people so transformed that sacrifice is a lifestyle. People who don’t think twice of giving themselves in service…or of giving their money in service. People who spend time in deep prayer (i.e. prayer that changes them by aligning their wills with God’s). People who are able to turn the world upside down and join God in putting things back to rights.

Perhaps we need a new type of evangelism. An evangelism that is not about XBoxes and felt needs.One that takes into account deep cultural issues. One that understands what the church needs is not converts, but disciples.

Wesley on Good Works before Justification

Reading through Wesley’s sermon “Justification by Faith” and ran across this nice quote where Wesley addresses “good works” before one is justified:

5. If it be objected, “Nay, but a man, before he is justified, may feed the hungry, or clothe the naked; and these are good works;” the answer is easy: He may do these, even before he is justified; and these are, in one sense, “good works;” they are “good and profitable to men.” But it does not follow, that they are, strictly speaking, good in themselves, or good in the sight of God. All truly “good works” (to use the words of our Church) “follow after justification;” and they are therefore good and “acceptable to God in Christ,” because they “spring out of a true and living faith.” By a parity of reason, all “works done before justification are not good,” in the Christian sense, “forasmuch as they spring not of faith in Jesus Christ;” (though from some kind of faith in God they may spring;) “yea, rather, for that they are not done as God hath willed and commanded them to be done, we doubt not” (how strange soever it may appear to some) “but they have the nature of sin.”

6. Perhaps those who doubt of this have not duly considered the weighty reason which is here assigned, why no works done before justification can be truly and properly good. The argument plainly runs thus: —
No works are good, which are not done as God hath willed and commanded them to be done.
But no works done before justification are done as God hath willed and commanded them to be done:

Therefore, no works done before justification are good.

The first proposition is self-evident; and the second, that no works done before justification are done as God hath willed and commanded them to be done, will appear equally plain and undeniable, if we only consider, God hath willed and commanded that “all our works” should “be done in charity;” (en agape) in love, in that love to God which produces love to all mankind. But none of our works can be done in this love, while the love of the Father (of God as our Father) is not in us; and this love can not be in us till we receive the Spirit of Adoption, crying in , our hearts, Abba, Father. If, therefore, God doth not justify the ungodly, and him that (in this sense) worketh not, then hath Christ died in vain; then, notwithstanding his death, can no flesh living be justified.
John Wesley, Sermons, on Several Occasions (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1999).

The Power of Religion

Yet, on the authority of God’s Word, and our own Church, I must repeat the question, “Hast thou received the Holy Ghost?” If thou hast not, thou art not yet a Christian. (From Sermon 3: Awake Thou Sleeper)

As I read through John Wesley’s sermons I am amazed at how often he defined a Christian as one who has received the Holy Spirit. He was not ashamed of his view and this view would get him in hot water from time to time.

In some of his sermons he went as far as to say that even though you might act like a Christian, look like a Christian, or even smell like a Christian, if you had not received the Holy Spirit then you were not.

He didn’t care if you had been attending a church your whole life, or if you fed the hungry and clothed the naked, or even if you were clergy. He even said that he was an “almost Christian” for years.

How many of us and our memebers would Wesley consider ‘Almost Christians’? As I reflect on Wesley’s definition, it causes me to wonder if perhaps the greatest need for the Methodist church today is for us to preach conversion to the church members (including the clergy).

Wesley’s fear wasn’t that Methodism would cease to exist, but that it would have the form of religion and lack the power. Our fear of Methodism is that we cease to exist. Perhaps it is time for us to concentrate more on the power of religion (the Holy Spirit empowering the life of love), rather than the form.

More and More Convinced

I am being more and more convinced that the best route for the UMC would be to do two things: 1) Get rid of membership. 2) Stop asking for church statistics.

I write these things because I believe if we stopped doing those two things, we would have to revisit what it means to be a church. If we stopped doing those two things, I believe panic would ensue because it would signify that things “are different.” Then, we would have to catch our breath, step back, and figure out what God is wanting us to be about.