Six years ago, I was invited to lead a workshop on evangelism for a congregation that averages 500 in worship. The congregation wanted to expand its outreach to the community. I am not an expert on evangelism but accepted the invitation as an opportunity to be a good thinker and to connect the concept of evangelism with discipleship.
THE TYPICAL EVANGELIST
I recently walked out of Union Station in Chicago surprised to see a twenty-something hipster preaching with a portable speaker. With his facial hair and tweed cap, he proclaimed God’s love for all of us. His message was an if/then proposition. If someone confesses their sins, they will have eternal life. I’ve attended several church growth seminars. At no time was street preaching suggested as a method for growing a congregation which is interesting given its historical success.
Take my tradition, The United Methodist Church. Our founder, John Wesley preached in public on top of his father’s gravestone! There certainly is a time and place for public preaching. But unless you plan to launch a religious revival, it’s probably not going to be your cup of tea. This is the image most of us have of evangelism. Someone preaching in public to the masses (rest in peace, Billy Graham). For most people, evangelism happens through interpersonal relationships. The invitation to faith comes early in life and usually from a family member.
CAN'T WE ALL JUST GET ALONG?
One of the fundamental questions the Bible attempts to answer is, “How can we all get along?” In the book of Genesis, we quickly discover with the first family that it will not be easy for humans to get along. Adam and Eve are examples of blame and shame while Cain and Able are examples of struggle and violence. How will God and God’s people solve the human relationship condition?
In the Hebrew Bible, we see the development of laws and rules that attempt to answer this question. The Bible identifies the problem as sin and sin has been historically interpreted through the lens of ethics and morality. Laws and rules are handed down to motivate the people to do less bad stuff and more good stuff. Laws and rules were designed to create healthy kin and non-kin relationships.
With laws and rules in place, the problem becomes the focus of discipleship. Is discipleship a focus on how I observe the laws, or is it a focus on how others observe the laws? Rabbi Ed Friedman addressed this paradox of living in community. He described it as a paradox between a focus on self and a focus on others. If one focuses only on others, then one becomes a no-self. If one focuses only on self, then one becomes narcissistic. While the narcissist obliterates others, the no-self has no core beliefs, no guiding principles, is mostly reactive to others, and is dangerous and out of control. For Friedman, the answer to the paradox was in the middle: a self that is connected. To know thyself is to have a relationship with God. Knowing thyself shapes the way one behaves towards others. But it is more than just being better connected and less selfish.
FROM PROHIBITION TO ISOLATION
Historically, the practice of evangelism has been caught up in heated debates over the prohibition of things and behaviors. Abortion and Halloween are examples that come to mind. The Deuteronomic code is another example. For some people, evangelism involves communicating moral rules and laws designed to deter bad behavior within the context of a community or society. There are problems inherent in this form of evangelism.
Some congregations and their leaders try to change the behavior of others. In this way, they take responsibility for the behavior of others. It becomes their mission to stop it. It’s problematic because most people don’t want to be responsible for the behavior of others. And most people don’t want someone telling them to be more responsible. Just because you tell someone to be more accountable for their behavior doesn’t mean they will be more accountable.
The alternative (which is where most mainline congregations find themselves) is to give up and create distance from those who behave “badly." Of course, there is the token effort to help the people who have made “bad” choices, but they are not invited to worship. It gets even more interesting. Some churches highlight specific laws in the Bible as “membership requirements.” If you break one of these membership laws, you lose your membership. Break a rule? You're banished. In the worst cases, the banishment is announced publicly. It's really religious isolationism.
When people isolate or distance from someone, they may be hoping to change the other person's behavior. Parents discipline their toddler with a timeout. In nature, some animals are shunned to elicit “right” behavior. If you isolate the problematic person (or animal), the pain of isolation will create discomfort which can lead to a change in behavior. We imprison and isolate individuals who are labeled a “risk” to the community hoping it will lead to a change in their behavior.
The effort to prohibit and isolate bad behavior are at two ends of a continuum. They are part of an emotional process. Congregations can become stuck in an emotional process. Congregational leaders may be aware of how evangelism is used by some people as an effort to tell other people what to do. They're aware that this version of evangelism is unsuccessful and doesn’t work. There will always be a few holdouts, though. Like the man outside Union Station. Equally problematic are people who justify isolating and distancing from someone while at the same time upholding the commandment by Jesus to love everyone. Leaders feel stuck in this efforts to advance the evangelistic outreach of their congregation while at the same time avoiding these potholes of application. They are under pressure to do something! What can they do?
In response to the dramatic national decline in church membership, leaders feel the burden to grow their congregation and increase giving. When the focus on evangelism is in response to a decline in membership and giving, it reveals the real problem. Congregations are anxious about their future. I’m reminded of the hymn: “What troubles have we seen, what mighty conflicts past, fightings without, and fears within, since we assembled last!” When people are anxious, and there is tension in the relationship system, people typically respond in one of two ways: they either move towards others to control, or they distance themselves from others. There is a third way, however. Dr. Murray Bowen called it differentiation of self.
THE SOLUTION TO EVANGELISM: DIFFERENTIATION OF SELF
The modern family is not much different from the first family. The challenge is the same: how does one relate to challenging people (in a congregation or in a family) without telling the other what to do and without ignoring the other altogether? One step is to discover that one cannot change the other, but one can change self. This brings us back to the concept of the self. To be a self is to be clear about what one believes without demanding others to agree or defending a belief in the face of dissent. It is about maturity. It is about, what is called in the Christian tradition, discipleship: working on one’s salvation (with or without fear and trembling, depending on your tradition). Here we are on solid ground when it comes to evangelism.
The effort to be the best possible version of self (to be all that God is calling you to be) is evangelistic. It is attractive. It is compelling to other people. The irony for those who place a premium on evangelism is that at the very moment they reach out to make disciples of others, they do so at the expense of their discipleship. The focus becomes on changing others and not on changing self. The invitation to baptism in the Christian tradition is an invitation for one to profess their faith; to declare their desire to be a disciple. When one works at discipleship, evangelism happens. The greatest evangelists of all time where people who knew that working on being the best version of themselves (being all that God is calling them to be) is the way to reach other people. It’s counter-intuitive, but it makes the most sense.
So, instead of organizing an evangelism committee, consider starting a class geared towards the individual effort of developing core principles and beliefs; one or two beliefs one can be sure of more than anything else. Invite participants to make daily decisions and relate to others in ways that are consistent with their core beliefs. When is it easy to do? When is it challenging? What makes the difference?
If I’m right about the connection between discipleship and evangelism (that evangelism is the natural outcome of individual discipleship), then there would be a way to measure it. In theory, as one works at defining a self while maintaining good contact with important others, the number of important contacts would grow. One would be freer to relate to others out of a more mature self. The individuals who put their focus on being the best version of themselves they can be are some of the most evangelical people I know.