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The PRIORITY AND PRACTICE OF EVANGELISM



Last week I had the great pleasure of gathering with a group of church leaders in Calgary to take part in an 'Evangelism Incubator' hosted and facilitated by Power to Change.


In this short presentation, I summarize a few key findings from 'The Priority and Practice of Evangelism' report and offer a few suggestions to have in mind as church leaders seek to equip their congregations for evangelism. A rough transcript follows.


 

I'm just truly honoured to be here. Before we get started, I just want to express my gratitude to Andy for the invitation to be a part of this conversation with you. I really do appreciate the spirit in which we're having this conversation which is not, by any means as, as experts on a platform, but co-learners that are in the journey of trying to discern what it looks like to communicate the gospel, in particular, to a changing culture around us.

 

I think it goes without saying that we are living through some of the most significant shifts in both the religious and the broader cultural landscape that we've seen in Canada. I doubt that there's anybody in this room that needs convincing, but I thought that, just to start us off, we would look at a couple of figures that can compare that the trends in religious affiliation in over the course of the last 20 years, looking at the Canadian census data between 2001 and 2021.

 

What you'll notice is that in that time, what we've seen is the doubling of those who I identify as religious "nones"-- that is, those who do not affiliate with any kind of official religion of any sort. In 2001, the Canadian census found that 16.5% of Canadians identified this way--as not having or belonging to any religious affiliation. 20 years later, this number had jumped to 34.6%, representing now one in three Canadians.

 

And at the very same time that this increase was taking place, what we were likewise witnessing was a sharp decrease in the proportion of Canadians who identify as Christians. In 2001, a full 77.1% of Canadians identified this way. And by 2021, this had dropped to 53.3%. So as we consider that radical shift in just the span of two decades, it's fitting that we find reporters like Nicole Thompson saying, reporting for the Canadian press, that "Canadians are losing their religion at an unprecedented rate." And we might actually come back and discuss in our tables afterwards, our reflections on the accuracy of that statement.

 

But for the purposes of our time now, what I want to do is reflect a little bit on a research project that was undertaken through a partnership between Alpha Canada and the Flourishing Congregations Institute. This took place in 2021, the same year that that Canadian census data was being released. And the purpose of this study was to respond to the felt changes that are taking place in Canadian culture by surveying in particular the perspective of Canadian church leaders. What's unique about this study is that it surveys church leaders from across the country and also from across the denominational spectrum.

 

Although there are a number of important findings that this report surfaces, today I want to draw your attention to three primary findings. And as we walk through these, I want to encourage you to consider how your congregation or your parish, your ministry context might compare to some of the trends that were surfaced in this report.

 

The majority of churches are not prioritizing or equipping for evangelism.

The first key finding that I want to draw your attention to is the fact that the majority of churches in Canada, the majority of congregations and parishes are not equipping in evangelism. I was really taken back to note that church leaders reported-- 65% of church leaders said that evangelism has not been a priority in their church for the past several years. The report also found that 55% of Canadian churches are not presently engaged in equipping for evangelism.

 

As we think about that further, and as we consider what it even means to equip our congregations for the work of evangelism, I think it's also noteworthy that this report found that as Canadian church leaders across the country and across the denominational spectrum, what we do not share is a common or unified, agreed upon definition of what constitutes evangelism or what is the purpose or the aim of evangelism as such.

 

This is drawn out, for example, in the terminology that Canadian church leaders will use when describing the activity of evangelism. These are the top four ways that evangelism was referred to by Canadian church leaders: "sharing our faith," "evangelism," "loving your neighbours," and "outreach.” Note that these things could mean potentially very different things to different people in our pews and in our churches.

 

Likewise, when asked about what they believe to be the goal or aim of evangelism, these are the top six responses that we received from Canadian church leaders. 28% said that the goal of evangelism is that a person wants to know and follow Jesus as their Saviour and Lord, 14% said that the person sees or experiences God's love through the actions of others, 11%, that the person becomes more loving toward others and then 10% respectively that the person goes to heaven or grows spiritually.

 

So the question that I want to encourage you to reflect on when we have time at our tables is how your church might understand the meaning and the purpose of evangelism. How do the men and women, young and old that are gathering through the weekly rhythms of your congregation's life, think about what evangelism is and what the purpose and the goal of evangelism consists in? One of the things that concerns me the most when we think about the nature of equipping and, really, the lack of equipping that's taking place in our churches is the way that evangelism is often viewed in a disintegrated or disconnected way from the broader a process of discipleship or spiritual formation.

 

I was surprised to learn that less than half of the church leaders surveyed in this study believe that evangelism is central to discipleship and just a little over half believe that prayer is essential to evangelism itself.  So the relationship between things like prayer, discipleship, and evangelism does not seem to be clear among Canadian church leaders. As we consider what it means to equip our people, I would suggest to us that one of the areas that we need to invest in is a more holistic and integrated vision of how mission and spiritual formation go hand in hand.

 

The most encouraged and practised method of evangelism is showing vs. telling.

The second key finding that I want to draw your attention to is that the most encouraged and practised method of evangelism across the country, at least from the perspective of church leaders, can be described as showing rather than telling. Now Andy, interestingly, drew out the fact that among those of us who are gathered here, telling is certainly represented in the way that we engage in outreach or preaching or inviting people to church events.

 

But as the church leaders in this particular report were surveyed, they were asked about the top three most common methods of evangelism that they would encourage or that they would practice within their congregation. The top-rated response was showing one's faith through their actions. This was followed by inviting people to church, inviting them to an event or an evangelistic outreach like Alpha. Then, fourthly, verbally sharing the gospel, practising hospitality with neighbours, and developing a personal relationship.


Now we'll get into a little bit more as we go on today, why it is that this sort of bias towards showing over telling might be the trend in our current cultural moment. But I'll just suggest, as I imagine is coming to mind, that as we live in a cultural context in which the church is increasingly at the margins of our society, and in that context where there is an increasing focus and priority on things like inclusion, on diversity, on tolerance, there is very likely a greater perceived social risk towards more direct, more verbal, more even active or assertive methods of evangelism than those that we might describe as more implicit or passive like showing our faith through our actions.

 

This same emphasis might also be linked to the way that we think about the challenges that face us as church leaders in our own practice of evangelism. And so, interestingly enough, church leaders cited that their top challenge when it comes to their own practice of evangelism is a perceived antagonism towards Christian faith by the culture around them. This was followed by things like having few non-Christian friends or a lack of confidence when it comes to sharing their faith.

 

And so again, I want to encourage you to think about your own context. When you think about your own personal practice of evangelism as well as that, as you perceive it, of the members of your congregation, what do you think people are more engaged in: showing or telling? Is there a balance between the two? Are they integrated or are they seen in some ways as in tension or in competition with one another?

 

Generational differences significantly impact attitudes and approaches towards evangelism.

The last shift, and this is something that we're going to come up against multiple times today, but the last shift that I want to draw your attention to is that there are significant generational differences that are impacting both the attitudes towards and our approaches towards evangelism in Canada.

 

Not only did this report find that senior church leaders are more likely to be actively engaged in evangelism than their younger church leader counterparts, it also found that 46-48% of church leaders that are directly engaged with ministry of children, youth and families believe that it is wrong to share one's faith with another person with the intention or the hope that that person might eventually come to identify as a Christian––that it is wrong, to share one's faith with the hope of conversion.


Now, before anybody responds to that by running off to fire a youth pastor, I want to suggest to you that there's a lot going on here in this particular shift. On the one hand, I think it's significant that this generational shift in Christian attitudes towards evangelism seems to mirror a similar generational shift in religious affiliation in Canada. I started by noting that there was this significant drop in the number of people who identified as Christians between 2001 and 2021 and a corresponding increase in the number of Canadians who identified as not being affiliated with any particular religion. When you peel back sort of the nuances of that data, what you'll find is that the majority of it takes place in the younger generation. That is, that younger generations are disaffiliating from religious convictions and a religious affiliation at a far higher rate than older generations. And I think this is reflective of the same way that in some respects, Christian attitudes towards evangelism are shifting faster in younger generations than in older.


Now, at the same time, I want to suggest that although our older church leaders are perhaps more actively engaged in sharing their faith or practising evangelism, I want to humbly suggest that many of the approaches to evangelism that those church leaders grew up in the midst of, were trained in, and are engaged in today, may in fact be less and less in sync with the particular needs and desires of our culture. Which is to say that the things that reached our culture in the last say 20 or 30 or 40 years are not the same things that are going to reach them today. We need to think well of that.


Lastly, and with that in mind, I want to end with a word of encouragement and maybe also a word of challenge to those who would identify as these younger church leaders, whether or not you identify with this particular sentiment. I want to ask you this question because when I read this statistic in particular, it was the one that had the greatest impact on me as I walked through the report. As I consider that roughly half of us are concerned that it would be wrong to share our faith with the hope of that someone would come to identify as a Christian, the question that I'm personally left asking myself is, "Do we believe that the gospel is still good news?"


In the midst of everything that is unfolding in our culture today-- and I'm thinking specifically of a younger generation--in the midst of all the uncertainty, all the instability, in the midst of the continual movement towards deconstruction, in the midst of the church finding itself more and more at the margins of the of society, do we believe that the gospel is still the power of God for salvation? That Jesus is--despite what the culture might say--every bit as relevant, every bit as needed, and every bit as capable of transforming the lives of people who encounter him today as he was when he first walked this earth?


I want to suggest to you that if we don't believe that the gospel is still good news, then we have far greater problems than those that we are hoping to address in this room today. But if we do, then I have to ask, how can we not but share the gospel with the hope that, as Paul said before Agrippa, that others might come to be as we are-- that they might come to know Christ in a transforming relationship? And if that, in fact, is our desire, then may we, by the grace of God, lean fully into the work of both prioritizing and practising evangelism.





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