Before I enrolled in the Doctor of Ministry program at Acadia Divinity College, I asked Dr. Andrew MacRae, who was in charge of the program, if I could do my thesis around the broad subject of the small church in Canada. He assured me that I could. When it came time to write it, I chose the narrower subject of Evangelism in the Small Church.
As part of the research that I did, I had to contact six small churches that had seen someone come to faith in Christ over the past couple of years. These new believers had to be active in the churches in which they had become Christians.
I then interviewed the leadership of those churches and the person who had come to faith. That was the most fun part of my study in that I got to hear six wonderful stories about how God had transformed lives. It was exciting both to hear from the individuals and the leadership.
If you want to hear about these stories, you can find them in my book Reality Check for the Church. They really are inspirational stories of how God can use the small church to make a difference.
One of the disappointments as I searched for the right churches was the fact that a number of people contacted me and said that they would love to volunteer to be interviewed but they had not seen anyone come to Christ in a long time and therefore they didn’t fit the criteria for my thesis.
It would be bad enough if only one church had said this but there were several. I couldn’t interview new believers if none existed and these churches had no new believers in their communities.
The sad thing is that there are many churches that would not have qualified for the interview. There are far too many churches that have not seen anyone come to Christ through their ministry in a very long time. One of the most serious problems within the church in Canada is not only are churches not reaching out to people but that it doesn’t really bother them that they don’t.
The problem defined
Can you identify with the fictitious Upward Community Church? They have a problem and they aren’t sure what to do about it.
They have not seen anyone become a Christian for the past ten years. They know that evangelism needs to be an important part of who they are but all of their attempts to engage in evangelism have produced no results.
In the 1960s they tried Evangelism Explosion, the program that grew Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church from 17 members to more than 2,000. It didn’t produce any new members for them and soon people’s interest in the program dwindled away.
In the 1970s they implemented principles from the church growth movement led by C. Peter Wagner at Fuller Seminary. They read that every church was designed by God for growth. They just had to learn the right rules and growth would take place. Some how the rules didn’t work for them.
In the 1980s they moved to a seeker-driven format as they attempted to imitate Bill Hybels at Willow Creek Community Church in Chicago. If they used contemporary music, drama and a sermon format that spoke to the needs of the community, people would flock to their church. Their church didn’t grow.
In the 1990s they introduced the Alpha program with all of the fixings – the supper meal, the low key environment and the videos featuring Nicky Gumbel. They were told that this was the most successful evangelism program yet developed and done right would produce results like nothing had before. It produced the same results as before which meant that no one responded.
In the 2000s they decided that they would become missional. They weren’t quite sure what it meant to be missional but they believed that it was the way to go. Several had read some of Brian McLaren’s books and they knew that they had to learn to relate to post-moderns. They weren’t sure what post-moderns were either but at least they were doing something.
The problem was that none of these worked. A couple of people had come to Christ through these programs but nothing that really made a difference in their church.
Now they had not seen anyone become a Christian for the past ten years and the leaders were concerned. They knew that this was not acceptable but they weren’t sure exactly what to do about it.
They finally decided that they would put together a committee to examine the latest programs to see if they could find something that might energize their people to share their faith. The committee was charged with looking at ten different programs and determining which was best for their church. They would then implement the program that the committee recommended.
A look at reality
This fictitious account of the journey of a church that doesn’t exist might be a little far fetched but it isn’t too far off what is happening in many churches today. The leaders know that they need to evangelize more effectively than they are currently doing but they don’t know what to do. They have tried a host of different programs in the past and none of them have worked but they don’t know what to do other than look for another program to implement in the future.
Someone has said that the definition of insanity is to continue doing the same thing over and over again expecting different results. If that is true than most church’s approach to evangelism is a little insane.
Everything that they have tried in the past has failed but they are reaching for another program and hoping for different results in the future.
It won’t work.
In almost all cases another program will only result in another failure which is the last thing that most churches need.
The answer is changed people rather than a new program
If programs have been tried in the past and failed than it should be expected that a new program implemented in the same church with the same people is going to fail again. If the people didn’t get excited about past evangelism programs, they probably aren’t going to get excited about future programs. They are going to have the same level of indifference that they have had in the past.
The answer is not a new program. It is changed people.
In Acts 1 we read Jesus’ answer to evangelism in the church. A careful study of Jesus’ encounter with his disciples just before he ascended to heaven gives us a different approach to evangelism, one that is the foundation for any program that a church might use. In my blog next week I will look at this passage and how it should affect what we do in our churches today.