About two weeks ago, scrolling through my kindle library, I noticed a certain theme developing. See if you can spot it:
- The Disappearing Church
- That Was the Church that Was
- Losing my Religion
- How the West Really Lost God
- The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post Christian Society
- How to Survive the Zombie Apocalypse
- The Death of Christian Britain
And so on…
Whatever else historians make of our age, they will at least think this: ours was an age in which there was a widespread perception that Christians, at least in the west, that Christians were in trouble. Our book titles, our conference theme, our podcasts all point to the truth: We feel afraid. We fear decline. We are under pressure. I feel it too. And to some extend I agree that the perception corresponds to an actual state of affairs.
But in this culture of fear, I want to argue a counter-intuitive thesis: I think evangelistically, we are living through a great period, and we should rejoice. I was born in 1975, and I would go so far as to say this is the best evangelistic environment in Australia in my lifetime. We should be proclaiming the gospel with confidence. We should expect fruit. And we must not allow our fear about the institutional and legal environment to bleed into a pessimism about evangelism as such.
Setting the Scene
Our slightly dour attitude comes from two sources: First, the concern that we face a unique pressure from the outside culture; and second, that we might be dropping the ball evangelistically. I think both claims are, to a large degree, false.
The Outside Pressure
Consider the first claim. Since about 1963 there has been a fairly relentless downward trend in a whole bunch of things that matter to us—church attendance, Sunday schools, biblical literacy and so on.
And I think we all perceive that in the last five-to-ten years the process of secularisation has taken a sharp turn—a move from Christians being goody goodies to being, in some sense a force for evil.
Our legal and political environment has changed dramatically. If someone wants to make trouble for a local church, all they need to do it spend half an hour trawling through your church’s sermon archive for the last time someone spoke on Romans 1 or 1 Corinthians 6. It’s like the infinity ring for Thanos: the society has been handed a sudden colossal power to make whole churches just disappear.
I think of our place in society like this: It’s as if our whole culture was playing a game of musical chairs. Everyone was up dancing. Then suddenly, someone turned the music off, and seventy percent of the people sat down.
The thirty percent still standing are the group who hold to a traditional account of marriage and sexuality. Five minutes ago, it was unremarkable. But someone stopped the music, everyone sat down, and a group were left standing awkwardly.
Here’s where it gets more complicated: of those thirty percent left standing, almost none of them came to their view of marriage through specific Christian instruction. No one sat down with them ten or twenty years ago at their conversion and said: “Hey, you’ve become a Christian. Great! Full-disclosure—you’ll now need to read your Bible, say your prayers, go to church, and take on view of marriage that could massively inhibit your career and get your church group kicked out of school halls and public buildings.”
That view of marriage didn’t need to be taught. The gospel might have shaped how you approached marriage and sexuality, but when it came to that basic view of what marriage is, that wasn’t a Christian specific. It just came with the factory settings of the western world view.
And so, of those thirty percent still standing, many are standing up rather sheepishly. They are looking to their Christians leaders and asking: “Um, do we really need to keep standing, or is it okay if we sit down now please because this feels a bit weird.” Some have indeed sat down. Others have adopted the brace position.
That’s my picture of what just happened. But notice: It’s a discipleship crisis, not an evangelism crisis.
Those left standing are Christian people. They know and love Jesus. They signed a blank cheque to him with their lives. They were ready, in principle, to stand for Jesus for anything. But they just didn’t think it would be on this issue.
The challenge here is to build a credible Christian account of something that was held for largely cultural reasons. Great work is being done in this space. Christians like Sam Allberry, Ed Shaw, and Wes Hill had provided powerful and gracious accounts of the Christian vision of sex and sexuality from the perspective of homosexual orientation. Writers and preachers like Greg Lee, Glynn Harrison, and Dan Patterson brought theological vigour and grace to the topic.
But again, notice: this is primarily a discipleship challenge.
I worry that we have zero-sum thinking here. If there are strong cultural head-winds; if discipleship just got more difficult; if the chances of someone losing their job, or a church its venue on these matters are far from zero, then it follows that these are hard times for evangelism. We just need to pull up the draw-bridge and sit this one out.
I don’t think that follows. I don’t think it’s true biblically:
books like 1 Peter and Philippians make literally no sense if societal pressure and gospel fruitfulness can’t co-exist. I don’t think it’s true historically. Do you remember that time in church history when the gospel went forward and created no ripples and caused no controversy? Me neither.
And, I don’t think it’s true in our moment.
For one line of evidence among many I bring to the witness stand the student work happening across Australia in the AFES groups. These guys are on the frontline sharing the gospel with 18–23 year olds—the very generation who have been taught intersectionality and gender fluidity and the whole bit. And yet, time and time again, at campus after campus, O-day after O-day, these guys are telling us that this is the best and the freshest evangelistic environment they’ve seen in their life time.
People are so post-Christian that the gospel is fresh and interesting. Like Rowan Atkinson’s Johnny English, they know nothing. They have fall less prejudice against the gospel that we anticipate. And if they have an impression of Christians at all, it’s so outrageously negative that all you have to do is offer them a cup of tea and not punch them in the face and you seem like Mother Tereasa. (A number of times in our evangelism courses—courses at which we talk about the substitutionary atonement and the final judgement and the whole works—I’ve been told “well, it’s nice because you guys aren’t fundamentalist.” I haven’t the heart to tell them that, really, we kind of are. But I think they were just pleasantly surprised that we made eye contact and listened to them and didn’t shout. A pretty easy bar to jump.)
Is it possible that an AFES group will get kicked off campus in the next few years? Absolutely. Are they seeing evangelistic fruit? Totally. These are not things we need to choose between—both can be true.
Yes, there are dark clouds on the horizon. Legally, politically, economically—we’re not in Kansas anymore. There’s plenty to worry about. But don’t assume that means we need to worry about evangelism. I think we are seeing a fresh and glorious openness to the gospel. Now is not a time to get all ginger about the great news.
The inside problem
The second claim is that we’ve dropped the ball on evangelism. We used to evangelise a lot. Guest services, commitment cards, jazz nights with testimonies. But somewhere along the way, we got distracted and lost our way.
I call it “The Chappo Effect”. The question is: “Where is the next Chappo?”
Now, I agree that it is hard to think who the next John Chapman is. But consider—if you’re looking for Chappo, you’re looking with a pretty specific set of criteria: A full-time, itinerant evangelist who uses the expository method of Bible teaching to give compelling evangelistic talks to which non-Christians (having at least some cultural memory of the basic shape of what Christians believe) could listen and who could end his talks with a call for conversion that could be readily responded to within the event.
If you’re looking for that guys, I can’t see him either. But neither do I see that listener.
The argument continues: We’ve dropped the ball, and the reason we dropped the ball is that we got distracted. At this point (conveniently) you can insert whichever is your current bug-bear—liturgy, GAFCON, buying property, leadership courses, Safe Church, church planting, or politics. Circle whichever one you find least personally appealing and that can be The Thing That Distracted Us.
The solution is to get on with it. To return to evangelism as the priority that it once was. Does that sound hard? Well, evangelism is always hard. It’s like eating your vegetables. It’s like leg day at the gym. No one likes it. But just do it.
The Evangelistic Opportunity
Whatever truth there is in this analysis (and there’s not none) I’m not giving my RSVP to this particular pity-party just yet. Here are four reasons why:
- This is a golden era for gospel-based evangelism
We are living in a golden era of course-based evangelism. We have fantastic off-the-shelf tools—Introduction God, Christianity Explored, Life, Simply Christianity, The God Who Speaks Life, as well as many coursed written by and for specific local churches.
These courses are glorious. Over weeks, in the context of meals and emerging friendships non-Christians are given a patient, intelligent, coherent account of the gospel. Like a good red wine, evangelism in our age needs room to breathe, and these courses provide that room (both for the evangelism and, not uncommonly, for the red wine). Through these courses people move seamlessly from basic gospelling to catechesis to being established in the life of a local church.
And notice—the very church that evangelised them is the same church who then takes responsibility for nurturing and establishing them in Christ. Who thought of that? Genius!
- Is evangelism really that hard?
I know evangelism is supposed to be hard and tricky and fear-inducing and all the rest of it. But between you and me, I love it. Indeed, I vastly prefer it to a massive number of other tasks that fall to me as a pastor. Far from being something I am distracted from, I’ve regularly used evangelism to distract myself from other tasks I find particularly loathsome. Spend a night talking to a non-Christian about Jesus? Yes please! Organise the roster for kids’ church? There be dragons. Produce the budget update? What wizardry is this?
I just don’t get the leg day thing.
I don’t say any of that to win credit points. In terms of my character, it probably reflects poorly—choosing the easy over the hard. But I genuinely like evangelism. And whenever I confess to this guilty pleasure, I find others who harbour the same secret. Not everyone, but not no one. We’re out there. Please don’t other us with your marginalising talk as if we don’t exist. It hurts our feelings.
Now, there are attendant tasks to evangelism that I find hard. But on reflection, they are things that are hard in any job—cold-contact anything is hard, getting rejected is hard, truly listening to another person is hard, remembering to book a venue is hard (for some of us). But I’m yet to find the verse in the Bible that tells me that evangelism itself is distinctively and usually hard. I think we need to stop talking it down.
- The evangelistic church planting movement
Australians are planting churches. Like, all over the place. I think from about 2007–2012 you could have argued that church planting was a flash-in-the-pan fad that would run its course and fade away. But if you look at the scene in 2018. Now that the romance around church planting has largely gone, what do you see?
I think we’re seeing a settled, mature, well-resourced, evangelistically-driven movement of church planting that has settled in for the long haul. Just this week I was at a conference of independent evangelical churches and talked to dozens of pastors who have planted churches in country towns, in mining towns, in under-resources parts of cities and regional centres, as well as in the big cities. They meet in schools and warehouses. Some do kids church in tents. When the venue is not available, they have church outdoors. They’re not mucking around. They’re not (just) reaching hipsters. And they are hungry to see people won to Jesus.
- The growth of specialised evangelists on church staff teams
Come back with me to the dim dark days of the 1990s. We had some itinerant evangelists like Chappo, but they were very rare. And apart from them, there was hardly anyone else who was employed full-time in evangelism. Often, there were well-meaning appointments of an associate minister would be brought on board. He or she was told that, in addition to doing all the normal stuff a church staffer does, please also “focus on evangelism”. Or sometimes the keen odd-bod with a gift for evangelism would be brought onto a staff, only to be swamped by admin and meetings. The senior minister would discover a few years in that he or she was still actually a bit odd, couldn’t organise their way out of a paper bag, and has since lost contact with all the people they were once evangelising. The dice were loaded from the start. People were told to do something but not given the power to do it. And then it fell back to the senior pastor to “make evangelism a priority”. How, exactly? By not running safe church courses? Cancelling staff meeting? Stop having AGMs? Give other people’s sermons? Sleep less?
But fast-forward to today. Through the adoption of specialised team ministry approaches (the 5 Ms and equivalent systems), we now have local churches where gifted staff can give their main time and energy to evangelism and to equipping the church for evangelism. It’s not just what they ought to do. It’s what they are empowered to do. In terms of effectively deployed, gifted local evangelists in churches, I suspect we have never had so many. Praise God.
Where are the Chappos? I don’t think we have one. And if anyone knows where you can get them we’ll take six. But thanklessness is a sin, and I thank God as I look out on the church landscape and see so many great people working hard and effectively, specifically in the evangelisation of the lost.
No doubt we are dropping the ball in some areas. No doubt the price of theological faithfulness is eternal vigilance. No doubt we all long for more fruitful days. But allow me to be provocatively optimistic. This is a great time for evangelism in Australia.