It was a simple announcement in our church on the weekend. Renowned christian speaker and leader, Matt Chandler, is coming to Sydney and will be speaking at an event. We were told that Matt is a great teacher, the gospel would be preached, and it was a great opportunity to bring our non-christian friends.
It started me thinking …… Do we need Matt Chandler to preach the gospel to our friends?
Let’s clear the decks
In fairness, I should start by making a few things clear:
- I have nothing against Matt. He is a successful and respected christian leader, preacher and author, and I have no doubt he’s a better christian than I am (however you might measure that!). And I don’t think he speaks like a megaphone!
- The organisers of this event have gone to a lot of effort to make it attractive, and I wish them well with it. I hope people really do come closer to Jesus at it.
But the event does raise a lot of questions in my mind.
Is holding big meetings the best way to share the gospel?
Big meetings have the advantage of allowing people to feel anonymous, feel the warmth of the crowd and share in an event together. But meetings may not cover matters relevant to a particular non-believer, the speaker may even be insensitive to someone in some way (if you invite someone, you can’t control that) and meetings don’t allow personal interaction (until afterwards, perhaps). Should evangelism be an event, or a process?
I wonder how many non-believers would want to go out to a meeting like that? And how many non-believers will actually be there? We christians seem to have a strange culture of inviting people out of their comfort zones and into situations we are comfortable with, rather than go to where they are comfortable, even if we are not. But Jesus did the opposite – he left his comfort to communicate on our turf.
I can’t help feeling a big meeting is a second best option. If we know someone well enough to invite them to a meeting, why can’t we just speak to them about Jesus ourselves – over a period of time, and in conversation where there is interaction (which helps relevance)?
Is preaching the best way to communicate?
The answer to this question is clear – it is well established by research that preaching is a very poor method of communication:
- Few people remember what is said after the first 10-15 minutes – they may do a little better with a new speaker, but a visiting speaker is likely to speak far longer than the hearers’ concentration span.
- Preaching cannot address the issues all the different people are concerned about.
- Preaching is a verbal activity and most people require visual or hands-on experiences to learn and grow.
- Listeners are kept passive by preaching, which doesn’t encourage a response.
People will learn more and respond more when they are engaged, not passive; are participating and seeing as well as hearing; and when their individual interests and concerns are addressed sensitively. Friendship and informal faith sharing are a far more effective means than preaching.
Preaching is really only a second best option for when conversation doesn’t occur or is ineffective.
Is lack of information the main thing stopping people believing?
If we make preaching the main way we evangelise, we are implying that lack of good gospel information is the main reason why unbelievers resist believing. But is this so? I doubt it.
Leaving aside those who simply aren’t interested, research shows that (in Australia at least), the main ‘belief blockers’ are not lack of information about Jesus, but christian attitudes to homosexuality, women in the church and evolution, christian teaching on hell, and the suffering in the world. Showing christian love and working through answers about these deep problems, and so removing barriers, is going to require more than an evangelistic talk.
Do we need to outsource our evangelism?
If we know someone well enough to invite them to hear an evangelistic speaker, why can’t we just speak to them about Jesus ourselves?
Is ‘the gospel’ so complicated that it needs an expert to tell it?
I doubt many people think this – certainly not those who are organising this meeting. I think they simplify and misunderstand the gospel a little (see below), but they could state their gospel in a couple of sentences. We don’t need experts to tell it; rather, we need people who are really living it out to tell it in conversation and in their lives.
Can experts tell the gospel better than the rest of us?
There will doubtless always be people who lack confidence or have some impediment that makes it difficult to speak to others. And doubtless gifted speakers will be able to explain things better than the rest of us, at least in theory – whether they speak in the words and culture of all their listeners is another matter.
So there will always be a place for trained and gifted people to help in the evangelistic effort. But the main work must surely come in the interaction between friends.
The move to ‘professional’ ministry
The Protestant Church pays lip service to the “priesthood of all believers” – all of us are equal before God and all have gifts given to us by the Holy Spirit to enable us to all do ministry. But in reality, ministry is becoming ‘professionalised’ in many denominations. In the rich west, we can afford to pay pastoral carers and youth ministers, where once these ministries were done by volunteers.
It seems as if trained and paid ministers now believe they are the only ones who can be trusted to teach and head up some ministries, and so the rest of the congregation becomes passive consumers. This is wrong and is harming the church.
This is another reason why outsourcing our evangelism is a dangerous step.
Training the believers, not controlling the microphone
If we need better evangelism than we ordinary people can do, then gifted evangelists might be better employed training and equipping us all rather than doing the evangelism themselves. After all, this is what Paul recommends in Ephesians 4:11-13.
But even here there is a problem. Ordinary people are treated as ordinary people when we have dinner or a coffee with a friend, or meet someone at a party. But a minister is often treated quite differently – people may stop swearing when they are around or say different things to them. So ministers may have few clues on how to do evangelism in the real world that the rest of us inhabit.
Training and equipping christians for the ministry of evangelism needs to be shared by trained ministers and gifted lay evangelists. Using Matt Chandler in this way may be a far better use of his time.
What is the ‘gospel’ anyway?
I think some of these problems arise because modern evangelical christians have a more truncated gospel than the one that was the basis of Jesus’ teaching.
Today, the gospel = a short statement of facts about sin, Jesus and personal salvation. A person accepts the message, repents of his/her sin, expresses faith in Jesus as the crucified, risen son of God and is thereby “saved”. This message can be given quickly (yet rarely is – I’m guessing Matt will speak for more than 30 minutes), understood cognitively and responded to quickly. That is all good. But it isn’t the full gospel Jesus taught.
Jesus announced the kingdom of God, with him as Lord or King, a complete overturning of the world’s priorities, and a welcome for those previously on the margins. He called people not just to receive a personal salvation, but to follow him in living justly and putting wrongs to right. That was his gospel (= ‘good news’)
Paul’s gospel included forgiveness for many who have never heard of Jesus (see Romans 2:12-16) – not something you’ll hear in many evangelistic talks today! – and the renewal of the whole creation (Romans 8:18-25).
So the gospel at these events is often grossly simplified from what Jesus and Paul meant by the term (read more about this in The gospel = the good news, right?). It may still be a way to join people up with Jesus (I got started as a christian that way), but it leaves many converts without a clear idea of what Jesus wants for them, and leaves many unbelievers unimpressed.
What is evangelism anyway?
These days, evangelism has become a finely tuned product. We know the best words to express the simplified gospel we have come to accept, we have gifted speakers to say the words (and gifted musicians and lighting techs to set the right mood). We call people to make a simple response (raise your hand, stand up, come forward for prayer, follow this prayer as I say it, etc) and then we tell them they’re in! Jesus has done it all, and there’s nothing more we can and need to do.
Except of course, then we tell them they must read their Bibles every day, pray every day, attend a church and tell all their friends about Jesus. Suddenly there’s a lot of behavioural rules and a lot more to do.
Evangelism in the New Testament
Jesus evangelised differently. He announced God was beginning a new phase of putting things right on earth, and he demonstrated what this looked like by welcoming and accepting the marginalised, healing the sick and offering forgiveness to the guilty. He taught how people should live in this kingdom, and he called people to follow him in establishing the kingdom on earth.
The gospels show us that Jesus didn’t have a packaged message which he gave to everyone. He dealt with everyone individually. Consider his amazingly different responses to Nicodemus (John 3:1-15), the rich young ruler (Mark 10:17-22), the woman at the well (John 4:1-26), Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10), the man who asked about eternal life (Luke 10:25-37) and two women known or accused as adulterers (Luke 7:36-50 & John 8:2-11) – he condemned none of them, challenged them all in very different ways, and gave them space to choose.
This is a longer process than a one-night meeting, and it makes greater demands on us. But it also offers people a challenge and a part in a movement that is changing the world, and gives life meaning and hope (not just life and hope when we die).
Paul’s evangelism was closer to what we tend to do today, but he had a bigger picture of God’s plan than we speak about today, and he too varied his approach depending on who he was speaking to. We need to grapple with and pray about how we balance these somewhat different emphases of Jesus and Paul.
So modern evangelism tends to offer a salvation that is individualistic, even selfish, whereas Jesus’ evangelism offered a ‘big picture’ salvation.
So, do we need Matt to preach the gospel to our friends?
If we do, it seems clear that it is because the church has not trained and equipped all the disciples God has given it. It is surely time we learnt that lesson and changed accordingly.
Full marks for effort
I wouldn’t want to end on a negative note. The event organisers have good ideas and aim for excellence. They plan next year to hold a TED style conference where many teachers, artists, musicians and thought leaders will share (presumably many short talks instead of a few long ones), which will surely better fit the principles I’ve suggested here.
And the Acts 29 network is at least trying to do something to create a 21st century church. I think church plants are not cutting edge nor in accordance with the principles the Holy Spirit seems to be bringing to the church these days (the subject of my next post), but it is possible the network could learn new tricks.
But I believe we need to move forwards. Big meetings and famous speakers will always have their place, but I think it is a diminishing place, and the sooner we can move on to what is better and more effective, the sooner we’ll be reaching people we’re not reaching so well now.