In the west we generally live in post-christian societies. Although the majority of people in many countries may list their religion as “christian”, weekly church attendance is down around 5-15% in many countries, and somewhere around 30% in the US.
It seems that in many cases, churches haven’t really adjusted to the end of Christendom in the methods they adopt for mission, “outreach” or evangelism.
A brief history of evangelism in my lifetime
- 60 years, few churches did much evangelism. Most people were nominally christian and the church was a social institution.
- Then along came Billy Graham, and stadium or crusade evangelism was a big hit.
- Eventually questions were asked about the integrity and effectiveness of stadium evangelism and the decisions which resulted, and churches tended to ask their members to do “personal evangelism” (telling people about Jesus) and invite friends to evangelistic events at church, or to church services.
- However these methods are only effective in a few churches (often Pentecostal churches such as Hillsong), and other churches are experiencing the truth that most people are now resistant to attending church activities. For example, a recent review of a ten year mission in the large conservative evangelical Anglican church in Sydney (which still tends to use these approaches) found that the mission was not a success.
Not only are the older approaches not working in most churches, they have other drawbacks – they can be divisive, creating a sense of “them and us”, and they tend to draw christians out of normal society (where they should be salt and light) and into a church culture and society.
So newer approaches tend to look for common ground with non-believers, and offer friendship, a caring community to join and help to those in need. The hope is that “first they belong, then they believe”.
A new challenge from Jeremiah
Increasingly, I see christians taking inspiration from a letter Jeremiah sent from Jerusalem to captive Jews in Babylon, with surprising advice:
“Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.”
Instead of setting up a complete alternative to secular society, to avoid being compromised by “the world”, some missiologists are suggesting, like Jeremiah said, that christians should immerse themselves in their society and work and pray for its peace and prosperity – described by the Hebrew word shalom.
How does it work?
- Jesus commands us to love our neighbours as ourselves (Mark 12:30-31) and warns us that we will be judged according to how we treated those in needs (Matthew 25:31-46). So working for the wellbeing of those around us is Jesus’ command to us and worth doing in itself.
- We aim to improve people’s lives, individually and collectively, through serving, helping and changing unjust structures.
- We get out of our buildings and out of our religious routines a lot more, meet the wider community, build relationships, overcome barriers and find out needs. “God does some of his best work, not in pulpit or pew, but on the pavement.”
- All this is a picture of God’s love “with skin on” and and foretaste of his future kingdom – much more attractive to non-believers than being bombarded with negativity.
- We pray for our neighbours, those we meet, and the whole city – for their wellbeing and peace.
- And we invite those outside the kingdom to join us in following Jesus, joining in his mission and receiving his forgiveness for those thing we know we need forgiveness for.
In poorer communities ….
…. we can be light in the darkness, hope for those who are losing hope, help rather than condemnation and friends to those who feel alienated or lonely. We can assist in all sorts of community development – activities and educational help for children and teens who may otherwise be at risk, safe and non-threatening meeting places (e.g. a cafe or an opportunity shop), help in re-training and finding work and support for those facing a legal or social welfare system that seems unfriendly to them.
All the time we are doing what is most likely to bring shalom, to individuals, families, sub-groups, suburbs and the whole society.
In more affluent communities ….
…. it may be harder to know what to do because the needs are often less obvious or hidden – loneliness, family breakdown, depression, substance dependence or destructive ambition. But still we can work for the peace and wellbeing of our neighbours, offer them opportunities to face their needs and deal with them, and help them see the value and importance of following Jesus.
Affluent people have more assets to protect and therefore more reasons to be selfish. But if they own a house and have children at school, they have a strong stake in the peace and wellbeing of their community. Instead of making them feel guilty for being affluent (as justice campaigners may do), we can encourage them to be thankful for their blessings and challenge them to use their affluence for good and for God.
Affluent societies present particular challenges for christians, and we have to learn how to immerse ourselves in our culture without getting sucked into all its values.
Pray for the peace of the city
Instead of condemning our culture for its excesses and faults, is there a place in our mission for praying and working for our city’s wellbeing?