Mark Fairweather Tall
Evangelism - the elephant in the room
Each year the Oxford Dictionaries announces a ‘word of the year’. It isn’t necessarily a new word but rather one that has grown into common use during the previous year and expresses something of the mood or actions of society. Last year’s contenders included ‘binge-watch’ (watching multiple episodes of a programme back to back in a long session) and ‘showrooming’ (the practice of visiting shops in order to examine a product before going to buy it for the cheapest possible price on-line). The undisputed winner of ‘word of the year’, though, was ‘selfie’ (the art of taking a picture of yourself on your mobile). It made me think: if I was going to choose a ‘church word of 2014’, what would it be? It would need to be a word that was increasingly common in its use and also describe something of a growing culture within the church. You might like to share what you hope would we be the ‘church word for 2014’ in comments at the end of this article. I will share with you my answer: ‘evangelism’. Evangelism can be for churches ‘the elephant in the room’: obviously important and needed but largely avoided because we don’t find it easy.
Technological developments over the last twenty five years means that many words in common use today have very different meanings to what would have been understood by previous generations. For example, our first thought on talking about ‘the mouse’, ‘the web’ and ‘the cloud’ might all be to do with computing. Previous generations would have been more likely to think of a small rodent, a means of gathering food for a spider and an almost clear sky. Somewhere along the line our understanding of the word ‘evangelism’ seems to have changed too. For many today, evangelism might be defined as ‘the feeling of guilt associated with the memory of missed opportunities’; or alternatively, ‘A particular gifting (which I don’t have) highlighted in Bible passages like Ephesians 4:11.’ Thus evangelism becomes the elephant in the room.
The actual meaning of evangelism is derived from the Greek word euaggelion, most literally translated as ‘good news’. In verb from (euaggelizesthai) becomes the act of announcing good news. Thoughts about evangelism should remind us of the joy that we have because of what Jesus has done for us and the privilege we have of being involved in sharing this wonderful news with others. The Apostle Paul quotes from Isaiah 52:7 in his letter to the Romans: “How beautiful are the feet of messengers who bring good news!” Romans 10:15b (NLT). Indeed Paul writes that he longs to go to Rome and a big part of his desire to do this was to “reap some harvest among you as well as among the rest of the Gentiles.” Romans 1:13b (ESV). He had a longing to share good news and goes on to say: “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.” V16 (ESV) Paul’s conviction is that the gospel is good news for people, it is what they need to hear and he has confidence in its power. The Message translation has Paul saying: “It’s news I am most proud to declare, this extraordinary message of God’s powerful plan to rescue everyone who trusts him”. It raises an important question about how proud we are to proclaim the good news? Is the cause of the elephant in the evangelism room simply that we do not have enough confidence in the gospel?
What dents our confidence?
Let me suggest a few common reasons why we might not be as confident and proud as we should be:
Fear of failure – we live in a success driven culture. From our school days with tests and exams and reports, there is a measure to tell us how well we are doing. Failure is embarrassing and we seek to avoid it. If we don’t expect to succeed then we are reluctant to take things on. People not responding when we share the gospel may be perceived as ‘our failure’ and undermine our confidence in the gospel. However, we should remember that not everyone responded to Jesus!
Fear of rejection – it is easy to worry about what others might think of us. Will they look at me differently? Will it affect my relationships? Does it sound arrogant? Will people think less of me? There are all sorts of questions that can go through our minds. Paul knew rejection but he was confident that the power of the gospel to give life was more important than his experience of rejection.
Fear of confrontation – It can feel at times like there is an antagonism towards faith and the reaction of others can be off putting when there is strong opposition. We can also be worried that if we are talking in this way that someone will ask us questions that are beyond our capabilities of answering. Once more our confidence in sharing the good news is undermined.
How can we grow in our gospel confidence?
Much could be said, but here are just a few things that might help...
1) Confidence in the gospel must flow from our own experience. Paul’s life was transformed on the road to Damascus but again and again he had new testimony of the power of God working in his life and in the lives of others. We will struggle to be enthusiastic and passionate about sharing the gospel unless we are experiencing it in our lives. We need to share with one another what God is doing in our lives. Even when God feels more distant from me I can be encouraged by the testimony of others. If this is to happen we need to be engaged in vibrant worship (of whatever style); our minds need to be extended as we learn more about our amazing God; we need to take time to reflect on where we see God in our lives; we must be willing to change the way we live to honour him. Our confidence grows as we experience the power of the gospel in our lives.
2) We need to consider how we engage in evangelism. In years gone by door-knocking, street corner preaching and missions like the ones Billy Graham used to lead were key methods of evangelism. However successful methods may have been in the past, it does not necessarily follow that they are the methods that should be used today. We are speaking today to people who hold a different world view from those of 20 to 30 years ago. Today, although many people describe themselves as spiritual they are not looking to explore this in church. The church does not always have a good public image and people are more suspicious of it than ever and thus less ready to listen to what we have to say. The ‘If it works for you, it’s good’ philosophy is more popular than a message of absolute truth. Quite simply there are new challenges to how we ‘do’ evangelism.
The church needs to show it is relevant to society before people will listen to its message. Over recent years churches have sought to engage with their communities in many different ways: Foodbanks, Street Partnership and Contact Centres are just a few examples of this that we have experience of in Norwich. However, alongside the increased amount of community engagement there is the challenge of how we take this to the next level of sharing the good news message. John Stott said we need the twin blades of missionary scissors – community action is one blade and talking about the gospel is the other. However, it is easier to talk once we have established in the minds of others that the church is still relevant to society today.
3) I believe we need to redefine what we count as successful evangelism. Traditionally we see it as the moment when someone gives their life to Christ. However, successful evangelism includes building a relationship with someone who the church community has not previously engaged with. Of course, you don’t want the journey to end there, but it is a start. Part of the reason I think the “Who Cares?” mission taking place in Norfolk this year is so exciting is because it gives churches the opportunity to engage with new people and hopefully be messengers of good news. Our confidence in the gospel grows as we put less pressure on ourselves in what we see as success.
(You can find out more about “Who Cares at https://www.who-cares.org.uk )
4) Finally, our role is to share our faith by talking about the gospel. The gospel is the power of God for salvation. Successful evangelism is simply about telling others about Jesus. Failure in evangelism is when we don’t even try. The response of the hearer is not our responsibility. The gospel is the power of God for salvation; it is the Holy Spirit who challenges and convicts people to respond, not us. When we accept this it can ease a sense of failure for those who do not respond. Consequently, if we share with more people we are more likely to find some respond and this will increase our confidence.
If evangelism is to cease being the elephant in the room, we need to grow in our confidence in the gospel. As we grow in confidence, maybe we will engage in evangelism more and the word will be used more - then we may see more of the power of God who saves. Yes, I hope and pray that evangelism can be the word of the year for the church. After all, we have the most wonderful news that the world needs to hear.