Glenn Hohnberg challenges our practice and thinking about evangelism in this
first part of last year’s Mathew Hale Library lecture. Part 2 follows in our next issue.
Are we reaching Australia with the gospel? According to 2012 McCrindle research, 1 in 4 Australians attended church in 1966. In 2013 fewer than 1 in 14 attended church. The population of Australia has doubled since 1966 and yet there are a million fewer people going to church now than then. Even if a significant amount of church attendance in the 1960s was dead nominalism and a culture of church-going rather than true belief, what the numbers show is that we are certainly not reaching Australia with the great news about Jesus.1
This begs the question as to why. The gospel is the same and God’s power is the same and yet we seem to be going backwards in reaching Australia. This article proposes that there have been profound changes in Australian culture in the last thirty years driven by changes in our working lives which our evangelistic strategies fail to reflect. But this is not the only difficulty. Coupled with this is a failure in our church culture to devote ourselves to the evangelising of Australian adults. And so we are failing to reach Australia.
We will begin by looking at culture changes driven by working changes in the last thirty years and then our church culture. In the next issue we will look at some ways forward for reaching Australia.
Our working life dictates relationships
The first culture shift to explore is the hours that Australians work. Most Australians have the impression that we work longer hours than ever before. But, surprisingly, when you crunch the numbers we don’t. On the whole we are working the same hours as thirty years ago.
The issue here is that we work way too much and this is systemic to our culture. If work/life balance is given the most weight, Australia becomes one of the worst developed nations in which to live. OECD reports show that more than 14% of Australian workers put in more than 50 hours a week, well above the OECD average of 9%.2 Or, looking at it another way, the proportion of workers who worked more than 50 hours a week is currently 1 in 7 workers. This is what it was in 1979. The proportion working over 60 hours a week is 1 in 14 workers. This number has also stayed about the same.3
The reason this matters when it comes to evangelism is that it means many Australians don’t spend large amounts of time near where they live. They spend much of their time at work and in relationships at work. This must be recognised, for it is a key reason that it is difficult for Christians to be in strong relationships with the people we live near. It is not a new problem but one that has been with us since the 1970s.
The question is: have our churches recognised this? When church leaders say ‘invite your neighbours to church’, they generally mean the people we live near. But we don’t see them because both the Christian and their next-door neighbour are at work.
Busy and more disconnected from where we live than ever before
If raw working hours haven’t changed, why does Australian society feel busier and more disconnected in the last 20 to 30 years?
Many things have changed, but there are four very significant changes in our work lives that have shaped every aspect of our lives and so impact the way we do evangelism. These are:
- The way our work time is spent
- More women in the workforce
- The time spent commuting
- Neighbours are less likely to want to get to know each other
1. work time
An international workplace survey conducted in Spring 2007 revealed that over 60% of Australians surveyed work more than one weekend a month. 25% sacrifice one weekend every month and a further 37% put in two weekends or more per month.4
The impact of this weekend work on relationships is very significant. Weekends afford the largest continuous slice of time in which relationships can be formed and deepened. And yet even the keenest, evangelistically minded Christian is going to struggle to see and get to know the people they live near when either they or their neighbour is consistently away at work. The effect of this is cumulative, because even if the Christian is home on a particular weekend the neighbour very well may not be because he or she is at work. And this doesn’t take into account other weekend activities that we travel to such as sport, shopping and entertainment.
It is no wonder the Christian doesn’t evangelise their neighbour. They can’t. It is hard to speak the gospel to someone you never, or rarely, speak with.
2. more women working
The second very significant factor is that more women than ever before are working in paid work, both in single-parent and two-parent households. Women’s participation in the labour force since 1961 has almost double.
On a suburban street in 1961, 3 out of 10 women were working (full-time or part-time). In 2011, 6 out of 10 women on a suburban street are now working (full-time or part-time). And this is in the age range 15–74.5 When you narrow the age range to 20–65 years, 7 out of 10 women are now working. This means most of their relationships are in the workplace and not on the suburban street. It is hard to overstate the significance of this in terms of where women form relationships, whom they should evangelise, and even the nature of local communities.
But it goes further. This is why society feels a lot busier: because it is. The factors here are again cumulative. Now with mum anddad leaving the house for work, or just a single mum or dad, it leads to:
- drop off at long-day childcare before school for either mum or dad
- less time or rare time at the school gate
- shopping after work, on weekends or home delivery
- getting home for school pick-up for one or both partners
In other words, the men are now even busier, but not with paid work. They are busier juggling family responsibilities before and after work so that their wife or partner can work.
Again, the effect here is multiplied in terms of making it hard to be with those we live near. Perhaps the Christian family has opted for the wife not to work and to cope with the financial implications of this. However, the next-door neighbours still are not there; nor are many of the mothers spending time at school, because 7 out of 10 of them are at work. And we haven’t even added into the picture the turnover in housing or the way in which we commute our children from the same street to different schools.
What does all this mean? It means it is very, very slow work getting to know the people we live near. Not impossible but very slow. But it also means that if we as Christians focus on the relationships primarily with those we live near and not those whom we work with, we are failing to recognise the vast opportunity for real and deep relationship in the workplace.
However, it isn’t just the work. It is the travel to work that affects our relationships where we live, negatively.
3. the commute to work eats away at local community
Research from the Australia Institute, Off to Work (2005), showed that Australians commute a lot.6 Each week in Australia over 10% of parents in paid employment spend more time commuting than they do with their children. This matters because the analysis shows that the more time employees spend commuting, the less frequently they socialise with friends and relatives and the less likely they are to be active members of sporting groups or community organisations. In other words, commuters don’t connect easily with their local community. This is an issue in Brisbane because the average weekly commute in Brisbane is four hours per week or about 25 minutes per trip.
It could be proposed that the commute itself creates opportunity for relationships and evangelism. However, the Australia Institute report also showed that commuters are either stressed employees, doing unpaid work on mobile devices, or passive consumers of entertainment and advertising. And so commuting does not build up friendships and communities.7 This is another reason why we are disconnected from the relationships where we live.
4. our neighbours don’t want to get to know us
There is one more cultural shift that almost seems like the final nail in the coffin of relationships with the people we live near. It seems more and more of our neighbours don’t want to get to know us even if we want to get to know them. KPMG demographer Bernard Salt notes that many people prefer to talk to their workmates across the office partition rather than chat to their neighbours over the fence.8 Many don’t even know their neighbours’ names. If you want proof of this then just observe how many houses now have a six-foot high colourbond fence between them and their neighbours. This near-ubiquitous fence is ironically called ‘The good neighbour’ by one company. Your neighbours are good because you can hardly see them over this fence.
We don’t know the people we live near, our classic neighbours. We don’t see them and they don’t see us. We spend little time with them. We don’t have energy to invest in them. They don’t have the energy to get to know us. And they may well not want to get to know us. And yet this seems to be where most of our evangelistic efforts are focused, to the neglect of other opportunities.
We do know and spend many, many hours with the people we work with. These are our primary relationships (outside family) in the twenty-first century, for men and women. These are relationships that cross political, culture and even social divides. And yet on the whole we Christians and our churches neglect evangelism in our workplaces. We rarely talk about or pray for our workplaces in church, or talk about how to love people in them with the gospel. We need to rethink this. The gospel usually comes through relationships and this is where our relationship are (see Part 2 next issue).
Christian factors that we need to rethink to reach Australia
However, it isn’t just changes in our culture that are inhibiting us reaching the people around us. It is our church practices. I fear this is going to be controversial because it challenges our current practices. But we need to be prepared to rethink practices in order to reach Australia.
We allocate church resources so that evangelism doesn’t happen
I cannot tell you how many times I have heard this statistic or something like it from Christian leaders: 80% of Christians become Christians when they are under 20 years old.9
Why is this? Firstly, you have to become a Christian at some point. At some point everybody has to decide to become a Christian. This means youth groups and Sunday School are evangelistic by definition, because at some point someone has to decide to become a Christian. Putting it another way, every Sunday School is full of potential Christians.
This is so obvious that it almost could go without stating. But it is very important because the statistic regarding the conversions of children includes those from Christian families. If we are evangelising these children, under God, you would hope that our rates of success are high. However, when we consider reaching those under 20 outside Christian families how do the statistics change? Would we start to see that the numbers of pureoutsiders reached above and below the age of 20 are much closer?
But this isn’t the only issue. The statistic is misleading in another very important way. The statistic is only relevant if an equal amount of resources (time, money, relationships, etc.) has been invested in reaching those above the age of 20 and those under 20.
Consider the resource of time. Many churches put a considerable amount of time and energy into Sunday School, kids’ programs and youth groups. Young people are encouraged, skilled and equipped for teaching and growing kids and teenagers. In contrast, how much time and resources and training is provided for evangelism to adults?
Let me flesh this out with an example. Imagine two Christian leaders, aged 24 or 25, who are leading a high-school youth group for 15–16 year olds. They could easily devote 200 hours to this youth group. If two or three members of the youth group are not Christian and the leaders are any good, a significant amount of this time will be evangelistic. This is a great thing.10 But, in contrast, how many churches encourage and equip two Christian leaders to devote 200 hours to evangelising two or three friends their own age, investing time not only together but praying, thinking and being trained in evangelism?
You can see my point. If the first scenario is played out, evangelism to those under 20 is successful. If the second scenario doesn’t happen then it is hard for it to be successful. And, yes, unfortunately often the time devoted to youth group or Sunday School as a priority means that the time is not devoted to evangelising friends. In our scenarios the two leaders are so busy with leading the youth group that they don’t have time or energy to be with their friends.
My proposal is that the reason more people are converted before the age of 20 than after is simply because this is where we allocate most of our resources. But why doesn’t the second scenario happen? Why isn’t the evangelism of adults in a deliberate and planned way part of the program? Why isn’t it a systematic part of our church culture?
The problem here is very significant because it is compounded. Since we are devoting resources to evangelising youth group children and Sunday School children and not adults, we have to wait until they grow up to have new leaders, teachers or evangelists. Thus we continually have a limited number of adults both to serve as leaders for youth group and to evangelise their peers. It is a self-perpetuating cycle.
When we consider other resources allocated we discover a similar pattern. Consider staff energy as a resource. What percentage of the average church staff member’s time is directed toward evangelism: either training others, organising evangelism or doing it? Or think about the average church budget. How much of it is actually allocated to evangelism? Asking the question sharply: are we allocating resources such that evangelism to those over the age of 20 does not happen?
This isn’t an unbiblical way to think. When Jesus was talking with his disciples in John 4 about the fields being white for the harvest, it was because ‘Others have laboured, and you have entered into their labour.’ The disciples are reaping because the gospel was sowed over hundreds of years through the Old Testament prophets. If we are not sowing by evangelising those over the age of 20, how can we expect to reap?
Now comes my next controversial point. The other reason that much of our church evangelism fails is that, even when we do allocate resources toward it, we plan for the evangelism not to work.
Many churches plan for evangelism not to work
Many of our churches pivot their adult evangelism around one-off evangelistic events or a short course. Here is how it generally pans out in a local congregation (if your church is different I’m very glad to hear it):
- start of the year, put evangelism event on church calendar
- minister picks speaker and event because they know the speaker and the event
- six or four weeks beforehand the minister holds up a flyer or shows a PowerPoint slide regarding the event or course
- two weeks beforehand a reminder is announced
- one week beforehand comes an e‑mail and perhaps prayer for the event in Bible studies
This model assumes a few things. We’ll explore two. First, it assumes the heart of the Christian is fully formed with evangelistic convictions, competence and character. Rarely do the staff meet with individual congregation members or small groups and talk through whom they might invite and how they might do this. And rarely is the congregation member consistently encouraged and challenged in their prayers for the person they are hoping to invite. Perhaps this ought to happen in Bible study groups, cell groups and the like. However, my experience is that this is also rare. This means that the most vital evangelistic work is left to the congregation member without support, encouragement or training.
Second, this assumes ownership of and confidence in whatever the evangelistic endeavour is. However, my experience has been that if a congregation member has any uncertainty or any doubts—such as not knowing the speaker, being unsure about how the event will work, or a myriad other things—invitations are not made and the event isn’t utilised. This is understandable; we are asking them to risk a friendship when they are not confident it is worth the risk.11
In short, if the adult evangelism in our churches is carried out more or less along the lines above we are not planning for evangelism.
Rather, we are planning for evangelism to fail. The problem here isn’t with event evangelism. It is that evangelism is treated as an event rather than worked at systematically and deeply with the event as the outworking of evangelistic discipleship with Christians.
Now, if this isn’t bad enough there is an even worse problem for our churches.
Is the ultimate problem that we don’t believe our Lord?
In Romans 1 Paul said, ‘I’m not ashamed of the gospel because it is the power of God for salvation for all who believe.’ He believed that the word of God was profoundly powerful and able to save.
If we have given up on evangelising people over the age of 20—that is, we have given up evangelising Australian adults—then our actions show that we don’t actually think there is any power in the gospel. We don’t really think it will convert the people to whom it is proclaimed. But Paul thought the gospel pierced through to adults. He did not enter towns and go to the Synagogue Sunday Schools and to the Yiddish youth group. He preached the gospel to adults in their workplaces, synagogues, public squares and homes. And this is because Paul believed in the power of the gospel.
Have we lost confidence in the power of the gospel to convert people to Jesus? Is this the very thing we must rethink?
We are not currently reaching Australia and we need to rethink our evangelism. Churches must recognise the reality of relationships. They are no longer primarily with the people we live near. They are much more likely to be with those we work with. Unless churches recognise this and respond appropriately, especially in the training and equipping of Christians for evangelism, we shall keep failing to reach Australia. But we will only start to respond appropriately if we start to devote ourselves to the evangelising of adults in Australia in a way that hasn’t been happening for many, many years. We need to rethink how to reach Australia because, if we keep doing the same thing we’ve been doing for the last thirty years, we are likely to get the same result.
Glenn Hohnberg has worked with the City Bible Forum in Brisbane for six years. Glenn grew up in bush NSW, lived in Sydney and trained at Moore Theological College, but now lives in Southside Brisbane. Glenn is married to Kathryn and has four young boys.
6 Michael Flood and Claire Barbato, Off to Work: Commuting in Australia (The Australia institute, April 2005), www.tai.org.au/documents/downloads/DP78.pdf. See also this research from Sweden for the impact on relationships of commuting: usj.sagepub.com/content/early/2013/08/06/0042098013498280.abstract
7 Flood and Barbato, Off to Work, 8–9.
9 For a recent US example: www.barna.org/barna-update/article/5-barna-update/196-evangelism-is-most-effective-among-kids#.UoGQaifiQUY (retrieved 12 Nov 2013)
10 200 hours is simply five hours a week for 40 weeks. It might consist of two hours each week with the youth group, two hours a week in preparation, and an average of one hour a week over a year of other activities such as hanging out, a weekend away, special nights, time at church, etc.
11 This may explain why evangelistic events organised from the ground up, such as those organised by women’s Bible study groups, seem to be often much more successful in having unbelievers attend.