Glenn Hohnberg continues with his challenge to our thinking and practice of evangelism in this second part of last years Mathew Hale Library Lecture.
We are not reaching Australia with the great news of Jesus. 2012 McCrindle Research showed that despite Australia's population doubling since 1966, one million fewer people go to church now than in 1966. Even considering the dead nominalism that may have existed in the 1950-60s, this ought to be very confronting.
Why are we failing to reach Australia? In the first part of my article I boldly proposed two 2 major reasons why this is so. First, we focus our evangelism on our local, geographic neighbours, the people we live near. Due to the cultural changes of the last thirty years, these are the people we almost never see. While focusing on them we neglect those that we see every day at work.
Second, our churches, the centre of Christian life and thinking, devote very few resources to adult evangelism. And so adult evangelism doesn't succeed, thus perpetuating a cycle of not discipling and training in adult evangelism.
Perhaps things are harder now than they have ever been. However, the most crucial things have not changed and these should give us great confidence in trying to reach Australia.
What hasn't changed?
God wants to save people. God has an eternal plan to save people and he sent his Son at cost to his very self to save people. Do we think that God has backed out now? Of course not!
We know He is still at work saving people.
The Gospel is growing. Jesus warned us the Kingdom of God grows like a crop, unseen over night. Paul said exactly the same thing to the Colossian Christians. The gospel is growing. Just because we can't see it doesn't mean it isn't growing. When we stop thinking the gospel is growing we are judging by what we can see.
God's word is powerful. It is God's word that made the world, that makes nations rise and fall and even now cleaves into the centre of people beyond their expectation or defence. It lays the marrow of our hearts bare. Proclaiming it will have an impact.
God uses what he has always used. The pattern of the gospel going forward in the world is always the same: people sacrificially praying and people sacrificially proclaiming God's word. These concepts are both clearly captured in the end of the letter to the Colossians. Paul is in prison for proclaiming the gospel and asks for prayer to boldly and clearly proclaim the gospel. That is sacrificial, to pray for more of the very thing that got you into prison in the first place.
These four truths should give us great courage. They are the reason that evangelism can be successful. Now, in light of my critique in part 1 and in light of these truths I want to suggest some ways forward.
Recognise that strong relationships are now in the work place
A key change in our culture is that the work place is now the place of many deep and strong relationships, trumping local geographic neighbourhoods.
The reason for this is that people's desire for relationship hasn't change People are made in the image of God and made for relationship with Him and each other. Since we are not finding relationships where we live we find them at work or in our play.
Recent research shows that many Australians prefer to socialise with their workmates rather than chat to their neighbours. The office is the local neighbourhood. KPMG demographer Bernard Salt points out people now opt to talk to their workmates across the office partition rather than chat to their neighbours over the fence. "People say that it's a bad thing, that there has been a sense of community lost, but really it's just shifted from suburbia to the office"
A part of this may be that in our individualistic 3rd millennium culture, work is now a place where people find much of their value and their identity, rather than in the home or local community. And so, they naturally want to be with those who value them and where they find their identity.
A stroll through any Australian CBD on a working morning will prove the office is the new neighbourhood. Cafes and coffee shops are spilling over with groups of professionals and even tradies laughing and talking over coffee. Before work there will be the host of M.A.M.I.Ls (Middle Aged Men In Lycra) who've combined their work and play, while the larger companies have been upgrading their lunch rooms from small dingy affairs to large swish rooms with large screen tvs, coffee machines and other inviting features so workers can lunch together.
If this thesis is right, or even partially right, we need to rethink our evangelism. What might we do?
1. As churches and Christian groups we need to start talking about our work places and the relationships there. We need to start to pray for Christians' workplaces and their relationships in the work place. In my experience many churches don't talk about the work place and they very rarely pray for Christians' work places.
2. Start thinking about evangelism in a relational way and stop thinking about evangelism and ministry in a primarily geographic way: where the church building is and where congregation members live. A simple way to do this is speak to each congregation member (over 2-3 months) and find out when and where they spend time with non Christians. And, crucially, how much time? This would enable you to get a clear idea of what relationships Christians are already in. Make sure you ask about work.
If you keep an A4 page from each interview you'll have a great basis for ongoing encouragement and prayer with each Christian. You may even see some natural connections that enable you to plan some small targeted evangelism or specific training. ie. If you had a handful of Christian tradies in your congregation what particular skills, resources or even small opportunity might suit them and their mates? Or what about 2-3 young men or women who work in the finance industry?
If we neglect to explore Christians' work relationships we stop Christians from seeing the real possibilities in these relationships. But, not only this, if Christians are only encouraged to befriend their geographic neighbour they may be banging their head away against an evangelistic strategy that is doomed from the start. I can hardly think of anything more discouraging.
Focusing on the Christian worker as someone who takes the gospel out to their work place overcomes a significant problem in evangelism in our 3rd millennium. Many Christians attending a church in a city don't live locally to the church. We commute to churches. If our evangelism is primarily church based, by expecting the non Christian to come to our church meeting, we are now asking our guests to commute to church with us. This is a high bar indeed, unless your church is renowned for offering a very good show on a Sunday morning or evening.
3. Christians' lives are lived out in front of many non Christian witnesses in the work place, so we need to preach and teach what the Christian life looks like lived out in the work place. In other words, church teaching ought to be regularly and systematically applied to the work place where Christians spend the majority of their hours. And if we are not sure how to apply it, this may just show that we don't think about Christians' work or work places very much. But this can be rectified.
4. Related to the above, opportunities come in the work place in many forms. Some arise because Christians will stand out in the work place (or they ought to!) and others because Christians are looking for opportunities. As such we need to train Christians for evangelistic conversations in the workplace in a way that goes beyond the standard evangelistic course. Most of these courses help you present the gospel when you are on the topic. We need this. But key in the work place is knowing how to boldly and yet wisely offer a Christian perspective in everyday conversations that touch on a myriad of topics. And then how to move onto the topic of Jesus when the time is right.
All this means the church is still a place of evangelism, but with a new model. Consider this summary of American research by the Barna Group:
"The weekend church service is no longer the primary mechanism for salvation decisions; only one out of every ten believers who makes a decision to follow Christ does so in a church setting or service. On the other hand, personal relationships have become even more important in evangelism, with a majority of salvation decisions coming in direct response to an invitation given by a family member or friend."
So what does this mean for church evangelism? Churches need to be training centres for evangelism like never before.
5. As above, but taking it further, I think the training needed is discipleship in evangelism: investing in a handful of adults to train them in adult evangelism like we would train the leaders of a youth group. Sure, we'd get them to do a course but then we'd mentor them, meet with them regularly, offer them feedback, give additional Bible teaching and skills teaching when needed. We'd pray for them, we'd resource them and we'd protect their time so they are freed up for this crucial ministry. You get the idea.
You've probably noticed this isn't rocket science. So why don't most churches do it? One colleague has suggested an intriguing idea. Perhaps part of the problem is many pastors' lives are different from most in their congregation. They live and work locally to their church and so their relationships with non Christians are near their home or their church. And so, this is their evangelistic pattern and model. But this isn't where most of the congregation members' relationships are. To set up the church's evangelism around geography of home and/or church is actually trying to force, inadvertently, the pastor's evangelistic goals and possibilities onto the congregation members.
Whatever the cause, if churches and ministries think primarily in a geographic way about evangelism, dictated not by real relationship possibilities but by buildings and geography, it will not only limit evangelism, it will probably kill it.
I'd like now to touch briefly on one more strand that we need to rethink to reach Australia.
Prayer for the lost, anyone?
Through the ministry of the City Bible Forum I talk to a lot of Christian city workers about their prayer lives. I'm trying to persuade them to join the City Bible Forum's Evangelistic Prayer Teams.
One consistent thing has come out of 6 years of conversations about prayer. Christian city workers don't pray for the salvation of those they work with. I usually ask two questions of Christian city workers: how often they pray for their work colleagues and how often they pray specifically for the salvation of their colleagues. The consistent answers, and all the more shocking because they are consistent, are: 'Almost never' and 'never'.
Yes, Christians pray for their colleagues when there is some disaster in their colleagues' life, hence only 'almost never'. But they are deeply consistent in not praying for the salvation of their colleagues who are going to hell.
This tells us that we Christians either don't care about the people we work with or that we don't believe in the power of prayer for salvation. If either of these things is true then we must not believe in God's desire to save people, the truth of the gospel, the power of the gospel, nor the power of prayer. If we are to reach Australia, this desperately needs to change.
We must retrain our churches so we have Jesus' vision for relationships. When Jesus said to love your neighbours, he didn't mean those with whom you share a fence. His classic story on this issue involves a Samaritan probably travelling for work. And Jesus defines a neighbour as anyone to whom we can show mercy. Those we work with are those who need the mercy of the gospel. And if not at work, we need to work out our relational networks then pursue these with a deliberateness and a steadfastness that reflects that God's gospel is powerful even if it takes many years.
We are not reaching Australia. We are going backwards. Significant culture changes have occurred, driven by working lives. These cultural changes have affected not just relationships but the possibility of relationships. Easy natural relationships with those we live near are now very difficult to achieve. And yet we pursue an evangelistic strategy directed towards people we don't see and so can't speak the gospel to. At the same time we fail to direct our evangelistic energy toward those we are in relationship with, and many of these are at work. And at the same time our churches direct relatively few resources toward adult evangelism, whilst wondering why we are not successful. And perhaps worst of all, is our lack of prayer for the salvation of unbelievers all around us. We need to rethink all these if we are to reach Australia with the gospel.
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.