Numerous studies confirm that the American church is in decline.
Alan Roxburgh, in his book Joining God, Remaking the Church, Changing the World, shares the following statistic:
- If you were born between 1925 and 1945, there is a 60% chance you are in church today.
- If you were born between 1946 and 1964, there is a 40% chance you are in church today.
- If you were born between 1965 and 1983, there is a 20% chance you are in church today.
- If you were born after 1984, there is less than a 10% chance you are in church today.
Notice that with each successive generation – Boomer, Builder, Gen-X, Millennial – the American church is losing ground. And while this downward spiral is already a transparent reality within mainline denominations (Catholic, Lutheran, Methodist, Presbyterian), evangelical churches are not far behind.
The fact is America is on trajectory to become like post-Christian Europe. This has many church leaders laying awake at night wondering how we got here and what can be done about it.
Not a problem to be solved
We church leaders tend to be church-focused and solutions-oriented. We see a problem in the church and our default is to immediately jump into action brainstorming how we can fix things up. Isn’t this what we leaders are paid to do? Isn’t it our job to provide solutions to problems?
As we look at the problems before us, our anxiety often causes us to grab at strategies or methodologies that seem to hold out promise. Some grab at strategies that solved yesterday’s problems while others reach for newer methodologies that seem to guarantee better outcomes.
But the decline of the American church is not a problem for us to solve. It’s an opportunity for us to discover new ways of following Jesus and the leadership of the Spirit into the future.
Often our leadership default to provide solutions betrays our lack of trust in God’s ability to lead. Rather than trusting that God is already present and at work, we assume God’s largely checked out and it’s our job to get things done on his behalf.
But what if God is already present and at work? And what if God cares more about the American church than we do?
When the Israelites were wondering around in the wilderness, their task wasn’t to figure out some new strategies to get them to the Promised Land. Their task was to learn how to trust God and his leadership in new ways.
The American church is in a similar place today.
The decline of the American church has us wandering in the wilderness. And while some might want to go back to Egypt—some form of Christendom glory—this isn’t an option. But nor is reaching for new methodological fads that promise to get us to a better place.
Evangelism in post-Christendom: not working anymore
The topic of evangelism provides a great example of what I’m driving at here. In the past few months I’ve had two separate interactions that were strikingly similar.
The first took place in a third space I frequent with a newer acquaintance named Jim. As Jim and I were talking, I learned that his dad was a seminary professor. Jim grew up in seminary housing surrounded by Christians, talking theological shop, and attending church.
And yet, Jim no longer considers himself a follower of Jesus. He had tried church and found it wanting. And given that in Jim’s experience church and Jesus go together, his interest level in Jesus was about the same as church—not antagonistic, but entirely disinterested.
The second interaction took place in a different third space with someone I met for the very first time named Jane. As Jane and I were talking, I learned that her dad was a pastor. Like Jim, Jane grew up surrounded by Christians, first while living in seminary housing and then in the small church community where her dad served as a pastor.
Similarly, Jane would no longer consider herself a follower of Jesus. Like Jim, Jane tried church but didn’t find it compelling. And, once again, because church and Jesus seem to go together, there seemed to be little interest in Jesus.
The insufficiency of just telling people about Jesus
Now, in my experience most evangelism training we give churchgoers centers on how to tell people about Jesus. The underlining assumption guiding most evangelism training is that the primary problem needing to be addressed is a lack of knowledge or awareness among those who don’t follow Jesus.
So, in response to this lack of awareness, we’ve come up with a whole variety of tools to help us tell people about Jesus with clarity and creativity—The Romans Road, The Bridge Illustration, and The Four Spiritual Laws, to name just a few.
But see, what both of the above interactions reveal is that simply telling people about Jesus is entirely insufficient. Both Jim and Jane have already heard about Jesus. In fact, my sneaking suspicion, given both their upbringings, is that they could have told me about Jesus using the very tools that most Christians have been given to share the gospel.
Jane could have guided me through The Four Spiritual Laws or explained The Bridge Illustration to me using a napkin. Both of them could have guided me through The Roman’s Road and closed it out with The Sinner’s Prayer.
The assumption that the reason Jim and Jane aren’t following Jesus is due to a lack of awareness or a lack of information is entirely misguided.
The reality is most of the tools we have given churchgoers to help them share their faith are designed to tell people something they’ve already heard and rejected. The problem isn’t a lack of awareness or information. The problem is they aren’t compelled by what we’ve already shared with them.
Perhaps some of these common tools will work great for someone hearing about Jesus for the first time or for someone who is ready in the moment to begin following Jesus. But that’s not most people you will encounter.
It’s called post-Christian for a reason: It’s not that they haven’t heard of Jesus before, it’s that they have heard of Jesus and haven’t said yes.
A new way of evangelism in post-Christendom
Yes, familiar evangelism methodologies are losing their effectiveness, but let me be clear: it’s not that these methodologies are bad or entirely inaccurate.
(While one could argue that these tools and methodologies have reduced the gospel to an oversimplified spiritual transaction… that goes beyond my point here. I’m simply naming these more familiar evangelistic methodologies as insufficient for the present task of evangelism in our current cultural context. And this makes us feel like we are wandering around in the wilderness.)
So what can we do? Don’t we just need new tools? I don’t think so.
New tools will undoubtedly be helpful and needed, but only to the degree that they posture us to discover what Jesus is already up to in the lives of the people around us and in a way that invites our participation.
Over the past few years the leadership community I serve alongside has been doing just that. We still have a lot to learn, but here are a few things we’ve learned so far as we’ve sought to join the work God is already doing in the lives of those around us.
1) Evangelism starts with listening
We often think of evangelism as telling people about Jesus.
No doubt, evangelism will be impossible without words. But we’ve learned that in our post-Christian culture talking is hardly the first step. It’s listening.
Listening is the first step toward discovering what God is already up to.
Over the past year our team has been conducting listening interviews. The primary purpose of these listening interviews has been for us to simply become better at moving toward other people with authenticity and sincerity.
We are gradually learning how to be present with people, even those who are different from us. We’ve learned how to ask genuine questions aimed at truly getting to know another person with out some hidden agenda to change or fix them. We’ve learned how to assume a posture of compassionate curiosity, showing honest interest in their stories and experiences, viewpoints and opinions.
And we’ve been stretched in the process.
I’ve noticed that my default when I hear an opinion that I disagree with is to immediately start thinking about how to counter that opinion with my own viewpoint. But I’m learning that when I listen longer than feels comfortable, I often end up standing on sacred ground. When I shift my default from telling or informing to listening and understanding, I often discover subtle ways God has already been at work.
Jesus was a master at this. Jesus was constantly asking people questions. Jesus was consistently present to people in such a way where he truly saw them.
Evangelism of the future won’t primarily be about telling. First and foremost, it will be about extending the gift of genuine listening.
Being a good listener is way of telling people they matter. Moreover, it’s the first step toward discovering where God might already be at work.
2) Evangelism involves affirmation
One of the ways we can join where God is at work is by affirming what we sense God is already doing. As we listen to people long enough to notice God’s activity, we can then affirm it.
We should be open to critically examining our methodologies if when sharing good news people don’t hear or experience good news at all. And herein is why some of our evangelism strategies are falling flat.
They don’t proclaim good news. They start with bad news: You are a sinner in need of a savior. Right?
It’s a touch ironic that we often leverage the very things Jesus came to set us free from when presenting the Good News of Jesus—namely, fear, guilt, and shame.
Jesus often rebuked religious insiders, but affirmed marginalized outsiders. It seems we often do the exact opposite. We affirm ourselves but rebuke others.
But as I’ve spent time listening to people – including their frustrations with Jesus and the church – I’ve discovered that there is a ton I can affirm.
Recently I ended up in a conversation with a guy named Dave who said he felt bad for his Christian parents. When I asked him why, he commented, “their faith is primary about ‘going to heaven when they die’ and they don’t have any purpose here and now. It seems like they are just sitting around waiting to kick the can so they can get to heaven.”
Dave’s intuition here, biblically speaking, is actually spot on! So I affirmed him.
I said, “Dave, I agree with you. Jesus didn’t save us only so we can go to heaven after we die. Heaven is part of it, for sure. One day Jesus will make all things new with heaven and earth colliding. But Jesus also invites us to participate in his restorative work here and now. We get to work toward God’s heaven in the present. And that’s my purpose in life.”
Have you ever tried to refurbish something? I once refurbished an old desk. My first move was to strip away the old stain so that it would be capable of absorbing new stain when applied. Evangelism of the future will require the same thing.
It will require being present to people in such a way where they can strip away the old in order to absorb something new. It will require entering into the patient process of deconstruction in order to pave the way for positive reconstruction centering on the person of Jesus.
And, by the way, refurbishing projects take time. We will need to stay present to people beyond a few short interactions.
3) Evangelism requires dependency
I’ve noticed that the word evangelism often causes people to sweat in the armpits. Evangelism makes people nervous—like, really nervous. People immediately think of having to initiate awkward conversations with total strangers or standing on the street corner with a megaphone. Many fear social rejection or not having all the answers. What if someone stumps me?
At the root of our sweaty armpits is often a false sense of responsibility. We often think it is our job to save people. But that’s not what Jesus taught.
Jesus explicitly told his disciples in John 15 that apart from him we are unable to produce any kingdom fruit. Moreover, when Jesus sent out the 72 in Luke 10 the only guarantee they were given is that the kingdom of God would come near, but there was no guarantee as to how people would respond.
Realizing that our job is to faithfully demonstrate and proclaim good news while leaving the results up to God is incredibly freeing. It frees us from a false sense of responsibility.
But more than that it frees us to actually pay attention to where God is at work in another person’s life. When I am absorbed with a false sense of responsibility – and the anxiety that comes with it – I am not free to be present to the other person or to how God is at work in their life.
Evangelism of the future will cast off this false sense of responsibility. It will openly confess that it’s not our job to do things for God, but rather, to humbly join the things God is already doing.
Questions for reflection
- What is the most difficult part of listening for you?
- Who can you schedule a listening interview with in the next week?
- How does framing evangelism as deconstruction and reconstruction stretch you?
Patricia S Cook says
Yes to all the above. We failed at learning how to grow through the different stages of life. But it’s happening now in some corners & God is working. I gain so much from recommended articles on this sight. Work where God puts you, and never stop growing & learning.
Ben Sternke says
Amen, Patricia! Thanks for taking the time to comment 🙂