I recently heard an interesting story on the radio as part of a series on transformative experiences. Jen Lee, the storyteller, explained that she grew up in a family of two religions: one was evangelical Christianity. “But then,” she said, “there was our unofficial faith and hope we had in Mary Kay cosmetics.”1 Lee explained, “It didn’t take too long before these two worlds—the church and Mary Kay—started to look more and more similar.”
In both settings, there was an emphasis on marketing and advertising techniques to recruit people. Lee was told that what she was offering—Jesus and Mary Kay products—would change the lives of the recruited. Her story concluded with her decision to move away from both Christian faith and Mary Kay. However, what catches the pastoral listener is Jen Lee’s frustration and response to a form of evangelism that offered nothing particularly Christian. We often say that evangelism is the offering of “Good News” (euangelion), but Lee found evangelism to simply be the pushing of another brand that seeks loyal customers.
Rather than marketing techniques, recent discussion on evangelism has become a conversation about what it means to be church.2 With that in mind, I think it is important to discuss some ways an ecclesiological focus in evangelism can be helpful for the everyday life of ministry.
Evangelism as More than a Target Group Strategy
The evangelism-related church growth methods that rose to popularity in the 1990s were based on a conceptual framework called the Homogenous Unit Principle (HUP), which relied heavily on the social sciences and was first introduced by Donald McGavran. Upon observing missions in India, in which castes would accept the gospel message without challenging the divisive caste structure, McGavran concluded, “People like to become Christians without crossing tribal, racial, class, or linguistic barriers. Human beings like to become Christian with their own kind of folk.”3 In many ways, McGavran was correct, and this observation has encouraged many churches to identify target groups in their outreach strategies. Perhaps the most popular example of this is Saddleback Church’s identification of “Saddleback Sam.” He is described as a college-educated man in his late 30s to early 40s who is successful in his professional work. The picture used by the church’s materials to display “Saddleback Sam” shows that there are also assumptions made about their target group’s race and style of dress.4Congregations following this model have benefited, especially numerically. However, questions still arise as to whether this strategy adequately embraces the Church’s call to be an inclusive community of people who profess Christ as Lord. After all, what is the Church’s responsibility to those who don’t fit the target? In the New Testament, Jesus intentionally crosses social barriers to invite women, Samaritans, the rich, the poor, the sick, and accused criminals into Christian community. Paul explains that people of various backgrounds and experiences can participate together in the Body of Christ (Gal. 3:28; Col. 3:11). And John’s Revelation from Patmos describes the eschatological vision of the Reign of God, in which people from all nations, tribes, and languages worship Christ together (Rev. 5:9; 7:9).
To be clear: it is not wrong for churches to target a particular group. However, we need to ask why and to what end we are targeting a particular group. It is appropriate for a church to target a neighborhood or a community. It is even appropriate to target a particular culture or socioeconomic group, if it is clear that a particular culture or group is being neglected by the congregation. However, targeting can never be an excuse to practice an exclusive gospel that fails to point the whole human family to its ultimate hope in Christ.5 It is true that many congregations align themselves with a certain socio-economic and cultural identity that can determine their style. But our hope in Christ is that our congregational identities will become more and more determined by the Christian eschatological vision.
The wide acceptance of the Homogenous Unit Principle has revealed that when numerical growth is our primary goal (our end) in practicing evangelism, it can severely affect our way (our means) of practicing evangelism, even to the point of blinding participants to unchristian aspects of the methods.6 Refocusing evangelism to include questions about the nature of the Church can reorient the goal of evangelism away from merely numerical growth towards authentic Christian community (i.e., Kingdom growth, if you will). And it can allow congregations to move away from marketing strategy toward considering more dynamic practices that foster faithful Christian living. Examples of these might include: learning a new language in order to build relationships with someone of another culture, listening to the people in the surrounding community in order to prayerfully discern what the Good News (euangelion) of salvation might look like there, and even identifying places where God is already at work in the community and offering insights about who our God is, and where God leads us.
Evangelism as More than Persuasion
Considering evangelism through an ecclesiological lens allows us to see that inviting someone into the Christian faith involves much more than getting them to pray the Sinner’s Prayer and going on to the next person. Evangelism includes a hospitable incorporation of people into a Christ-centered way of life shaped by the Kingdom of God. This life is meant to be worshipful, collective, compassionate, and just. If there is no Christ-centered community in which to incorporate people, then we are not offering the Good News (euangelion). Let me be clear: proclamation of Christ’s work on the cross is of utter importance to evangelism. However, we must remember that this proclamation includes the story of God welcoming all who are called to live uniquely and turn the world upside down as God’s people (Acts 17:5-7). Since it is this peoplehood that is called to do the evangelizing, evangelism must reflect what the peoplehood is all about.
This understanding of evangelism is not a new idea for Wesleyans. According to Albert Outler, “Wesley understood, as we seem to have forgotten, that it is the Word made visible in the lives of practicing, witnessing lay Christians that constitutes the church’s most powerful evangelistic influence.”7 As such, Wesley’s evangelism concentrated not only on newcomers, but on the transformation of the Church away from nominal Christianity toward faithfulness.8 His emphasis on holiness meant that evangelism could never simply end with a newcomer’s acknowledgement of Christ’s Lordship; rather, evangelism involved the incorporation of newcomers into relationships with other Christians seeking and living a transformed life.
Lesslie Newbigin also commented on the importance of the Church’s transformed life in evangelism. He writes, “The Church bears in its body the reconciling power of the atonement in so far as it is marked by the scars of the Passion, and it is therefore the bearer of the risen life. And, if you see the mission of the Church in that sense, then all this futile discussion between evangelism and social action disappears.”9 Here, Newbigin clarifies that the daily life of the Church and its work toward making new disciples can never be separated into two distinct categories. An ecclesiology-shaped evangelism promotes the church’s faithful living and sees invitation and conversion as one aspect of this faithful living.
Evangelism and Postmodern Culture
A third area in which an ecclesiology-shaped evangelism can be helpful is in understanding why 20- and 30-somethings are leaving the church. As Jen Lee told her story, she explained that her church was the kind that intentionally sought to connect with 20-somethings. She says, it “was trying to be really hip and modern. It met in a strip mall . . . and we had a rock band . . . leading worship up front.” She and her husband were invited to the Core Leadership Team because they were committed 20-somethings, and they accepted the invitation without realizing that the meetings would center on marketing and advertising. She says, “I don’t know exactly what I was expecting, but I think I had always imagined them to be kind of soulful events.” She was not expecting the church’s meetings to reflect her Mary Kay meetings. Jen Lee’s frustration and conclusion to leave her church may sound familiar. You have probably encountered young adults who, like Jen Lee, have chosen to leave their local church communities with a distrust for church as an institution or a desire to be “more spiritual than religious.”
There are at least two important factors about postmodern culture that promote understanding of what is happening here: first, people raised in a postmodern culture make meaning in groups through language and practices. As author Brad Kallenberg explains, Christian conversion for postmoderns must be characterized by much more than cognitive adherence to certain theological concepts. Conversion in postmodern culture must involve a “change of social identity.”10 Second, those raised in postmodern culture are not trained with a lens to presume Christian theology as the default authority.11 Because of this, it is not difficult for them to look for something other than Christian faith if the social identity of a congregation seems to lack consistency. These factors often create a negative view toward postmoderns because they tend to challenge the assumptions behind common evangelistic practices. However, it could be that Christians raised in postmodern culture simply want to follow Jesus in an authentic way. It is instructive to turn to the experiences of the disciple commonly called “Doubting Thomas.”
We add “doubting” to Thomas’s name because of the passage in John’s gospel in which Thomas was adamant about seeing the wounded hands and side of the Person the other disciples claimed was the resurrected Jesus (John 20:24-25). However, to really understand Thomas, we must consider other passages in John. For example, in 11:15-16, Jesus told his disciples that they needed to go where Lazarus was. Thomas misunderstands Jesus’ call and responds overzealously, “Let us also go that we may die with him.” Here, Thomas was eager to follow Jesus even if that meant dying. In a later passage, Jesus told his disciples to trust in him and explained that he was going to prepare a place for them. Jesus told them that they knew the way to where he was going. While most of the disciples seemed to accept this idea, Thomas wanted clarity. In an upfront manner, he asked, “Lord we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?” (14:1-5). Thomas was not so much a doubter as passionate about living out the call of Jesus. He wanted to go where Jesus went and to be part of the community Jesus was forming. He may have missed the point a few times, but it was all in his attempt to be part of the community Jesus was forming. After seeing Jesus’s wounded hands and side, Scripture tells us that Thomas did indeed trust in Jesus (20:27-29).
In a similar way, those raised in postmodern culture are not necessarily against the Church. In fact, Christians raised in postmodern culture often love the teachings of Jesus and want to be part of the community promised in Scripture. They simply have doubts as to whether the Church is real. It is true that those raised in postmodern culture might have misconceptions concerning the call to holiness and maybe even misguided expectations of a church that emphasizes holiness. Yet these are issues that call for ecclesiologically-informed responses. As evangelism scholarship turns to focus on the life of the Church, it is allowing pastors and teachers to consider the perspectives of people raised in postmodern culture—the perspectives of those who might need to see and touch the Church’s marks (wounds) of faithfulness before accepting its social identity.
I would like to conclude with three practical suggestions:
1. As the hope of the Church is the multi-national, -tribal, and -lingual Kingdom of God, consider letting go of the need to identify a single target group. Instead, give more attention to ways in which your congregation can trust the Spirit to form a community that is hospitable to people of various cultural, racial, and socio-economic backgrounds. This, of course, will call for some intentionality to form mutuality among participants, as it is very easy for one group to unknowingly dominate the life and cultural expression of a congregation.
2. As evangelism is an invitation into the Church’s way of life, invite seekers to activities in which your congregation engages in service to and with the outcasts and the forgotten in your midst. Recognize that God’s grace is at work in the lives of newcomers as they try out Christian practice. When using words to verbally proclaim the gospel, remember to include the story of God sending the Holy Spirit and inviting all into the Christ-centered peoplehood that is worshipful, collective, accountable to each other, compassionate, and just.
3. As evangelism offers good news in all cultures, welcome the tough questions of people raised in postmodern culture. Encourage the congregation to take these questions seriously and prayerfully. These questions just might help the congregation recognize ways in which God is calling the congregation toward holiness.
MONTAGUE WILLIAMS is an ordained elder in the Church of the Nazarene and teaches in the Department of Religion and Philosophy at Eastern Nazarene College.
2. This is most clearly discussed in Bryan Stone, Evangelism After Christendom (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2004). But earlier development of this can be seen in William Abraham, The Logic of Evangelism (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1989); Lesslie Newbigin, The Open Secret, Revised Edition (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1995); Darrel Guder, Missional Church: A Vision for the Sending Church in North America (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998); George Hunter III, The Celtic Way of Evangelism: How Christianity Can Reach the West . . . Again (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2000).
3. Donald McGavran, Understanding Church Growth, revised and edited by C. Peter Wagner, 3rd edition (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990), 238.
4. Rick Warren, Purpose Driven Church: Growth without Compromising Your Message and Mission (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995), 169-70.
5. For more critical discussion concerning the influence of McGavran on evangelism, see, Soong-Chan Rah, The Next Evangelicalism: Freeing the Church from Western Cultural Captivity (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2009), 93-102; Abraham, 70-91.
6. My emphasis on goal and way in relation to HUP builds on Bryan Stone’s discussion of ends and means concerning the practice of evangelism. See Stone, 29-36.
7. Albert Outler, Evangelism and Theology in the Wesleyan Spirit (Nashville: Discipleship Resources, 1996), 22. For further discussion on the potential and limits of this understanding from Wesley, see Bryan Stone, “Evangelism as Ecclesial Holiness,” Paper delivered at the Oxford Institute for Methodist Theological Studies. Oxford, England. August 13-22, 2002.
8. Outler, 39.
9. Lesslie Newbigin, Lesslie Newbigin Missionary Theologian: A Reader, compiled by Paul Weston (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006), 136-37.
10. Brad Kallenberg, Live to Tell: Evangelism for a Postmodern Age (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2002), 32. For further discussion on the potential and limits of this understanding from Wesley, See Bryan Stone, “Evangelism as Ecclesial Holiness,” paper delivered at the Oxford Institute for Methodist Theological Studies, Oxford, England, on August 13-22, 2002.
11. Robert Jensen, “What is a Post-Christian?” in The Strange New Word of the Gospel: Re-Evangelizing in the Postmodern World, edited by Carl E. Braaten and Robert W. Jensen (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), 21.