Last night we held one of our monthly cultural evenings. We have made good links with a local imam and seek to meet together as Christians and Muslims to share about the differences between our faiths. We will pick a topic, share from a Christian perspective (always with a gospel focus) and allow time for questions from our Muslim friends. We will then listen to a presentation from a Muslim viewpoint with time for questions after that too. We then share a meal together where Muslims and Christians can sit around table together and continue conversation.
There was nothing especially different about last night’s meeting. It ran along the normal lines and usual format that they always do. The only significant difference from my point of view was that somebody offered to babysit our children so my wife could come with me and – thanks to North West Partnership ministry week – I’ve had a student shadowing me all week who came too. Neither have ever been to a cultural evening before, for obvious reasons. I was most surprised by both of their reactions.
For one, both of them individually remarked on how easy the setup made it to have genuine, and deep, gospel conversations. The setup of the evening means there is remarkably little dancing around small talk. Both of them shared with me the excellent conversations they had. My wife, not exactly green to evangelism, remarked how easy it is to forget the sheer overwhelming thrill of engaging in real evangelism, meaningfully sharing the gospel with people who are genuinely interested. She noted how such opportunities seem so scary before doing them and yet give you such a buzz and joy in the Lord when you boldly take them. It has certainly been my experience. My student friend – who is studying nearby in Manchester – was so excited that said he may come back to Oldham just to be at the next one. It thrilled me that somebody simply joining in with some of the work we were doing moved them to consider coming back. That gives me great hope.
I wonder if this accounts for why we’ve struggled to get some folk to move to Oldham. We have lost something of the sheer thrill of doing real evangelism. We all know that God is sovereign in salvation and if he wanted to save people without any reference to us, he could do so far more effectively and with much less mess. Yet choose to include us he does. That suggests to me that the Lord’s command to do evangelism must be of some benefit to us in serving (otherwise the Lord would just do it himself). It is not hard to recognise the personal benefit to us when we actually engage in real evangelistic endeavour.
But much of the problem within modern evangelicalism is that we either call what is not evangelism, evangelism (or mission) or we hide behind an approach and use it as a screen for not doing anything at all. I have commented here on the phenomena of creating jargon to justify us in doing very little in terms of outreach. We have taken to describing the ordinary and mundane in terms of mission and outreach such that doing nothing has been imbued with a sense of doing something. As I noted there:
It seems there is an intentional imbuing of significance and value to what was previously considered ordinary and usual. When in the past we met our friends and shared our lives, there was no sense of evangelistic effort or ‘doing something for the Lord’. This was just living one’s life as one would otherwise live it. Naturally, as a Christian, whatever opportunities to discuss one’s faith arose one would try to take. Searching for such opportunities is important and we should, of course, be looking for any and every opportunity to share our faith with those around us. This, however, was never deemed one’s evangelistic duty. Evangelism always involved a specific ‘going out’ with a definite intention to share the gospel with those who would otherwise not hear it.
The sea change has come in viewing one’s ordinary life as evangelistically significant. By including life in general as part of our evangelistic outreach, we have made it very easy to dress up doing nothing at all. In going to the pub with friends, something many would be inclined to do anyway, we can pat ourselves on the back as having done some evangelism. We can readily change Christ’s clarion call to ‘go’ into one of expecting opportunities to come to me. The problem with this is that the only people who will be reached are those who come into contact with Christians already. Had the apostles taken the same approach, the gospel would have never left Jerusalem! Many churches now dress up doing ordinary things as the fulfilment of the great commission and, unsurprisingly, we find many actually doing nothing at all.
Now, really, this is not an issue of ‘missional’ vs ‘attractional’ evangelism. Plenty of people used to farm out their evangelistic effort to whoever happened to be running the mission meeting the church was putting on. Some presumed they fulfilled the great commission by inviting their friends to an event, letting the speaker share the gospel and never speaking of it again. There is simply no point inviting our friends to mission events and never bothering to ask them what they thought and engage them in meaningful gospel conversations. Likewise, there is no point being ‘intentionally on mission’ whilst basically using that as a screen to go about your ordinary life and never actually share the gospel with anyone. Both these approaches can be done well and both can be done badly. Both can serve the gospel and both can be used as a means of making me feel like I’m doing something when, in fact, I am specifically avoiding evangelism.
I am not advocating any specific approach to evangelism here apart from every individual physically opening their mouths and actually speaking gospel content to people who don’t yet know the Lord Jesus. Whether they do that through meetings and follow up conversation, or with friends during the ordinary course of life, or in ‘cold-contact’ situations, we should be using all means possible to reach the lost with the good news of Jesus Christ. Sadly, all too often, we come up with reasons why ‘cold-contact’ evangelism isn’t for me (thus meaning unless we personally know people, they won’t hear the gospel from us) and then we find problems with other approaches or rely upon arguments that suggest ‘it’s not my areas of gifting’ (meaning they are off limits to us) and then we find jargon and justifications to salve our conscience in not doing very much at all. Worse still, this isn’t always personal justification but can be institutionalised in our churches – in the jargon we use, in the emphases we give to certain forms of evangelism (and the insistence we don’t do others) and in the way we respond to those who flag up such excuses.
It doesn’t surprise me, then – if we have settled into justifying our lack of evangelism within our more comfortable churches – that we struggle to get people to move to harder urban areas engaged in frontline evangelism. Suddenly going down the pub and waiting for an opportunity to share the gospel with my mates doesn’t work because Working Class drinking culture is considerable different to the habits among the Middle Classes. Suddenly inviting people to church events doesn’t work because Muslim people are often terrified of stepping over the mantle of a church building and aren’t attracted by the sort of things our Middle Class British friends think makes for a good time. We find ourselves faced by Working Class people who *shock horror* often just say what they think and say it in plain terms. We find ourselves confronted with Muslim people who don’t want to dance around the issue of faith but want to discuss them head on. On the urban front line there really is nowhere to hide.
I don’t write this as an attempt to make folk feel guilted into moving. I write it because I want us all to rediscover the joy of genuine evangelism. If we can rediscover the sheer thrill of sharing the Lord with somebody in meaningful ways, then we may find people more inclined to move to urban areas engaged in such evangelism. I don’t write this to guilt you into more evangelism, I write it to say it is you who are missing out if you don’t! The Lord will make sure those he wants to save are saved, he doesn’t need us to do his work, but he calls us to it for our own benefit. Those benefits become manifestly clear when we are actively involved in real evangelism that takes us out of our comfort zone and into places where we are actually and meaningfully sharing the gospel. When we rediscover the sheer joy and thrill of such work, we won’t be able to stop the workers flooding in.