A few years ago I was flying out of Chicago towards Houston. This was one of those flights where the man sitting in the middle aisle next to me really wanted to talk. And soon enough the question came: “So what do you do?” At the time I was the Associate General Presbyter for Evangelism/Renewal and New Church Development, in New Covenant Presbytery. After a time and a few more questions about my work in particular, the young man said, “Oh, so you and me, we’re in the same business: sales.”
I retold this story this week during a workshop on Evangelism at the Early Ministry Institute when a new pastor lamented that none of what I was saying about evangelism was really going to help get more members into church. That’s probably exactly right … and wrong. I was not talking about marketing techniques or ways to attract new members, I was, however, talking about what it takes to build a relationship with people outside of the church and witness the good news of Christ to them in very real and tangible ways.
Evangelism is sharing the good news of Christ. It’s being a visible witness of the kingdom of God right here on our doorstep. It may or may not lead to changed lives, conversion, or membership in your church. It is about meeting people where they’re at, caring for them, respecting them, building friendships with them, bringing healing resources to them, and articulating the depths of your personal struggle and knowledge of faith in Christ with them in natural conversation. Evangelism takes time to nurture relationships and it may, in fact, be more about your own faith journey than the person you’re befriending. We deepen our own faith by sharing it and being in relationship with people whose worldview is different than ours, who can challenge our assumptions, and lead us deeper.
The one thing evangelism is not — is about gaining new church members, who will attend a worship event on Sundays, put money in the offering plate, sing with the choir, and support the pastor’s salary and electric bill. But that’s exactly what gets people thinking they need to do evangelism … their budget is stressed, it’s hard to find new people for leadership positions, or to do the Sunday morning jobs of ushering, greeting, counting the money, teaching Sunday School or singing in the choir.
New pastors of mostly small and struggling congregations, I understand, are still hoping for some easy evangelism hints that will both renew the faith and mission of the congregation and double their membership by next year. If they’re young men and women with families; their congregations may be putting a lot of expectations on them to “bring in the youth.” I get that. But let’s not confuse making disciples with marketing ploys.
Can I share marketing ideas with you? Sure. It will start with me asking about the core values and mission of your congregation. And it will be about building a brand for your congregation in your neighborhood. But it won’t work if the brand is not authentic and integral to who you are as a congregation. And the marketing will only be an entry point into discipleship making … do you know what to do once they show up? once your meet them?
And what IF the congregation is not able to meet its financial obligations past the next year or two? Then we need to talk about your business plan and resources. There are many options … that all include re-evaluating your use of space, staff, and resources. But that is not evangelism either … that’s retooling the congregation for the mission and work that God is continuing to send us towards.
The sales guy on the plane with me equated evangelism with sales … maybe his company has an “evangelist;” many do now. The end game of sales and marketing in the business world is consistently profit and self-gain. The end game of evangelism is embracing a selflessness that allows the spirit of Christ to do something new with us. When our reasons for wanting to engage the community is in order to serve ourselves or our church, we’ve lost track of our most valuable gift to the neighborhood — the transformative power of Jesus Christ working in the midst of us.