It’s time for evangelism to get out of the church.
The standard line in churches now is ‘bring them in, call them home, give them the Good News inside–here.’
This is a real problem for Christians and churches everywhere in America. For one thing, whether under the guise of ‘doing evangelism’ or being evangelical, the standard approach is also disingenuous because underneath it all, the plain point is getting more people together with your congregation, because they have more funds to tap to get the buildings and program out of debt and get the budget paid for–not to mention clergy and staff salaries. Well, perhaps we should mention salaries. They are a major reason that evangelism is self-centered, static and about ‘growing’ the church.
The deep point I want to make is that for at least 75 years now in American church life, Protestant churches–probably RC as well, have NOT been able to conceive of and get real things done, and have retreated consistently to the spongelike way of being that we see and experience everywhere in Christian communities now. Getting things done, conceiving and organizing socially are hog-tied by all the questions about finance.
When I was growing up on the Presbyterian mission field, everything had to be paid for, or missionaries went home and projects shut down. The mentality was strictly pay-as-you-go. I am sure the change in fiscal probity occurred while I was an adult, but I must not have been really paying attention (though I was paying my pledge). Perhaps the easy money of the late 90s and early 2000’s infected the church as well as the housing market and the banks themselves. After all, churches are wont to trust the banks more than God–like that brutal truth or not. (How many church leaders, clergy included, inarticulately assume that God will be asking to see the bank balance sheet on Judgment Day, and will certainly be rewarding all those who provided for themselves rather than waiting for God to give them the money they needed?)
In all, this has twisted the point of evangelism so that seriously dedicated, regularly worshipping, constant givers and church leaders think that the way out of their debt-ridden endowment drawing problems is to bring in more members? “We’ve tapped out our regular givers; our only serious answer is to get more members who will contribute,” is what I heard in the 1970s, and I’m still hearing this in 2011.
Evangelism is NOT about getting more people into the church. Evangelism is about spreading the Light, being the yeast, being salt, realizing and offering authentically Good News to people wherever they are, as it is truly relevant to those people, not as your church needs them for their money. At least one way of learning to stop the heretical thinking about joining the Baptized in the Body of Christ. Think twice. Imagine the people you are hoping to reach, sitting in the pews of your church, without any money, and with a heart for worship and prayer. Imagine them as doing enough if they come to worship. Imagine giving proceeding from the feel of belonging that results from being at home in worship.
Go out to affect the people whom Christ Jesus has within reach of your expression of compassion. Don’t wait for these people to come in and find you in the pew next to them. Go out and be salt, light and the Body of Christ where they are. If they want to come back where you get your strength and nourishment for witness, hope they’re coming for the worship of Christ and not for what they’ll eventually put in the plate. When they want to belong to the Body of Christ where you are, that’s the time when belonging is important and giving is essential. Don’t skip over the terribly essential part of witnessing without the expectation of gain. That’s the only way the winsome light of Christ will move through you into someone else.