Say the word “evangelism” and it often conjures in the mind of the listener images of bible-thumping frontier preachers or tearful television ministers, but the prelude to the 2011 Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) General Assembly has a much more nuanced story to tell about the sharing of faith. Evangelism in the age of global communications, internet and social media is the topic of the New Evangelism Workshop, a Friday and Saturday pre-Assembly gathering of ministers held at Woodmont Christian Church in Nashville.
Organized by Bill and Kris Tenny-Brittian, co-presidents of the National Evangelistic Association, the workshop seeks to inspire ministers, elders and disciples in overcoming their fears about drawing people into a faith discussion. Kris says the NEA has been a Disciples-associated organization since 1904 and has taken on the goal of breathing new life into evangelism within the denomination, giving workshop participants practical goals for opening a dialogue with those outside the church.
Appropriately, the theme of this year’s NEW is “Bold, Courageous, Strong” and the workshop attendees launched their discussions with a reading from the Book of Joshua and an a capella rendition of “They’ll Know We Are Christians By Our Love.”
Connecticut-based pastor Ann Coffman met with representatives of small churches attending the General Assembly to talk about strategies for getting small congregations excited about evangelism. She began the discussion with a quote from Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians: “I have become all things to all people, so that by all possible means, I may save some.”
Coffman suggested small congregations have advantages that many mega-churches don’t in that they can offer seekers a “family friendly” worship environment and can promote inter-generational dialogue.
“Large churches are a bit like a big box store in that people can know what to expect when they walk in the door,” Coffman said. “But at my small, neighborhood pharmacy, the pharmacist knows me, knows my medications and knows what I need. That means small churches often have to work harder to attract new members, but it can be done.”
One workshop attendee from a small congregation said her pastor urged members to step outside their comfort zones in evangelism. Summoning her courage, she began going door-to-door, not asking people to attend the congregation’s service, but offering the congregation’s prayers for any needs the person answering the door might have. “Every one of the people offered me something for the congregation to pray for,” she said. “Two actually came to a service a few weeks later.”
Dr. David Hyatt of St Louis gave advice on turning Disciples congregations into a “sticky church”, that is, once newcomers attend, offering fellowship which keeps them coming back.
“Most people think Sunday worship is the sole entry point for people seeking God,” says Hyatt. “The reality is you’ve got to provide a variety of entry points for people, both inside and outside worship. And when they come, you’ve got to listen to your newcomers and let them tell you how you can help them fill their spiritual needs.”
“When I became a new pastor at a church in North Carolina,” said one attendee. “I attended the Wednesday night fellowship supper and not a single person invited me to sit at their table. And I was the new pastor! We had to learn how to welcome people to the church.”
Baptist minister and author Eddie Hammett is a founding member of the Columbia Partnership, a coaching and leadership development organization focused on congregational and denominational transformation. He discussed strategies for implementing change within congregations, even when it’s not wanted.
Hammett told the story of sending a change-resistant member of his church out to “spy” on a church the member’s granddaughter had recently joined. She came back shaking her head.
“I had to swallow hard,” the member said. “They were playing one of our sacred hymns on the bongo drums!”
“What did you learn by watching the service?” Hammett asked.
“I learned I didn’t like it,” she replied. “But my granddaughter said she heard Jesus in those bongo drums.” The trip had engendered a conversation between the woman and her granddaughter about faith, something they’d never spoken about in such an open and honest way before.
“I do believe God is trusting us to figure this all out,” said Hammett. “In the coming decades, young people aren’t going to meet in giant houses of worship. They aren’t going to pay the mortgages for giant buildings. They’re going to worship online and listen to God’s message in podcasts.”
“The mission of God in America is in the good hands of young people with faith,” Hammett said. “All we’ve got to do is to unleash them.”
By: Mark Drury