When it comes to evangelism, most churches in the US and Canada today find themselves in the space between two cultural realities. The reality of what used to work in evangelism is seeing significant decline in results or no longer works. “What will work” is just beginning to emerge but has not yet been fully discovered or embraced.
The Invitational Model – When Past Success Begins to Wane
In the past 20 years, a key strategy in the growth of large churches has been the invitational model of evangelism. These churches have created strong invitational cultures of people inviting friends and family to church where a gifted pastor has shared the gospel regularly and effectively. As a result, tens of thousands of people either come to Christ or been renewed in their faith in churches across North America. Additionally, these churches have developed a “we do church better” approach which has seen them develop excellent programming for families and various demographic age groups resulting in a constant flow of new people attending and finding new faith or dormant faith revived.
Due to the shifting North American cultural landscape, many of these effective churches are seeing a decline in these time tested strategies and approaches to evangelism. In many parts of the U.S and Canada, fewer and fewer people are growing up retaining a remnant of the Christian story. Coming to church is becoming, for many, a huge cultural gap which is proving difficult to maneuver.
Recent research by George Barna indicated that of unchurched adults invited to church by a friend, only 18% accepted that invitation and attended. While it’s clear that number may change based upon your location, the reality is a significant percentage of the population will never be impacted if we only use the “invite your friends to church” approach.
The New Approach Is Non-Linear
What forward-looking larger churches are doing is experimenting with new approaches to evangelism that will focus on those who do not respond to such invitations. Our initial research at Leadership Network is rife with signposts of hope. Along with my good friend, Eric Swanson, we’ve been encouraged with what we’ve discovered.
Traditionally we’ve embrace the paradigm that a Christian’s purpose is found in four core concepts. Each of us is called to Believe, to Become (like Jesus), to Belong, and to Bless. Until recently, we took a linear approach to Believe, Become, Belong and Bless. Believing in Jesus gave the power to Become (like Jesus), the right to Belong to a local church, and with proper discipleship and training classes, behaving, belonging believers could engage in Blessing others.
Today many leaders are thinking differently about evangelism through this same construct.
Believe: There are those who are working on different evangelistic expressions that are more like a series of conversations than information dump. Soularium uses 50 pictures to stimulate spiritual conversations with unbelievers. James Choung uses his Four Circles to communicate the gospel through a story line. Many thought leaders are talking about a thicker gospel or a four-chapter gospel.
Belong: New evangelistic expressions are emerging where believers invite non-believers to Belong even before they are asked to believe. Expressions like “doing life together” and “evangelism happens through discipleship” are becoming more prominent. People long for authentic community. Many are starting by inviting all-comers into the community. Arguably, Alpha has been the most effective in recent years in winning people to Christ—especially in Europe and in post-Christian cultures like Canada. Many churches are now talking about creating communities in our neighborhoods as a lead approach to rub off on non-believing neighbors. Missional communities are springing up in churches across North America and Europe where believers are actively engaging in friendship evangelism and enfolding those people into their communities long before they begin in believing.
Bless: Asking non-believers to join you in service to the city or those on the margins is also an approach to increase evangelistic effectiveness. Mission trips are changed to service trips. Church-led community service projects now frequently include people from all domains in the community. Good deeds create good will and good will is a platform for sharing the good news. The younger generation seems more attuned to social needs of society. The unchurched are being invited, and joining in, with Christian friends that are working on social transformation projects all across North America. New evangelism training initiatives are arising across North American on how to create community in their neighborhoods, and how to turn secular conversations into sacred conversation amongst friends and co-workers. Some churches have now developed new “missional practices” which encompass their new discovers in evangelism. Dave and Jon Ferguson’s team at Community Christian have developed the acrostic “BLESS” to help their people learn how to operate in this new world. In their e-book, as part of their Exponential Series, 5 Simple Practices to Change Your World, these principles are laid out.
Begin with Prayer- praying for your neighbors, co-workers, and friends
Listen to your neighbors, co-workers, and friends
Eat with them, share meals, and invite them into your home
Serve them and serve with them
Story- share your story.
In a shifting cultural landscape, large, effective churches are not just relying on their invitational culture to drive their evangelism but they are also experimenting with new paradigms of evangelism, trying to “go” to those who won’t “come to them”.
Questions for you:
1. How do you as a church evaluate evangelism effectiveness?
2. What are you doing to reach people who aren’t responding to an invitation to attend church?
3. Are you learning from others-their successes and challenges- on what’s working and not working in sharing Christ with the unchurched?
4. What are you doing to help and motivate your people develop relationships with the unchurched in their lives?
If you would like to explore new evangelism paradigms and effective models for outreach, learn more about a new Leadership Community opportunity at https://leadnet.org/site/page/3670
Brent Dolfo is the co-director, with Eric Swanson on the New Evangelism Paradigms Leadership Community which seeks to help large churches learn from one another in evangelism. Brent has more than 25 years of experience in senior ministry leadership and has consulted worldwide with churches in the U.S., Canada and Europe. Brent served with Campus Crusade for Christ of Canada as the Chief Operating Officer. He has lead the European Church Planting Network and also serves as a Facilitator to various Leadership Network events and Leadership Communities in the US and Europe.