You bring them, we’ll save them

Is there more to evangelism than getting people through the door?

Throughout my time as a pastor I regularly encouraged my congregations to invite their family and friends to church. Most didn’t… or wouldn’t…or couldn’t. Those who did, more often than not, used to wait for a special occasion. They would warn me prior to the event and apply some not-so-subtle pressure, making sure I prepared an “evangelistic” sermon and “seeker friendly” service. It was as if getting the “unsaved” family and friends through the church doors was the pinnacle of evangelistic endeavour. Once inside, it was up to the pastor to “get them saved.” And this primarily involved an evangelistic sermon peppered with good side-slapping humour plus a strong finish with the obligatory altar call, or at very least “the sinner’s prayer.”

Truth be told, there were many weekends when I hoped that such people wouldn’t come to church because I knew that the content of the service would have little relevance to them, and would perhaps come across as esoteric. Sometimes the need for teaching, worship and prayer ran counter to the hopes and dreams of congregation members who brought someone along to be zapped with the Gospel.

Since stepping down from being a pastor I am free to follow my own advice, inviting and accompanying non-Christians to church. When I bring people to church, I experience it as if I were a non-Christian. I try to imagine what each part of the encounter is like for my friends. This hyperawareness of what they are encountering starts in the car park and ends as we leave the property. I find the experience similar to having a hot curry: I’m very uncomfortable and breaking out in a sweat as I anticipate what is coming next and how my friends will relate to it.

The primary context of my current missional engagement is the athletic community in which I am a coach. My friends are open enough to me to accept my invitations to selected church services and I try to choose both churches and services that will be relevant. I have quickly come to the conclusion that given where some of my friends are at, inviting them to a church service would be the worst thing I could do! Even churches that have a reputation for being missional are still pretty much like any other church. You still find the terrifying invitation to greet someone you don’t know, the indecision amongst guests regarding whether or not to participate in communion, and the often confronting issue of worship.

Amongst my friends the thing that causes the most concern is worship, and in particular, people raising their hands. One friend remarked, “I just don’t know how they go from the car park, straight into the building and then into such a state so quickly.” Whilst this caused consternation, it did provide much topic for analysis during the debrief session afterwards. The invitation to meet and greet always causes a degree of discomfort as well.

The Great Evangelistic Cop Out
As both a pastor and an evangelist, my assessment is that the goal of inviting someone to church and expecting someone else to wave a magic wand isn’t good enough. In fact, it’s a cop out and the thinking behind this simplistic picture of the conversion process needs to be challenged.

We need to roll up our sleeves and accept the deeper commitment required for truly missional living. It costs a lot more than simply inviting someone to church and expecting fireworks. Whilst it is true that God can use any occasion to bring about road to Damascus type experiences, evidence shows that most people’s journey towards faith is long and requires the substantial commitment of those who invite them on that journey.

Church Within Church
My personal solution is to create a first encounter with church that is smaller, less culturally confronting and more sensitive to where people are at. This is typically a small group consisting primarily of non-Christians. The group is gathered around a study that exposes them to the claims of Christ (there’s plenty of good material around for this; I’m currently trialling Simply Christianity from Matthias Media). There is a greater degree of trust in a smaller environment, and I don’t have to sit with my heart in my hand most of the time! There is more time for questions, which helps a great deal when people are trying to understand both theological questions and cultural differences.

Within this context I invite people to accompany me to “normal” church, but I check carefully before choosing which occasion and always ensure time for a debrief afterwards. Once a new believer is strong enough to navigate the sometimes confusing (and potentially faith crushing) cultural landscape of the more traditional church expressions, they don’t need the services of a spiritual chaperone any more.

One of my friends is an alcoholic and he remarked to me recently, “You seem to have a lot of opinions don’t you?” I reflected on this and realised that I needed to spend more time listening to him rather than calling him on some pretty obvious issues in his life. I have since tried to recalibrate my approach to him. It would be so much easier if I could simply invite him to church and get the pastor to save him, wouldn’t it? Instead I need to walk with him on a much longer journey, with more patience and grace, whilst keeping a strong evangelistic cutting edge. Sometimes it’s hard work but this is our calling.

Paul spoke of the cost he was willing to pay to help people along the journey of faith when he said, “Though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible.” (1 Corinthians 9:19)

“You bring them, we’ll save them: Is there more to Evangelism that getting people through the door?” By Stan Fetting. Prac10.