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Talking About Evangelism: A Congregational Resource by D. Mark Davis (part of the Holy Conversations series), Pilgrim Press, 2007, 111 pp.

evangelismD. Mark Davis’ book is designed as study for church groups to use as they consider and reconsider the role and importance of evangelism. Davis begins by acknowledging the tension around the meaning of evangelism. While evangelism is supposed to be simply about sharing the joyous good news of Christ, it has often devolved into a coercive act of persuasion, convincing others that your truth is better than their truth. How can we engage in evangelism that is open-hearted and open-minded, not confrontational and judgmental? Davis reassesses the entire practice and meaning in this short study.

Davis himself grew up in a conservative tradition that practiced aggressive evangelical tactics aimed at convincing other people of their need to “accept Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior.” He shares memorable personal stories throughout the book of his own experiences, both positive and negative, and his changes in perspective along the way.

One keen observation I appreciated was his understanding that good evangelism does not presume that others have no experience of or relationship with God. Instead, we might ask where God has been in their lives up to this point, and invite them to know God’s presence in a new way. It’s the opposite of the traditional conservative approach that takes our human sinfulness as the starting point. Instead, we start with our status as God’s beloved children, always. That one turn changes the entire perspective of evangelism, and the rest of Davis’ book is built upon it. He continues:

What would the practice of evangelism look like if we addressed people, not as fallen sinners, but primarily as children of God, however estranged? … Everyone’s story has real and meaningful significance; it is not just a jumping off point for our monologue. … Everyone’s story is a “faith journey,” in some way, no matter how angry, confused or destructive that journey might be. (41, 43)

Davis’ study is rooted in scripture, with several deep studies of biblical texts about sharing our faith. He also includes a detailed and helpful discussion guide that is an easily executed lesson plan for any church group reading the study. I think this book would be ideal for churches who think of evangelism and faith sharing as something “those people” do, or cannot conceive of a way of sharing faith that is not coercive or judgmental. It is long on explanation and justification, shorter on implementation. It is not a “how-to” book in a concrete, easily applicable way, but it is an important first step for congregations and individuals who are resistant or at a loss for how to begin any kind of conversation about faith-sharing.

Changing the Conversation: A Third Way for Congregations by Anthony B. Robinson, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2008, 199 pp.

Changing the conversationAnthony Robinson is among my favorite authors when it comes to explaining the changes facing the world, articulating their impact on the church, and raising the questions that we all need to contemplate in response. In this book, he takes it farther, drawing some conclusions about what mainline congregations need to do to engage with this new era. In Transforming Congregational Culture (one of my favorite guides for leading change in the church), Robinson makes the case for why change is necessary and hints at the kinds of changes that will be required. Changing the Conversation is a tool to help congregations launch the conversations that will engage the work of transformation.

The premise implied in the title is that congregations have been having conversations for the last few decades about whether they are liberal or conservative in their politics, traditional or contemporary in their worship style, emergent or established in their way of life. Robinson labels these conversations ubiquitous, unhelpful and even destructive. (4) The third way moves beyond “either/or” into “both/and.” How can we be about faith formation AND social justice? How can we be about personal transformation AND public transformation? How can we be serious about scripture AND about reason? The path he charts guides congregations around those unhelpful conversations and into new ones, conversations that will move the church forward into a new way of life.

Much of the material was familiar to me, both from Robinson’s other books and from a myriad of authors addressing similar topics, like Brian McLaren, Diana Butler Bass, Phyllis Tickle, and Gil Rendle. However, this book is unique because it condenses all that material into short, topical chapters that are perfect for discussion with leadership groups in congregations. I ordered copies of this book for every member of my church Council, and we are going to be working through these conversations throughout the coming year, one chapter at a time.

Robinson covers all the major topics that churches should be considering. The first two chapters are titled, “It’s Not About You” and “And Yet…It Is About You.” These two chapters recap his earlier work (which I think is some of the best out there for mainline churches) on the death of Christendom and its implications for the church. The third chapter puts forth the key challenge for mainline churches: moving beyond civic faith to have “a new heart,” passionate about God and following the way of Christ. This chapter reminded me of a line in Martha Grace Reese’s work in Unbinding the Gospel, “You can’t give what you don’t got. Changing the church demands that all of us grow in our faith and in our relationship with Jesus Christ. He imagines four chambers of this new heart:

an encounter with the living God and the message of and about God; the power and purpose of Scripture; evangelism for the “churched”; and reclaiming theology as “wisdom proper to the life of believers.” These are four aspects of one whole transformation, that is, being “formed anew” or “formed over” by the living God. (79)

Subsequent chapters address more specific questions: leadership and governance, vision, purpose, mission and public role, stewardship and faith formation.

One of the most important things for me in this book was the chapter on a church’s purpose. Robinson traces a variety of authors (including each of the Gospel writers) on the purpose of the church, such as making disciples, changing lives, embodying Christ’s way of life in the world, glorifying God. All of these are variations on a theme. In a workshop with Robinson I attended on Sunday, he put it this way, “we’re in the people-making business,” making Christians not just by conversion but by a steady, shaping way of life. I think clarity of purpose is critical for all congregations, because it should shape everything else. Our purpose guides what we do (and what we don’t do), and how we go about it. We need to be clear on it, and reiterate it over and over again in everything we do as a church. For my congregation, this will be our starting place. We developed a purpose a few years ago, but we have not revisited it recently.

While I may have read or heard many of these ideas before at multiple clergy workshops, and while our church has already been doing this conversational work together over the last five years, it will still be new to many of the Council members reading this book throughout the year. For me, it is a reminder that the conversation needs to be ongoing, not just a one-time thing. Most importantly, this book (far more than many others) does not just lament the past or imagine the future in vague and dreamy ways. Robinson’s questions and model of congregational conversations offers a path for practical, local, immediate and meaningful ways for real churches to engage with change. Rather than feeling overwhelmed, I finished Changing the Conversation thinking, “we can do this!” I can imagine my church having all these conversations, and, with the help of this book, we will.

Liberating Hope: Daring to Renew the Mainline Church, by Michael S. Piazza and Cameron B. Trimble, Pilgrim Press, 2011, 230 pp.

It has taken me months to finish reading this book, which is not like me at all. I have read and reread chapters, and noticed that sometimes they fly by without impact, and sometimes I immediately act on the content. I think this is a book that is like “just-in-time training.” You need to reach for it at the moment you are preparing to act and change and work on a particular topic. When I started it back during sabbatical, I just couldn’t connect to it when I was away from church leadership. When I tried to read it all the way through like a monograph, I just couldn’t get inspired. Now that I’m back in the groove of transformational church leadership, I was ready and eager to absorb the content and make use of the ideas and information.

Piazza and Trimble are the founders of the Center for Progressive Renewal, an inspiring non-profit organization dedicated to helping people start new churches and renew dying ones in the mainline and progressive traditions. Both have extensive experience and a proven track record in starting and renewing. This book is a compilation of their best practices, critical questions, strategies and insights. It is a treasure trove for pastors and church leaders doing the work of congregational growth and transformation.

Liberating Hope covers an enormous range of topics—leadership, small groups, stewardship, mission, worship, administration, social media, databases, and more. Unlike many other books, Piazza and Trimble do not offer a formula or program for your church to follow. Instead, they focus on the big questions and important things a growing, thriving church must be doing,  then leave the details of what that looks like to you in your own context.

For example, in the chapter on worship they emphasize that the experience must be transformational–it must bring people into a real encounter with God that will leave them changed. Worship that is transformational will be authentic, accessible to newcomers, of excellent quality, sensual, touching both head and heart, and it will demand a response. Any church, of any size or style, can aspire to offer that kind of worship. The authors do not offer steps to follow, but questions and measures to help a church improve its effectiveness and enhance its service to God.

This book is not new or radical information. What makes it different is the freshness of the material (in response to new media and technology) and the comprehensiveness of the content (every aspect of church life is included). It is a great starting place, foundational text and reference point for any pastor or congregation engaged in birth or renewal. It won’t tell you everything you need to know, but it will help you identify what you need to know, where to find resources, and how to figure things out in your own church. For exactly that reason, I recommend it highly.

Here since 1954.

I have driven by this church sign about once a month for the last four years. The words have remained unchanged in all that time: “Here since 1954.” Every time, it makes me wonder, “Does this church actually DO anything, or is it just here?”

“Here since 1954” makes me wonder if the church has ever moved or changed at all. Are they still doing things now like they did back then? The year 1954 evokes images of a Leave It To Beaver church, full of button-down boys and crinoline girls sitting neatly in a row. It is foreign to my broken life, to a living God, to a real community, to a world in need, to a message of hope and purpose.

“Here” is a noun, a place. Is this church’s greatest accomplishment simply existing, holding down their corner property on a prominent thoroughfare? Surely there must be some verbs alive and well since 1954. How much more interesting would it be if they replaced “here” with any number of action words? Serving, growing, learning, worshiping, inspiring, praying, witnessing, proclaiming, giving, living. Throw in a single bonus descriptor like “together” or “faithfully” or “this community” or even “God,” and the church becomes downright interesting.

I visited this church’s website, and they seem a lively enough place to worship. They had pictures of smiling people, vibrant altar colors, and sermon recordings online. The problem is: I drive by their building every week, and never knew any of that. How many of our churches suffer the same problem?

This church is not alone. I lift up this church’s example not to be snarky, but because their sign speaks to a deeper concern. Every time I drive, my heart hurts for the vitality of the gospel and the witness of the church. I know that there are people, especially those that live in the neighborhood, who are desperate for community, for good news, for hope and grace. I believe that this church, by the power of the Spirit, has all those things to offer. But the only message we see is the one that tells us they haven’t gone anywhere in more than 50 years.

My church’s sign with moveable text.

Every church struggles with this challenge. How do we let people know that this is the place to find life? Every word on our signs, every image we project, the weeds in our church yards and the condition of the paint on our buildings communicates a message to the world. Is it a message of life-giving vitality? Do we vibrate with the verbs? Or do we just tell people that we’re here, like we’ve always been here—whether for 50 years, 150 years, or 350 years.

Assuming our church is in fact a life-giving, active, changing, growing place (which is not always true), how do we communicate that to people who pass by? The rise of the “nones” (people with no religious affiliation) has been all the news this week. Many of those absent from our religious communities believe that the church and Christianity are out of touch and out of date. Yet they most also continue to believe in God, pray and understand themselves as spiritual beings. They just don’t think the church has anything relevant to offer on those matters.

Our old sign, which definitely did not communicate vitality.

For too many people, the church has become a noun, a place—unmoved and unmoving, fixed in space, here since 33 CE. In our signs, images and publicity, we must find our verbs again. More importantly, in our worship, our community and our ministry, we must be active and vital, so that the verbs take over. We are not just “here.” We are serving, loving, praying, caring, connecting, living, worshiping, uniting, working, building, growing, learning, deepening, stretching, discovering, listening, helping, changing and infinitely more, by the power of the Spirit. May all those who seek life see Christ alive in us.

This is a major improvement, but…

… this is even better. Even with the old sign.

Pop Goes Religion: Faith in Popular Culture by Terry Mattingly, W Publishing Group (Thomas Nelson), 2005, 198 pp.

If you’ve been following this blog, you’ll know that I have been reading a lot on the topic of evangelism lately. When I purchased this book, I was just pursuing my interest in religion in pop culture (check out the last post about angels on TV). However, in reading it now, I had an eye toward using pop culture as a means for telling the Gospel story using images familiar to people outside the church.

Mattingly is a columnist, and this book is a compilation of his columns over the course of ten years, beginning in the mid-1990s. I was initially disappointed that the book was not a more systematic analysis or sustained thesis, and feared the book would be too random and hodgepodge to be useful. However, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the disparate columns hung together well. Mattingly is an insightful analyst and critic.

The most important thing Mattingly offers in this book is the conviction that faith matters, and that popular culture matters. Both are real forces in people’s lives, shaping their worldviews for good or for ill. Both deserve to be taken seriously and analyzed deeply. Mattingly demonstrates a level of insight about both that is rare to see. Most people (especially writers/journalists) speak eloquently about one, but ignorantly about the other. The gift of this book is the author’s ability to comprehend both so well, and understand how they speak to one another.

One of the interesting themes that emerges over and over again is the way that attempts to form Christian popular music (Christian films, contemporary Christian music, Christian fiction) rarely get beyond shallow tropes. Because they seek to be positive, to stay within well-established orthodoxies, and to promote doctrine, elements of popular culture labeled “Christian” rarely manage to find the depth of struggle and hope that render them powerful and inspiring. This is why I got turned off years ago by Christian music and just about anything else that can be purchased at a Christian bookstore. It just seemed saccharine and over-marketed, an attempt to sell Christians a bunch of junk because it was labeled “Christian.” Mattingly returns to this theme in several articles:

Since Christendom is built on a story that is literally larger than life, Peacock wonders why CCM is smaller than life. The Bible is full of sin, death, doubt, love, hate, anger, war, lust and other messy subjects. The faith of the ages wrestles with the bad news before getting to the Good News.   — on Charlie Peacock’s book At the Crossroads (7)

Most Christians, he argues in the first chapter, are sinfully content to write for other Christians, to sing to other Christians, to produce television programs for other Christians, to educate other Christians, debate other Christians, and only do business with other Christians. “Shameful,” he writes, “We have failed and are failing America.” — on Bob Briner’s book Christians Have Failed America (69)

By mining popular culture inside and outside the targeted Christian markets, Mattingly uncovers the spirituality and the yearnings at work in everything from Star Wars and Lord of the Rings to U2, Carl Sagan and the Veggie Tales. He points out what makes “popular culture” so popular, why it become a spiritual experience for people. Mattingly does not make an argument about how Christians should respond, he simply points out the connections. In other words, if you want to connect with people who live in this pop culture world, here are the things they are connecting to, and this is why they are connecting to them.

As I take time to contemplate evangelism and how to tell people outside the church about the story of Christ, I found this a helpful way of thinking, and full of insight about the quest for meaning in non-Christian sources. It’s a fun read, and light, and invites further reflection.

More Ready Than You Realize: Evangelism as Dance in the Postmodern Matrix, by Brian D. McLaren, Zondervan, 2002, 188 pp.

I think Brian McLaren knows a lot about how to talk to people outside the church about God’s story. I want to learn how to do that too. So, when I came across his direct writings on the subject, I was in.

This book is structured around a real evangelism conversation. The conversation took place over e-mail over the course of several years between McLaren and a woman simply identified as “Alice.” The book includes all of Alice’s inquiring e-mails to McLaren, along with some of his responses, an analysis of the questions behind her inquiry, and suggestions on how to handle similar questions. While it sounds a bit contrived, the book manages to avoid oversimplification and Alice’s voice keeps the dialogue fresh and real.

The overall approach McLaren adopts and advocates is “spiritual friendship.” It’s not about getting doctrine right, teaching someone the correct path or having a confidence in the truth of Christian principles. It’s about listening, learning and befriending people who are outside of the faith but seeking and questioning and grappling with faith questions. McLaren engages questions with questions, speaks on Alice’s own terms in her own language, and dedicates himself to continuing the relationship over winning a convert.

He writes, “Sometimes belonging must precede believing. … If people can belong long enough to observe how God is alive among us, if people can belong long enough to see authentic love among us, if they can belong long enough to see whatever good exists in our lives as individuals and as a community, they can come to believe.” (84-85) In his conversation with Alice, it is clear that she can participate in the Christian community with his church and in her friendship with him regardless of her belief. It is that openness that eventually opens her heart to the love of God. In so many Christian communities, belonging is contingent upon believing. This is not how Jesus operated, and not how we should operate. Thankfully, we in the United Church of Christ preach and try to practice welcome and hospitality first and foremost.

As always, McLaren provides cutting, insightful questions and ways of stating the truth of God that are both novel and orthodox, bold and beautiful. He offers great questions for engaging people in faith conversations, like “Where are you in your relationship with God? How would you describe your relationship with God right now?” (108) He describes God’s plans for our lives like parents’ plans for the lives of their children–not a well-defined track, but a path toward joy and fulfillment, marked by both freedom and determination. (121)

One of the ideas I liked most, which I heard echoed in the Unbinding the Gospel series, is that the work of inviting people into relationship with Jesus and the church is not about getting them into heaven or into our pews. It is not about fulfilling their needs or the church’s. It is about engaging fellow workers in God’s field, training up more missionaries to aid the cause of God’s mission. We are inviting people to join us in making this world a better place by being God’s servants in it.

Much of what is radical to conservative Christians (de-emphasizing doctrine, putting earth before heaven, engaging in friendship with non-believers) is the essential and normative terrain for progressive Christians like me. What I don’t know, and what McLaren has to offer, is how to continue to believe in evangelism and do the work of inviting people to Christ in this context. What’s radical for progressive Christians is believing and acting as though we have something valuable worth sharing. McLaren offers a wealth of insight on how to do that in ways that are relational, invitational and welcoming—not harsh, judging or bullying.

Unbinding the Gospel: Real Life Evangelism, Church Leaders Study, by Martha Grace Reese, Chalice Press, 2007, 148 pp.

Unbinding Your Church: Pastor’s and Leaders’ Guide, by Martha Grace Reese with Dawn Darwin Weaks and Catherine Riddle Caffey, Chalice Press, 2008, 146 pp.

Unbinding Your Heart: 40 Days of Prayer and Faith Sharing, All Church-Study and Personal Prayer Journal, Chalice Press, 2008, 164 pp.

This series of books, along with the fourth volume, Unbinding Your Soul, have been all the talk in the last few years among mainline Protestants looking to learn how to do evangelism that is authentic to our identity and faithful to our mission. I purchased the original (and skimmed it) over a year ago, but I am just beginning to work with congregational leaders to make use of this program at our church. As a first step, I read all three volumes, and gave two key leaders a copy of Unbinding the Gospel to preview as well. A key component of the process seems to be the prayer and exercises, which are done in groups. I have not yet undertaken that work or level of study with these books and their program.

Martha Grace Reese’s work in these volumes is the outgrowth of the Mainline Evangelism Project, a research effort funded by the Lilly Foundation. That project identified adult baptisms as the chief sign of evangelism, since baptisms represent the entry of new Christians into the church (not just people moving around or changing churches). The study first identified the dire nature of the problem. If you eliminate churches in the South and churches that are predominately non-white, only one half of 1% of mainline churches are doing significant work reaching new people and bringing them into the faith.  While they did identify some factors in this lack of evangelism, the study devoted most of its resources to studying those few churches that are successful evangelists. They chose for in-depth study the top 150 mainline churches in the country in numbers of adult baptisms. They identified what they were doing to be so successful, so other congregations might learn from their example. This book series is a program to help churches become better evangelists.

The heart of the series, of the research and of the program, is that there is no great program that will save us. The path toward becoming better evangelists involves learning to pray and ignite our relationship with God, and having the courage to invite others to know the love of God. One of the participants sums it up like this: “You can’t give what you don’t got—your relationship with God must be hot!” (Unbinding Your Heart, 53) The Unbinding Series aims to generate some heat in our relationship with God through intentional prayer and small groups, so that we can then share that passion with others. This accords with my experience—if someone’s own faith is growing and deepening, they will tell others about it and want to share it with them.

I found the books to be very insightful and stimulating for conversation, and I intend to follow through on the process for working on them with my congregation. I am excited about it, and believe it will be a great time of growing faith and prayer and evangelism in our church.

However, I do want to share my struggle with these books. I feel like I have a personality-type conflict with the author. The books are packed with detail and instruction. Reese is clearly an expert in offering step-by-step instructions, planning for stages of effort and breaking down big jobs into small tasks. However, my brain doesn’t do such a good job of putting that back together. I am a big-picture thinker and learner, and I struggled in these books to get my head around the main ideas. As a leader, I want to have a clear vision of the whole picture, and I had a difficult time working that out in these books. This was especially true in Unbinding Your Church, which is really a workbook and instruction manual for using the Unbinding Series in your church. While she offers sermons, hymn choices, liturgical resources, exercises, job descriptions, meeting outlines, handouts and more, I yearned for a more simple overview that said, “Here’s what we hope to accomplish. Here is the experience we want to create. Here are the overall things we want people to encounter and remember.” I can follow step-by-step directions, but I would much rather have a whole map to orient myself in time and space. I often found myself feeling lost in details and no longer sure where I was going. If you are a detail person, you’ll love it. If you’re not, prepare yourself to wade on through—I think it’s well worth it.


About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

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