As I have done for the past couple of months, in April’s instalment of Sprachspielen, I’ll be moving on to the third component of our Six-Fold Incarnational Strategy (6fis), which is at the centre of all of our efforts and plans, related especially to local ministry and personal interactions for the sake of the Gospel. Like I mentioned last month, if you need a reminder or you’re just now joining this series of articles, I encourage you to go back to February’s Sprachspielen, where I spent a good bit of time explaining in general what is the 6fis, and why it is so important to our ministry. I’ll be writing the rest of this month’s instalment under the assumption that you have read that previous introduction to this series.
The third (this month), fourth (May), and fifth (June) components of the 6fis are pretty closely related to one another. In fact, because these are going to be shorter articles than most I write, I had even thought for a moment or two about writing about these three components all together. However, in the end, I decided to give each one of these related component its “due” by giving each its own focus, even if the articles are a bit shorter than normal. If we’re honest, after the longer articles I’ve written over the past 2-3 months, you the reader might welcome a bit of brevity as a break. …I digress…
The reason that I say that these three components of the 6fis (3, 4, & 5) are closely related is because they all share origins from two perspectives, or perhaps, questions. First, there is the general idea of “sent-ness” that we get from the New Testament regarding followers of Jesus. It’s the idea of being “out there,” and more to the point actually going “out there.” This is the “go” of the Great Commission (especially Matthew 28:19-20) and also the “send” in Jesus’ command to his disciples in Luke 9 and 10. This idea of “sent-ness” and “going ‘out there’” is a constant regulator for us, as Jesus’ disciples today, forcing upon us the question, “why do we stay when the Lord has told us to go?” Second, as with “sent-ness,” there is another issue or perspective, namely “stewardship,” which is common to components 3, 4, and 5 of the 6fis. No, I am not speaking of how we manage our money and possessions in this case, though those are certainly stewardship issues in their own right. The stewardship perspective at the heart of this matter deals with the stewardship of our time and our relational energy. This particular stewardship perspective also begs the question: “how, and probably more to the point, where do I spend my time and expend my relational energy?”
I suppose that I should actually state this third component of our 6fis at this point. It is “the ministry of hanging out.” Let that sink in a moment. I’d like for us to look at the “what?” and the “why?” of this component.
Beginning with the “what?” I realise quite readily that you might be both amused and bemused by the wording of this component: “the ministry of hanging out.” I confess that often when I am speaking to churches, classrooms, or groups about the 6fis, when I come to this part, I’m often met with a bit of giggling or broad smiles. That initial response fades to a bit of confusion, when they realise that I’m actually serious. The next step in the process is generally assuming that it is a metaphor for something. Nope. The “what” of the “ministry of hanging out” is pretty much exactly that, or as we say here, “it does what it says on the tin.” It means that we literally seek out places in the community, where we can spend significant time, taking opportunities to meet new people, especially those who frequent the same places, that we might be salt and light in those places. There is no set rule where exactly these public places should be. This will change from context to context. For us here, these public spaces can be pubs, cafes, sports clubs, a place in the park where people congregate—the sky’s the limit. But the point is that we think it important to try to be intentional about dedicating time to spend in these places in order to meet people and build relationships. This “being there” is what we mean by the “hanging out” part of this component of the 6fis. It means spending time in the same places for continuity. This ministry of “hanging out” or the “ministry of presence” to put it another way is intentional and done with much prayer. We go and spend time in these public spaces praying that God will (1) orchestrate “divine encounters” that might seem serendipitous to us, but planned by the Lord, and (2) give us wisdom and boldness to be proactive in creating conversations with people, as we spend this time “out there.” This isn’t just “hanging out” for the purposes of personal relaxation or because we have nothing else to do. It is an intentional use of time and place which is bathed in prayer and fuelled by a zeal for the Lord’s renown in all the earth and the joy of those who continue to walk in darkness through creating a context which allows us to meet new people, who do not yet know Jesus, that He might be exalted in their midst through our obedience, presence, and verbal witness.
Consequently, the “what?” of the “ministry of hanging out” is pretty straightforward and easy to explain. However, the second point, or the “why?” may not be immediately apparent at first glance. Why is it necessary first to do this activity (intentional “hanging out” in public places) and second to state it so clearly in our 6fis as an essential component of our strategy to be where people are and interact with them in meaningful ways, which give opportunities for sharing the grace and Good News of Jesus with those, who do not yet know Him personally? As I’ve mentioned in previous instalments of Sprachspielen, a lot of the answer to this “why?” question lies in the fact that the majority of our on-field mission personnel come from Northern hemisphere and particularly North American Christian contexts. In Evangelical churches of pretty much every denomination in these cultural and geographic contexts over the past 100-200 years, we have tended to depend on two primary efforts as the means by which we have contact and rapport with not-yet-believers-in-Jesus with the hope that these encounters will give us the opportunity to share the Good News of Jesus and give them (those who do not yet know Him personally) the opportunity to respond to the call of Jesus and grow in their faith and in discipleship. The first of these has a longer history and would be the congregation’s dedicated spaces, or in other words our Church structures and other buildings. The second is a bit newer and has become quite prevalent over the past 50-60 years particularly. It is what I would call simply “events.” These two things have become the primary means by which congregations, particularly in North America, have interacted with not-yet-believers.
Using one or both of these methods has actually worked reasonably well for us, as Christians, in these areas of the world and for the past 100-150 years or so. I think that many of you reading this article may remember a time in your lives, when it was enough simply to invite a friend to church (i.e., the “church” building) for a regular service (event), and they would most likely come out of friendship with us and perhaps even come to faith through that kind of contact. “Praise the Lord” for those who did come to faith in Jesus in this way. By and large we continue to depend on these two things as the primary ways for us to connect with not-yet-believers.
There are only two problems with this approach as the primary or sole means, whereby we, as God’s people, interact with those who do not yet have a personal faith in Jesus. First, the emphasis on both our space (building) and our events is rooted in the idea that the “lost” should come to us in order to hear and receive the Gospel. This is more than just a metaphor. For most of our recent history, this has literally been true—“they” come to “us” (our building) for our programme (our event). Depending solely on these two things is problematic for reasons that go beyond the simple question of their effectiveness. This approach pretty much ignores the “go” of Jesus in the Great Commission and the “send” of Jesus with His disciples (Luke 9-10). There is very little if anything in the New Testament, particularly in the Gospels and Acts, which indicates that a principle of “stay where you are and wait for people to come to you” is central to Jesus’ teaching, personal example, and intention for His followers, related to how they engage with those, who do not yet know Him.
The second problem with a continued over-reliance on using these two elements, our location and our events, to the exclusion of most other approaches is that it is becoming increasingly difficult to connect in this way with those who are truly not-yet-believers-in-Jesus, because they’re just not coming to us (the church) anymore for many things. We can see some of the reality of that situation in the fact that the “event” side of the equation has had to become more and more “attractive” in order to bring people to us. We can actually outline the progression if we think about it for a bit. As I mentioned, there was a time when we could invite someone to church, and he/she might very well come to church with us, if for no other reason than personal friendship. However, over time, we began to see a change. We began to notice that fewer of our non-Christian friends were taking us up on the offer to come to church with us. They still remained our friends, just not interested in church or visiting with us even for the sake of friendship or courtesy. Of course, if we as individuals noticed this trend, we can be certain that our church leaders also noticed it and were concerned. At this point, it became necessary to have more and even bigger events at other times and of different natures in order to bring people into our buildings. We would have special concerts or seminars or carnivals or celebrations or dinners or age-specific things like youth lock-ins, etc. These various events became the new underpinning of our “evangelism” strategy. But what it actually did was to instil in our church members that evangelism is no longer “go out into the world and share the Gospel with people,” but “make sure you invite your friends to come to our next event here at the church.”
At the beginning of this shift to an emphasis on ever bigger and more frequent “events” as our primary means of connecting with not-yet-believers, we did see some completely unchurched, not-yet-believers attend them, hear the Gospel, and respond in faith. Again, Praise the Lord! However, over time, we began to see another trend occurring even with our special events. Over time we began to notice that fewer and fewer not-yet-believers with zero church connections “walking in off the street,” so to speak, were coming to our events. But these events continued to be well attended, giving us a sense of success. Who, then, was/is attending them, besides the faithful members of the church, which sponsors the event? There still might be a very few “walk in from the street” not-yet-believers-in-Jesus attending, but generally these people would be coming because of a significant, personal connection with someone in the church. But the bulk of those people attending these events, who are not already members of the church in question, would be (1) non-believers, who have strong family or historic ties to church, i.e., on the “fringe” of the church, (2) “backslidden” Christians, who are looking for a way back to God, and (3) disgruntled Christians from other churches, who are in the market for a new church family. Consequently, any “growth” for our particular churches tends to be parallel growth and not growth by conversion to faith of those, who do not know Jesus and have no pre-existing connections to the Church and the Gospel.
I realise that some of you reading this article to this point might be thinking that I am absolutely opposed to using church buildings and church-sponsored events as evangelism. That would actually be inaccurate. I think that if a Congregation has a building or buildings they should definitely use them for the sake of connecting with their communities for the sake of the Gospel. I also think that well-planned and strategic events can be very helpful in missions and evangelism. The problem is when we depend entirely on the building and the events for our connection points with not-yet-believers for the sake of evangelism to the exclusion of everything else. Again, complete or primary dependence on buildings and events indicates a potentially serious problem in two areas: (1) obedience and (2) effectiveness. Regarding obedience, when pretty much everything we do in evangelism is designed to attract the lost to us, this flies in the face of the clear command of the “go” and “send” of Jesus to His Church. To illustrate this point, let’s take an example from Jesus’ own interaction with His first Disciples, even before they began to follow Him. We have the great “fishing”scene at the beginning of the 5th chapter of Luke. Jesus commanded Simon to go out into the deep water and let down his net for a catch. After a miraculous catch of fish that nearly swamped his boat, an intense conversation between Simon and Jesus ensued, ending with the call of Jesus to Simon, “Don’t be afraid. From now on, you will catch people.” In this account, Jesus is clearly the source of the catch (let’s be clear: Jesus is ALWAYS the source of EVERY authentic catch), but he expected Simon (and us) to obey, put ourselves in the deep water where it’s dangerous, and do the hard work of casting the net and straining just to bring the multitude of fish into the boat. If we were to put the application of our primary focus in evangelism on our location and events into this story in Luke 5, it would look something like this. Instead of getting in his boat at Jesus’ command and setting out to the deep water, Simon (and His followers today by extension) doesn’t do that at all. Rather, he takes one of his baskets used for storing his catch, walks out knee-deep from the shore, holds the basket out at arms-length, and stands there waiting for deep-water fish to swim to the shallows and jump into his basket of their own accord. Of course, God is omnipotent, and He could have orchestrated that very scenario. But He didn’t. Jesus has redeemed us as His people and re-fitted us specifically for the deep water and the hard work of bringing in His catch out there in the deep. Why the deep water, we may ask? Well, that’s where the fish are, of course!
The second element of effectiveness has also become increasingly important as a metric for evaluating our dependence on our buildings and events in evangelism. Though we might have seen some “success” in reaching truly unchurched, not-yet-believers through these means in the past, we notice increasingly that fewer of those people are attracted to our buildings/events. In spite of that, these church-building-based events continue in our church calendars, because (1) we still have pretty good attendance, though again with fewer, truly not-yet-believers in the crowds, and (2) we really don’t know what else to do, or worse we are simply unwilling to do anything else.
So, why is the overall effectiveness of a dependence on buildings/events in evangelism decreasing precipitously, one might ask? I believe (as do others) that it is primarily because the culture at large has been steadily moving further away from that of the Church in terms of values, philosophy, morality, etc. The separation between Church and society, started as a rift, then became a separation, and is now a gulf. This is because in the Northern Hemisphere and particularly North America due to the centuries of the influence of “official” Christianity in these areas, the basic understanding of these things like philosophy, ethics, morals, etc. that one found in society at large was actually not that different from that espoused by the Church, even for those individuals in society who were not active members of the Church or personal adherence of the Christian faith. Accordingly, it was really not that much of a cultural leap from society at large to the community of faith, the Church. Jump forward to today, when society is actually quite removed from Christian faith and the Church. In our current context, the majority of people in society no longer look to the Church for answers or resources for living their lives on a daily basis. In fact, as the chasm between society and Church has widened, and the two parties have actually become quite antagonistic toward each other in many ways. When this process of widening the gulf between Church and society has reached a certain point in the sphere of public life where the two sides have more differences than commonalities, we begin to call that society as a whole “post-Christian.”
This is the societal situation today in much of Western and Central Europe, where we would definitely use the word “post-Christian” to describe our setting. There is a huge gulf between society at large (the vast majority of the population) and the Christian community (an ever shrinking minority of the population), and it is becoming harder to find some common ground between the two. In a post-Christian culture, secular society looks at Christianity and says in essence, “been there, done that, didn’t work, what’s next?” An increasing number of people in society at large would even say that Christianity is “a failed experiment of history.” I should make it clear that just because society at large in our context is increasingly post-Christian, this does not mean that people are any less spiritual in their views and pursuits in life. People are very spiritual. They’re just convinced that Christianity has no significant contribution to make to their spiritual journeys. Though most of Central and Western Europe is already in this post-Christian age, the United States, for example, is a few years behind us here. To be sure, there are pockets in the USA that are now post-Christian and post-Christian influences can be felt in a number of places and contexts. However, there is still enough connection between society at large and the Church in many places in the USA to allow the illusion that an evangelism strategy based on buildings and events is still viable and even preferable.
So, again, why do we have the 6fis with a component like the “ministry of hanging out?” Because we live and minister in a thoroughly post-Christian culture in Europe, where inviting people to our buildings for events (to the exclusion of every other approach) is not only unproductive, but often counterproductive to our aims of communicating the Good News of Jesus to those, who do not yet know Him. Out of necessity, we must find other ways of connecting with people that do not depend on their coming to us, but on our going out to where they are, spending significant time and energy to live and function in proximity to their lives. We simply do not have the luxury here of depending on strategies which will somehow result in attracting not-yet-believing people and bringing them to us. Those days are past in many ways here. I think that believers in the USA reading this article may also be noticing some of these issues becoming more the norm where you are, and you might also be wondering, “what are we going to do to get those who don’t yet know Him into church, where they can meet Jesus?” But I would propose that this might be the wrong question to ask in the light of the ever expanding, post-Christian element of society at large. Perhaps we should be asking, “How will we take the Church out of the walls and into people’s lives, where they live and work and exist?”
I realise that there might be a temptation on our part of blame the post-Christian mindset for all of our woes related to the increasing lack of effectiveness in evangelism. I have these feelings too at times. But increasingly I have begun to wonder if the growth of the post-Christian mindset is not, in fact, a gift to the Church? Though at the time, the Great Commission of Jesus to His disciples had a clear global relevance, the early Church was kind of stuck in Jerusalem and Judea for quite some time after Pentecost. Many scholars believe that a wave of severe persecution of Christians in Roman Palestine combined with the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD were allowed by God in order to force the Church out of its surroundings and into the world in order to fulfil its global calling and mandate. I wonder if institutional Christianity’s loss of prestige, position and privilege as a result of living in an increasingly post-Christian society is not God’s gift to us, to force us back into obedience by forcing us back into the boat, the boat back into the deep water, nets down and waiting for Jesus to provide the catch. Because after all, isn’t that where the fish are?