Friday, February 13, 2009

Rethinking evangelism and church growth

Thousands of Britons recently donated $200,000 to place this ad on London buses under the auspices of an atheist organization: “There is probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.” In response, various Christian groups ranging from the Russian Orthodox Church to the Trinitarian Bible Society are placing ads on the bus insisting that God does exist. (Mary Jordan, “Christian Groups Answer Atheists With Own Ads on British Buses,” Washington Post, February 6, 2009)

The entire endeavor appears to me to be a tempest in a teapot, much ado about nothing. How many people will actually decide whether to believe in God based on a poster read while riding a bus? The ads, pro and con, will generally confirm pre-existing beliefs. To presume that such ads are decisive in causing anyone to become an atheist or a believer trivializes the faith journey of everyone involved.

The ads, however, do raise questions about evangelism, i.e., what it is and how to do it. Evangelism is encouraging another person to resume or to continue his or her faith journey. That definition importantly and respectfully broadens the traditional Christian definition of evangelism still held by evangelicals, a definition that requires converting people to a Christian faith journey.

Nor will everybody, contrary to the basic premise of Rick Warren’s book, The Purpose Driven Life, will find her or his life purpose in evangelism, regardless of how one defines evangelism. Warren wrongly concludes that in the Christian Scripture God calls everyone to be an evangelist. Some receive that gift.

I find that Malcolm Gladwell’s book, The Tipping Point, offers a useful framework for understanding the connection of evangelism to church growth. Tipping points, according to Gladwell, transform isolated occurrences into a fad. In terms of church growth, a tipping point for a particular congregation moves the congregation from numerical stagnation to significant numerical growth. Gladwell contends that tipping points have three key elements.

Firstly, the congregation must energize and effectively deploy connectors, mavens, and salespeople. Connectors, as the word implies, are people who create links among a wide circle of acquaintances, friends, and family. Connectors introduce a person, or link that person, to someone already on a particular faith journey or involved with a specific congregation. Mavens are people who brim with knowledge about a particular subject; people frequently turn to mavens for advice in their area of expertise. Faith mavens are people who know about the different styles of liturgy, program, and group dynamics associated with area congregations. A faith maven, for example, can help one to realize whether she is a Christian in the Episcopalian or Baptist tradition or whether he is a Unitarian or a Muslim. Salespeople are so excited about what they have that they want to share it with others. Spiritual salespeople, the type that best fits the traditional Christian understanding of evangelism, have found a spiritual home and want to share the good news of that community with everybody else. In fact, all three types are important for aiding various types of persons on their individual spiritual journey.

Secondly, the congregation must create sufficient “stickiness” so that when new people do attend or participate, they experience a sufficiently strong attraction and level of satisfaction to motivate them to return. To maximize “stickiness” a congregation will need a multi-faceted approach that makes guests feel comfortable (friendly welcome, convenient parking, quality childcare, clean restrooms, informative signage, etc.). The congregation will offer programs with multiple entry points so that newcomers can comfortably join and programs that speak to a variety of interests and needs. Most importantly, the congregation will provide what attendees perceive as good value for the time invested, e.g., worship services with quality music and substantive content that flow rather than drag.

Right context is the third component required to create a successful tipping point. Right context, in a positive sense, means finding programming and content appropriate to the time and place. Demographics provide some easily accessible basic contextual information. Interviews with attendees and people in the area will yield contextual data about preferences and needs. Not every style or program is appropriate in every place. An Episcopal congregation with its heavy reliance on printed materials would find an illiterate community the wrong context. Conversely, a congregation situated in a Florida retirement community will find that programming targeting retirees resonates better than endlessly futile efforts to build a big, exciting youth program. Right context, suggest that for such a congregation, a youth program may be irrelevant.

In other words, as in the apparel business and automotive industry, one size and color does not suit everybody. Faith communities should articulate a theologically sound, contextually appropriate identity and mission, incarnate that identity and mission creatively and meaningfully (stickiness), and then intentionally engage connectors, mavens, and salespeople in spreading the word.

Numerically stagnant congregations located in geographic areas that are experiencing numerical growth (part of the right context) need to ask, Why not? Gladwell’s book on tipping points, unlike bus ads childishly arguing about God's existence, provides a helpful framework for identifying constructive answers.


USNA Ancient said...

Obviously, you do not believe in freedom of speech or the separation of church and state ... I guess that makes you a hypocrite and a coward! I'll stick to Bishop Spong's definition of Christianity, thank you !

George Clifford said...

I think that you have misunderstood the thrust of my post or, perhaps more likely, I expressed myself poorly. From my conversations with Bishop Spong and extensive reading of his writings, I am confident that he and I define Christianity in very similar ways. Like Bishop Spong, I do not believe that everybody must become, or even should become, a Christian. Each person needs to follow his or her own spiritual path ( a topic I explored much more fully in my doctoral work); the task of evangelism, rightly understood, is to help people along their path. That is why I differentiate between church growth and evangelism; church growth is helping those for whom participating in a Christian community is helpful to link with an appropriate community.

I strongly support both the separation of church and state and free speech. I served two years with the Royal Navy in Britain as part of a personnel exchange program. While in the U.K. I was a Church of England priest, i.e., part of an established Church. That tour convinced me the U.S. approach of no established religion was right, an approach that more fully honors human dignity and diversity. If I did not believe in free speech, I would have rejected your comment impugning my integrity and courage rather than allowing it to appear in this blog!

USNA Ancient said...

If I misconstrued your post, I sincerely apologize. it was partially the result of the rejection of my initial comment in which I questioned what I considered your defense of far-right, rabid, wing-nut evangelism [i.e. the "amerikan taliban" insofar as I am concerned]. I am especially concerned by it's fifth column-like infiltration of the military at every level [ much as the DoJ was infiltrated with "graduates of the ayatollah robertson regent u. and the imam falwell's liberty u.] by tactics which I consider the equivalent of those used by Torquemada. I would hope that like Mikey Weinstein and his Military Religious Freedom Foundation
[] religious thinkers and leaders would speak out loudly against these practices, attitudes and agenda, as Bishop Spong has done.

Again, my sincere apologies, if I was indeed wrong in my interpretation. I have absolutely no problems with anyone's faith or belief or lack therof. What I do have a problem with is when someone with such beliefs "gets in my face" and threatens me or anyone else with their "believe as I do" ideology.

George Clifford said...

During my three year tenure as the senior Protestant chaplain at the Naval Academy, I supported free exercise for all (e.g., for groups that experienced discrimination such as Wiccans), repeatedly affirmed my agreement for the court decision that ended mandatory chapel attendance, and suggested ending the noon meal, chaplain led prayer. In other assignments, I consistently adhered to policies and advocated positions that honored separating religion and government.

Throughout my military service, I found that the largest obstacle to free exercise was the unwillingness of those who objected to the kind of practices that you vehemently condemn being willing to voice their objections. Freedom, as I read on bumper stickers, is not free. People who dislike practices or believe their rights infringed must have the moral courage to speak out. Is speaking out likely to result in some having their career or promotion prospects harmed? Certainly. We live in an imperfect world. But failing to stand publicly and consistently for one’s basic principles has allowed the current situation to develop.

However, I also find that speaking out in a manner that avoids the use of inflammatory language and imprecise labels most helpful. The title of “ayatollah” honors a Shiite cleric who has achieved the highest levels of education and stature among his peers. A few ayatollahs have sought to exercise their influence and authority in destructive ways; others publicly and repeatedly have rejected narrowly rigid interpretations of Shariah. An imam leads Muslims in their prayers; the vast majority of imams are men of deep sincerity and genuine goodness. Labeling Pat Robertson an ayatollah and Jerry Falwell an imam besmirches Islam and distracts attention from the purported Christian identity of both.

The ugly, destructive expressions of Christianity are no better or worse, for that matter, than the ugly, destructive elements of other religions, whether the verbal “bombs” of Falwell and Robertson or the literal bombs of some anti-abortion groups. However, Falwell and Robertson no more represent the Christianity of Jesus than Osama bin Laden represents the Islam of Mohammed. Broad-brush denunciations, misapplied terms, and other forms of demagogic rhetoric contribute more heat than light, inflaming passions that alienate rather than building bridges of understanding that lead to global community.