As an instructor at a seminary on the church mission subject, keeping current is part of the gig. So, forking out the big bucks ($39), I recently purchased and read Barna’s Reviving Evangelism report, to glean what I could from their research. Their chosen title promised to revive evangelism. Hmm, a nice goal. I wondered if achieving that aim would be my assessment of their content. The church has had big problems in this area for a long time. Members have checked out on the way it has been traditionally touted. Effective evangelism has also become increasingly difficult along many fronts of a post-Christian era. I offer my candid thoughts.
- Quantitative strengths and limitations
- The need for influence insights
- Biblical patterned “participant observation”
First, the report is loaded with valuable information. It can benefit pastors/church leaders/members who are sizing up what is unfolding in the culture and in the church as a whole. Strong on analyzing America’s de-churching, you get paragraphs with laser synthesis on what is off and hindering: “The research shows a dissonance between Christians’ perceptions of effective evangelism and the experience of those who do not practice Christianity. Further, there seems to be gaps in key Christian relational skills and habits that are necessary for evangelism” (43). If you are a data nerd, and believe statistics are king, you will love their treatment! Along with scores of numbers to peruse, there are timely “wake-up call” nuggets. One that jumped off that page at me: “Nearly half (47%) of Millennial practicing Christians say it is wrong to evangelize” (10). Woe. Talk about the need to right the mission ship! I also loved the fact that they blew up some myths and oversimplified cliches, as in: “The God-shaped hole is simply not a conscious part of most non-Christians experience.” Boom!
On the critiquing side, I have a few gut-level observations that I believe are worthy of contemplation. Reading it cover to cover, it strikes me that quantitative data is far better at showing us the problem than offering the solution. Though Barna’s report is beautifully laid out with a collection of nicely written articles, there is not one real-evangelism-engagement story included. No, not one. (Note: There is an engagement story mentioned, ironically, it is between two believers meeting to explore cultural differences, a good training exercise, no doubt, but not evangelism).
Nor does it contain data that is based directly on evangelistic involvement, something like: We studied 200 believers in relationships with the rising sector of young adult atheists and found these practices to be effective. Without the content being based on real evangelism, it lacks specificity in the solution column. That is why the information provided in this report, though painting a picture of the attitudes and deficiencies inside the church and the shifting demographics outside, does not get into salient insights on actually reaching someone. I did not help me with any of my three current unsaved friends: My Muslim imam buddy, my intellectual lawyer friend, or my irreligious Raiders-loving neighbor.
Having spiritual influence with a non-believer is quite dynamic, and thus, resonant communication of the gospel often requires digging into a person’s particular storyline in order to discern how they could hear the gospel as good news. This kind of insight is typically not found in quantitative data points. It is rooted in reading the individual, who has a unique mixture of background, needs, problems and storylines. Similarly, the vital processing insights on how to reach distinct individuals from various belief stances, comes from those who are doing it. Everyone claims to be an expert, but I only listen and learn from practitioners who know what it is to be in the fight for someone’s soul. So much of what God has taught me has come from journeying alongside people (my books share those stories). God eventually breaks it open, but you are agent-involved in bringing the person over belief barriers and tapping into motivational desire.
In support of influence training as critical for reviving evangelism, I offer an ancient comparison. Though modern market research is useful to quantify culture and church, and we should benefit from what the scientific method reveals, it is not the method the biblical record features—which is qualitative in nature—akin to what researchers term “participant observation.” We see it every time New Testament writers give close-in real-life accounts of someone bringing God’s message in an effectual, dialed-in way (John recording Jesus’s “living water” appeal to the Samaritan woman; Luke observing Paul’s adapting proclamation to the Areopagus gathering in Athens; the disciples watching Jesus’s faith formational healings in Galilee).
As a rule of efficacy, individual Christians or sometimes a Christian group, must build a safe committed relationship with an unsaved person that establishes trust so the conversation about following Christ can ensue. They are seeking to help a person from their unique starting point to understand and believe in the essential truths of historic Christianity, and to process what placing faith in Christ could mean for enriching and benefitting their lives. As Christ engaged others, we begin with faith’s relevancy interpretively dialed in to their particular life and work our way to the saving purpose of the Cross. When believers develop influence skills and raise their mission knowledge on reaching others, they are empowered to draw out thoughts and feelings of a friend, and to invite meaningful and welcomed dialogue about Jesus and the gospel.
A Barna Report Produced in Partnership with Alpha USA, Reviving Evangelism: Current Realities That Demand a New Vision for Sharing Faith, 2019.