NASHVILLE — In mainline congregations doing a good job with evangelism, what’s happening — what’s the secret to success?
Martha Grace Reese, a lawyer and Disciples of Christ minister, asked that question and set out to answer it in a four-year study funded by the Lilly Endowment. Through that project, she and her team conducted a statistical analysis of 150 mainline congregations that do well in reaching people with no church background.
And they interviewed more than 1,400 people and visited 50 congregations from seven mainline denominations, trying to discover what congregations successful at evangelism were doing and what was motivating them.
The results have just been published in a new book, Unbinding the Gospel: Real Life Evangelism. And Reese shared some of what she learned at the National Presbyterian Evangelism Conference, a gathering of about 500 in Nashville Aug. 31-Sept. 3.
For starters, she considered the question of why evangelism matters to people.
Do they believe, for example, that having eternal life depends clearly on whether or not one has become a Christian — that whether one has accepted Jesus as Savior is a life-or-death question?
“We typically in mainline seminaries don’t hear a lot about hell,” Reese told one workshop. But if one’s theology focuses on salvation through Christ as the sole means to eternal life, considering that a future in heaven or hell is at stake in the answer, then “your motivation for evangelism is a slam-dunk — there’s no question.”
If one believes that, “we should be gutting ourselves, turning ourselves inside-out” to lead others to become Christians, Reese said. “That is a powerful, beautiful motivator. And that kind of evangelism is the classical understanding of evangelism. John Calvin taught that. Many Presbyterians think that.”
But if you were to ask mainline Christians, “Do you believe there is a hell you will go to if you don’t become Christian?” many will answer, “No,” Reese said.
Or “most people sort of mumble. They don’t know” for sure.
So “what do you do if your motivation is fuzzy in your mind?” Reese asked. “Are you going to do a lot of evangelism? Probably not so much.”
Still, she sought what was motivating people of moderate-to-liberal theology who were being effective at evangelism. If worry about heaven and hell wasn’t their primary motivation, what was?
What they discovered, she said, was that “people are in love with God. They have a relationship with Christ that — it knocks you off your chair. The people who are doing evangelism” — whether evangelical or mainline — are “doing it not out of fear,” but primarily from love.
They really believe, Reese said, that there is a God who redeems us and who loves us and can change our lives, and “it really matters that people know that.”
So they tell people about their experiences with God — their friends and relatives and neighbors and co-workers. They tell stories of lives that have been changed, people who’ve been healed, questions that have been answered.
“They love Christ. They pray. They exist all along the theological spectrum,” from conservative to liberal, Reese said. “It’s not the theology that’s doing it” … but their love for God and their desire to live by the leading of the Holy Spirit.
Having said that, Reese said she did not find huge numbers of mainline congregations being successful at evangelism. Basically, “we’re doing a very bad job of reaching unchurched people, a very bad job,” she said.
The project found that 65 to 80 percent of the fastest-growing congregations in each of the mainline denominations studied were from the South or made up predominantly of people of color. Most Anglo congregations that weren’t in the South had baptized relatively few adults. And many of the new people who did join those congregations were the spouses or children of someone already there. In other words: evangelism wasn’t working.
The project’s researchers asked people to say what they first thought of when they heard the word “evangelism.” Some typical answers:
“No, I don’t want to knock on strangers’ doors and give them some pamphlet.” Or “a televangelist is asking for money for a theme park.”
And when Reese asked pastors — she talked to more than 600 of them — “what’s the hardest thing you do in your ministry,” many replied that it was keeping the focus outside of the congregation. “It’s so easy for me to focus on these people who I love,” they told her, “and it’s hard to keep pushing my focus out to other people.”
Reese said she also found that it’s a “totally busted myth” that churches are good at either social action or evangelism, but not both. Typically, those doing extraordinary evangelism also are highly involved in social action — lobbying at the statehouse, running a food pantry, and inviting those who use the pantry to worship with them.
Another myth is that evangelism consists of “ringing the doorbell and haranguing them” when they answer. And a big fear of doing evangelism is rejection or “looking stupid. Another one is not having answers to questions.”
But what successful churches are doing is “sharing their own faith stories,” Reese said. “They’re saying to people, ‘Let me pray for you.’ Or ‘You’re going through a divorce? Wow, that happened to me, and my church helped a lot.’ … It’s tiny steps.”
But some people don’t take those steps perhaps because they’re reluctant to, or it doesn’t occur to them.
For example, Reese spoke to one woman at a Methodist church, a hairdresser who’d moved to town about two years previously and gone through a rough divorce. People had been wonderful to her, including a handful of women who offered to provide childcare and help in other ways. The woman had not gone to church since she was a child, but one weekend felt pulled to do so. When she walked in the sanctuary of the church down the street from her house, she found five of the six women who’d been helping her — her informal support network — all attended that one church.
For all their kindness, none of them had ever mentioned church to her, or told her they were Christians, or invited her to worship.
“Some of us are sitting on some fabulous churches and just expecting people to show up at the door,” Reese said.
A pastor from Michigan, Linda Knieriemen, said she lives in a town where “the first question you’re asked by your hairdresser is, ‘Where do you go to church? Are you saved?'” So sometimes people from her congregation are reluctant to raise issues of faith with others.
Reese acknowledged there have been “brash attempts, desperate attempts to grab you by the throat and drag you into salvation. That doesn’t work. … We’re all realizing that what we need to do is to share our faith with our friends,” and to make that happen, there has to be a relationship.
She asked those in the workshops to divide into small groups and to pray in silence, to ask God to reveal a time when they felt particularly close to God, a memory they would later share with others. “Does that make sense,” she asked, “or does it really make your skin crawl?”
When they were finished, she asked what it had been like, to talk out loud with others about being close to God.
“It was a great experience,” one woman said. “But I would say I find it easier to do with strangers than with people I know.”
But many Christians do have stories to tell, and “it’s fascinating how God works in people’s lives,” Reese said.
And she contends that both people inside of churches and those who don’t go to church need to hear those stories. “People are asking for bread,” she said, “and we are giving them stones.”
People want their churches to seem real and authentic, Reese said. “We’re not talking about a church that you have to go to because it’s respectable and you can’t go fishing on Sunday morning. You can go fishing. … What we’re talking about is not respectable church, we’re talking about church that’s changing lives and healing people.”
Conducting her interviews, Reese met a woman who’d been an elder for 35 years and sang in the front row of the choir. The woman talked to Reese for 45 minutes, describing a horrible marriage, an abusive husband, troubled children. “It was about as bad,” Reese said, “as anything I have heard.”
The woman then acknowledged she had never talked to people from church about her family life, although she said, “I always knew I could” if things got really bad.
It had been bad.
“Most of our churches are like that,” Reese said. “We have people who are starving to death in our own churches, and they are so faithful. … We need to let God crack our lives open.”
And then to talk about it, out loud.