Category Archives: Evangelism

Catchment or Catching Churches?

How do you feel about a new church opening just a kilometre from your church? We all like the idea of church planting in general – just “not in my back yard.” How can we make sense of this? How do we ensure that a spirit of territoriality doesn’t block the extension of the gospel?

Let’s think about how we think about church territory. If we assume that there is certain number of “church likely” people in our city, a fixed number (say 144,000!), then the more churches that are planted in our city, the less share there’ll be for each church. It’s like rainfall. If you have a large catchment area, you can gather a lot of water into your dam. If someone else builds a dam upstream, they’re robbing you, because there’s only so much rain.

But I don’t think the gospel works like that. Churches aren’t meant to sit there expecting streams of people to flow into them. What if we thought more like farmers than water barons? What if we saw that our viability rests not so much on how much land we have, but on how well we work it?

When churches think about their “area of influence”, they usually draw a circle on a map representing a 20-minute drive to their building. If you step back and look at all the circles drawn by all the churches, it appears that Adelaide is well and truly covered! But driving time is not influence.

Each church should draw another circle – the area in which it is actively engaging its local community. Where is your church regularly prayer-walking? Where are you letter-boxing or door-knocking or active in the local school? If we did that, most churches would draw tiny circles, and we’d see how much room there really is for more pro-active gospel work.

So when a church plant is mooted and a nearby church cries foul, my question is this: When was the last time your church really engaged that particular neighbourhood? Are you thinking catchment instead of going catching?

We don’t need more catchment churches, but God’s always raising up catching ones. The issue isn’t how close that new church is, but what sort is it? And what sort is yours?

Are the Fish Biting?

I remember the stares and smirks on people’s faces as we walked past. It was the middle of the day, I was about 12 years old, and we were on holidays at Penneshaw on Kangaroo Island. My friend and I were bored and decided to go fishing. We grabbed our gear and began the walk around the bay to the jetty.

Most of Penneshaw is built looking over Hog Bay and it’s always easy to know when the fish are biting: You just look out your front window and see how many people there are on the jetty. Hence the smirks and shakes of the heads as we trudged past houses on our way – the jetty was completely empty.

Still, it was something to do. We walked out along the jetty and fumbled around with our lines. I’d never liked fishing and had little idea what to do. So it was pretty surprising when, not five minutes later, we’d caught a fish! And then another. And then more – almost as fast as we could reset our lines a new fish would jump on. Within a few hours we’d caught 81 fish (81 more than we knew what to do with), and you guessed it, most of the town were out there on the jetty getting their share too.

I won’t say that I learned to fish that day. But I did learn this: If no-one’s fishing it doesn’t mean no-one’s biting.

One of the myths that holds us back from effective mission is the idea that no one’s interested in God any more. It’s just not true. But if we believe it to the point where we stop fishing for people, we’ll prove ourselves right – in a way. I guess it’s true that fish won’t bite if you give them nothing to bite on.

So I wonder are you willing to walk that “walk of shame” to the jetty, and have a go even if you’re no expert? Like my friend and I that day, you might catch fishers as well as fish!

Where Do the Evangelists Go?

“What would you do if Jesus came to Hawthorn?” read the sign outside an eastern Melbourne church in the late 1960s. Graffiti soon appeared underneath: Move Peter Hudson out to centre half forward.

Let’s take a moment to think about church like a coach thinks about a football team. Imagine the names of all your congregation members on magnets on a whiteboard, able to be moved around and tried in different positions. (Just like a footy team, different members have different strengths: some tall, some short; some slow, some fast; some skilled, some Port players.)

Where do we put the evangelists? Yes, your church has evangelists! Or at very least people called to “do the work of the evangelist”. They might be ordinary looking, they may not be fully developed – but I’m talking about those in your church who by God’s Spirit are best shaped and most effective in announcing, explaining, and inviting people into God’s kingdom.

(They are communicators. Some will say “There’s much more to evangelism than talking!” but I think they mean “There’s much more to mission than evangelism” and I agree. Mission is the work of the whole team, evangelism is a vital part and the specialty of some team members.)

But my question is – where do we put those players? It seems the white-board in the imagination of most people has the church gathered in the centre and the evangelists deployed out on the frontier. We hope they will engage with the world, fish for people, and bring them back to us – preferably nicely cleaned. No wonder so many with that gift feel so incredibly lonely, sent to the front to fight a war alone and expected to bring back trophies!

What if we moved the magnets? What if nearly the whole church was sent to the perimeter to witness to the kingdom (words and much more) and we actually positioned evangelists behind the front lines, to work with interested people we bring to them? What if we all had our lines in the water and evangelists were there to help us when we have a wriggly one hooked?

Second Best Tomorrow

They are three words that changed the course of history. In the summer of 1940, Adolf Hitler was desperate to quickly subdue Britain and so be free to turn on his main goal – Russia. The British army had only just escaped at Dunkirk – and without its equipment. England was a sitting duck for invasion, and all Germany needed was control of the skies. Since the Luftwaffe greatly outnumbered the Royal Air Force in planes and especially in experienced pilots, this was not expected to take long.

Instead, it lasted nearly four months and was a decisive British victory. England lived to fight another day. Germany invaded Russia anyhow, and in the end could not sustain the war on two fronts. History looks back on the Battle of Britain as a key turning point. So how was the battle won?

Britain had a secret weapon – radar. It showed them when, where, and in what force the Luftwaffe raids were coming, well before they arrived. Efficient communications systems enabled the RAF planes to be in place and ready for them.

But here’s the remarkable thing: German scientists had also developed radar. What’s more, theirs was more advanced than the rudimentary British system! But here’s the critical difference: The British system was in the field, and the German system was still being perfected in the lab. Sir Robert Watson-Watt, leader of the British research team, used “Second Best Tomorrow” as a motto against perfectionism. Better a basic system in the field tomorrow than the perfect system next year (or the year after).

I wonder whether we could draw on that motto in evangelism and church planting. It’s tempting to plant the perfect church in our imagination. Or to hold off evangelism while we work out the perfect approach that no-one could possibly reject. Such great ministries are developing wonderfully on paper, right when they’re needed in the field! (In fact, that’s where they are far more likely to be truly perfected.)

The simplest of all Jesus’ parables is about two sons who were sent by their father to work in the field. One refused, but then changed his mind and went. His brother had all the right words in response, but never got around to going. Which one, Jesus asked, got it done?

The Things They’ll Say

How do we know when we’re doing our mission well? What’s our rule of thumb for “good evangelism” over “bad evangelism”? If we judge our mission by how it’s received we are navigating by very unreliable stars. If many people respond positively to a message we can easily think it was great evangelism, and if we offend many – indeed any – we can assume it was our mistake.

In fact, sometimes we can search and search – and search and search – for the perfect way to put the message of the gospel so that it will be guaranteed to succeed. We want a 100% success rate. But that’s not what we see in Jesus’ Parable of the Sower (Mark 4). Jesus points out there will be a whole range of responses to the same message. (If you do the maths, that farmer only needs a 2% success rate to make a profit.)

There is no perfect technique that will win over everyone we’re called to. If that’s our standard, we’re expecting to be better evangelists that Jesus himself. People were drawn wonderfully to him and had their lives transformed. Well, some of them were drawn. Others, like the rich young ruler, walked away.

And worse, the things they said about Him! People called him demon-possessed, evil, insane. People called Paul a fool, a babbler, a try-hard, a traitor. Do we think we should have a better strike rate than them? No, Jesus said if some will reject him, some will reject us. (And he said when they reject us they’re really rejecting Him and the Father.)

So which voices, which feedback do we tune into to evaluate our effectiveness in mission? The danger is that if we hold back the message until we find a way to offend no-one, the only one we’ll offend is Jesus himself. “If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of them when he comes in his Father’s glory.” (Mark 8)

So how do we know when we’re doing well? Given the range of receptive soils, sowing liberally would be a good strategy. Enthusiastic receptivity is not necessarily a tick (think rocky soil). And vehement rejection is not necessarily a cross – well not in that sense! But if people are receiving and rejecting us for the same reasons that they received or rejected Jesus, perhaps we’re around the mark? And in line for the ultimate feedback “Well done, good and faithful servant.”

Missional Straightforwardness

One of the most challenging tasks of sacred agents is contextualization. (Oh the irony, I’ve used a 19-letter word and a 17-letter word already.) Contextualization is the challenge of translating the great news of God’s Kingdom, which reaches across all time, places and cultures, into a specific time, place and culture so that it can be understood. If you’ve ever looked at someone, scratched your head, and thought “how can I possibly put this wonderful hope in a way that you’ll be able to grasp?” then you’ve wrestled with contextualization. It’s tricky.

And of all of the trickiness, there’s the danger that it makes us tricky. It’s good for us to keep our finger on the pulse of societal trends and communication methods. In our dealing with the world we are to be as wise as serpents. But we’re also meant to be as innocent as doves.

If we follow too closely the PR approach to mission, never wanting to offend or repel anyone, loudly proclaiming the “upside” of following Jesus and fudging on the cost, we can end up being quite unlike Jesus in our efforts to represent him. There is a wonderful straightforwardness to Jesus, speaking the truth lovingly but also directly and clearly, and being up-front about the cost of discipleship.

(Selling Christianity as a lifestyle choice by highlighting how its benefits far outweighs its costs has problems in itself in leading to consumer Christianity where people “select” Jesus for his usefulness rather than submit and entrust themselves to him, but let’s discuss that later.)

Another form of trickiness comes when we make reconciliation to God an over-complicated process. When a person is 1,000 miles from God’s kingdom, sometimes we try to influence them towards a place just 990 miles from God. Nudge them a little bit closer, and feel that we’ve done some mission. But a person 1,000 miles from God is actually only one step away (hallelujah!), and we see many such people in the Gospels coming to Jesus and being wonderfully transformed. Do we inch people along the garden path sometimes instead of inviting them to come right on in?

What might it mean for us to be clear and straightforward as agents of the Kingdom? More wise and yet less sophisticated? Might it not be both truer to the gospel and refreshing and appealing to many in our time and culture?

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