Sometimes I think we assume evangelism, sharing the good news and invitation of God, is taking place in our next generation ministries (children, youth, young adult and family ministries) without really taking a careful look at if it is really happening. Are people seeing and hearing the invitation to start a relationship with God? I get it. This can be difficult. Evangelism has become a bad word in society and even in many Christian circles. Yet, I know leaders and volunteers are deeply passionate to see this generation encounter God and start a genuine relationship with Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
We’ve been having conversation with youth, seminary students and leaders to think about effective evangelism with the next generation today. Here are some of the things we are learning:
- Relational – evangelism has to be relational today. This generation especially needs to see our care, our willingness and desire to value them as people regardless of whether they ever come to Christ or not. I think of the shift we’ve seen in the icon Billy Graham Association. Billy Graham was known for large stadium events that called people to respond to Christ’s invitation of new life by coming forward. The Billy Graham Association has kept their same goal of inviting people to enter relationship with Christ, however they’ve radically shifted their approach. Their approach today is to equip people to have what they call “Matthew parties” in their home, to invite people who they already have a relationship with, and are journeying with, into their home and share their story of how God has worked in their life and to listen to other peoples' life stories. The Billy Graham Association has realized evangelism needs to be much more relational today. One of the simple prayers I learned from one of my mentors that I often pray is “God, bring yourself up in this conversation” and God does it, within the context of the relationship I have with that person.
- Long-term – evangelism is a long-term investment in people, not quick shots in the arm. It’s the 10 year evangelism plan, rather than the one time event evangelism plan. It’s the marathon runner approach, not the sprint approach. As some of you know I enjoy running. When I go on a long run with someone we end up covering a whole host of topics in conversation, and we see each other through the easy parts and tough parts of the run. Be this kind of evangelist, that is a friend to people first, following the conversation and their story through the easy times and the tough times of life. Evangelism is a marathon today. Evangelism today tends to be slow and steady, as people slowly get to ask their spiritual questions, slowly get to see the difference Christ makes in lives and communities and slowly have their hearts softened to the Gospel. This is not to say God does not sometimes work powerfully in an instance. I think of Paul in Scripture, who in a very dramatic instance realized who Jesus really was. However, even for Paul as I look back on his story, I can see for him it was also a journey. Think how often Paul was exposed to the good news of Jesus: as he stood at the back of synagogues and churches intending to persecute Christians, as he stood watching Stephen getting stoned for his faith, and as he was exposed to the disciples lifestyle and teaching. Be ready to journey with people over the long-haul. This longer-term relational view gives us permission to be less worried about giving the “right answer” in the moment, and more willing to be co-journeyers exploring faith together. Notice the title of this blog has the word "with", not the word "to". Evangelism is a journeying together "with" another, being with them, in order to be for them. It is not evangelism "to" them. It is evangelism "with", not evangelism "to" others. Be willing to listen and learn from the other. Evangelism is a long-term, on-going conversation, not a lecture.
- Story – one of my fears is that we have stopped talking about our faith outside the walls of our Christian circles. We’ve gone quiet. I know how easily this happens in today’s world, our fears get the better of us, we don’t want to offend, we don’t want to be seen as pushy, we feel the shift where Christianity has become unpopular and even been labelled (rightfully so in some cases!) with some negative images. We’ve gone quiet. This is so sad. This news we have is good news, it is for peoples’ flourishing and life. This news we have is life-changing. We need to find ways to continue to put the gospel into words for this generation today. Story seems especially effective today, telling stories of God’s work and stories that display God’s gospel. Use explanations, illustrations, pictures, dance, videos…all the creativity we have to try to put God’s amazing grace and gospel into mediums that help this generation understand the Good News. Alpha Canada has a wonderful youth film series that is free and explains the Gospel to this generation. It is intended to be a tool to allow youth to journey with their friends as they explore faith together.
- Deeds – this generation seems especially bent on action. They are watching and internally asking “So what?” and “Does it actually make any difference?” They’ve got to see a faith that makes a difference to lives, neighbourhoods and the world. I’m part of an event called Tidal Impact. One of the things that amazes me about this event is the number of students that sign-up that are not yet followers of Jesus. The whole premise of the Tidal Impact week is you are going to have to work! Youth groups join together to impact a neighbourhood through a local church for a week in the summer. They work hard doing whatever that neighbourhood needs – kids programs, yard work, visits to seniors, renovations, building BMX tracks, serving meals…all kinds of things that improve that neighbourhood through the church. What amazes me is every year people come to Christ at Tidal Impact. Middle school students and high school students give away a week of their summer to work and serve at Tidal Impact! Amazing! I don’t know if I would have done that as a student. And then, for some of them, there is something about the combination of seeing people being the hands and feet of Jesus and being in community with Christians for the week that God uses to break through to their heart. This generation needs to see the hands and feet of Jesus making a difference in the world today.
- We’ve got to be ready – this long-term, relational, word and deed evangelism is not an excuse to NOT be ready. The generations before relied more heavily on preachers or evangelists or specialists to share the gospel, the ownness today is more greatly on each and every Christian. We need to be ready, in the influence and relationships that God has given us, to ask God how we can join Him in what He is doing in people lives. We need to be training students, leaders and ourselves to listen to others stories, share our story and share God’s story. To prepare people to “enter the danger zone” and walk across the street to start to get to know their neighbour, to get to know those on your sports team and not hide your faith, to get to know those in your classes or workplace and to share the Gospel in word and deed. God has placed each Christian in a context – in a neighbourhood, in a school, in a workplace… we have a plethora opportunities to show and tell the Good News. Are we ready?
So what is the place of evangelism in large group settings today?
In short, it’s a piece of the journey, but not the whole journey. Let me give an example. I’m part of an event called Springforth, a weekend conference for youth in Atlantic Canada. The event is designed to challenge students to take a leap forward in their journey with God. However, this challenge is not done in isolation! No one comes to Springforth alone! Students have to sign-up to come with a youth group. This is on purpose. Springforth is a supplement to the journey, it is not the be all and end all. It allows leaders to continue to journey with students and for students to continue to journey with their friends. It provides an incubator to talk about things of faith. We know the conversations on the long drive to Springforth, the chats as you are waiting for sleep to take everyone over as you are lying on the hard church floor, the follow-up memories and conversations as you continue to journey with people back home and the conversations next week at youth group, around the caf table and at Tim Horton’s will be just as, if not more, significant. Springforth is an accelerator for those conversations and the journey. Springforth provides an incubator for students to be challenged to take a leap forward in their journey with God. But it works because they have others already on the journey with them and continuing the journey with them when they go back home. So, use large group evangelism as accelerators to the journey, as opportunities to open more conversation.
We were intrigued that Carey Nieuwhof recently shared his thoughts on evangelism today too. Check it out: http://careynieuwhof.com/2015/04/5-important-ways-evangelism-is-shifting-in-a-post-christian-world/
What are you learning about evangelism with this generation? Or even, what are some of the questions you are wrestling with as you think about effective evangelism today? We’d appreciate your voice in this discussion!