Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Faith Works 10-1-05
Jeff Gill

Who’s Doing Evangelism?

Is anyone doing evangelism? That can sound like a silly question,
when door to door visitors, outreach ministries with Bibles and
tracts, and major media campaigns from a variety of groups, mostly Christian, are all over the place.
But among mainline/oldline Protestant Christian denominations
(Methodist, Presbyterian, Lutheran, Episcopalian, etc.) this is a
very real question. The gospels of the New Testament encourage
sharing the good news of Jesus as a primary mark of a faithful
body of believers, while showing in Acts and the letters following in Christian scripture many different ways of doing evangelism (an evangel, in Greek, is a messenger who brings . . . good news!).

Martha Grace "Gay" Reese is one of my best friends from seminary who has gone on to do some amazing work not only in parish ministry, but with studies and projects through the Lilly Endowment, a Midwest foundation interested in congregational vitality and religious leadership. She’s from Licking County originally (and I believe she still has some family in the area), but I would have wanted to share her most recent research even if she was from Outer Mongolia. She has a book coming out this spring, called "Unbinding the Gospel", but you get to see a preview right here.
Gay went to seven mainline/oldline denominations and gathered
data to look at churches that are doing effective evangelism.
Having been a lawyer before experiencing a call to ministry, she
was able to organize the very challenging work of taking data from seven totally different church structures and making some sense of it.
To prepare her study and have it be of use to the average
congregation, she wanted to focus down first on non-Southern
churches (where there is growth as much from population
pressure as any other reason) and non-ethnic congregations
(Hispanic and Asian-American bodies are exploding in size
across the 50 states). This gave her 30,000 churches to examine.
Then, given the variation in data reported, to find where evangelism was being done so she could visit there, Gay established a simple criteria. Over a three year period, if a church had an average of five adult baptisms a year, or fifteen over the three years, they could be considered. You can nitpick the definition all day, but this was the one that could be cross-compared and verified from the data available –
and sounds solid to me. When Gay met with a pastors' group, she asked them what they guessed were the number of faith communities that met these marks among the 30,000. "Oh, perhaps a third," said some, "right, about 10,000, but no more," agreed others. A few were more pessimistic, saying "it might be just a few thousand. Some were more skeptical: "Five percent, that’s, uh, 1,500."
Her study found no more than 150. 50 were confirmed, and she’s visited 37 of ‘em, and talked on the phone to many, many more. The fact that this came as a complete shock to the chiefs of the denominations is perhaps a clear sign of where the problem has reached, but not the root of the issue. The clergy gathering spent some time trying to figure out how this simply couldn’t be correct, even though the data around us, let alone in Gay’s study, is abundant.
Good news, which is what the old English term gospel or "god-spell" means, is also close at hand. There are 50 to 150 churches very like the congregations that are abundant across the Licking County landscape, and what they do to generate effective evangelism is not terribly complicated. Gay is curious to see how churches might respond to the positive part of her research.
Next week, I’ll let this Licking County product share her good news with you; for now, let’s mull over how we got to no more than 150 out of 30,000 churches managing five adult baptisms a year.
Reactions? E-mail me at disciple@voyager.net.

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