Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Faith Works 10-8-05
Jeff Gill

Someone’s Doing Evangelism: Is It You?

"Unbinding the Gospel" is Martha Grace "Gay" Reese’s book that I told you about last week, which will be published by Chalice Press next year (
This is the result of years of study under a grant from the Lilly Endowment of Indianapolis. They are nationally the No. 1 foundation for working with the health of American religious institutions and their leadership, so a proposal to examine evangelism in congregations got a warm reception.
When Gay wanted to look at how mainline/oldline Protestant churches did evangelism, specifically to the unchurched, she took seven faith groups (Methodist, Presby, Lutheran (ELCA), etc.). She then crunched their data to find the one concrete indicator that might point her to churches to look at closely. She decided to use five adult baptisms per year over three years, or fifteen over those three years total, as the benchmark. Starting with 30,000 congregations that were non-Southern and non-ethnic, she and her team "drilled down" through the various record keeping methods to find churches that met the "five adult baptisms a year for three years" criteria.
They found less than 150. That’s the bad news.
The good news is almost as surprising. When Gay and the gang analyzed the age of congregations who were doing effective outreach to the unchurched, we all expected the results to be skewed to new church starts. Makes sense, right?
But the median age of the church (not of the members, but since the congregation’s founding) that had those adult baptisms was 96. Not five, or ten (or one!), but 96. Since many Protestant churches in areas like Licking County are 100 and 200 years old, that’s an encouraging dispatch from the front lines. You DON’T have to be a new church start to reach the unchurched with the Gospel.
So what do you have to do? Well, Gay has seven criteria laid out neatly, but you’ll have to get the book to read the tidy version. Let me mush together some of the priorities as I’ve heard her describe them from her site visits and extended interviews with pastors and leaders of these churches.
BOOM: what difference does it make to be a Christian? 150 points off if you need a few moments to answer. Churches and leaders who are reaching the unchurched have an answer, right now. There are different ways to express an answer, but you better have one.
Another image Gay uses: Bandwidth. Churches that do evangelism see everything as evangelism, and they can explain how it’s evangelism, from selecting lighting for the nursery to how to train greeters to teachers for ministry. Narrow bandwidth is seeing just a few things you do as evangelistic.
And relationships are key – how the congregation builds relationships between believers and God, between each other, and with their mission community.
That’s just three points, and the others are pretty important (keeping focus, removing barriers, starting at the right point, support for pastors). Gay wraps up her talks by saying "Evangelism in the mainline context is impossible; it can only happen with miracles." Prayer is the open secret of evangelism, and the key to the door that matters.

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher in central Ohio; reactions to these two stories can be sent to

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