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.

Monday, September 26, 2005

Notes From My Knapsack 10-02-05
Jeff Gill

October is very nearly my favorite month of the year, among many other reasons because it means September is over.
And September is, in my mind, a challenging month because you spend it recovering from August. Yes, August.
December is the time when everyone talks about the financial drain, incessant eating opportunities (whether you’re looking for them or not, all high calorie), and the brutal schedule. All of which are true, but I think August can be harder because it’s the stealth December. We know and expect December to be jampacked frenetic stress-filled activity, but every year August lolls into sight, showing up in the distance as a slight figure obscured by heat ripples. Then it suddenly slams into you like an 18 wheeler out of control leaning across the shoulder throwing gravel even as you dive away.
At least for parents, and all those who work with children, August is not dress rehearsal or prep month: August is show time, baby. Back-to-school sales are July, because retail knows this too. The buildings are open, the letters are going out, the lists are posted, the supply sheet (check the back for more items) is out.
Sure, the Christmas season is often an assault on the credit card for the unwary or profligate, but what about school clothes, new lunch boxes, fees, shoes, doctor visits for getting back into the educational system?
And you’re doing the round of "end of summer" picnics, with all the expense implied by a meal meant to be rustic and simple. Hah, again I say, hah. You can eat at a fine restaurant in Columbus (gas cost included) for what you can end up laying out for picnic supplies, equipage, the items for a dish you rarely make other than picnics (one good side to a rush of them in a row; less waste of partially used ingredients you throw out next spring), and all the little extras you might need to bring or have in reserve.
Then look at what you can spend in a day at Hartford Fair (didn’t we still have a $20 left? No? Do you have any cash?), the Ohio State Fair, and the right true end of August (ignore the calendar) at Millersport for the Sweet Corn Festival. When the elephant ear booth starts taking debit card swipes, we’re all gonna be in trouble.
Fats and carbohydrates? Atkins’ last revenge comes with the usual spread at a potluck or pitch-in, let alone along a midway. Folks always worry – and indulge anyhow – about Holiday Season weight gain. I always feel like I add the most penalty weight right as I’m trying to enter the gate for the Autumnal Sweepstakes; ice cream socials to wrap the summer, the aforementioned picnics, receptions and galas beginning a new school year.
Then fall sports, Scouts both Girl and Boy, a range of activities starting and re-starting in and around school; churches having fall kick-offs, Rally Days, and big pushes to get back into the Sunday School round.
Labor Day would be a respite, except it becomes a straggling, hanging-on part of the August slog that won’t end, with a final flurry of yes, picnics, and other events to mark the end of let’s-get-on-with-it summer.
So to October, cooler air, turning leaves, and a schedule for children and families that has found a groove, of sorts. Homework is restored to a place of honor, if not dinner, and we all know which night of the week is which program or activity, and which one we set the trash out after, before closing the garage door.
Which leads me in a roundabout way to this: one actual delight in October is that you can start the path to an enjoyable December right now. In fact, you gotta do it now.
Wait until mid-November, and you’re just jumping on the treadmill of traditional tedium. The "Holidays," as the culture is calling the period from Thanksgiving to New Year’s, can be paced and controlled and managed, but you have to plan ahead, budget both time and money, and set limits now so you can enjoy the contents then.
Those who know me will not be surprised to hear the suggestion that you first prioritize religious observances, whatever yours are. Put them on the calendar (trust me, your faith community has their planning done through December) are work out from there.
Set an amount after looking at your income, outgo, and budget (don’t have a budget? Drop all of this paper and go make a rough one right away, or you really will hate the Holidays in January), and figure out how you have to stick with it. Cash in envelopes, one card in your wallet when you go shopping, lists, whatever works for you.
And put family time on that calendar before the shopping expeditions. Mark the day you’ll put the tree up and decorate it, mark the wrapping party with the kids, schedule the Hanukkah gathering with family, and then get the school and Scouts and sewing club schedule and mark them on, too.
December looks much more peaceful from an October vantage point, and using that perspective is how you keep it a season of peace. As to going overboard for Hallowe’en, we’ll talk about that later!

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio; share your ideas for a peaceful preparation for the Christmas season at disciple@voyager.net.