Keywords: Evangelism, faith, sharing, missional
SAN ANTONIO, TX — Churches practicing good evangelism are like aging adults working hard to stay physically fit, according to author and researcher the Rev. Martha Grace Reese.
It’s about practicing good habits and patterns and sticking with it, said the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) minister who recently directed a four-year evangelism research project funded by the Lilly Endowment.
Reese discussed her findings in a keynote speech at the 2008 Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Multicultural Conference April 12.
In order to live a stronger, healthier and more productive life, people age 50 and over need to exercise six or seven days a week — for the rest of their lives — with a workout regimen filled with serious commitment and serious weightlifting, Reese said.
Churches must perform some heavy lifting, too.
After all, maintaining a healthy evangelistic lifestyle takes years of prayer and practice. And a congregation has to keep at it, keep doing the prayer and the small-group work over and over, and keep the focus on evangelism.
“That’s what the weightlifting is about, it’s prayer,” Reese told 460 conference goers here. “It’s doing relational work in congregations, and it’s really learning to allow Christ to teach us to love people outside the church.”
Churches that refuse to break a sweat when it comes to evangelism will eventually resemble a fragile old woman who develops osteoporoses because she didn’t work at staying fit “and you’re going to break hips and you’re going to die,” Reese said.
Even with proper exercise there are no quick fixes when you’re talking about transforming lives and transforming churches, said Reese, author of the Real Life Evangelism Series of books that encourages and guides churches on how to face evangelism head on.
Her first book, Unbinding the Gospel: Real Life Evangelism, was published in January 2007 by Chalice Press. Since then she has released Unbinding Your Heart: 40 Days of Prayer and Faith Sharing, and Unbinding Your Church, the Pastor’s Guide to the Real Life Evangelism Series.
Reese interviewed more than 1,000 people in many of the nation’s most successful mainline churches in an effort to find the motivations and practices of the most effective evangelism.
In churches where real evangelism is taking place the motivation is members who have a love for their church and have a living relationship with God, said Reese, who studied churches varying in size from 50 to 10,000. There is a sense of being on an adventure with God and they want to share that, she said.
“They love Jesus. It’s not rocket science,” Reese said. “They are churches that the people have a relationship with Christ and it’s real and it’s vibrant and they talk about it. It’s wonderful.”
These are congregations that exist all along the theological spectrum, whose members believe that other people’s lives would be enriched if they were also in a relationship with God.
“There are churches all along the line that are doing a beautiful job of helping people come to faith, of being responsive to the Spirit,” Reese said. “And they’re growing. And not just growing, they’re healthy, they’re alive. You walk in and you feel the Spirit. And it’s powerful. It’s like stepping into an electric current. It’s really amazing.”
They also range in size. “They looked like everything. There’s no way I can described how different these churches are,” the minister and author said.
Reese, who has been a lawyer, a pastor, and a middle governing body executive, has spent the last decade coaching pastors in spiritual leadership for church transformation, serving as president of GraceNet, a non-profit corporation that specializes in church consulting and coaching.
Despite being baptized Presbyterian, Reese never participated in the faith, growing up in a prominent Ohio family of high achieving lawyers and bankers completely unchurched — until she became a Christian in college.
“I had a conversion experience that just rocked me to my socks,” she said.
Reese said doing evangelism right is about community and people talking about their faith.
“They start learning to say, ‘I love my church. I love what God’s doing with us,’” she said. “And they absolutely boil over. It is a fire. It’s a movement of the Sprit in these churches that people start learning to unfreeze and the ice melts and they get very brave and learn to talk about their faith and the churches help them do it in lots of different ways.”
Reese said congregations that are bringing new people to faith are befriending people. Evangelism is relational, she said. It’s between people. It’s people telling their friends. It’s faith sharing.
So how well are mainline churches helping new people become Christians?
Reese said a majority of the fastest-growing congregations in each denomination are in the South or are predominately racial-ethnic. “This room is one [of the bright spots], multicultural, racial-ethnic. This group is it,” Reese told the diverse audience, which included people of Asian, Hispanic, African and Middle Eastern descent.
Each denomination in the study was asked to provide a list of every primarily Caucasian, non-Southern congregation that had baptized an average of five or more adults a year for a three-year period. The pool of churches contained about 30,000 congregations from six denominations. Findings revealed that fewer than one-half of one percent of these 30,000 mostly white, non-Southern congregations are baptizing an average of five or more adults a year over a three-year period.
Statistically, one-half of 1 percent of congregations are doing a good job of reaching unchurched adults, Reese said. That translates in numerical terms to fewer than 150 congregations out of a possible 30,000 mainline churches.
“You look at all these numbers and statistics and we are on a bobsled run,” she said. “There’s no exercise going on and there are a lot of churches just sitting there sort of moldering and getting frail and weak with osteoporoses. One of these days a lot of them are going to break a hip and it’s going to be bad, and it’s already bad.”
As much as anything, Reese emphasized the importance of prayer, which she says is important in faith sharing to give others a sense of what it’s like to have a relationship with God. She dedicates many pages in her first book to prayer as well as in the companion guide, Unbinding Your Heart.
Reese, who interviewed 600-700 pastors, said key leaders in churches doing good evangelism are holding their members to a sharp focus on their growing relationships with Christ and sharing their faith with others.
Reese said pastors must “turn themselves inside out and surrender and say, ‘God use us, please use us. Use me.’”
The Holy Spirit is the one who gives faith, but churches where evangelism flourishes cooperate with the Spirit, Reese said. These churches focus on helping new people begin a life with God.
“We need to keep doing the heavy lifting, prayer, so that the Holy Spirit can turn up on a dime and open our eyes and open our ears,” she said.