My head was spinning as I sat in a meeting with our church leaders where it was revealed that during the year 2000 we would be doing a series of “missions” to reach out to people in the community. Evangelism had to be a priority for this special year and we would be doing it big. Suddenly I found myself agreeing to dates for a week long teen outreach that would need to have some large events to reach the masses. How would I be accomplishing it? I gulped. Immediately my mind raced through my life growing up attending some very large youth events. They were impressive but that was a long time ago. Over the fifteen years I have been doing youth ministry, I have always had a few teens in the group who came to faith through mega events. Yet I knew so many more that came to faith because a friend had invited them to our weekly meetings. The one big youth event that I had been part of in my current church reached about 200 youth and we saw just a few come to faith through it. Mr sceptical began rearing his ugly head as I thought about the prospect of a week long youth mission. How would we do this? What would it take and would it be worthwhile?
I once met an Irishman who said “there are two types of people in the world – those who believe there are two types and those who don’t.” He was making a humourous but significant point. We either view the world as “us and them” or we see a wide spectrum of people and ideas. When I first started doing youth work in this country it seemed that every youthworker I met fell into one of two streams when it came to the task of outreach or evangelism. There were those who do detached youth work and/or run open youth clubs and those who use large one off events to reach youth. I know there is a wider spectrum of ministry out there, but these two philosophies seem to dominate the horizon. It runs deeper though than an external programming philosophy. Those who go for the big events seem to have the mentality that we need to proclaim the gospel for the masses, then do the follow up and see where we got to. People running detached work or open clubs speak of being relational, non-confrontive, and working to meet the social and material needs of people. Rather quickly, I began seeing the two sides as having an “us and them” mentality. It was portrayed to me by many folks as a liberals verses conservatives issue. To use the jargon, it has been a social gospel or evangelical debate. Each of the two sides can be very critical of the other. While I have seen many lives touched by evangelistic events, I question the effectiveness of one off evangelism. At the same time, I have too strong a passion for young people to understand the gospel for me to spend my time just waiting for them to ask. There has to be something more than an either or approach.
Old school – revised?
The millennial year was a major time of evangelistic effort in our youth work not to mention the church overall. We went ahead with three major missions. First came a children’s mission involving a half week of evening meetings. While several children responded to a very clear and age appropriate presentation of the gospel (including my son), I can’t say that it affected our children’s work in any noticeable way. Ten years ago the same effort increased our Sunday school and brought a number of new families into the church. Next came our youth mission. We spent months planning with the young people a strategy that would involve large and small events. We saw hundreds at the large events, had about two dozen youth to follow up on and a few joined church youth groups right away. We were disillusioned and encouraged, exhausted and exhilarated, confused and affirmed by the results of our efforts. Should we have expected more? Was there a more effective way to do evangelism? Our efforts were what I would call “old school evangelism”. It was in many ways a modern approach to outreach in a postmodern world. One of the results of our events was to discover some of the real social and material needs of people in our community. For some it was the realization that something more needed doing if we are to love these people as Christ loves us.
Which leads us to the other stream of evangelism, that of social action. How has postmodernity effected social action evangelism? In recent years we have read about kitted out busses driving into estates complete with Playstations and video screens. In the centres snooker and table tennis are competing with video games and web access. No matter how much we tweak it with high tech methods and the latest fashions in media, we are still looking at modern (not postmodern) approaches to evangelism. What is wrong with that? Are young people today so cynical and hip to what we are doing that they can take what is on offer socially and tune out the gospel that is trying to be demonstrated? Is it enough to simply love people or must we be telling them the truth about God? If we do tell them, will they believe it?
We live in a postmodern youth culture
We are in what Dean Borgman (Professor of youth ministry at Gordon Conwell Seminary in the USA) calls the second great watershed for youth culture. The first took place in the forties when the concept of youth culture was born. Following the war, young people began to find themselves with spare cash, time and energy to burn. What emerged was the world of pop, rock & roll, youth fashion and everything changed forever. The second watershed he believes started in the 80’s and is the result of the rise of technology as a powerful force in the lives of youth, and the decline of the family as a centre of security. Having grown up with walkmans, gameboys and ultimately PC’s with the web at their fingertips, this is the most plugged in generation ever. If it were only an issue of technological advances though, we could make simple changes and not revise our philosophy. The issue is that our youth culture is postmodern. This is the millennial generation whose worldview is vastly different from those of previous generations. They want authenticity rather than hype, community rather than individualism, and they are seeking hope in the midst of despair. All the research suggests that things are so very different that we ought not continue doing evangelism using old methods until we understand the world we are trying to reach out to.
Pastor and author Brian McLaren in an address titled “Evangelism in the emerging culture” suggests that there are seven factors that we must consider when thinking about evangelism in a postmodern culture. He believes that when we understand these issues, it will change the way we go about reaching out to young people.
In our world everything is connected to something else. As family, peer group, and community relationships affect every aspect of our lives, we need to be about caring for souls within their context rather than seeking conversions of individuals. McLaren suggests that many modern techniques for winning souls came out of sales tactics from the past two centuries. There is a difference between proclaiming the gospel and selling something. We ought to learn to ask questions and listen before we open our mouths and respond. My experience is that too often we are not really listening but instead formulating our next move. If we seek to understand the relationships that young people are influenced by we are in a better position to communicate the gospel. In youth work we know that teenagers do not care how much we know until they know how much we care!
Some people argue that the gospel is not a set of propositional truths but rather a reality to live. The language of the new testament does demand a response but it is a response to the story of God’s work in the lives of people. That is not to minimise the reality that the scriptures do teach clearly what the world is about and how we ought to live as Christians. In a postmodern world people relate to stories more than propositional truth. Are we sharing the richness of scripture with people and encouraging a response or gleaming the absolutes from the Bible and confronting people with it?
We need to allow people to believe before belonging. Years ago a lad called Greg joined our youth group. He settled in quickly and seemed to be right on board with what we were doing and teaching. Then one day at a conference when a speaker challenged the audience to live their lives in a relationship with Jesus, Greg broke down in tears. He said to me that he had thought he was a Christian and then it all became clear to him that he was missing the main ingredient. Surely the gospel was made clear in our youth group but it was perhaps the acceptance Greg experienced which led to his understanding it. When young people are accepted into a group of believers, it communicates grace which leads to believing. We can not underestimate the power of a community of believers!
Many church growth models speak of a linear process of pre-evangelism, evangelism, follow up and discipleship. While this still occurs with some people, the majority of youth today will not experience such a linear model. They simply do not think or live in the same linear way that generations before may have. Kevin Ford in his book “Jesus For A New Generation” says “Conversion needs to be seen not as a single event but as a stage in a protracted process – a process whereby individuals learn who they are and what God has made them to be , a process in which they learn to permit the Holy Spirit to penetrate their being.” Mass evangelism does not make space for this and yet in some cases, social action never gets around to the task of evangelism. It is a long haul within which we need to maintain the right focus.
In the 21st century we are seeing a growing interest among youth in spiritual things. This is not at all traditional spirituality but leans towards mysterious and misguided practices like paganism and witchcraft. The amount of spiritual content on television and in films has been overwhelming. From The Matrix to The Truman show we see heavily “religious” themes that are not christian. The X Files and Buffy explore some of the weirder sides of spirituality on television. What if the Holy Spirit was behind some of this activity? I am not suggesting that the spirit has led these films and shows to be created but perhaps the spirit is creating a hunger amongst a generation of people who don’t want to explore Christianity for whatever baggage they have about it. Perhaps they don’t know how to express their spiritual hunger and yet the spirit is moving.
One of the most amazing faith building experiences I had as a young Christian was seeing some of my friends become Christians. I have watched countless young people experience the same growth in faith as a result of evangelism experiences. Have we overlooked the idea that evangelism is not just part of someone else becoming a disciple, it is part of our becoming disciples? We need to enable young people to see evangelism as part of their daily Christian lives and not just something for one off events. It means that young people ought to be the primary evangelists of our ministries and not us who are the leaders. Whether we are working with church youth groups, in schools, or part of detached or open youth work, the principle is the same. Enable young people to share their faith and step back and let it happen! Some of us might find that intimidating if we feel the need to be the main guy on the street or in front of an audience. Perhaps we ought to view this as multiplying our ministries rather than giving them up.
McLaren believes that during the past thousand years, mankind has been preoccupied with life after death. The result is a focus on the kingdom of God and eternal life as being about the after life rather than life here and now. The kingdom is about both now and later. Yet, the average person has a mentality that the gospel is mostly about getting into Heaven. This has a significant effect on our approach to evangelism. Are we selling tickets to Heaven or inviting people to come into God’s kingdom today? If we see the latter then what should that kingdom look like in our community?
Slogging it out
Is the answer somewhere between the two streams? Should we come to a compromise between proclamation and social action and aim to minister somewhere in the middle? In the famous words of Bart, “no way man!”. What this postmodern generation needs is not either streams of evangelism but both and together. Perhaps an example of a ‘both and’ approach can be seen in Message To Schools Trust who have been moving Christian people into Manchester’s toughest estates to live, work, and minister alongside people with social and material needs. Even the mega event “Message 2000” had a strong element of social action combined with proclamation. While I am not suggesting it is a perfect example, this is certainly a way forward.
Where are the results of our very modern mission last year to a postmodern generation? They are still coming in. Several months after our events we had a few young people come into a youth group. Even months beyond that we reached another. In a Bible study one night we began talking about how few youth will come to events and we concluded that it had more to do with the youth of the community not knowing anyone in our youth group. That led to several young people going out on a Friday night to meet unchurched youth. We know that we have to make that connection and while we are not sharing the gospel on the street corners, we are building relationships into a community of young people. After all, youth ought to be the primary contacts in evangelism to a postmodern generation.
Evangelism in the emerging culture is about a slow process of building relationships, meeting needs, bringing Christians into communities where there are none. It must include a clear proclamation of the gospel which is not only to be done with words but with our lives as well.
(This article was first published in YouthWork Magazine in the UK. British spelling and jargon has not been edited.)
Written by Dave Wright, Coordinator for Youth Ministries in the Diocese of South Carolina