John W. Vest is the Visiting Assistant Professor of Evangelism at Union Presbyterian Seminary. He delivered this introduction to the UPSem-POJ evangelism initiative at the Presbytery of the James assembly on October 17, 2015.
Billy Graham, the world’s most famous evangelist, used to tell this story. Maybe you’ve heard it.
One time he was in a small town and he asked a boy on the street how to get to the post office. After getting directions, Mr. Graham invited the boy to come to his Crusade that evening.
“You can hear me tell everyone how to get to heaven,” he said.
The boy’s response? “I don’t think I’ll be there. You don’t even know the way to the post office.”
When it comes to evangelism, Presbyterians don’t know the way to the post office.
Through a creative partnership between Union Presbyterian Seminary and the Presbytery of the James, I’ve been called here and charged with figuring out what evangelism might look like for Presbyterians and other mainline Protestants in these 21st century days of constant and rapid cultural change. What is evangelism in a post-Christendom culture? How do we even frame the question when most Presbyterians avoid “the E-word” like the plague?
As is often the case when we enter new calls, I’ve been asking myself a lot of “why” questions. Why did I leave a successful ministry at a thriving church in Chicago? Why did the Cubs wait until the summer I moved away to start playing baseball like it matters? Why, of all things, do I have that “E-word” on my business card? Why am I teaching and preaching and consulting about a subject no one even wants to talk about? Why evangelism?
Why evangelism? That’s a question we all need to be asking.
The easy answer—the superficial answer—is the membership decline Presbyterians and other mainline Protestants have experienced for the past 50 years. In fact, it’s now the case that even evangelical denominations like the Southern Baptists are flat-lining or losing members. I’m sure we all know that the fastest growing religious group in the United States is the non-religious—not necessarily atheists or agnostics, but people who don’t care about organized religion—you know, that thing we’re spending five hours of our Saturday organizing, this institution we’re doing our best to keep decent and in order? Friends, every day there are less and less people out there who think what we are doing right now is worth our time and effort. Maybe even some of us feel the same way.
It sounds noble and pious to say that numbers don’t really matter, but we all know numbers matter. Let’s be honest, everyone in this room has a vested interest in keeping churches open. And to do that it seems we need more butts in the pews and more dollars in the plates.
Numbers matter, but only as answers to a particular set of questions. And for us right now these happen to be the wrong questions.
Not long after I started my work at Union, Ken McFayden turned me on to author and speaker Simon Sinek. He made a name for himself with a TED talk that became the third most watched TED talk ever. He wanted to know what makes certain businesses successful. More specifically, he wanted to know how certain leaders inspire loyalty and action.
He suggests that most organizations focus on the what and how of what they do. For example, a computer company tries to sell us computers by telling us how good their product is. But a company like Apple—especially when Apple was helmed by Steve Jobs—focuses more on the why. And the why for successful organizations is not to sell as many products as possible. It’s not to make money for shareholders. The why is a belief that shapes everything they do. In the case of Apple, the why is thinking differently and challenging the status quo. This is the ethos and the culture that shapes Apple—it just so happens that they do this by building beautifully designed and user-friendly computers. And people buy them, as much for the why as for the computers themselves.
To help us understand and apply this insight, Sinek uses what he calls the “Golden Circle.” It’s the bullseye on the back of your handout. Most organizations start from the outside when making their pitch. We’ve got great computers and here’s how they’re different and better than our competitors. But inspiring leaders and organizations start from the middle and move out. Here’s what we believe. Here’s what we’re passionate about. Here’s a way of life, a cause, a movement. And here’s a product or a service or an activity that will let you be a part of it.
The why of evangelism is not to attract more people to our worship services and programs. It’s not to increase our membership. It’s not to keep struggling churches alive. It’s not to save declining institutions. It’s not even to serve others and work for social justice, as important as these things are. These are all whats and hows. The why of evangelism is something much deeper. The why of evangelism—the why of everything we do—is the gospel itself.
And this is a big part of our problem. Let’s face it, most Presbyterians have a hard time articulating the gospel. Sophisticated, well-educated Presbyterians like us want to say that the gospel is too complex to reduce to two or three sentences. We’ll spend thirty minutes on caveats and qualifications before we dare say something simple and straightforward about what God is doing in the world through Jesus Christ. We’ll tweak our language and nitpick details. We’ll offer substitute motions to substitute motions before calling the question, before answering the question: what is the good news?
Before we can ever say what evangelism is and how we ought to do it, we need to have clarity about what we think the gospel is. We have to understand what’s at stake in the world and in our lives and how the gospel addresses these needs.
This isn’t just head work. This isn’t simply a matter of getting our theology or our polity right. The gospel isn’t a doctrine to be believed or an ethic to follow. It has to be more than that. It has to be a spiritual transformation. It has to be a culture change. Perhaps we might even be bold enough to call it an awakening. A revival.
Friends, this is what I’m here to help cultivate, what Carson Rhyne calls a culture of evangelism in the Presbytery of the James. The handout gives you some information about the partnership behind this. I encourage you to visit and follow www.upsem.edu/evangelism. I encourage you to reach out to us and join this important conversation. I encourage you to ask the question, “why evangelism?”