Three changes we can make to better reach our communities
We love to make predictions about the future, but we don’t necessarily want to have them read back to us 10 years later to see how we did. It’s hard to foresee accurately—just check the weather forecast. However, research can reveal trends that can help us become more effective in outreach and evangelism in the future.
For example, each year about 1% fewer Americans use the word Christian to describe themselves. Today, the percentage of people identifying as Christian tracks in the high 60s. That means in 10 years we’ll be in the high 50s. Looking ahead 20 or 30 years from now, we’ll be a minority Christian nation.
Trends are trends because they tend to do that very thing: They tend to trend on. How should we respond to this particular trend? Here are three changes we can make that can help us reach our communities.
1. We Need to Powerfully Demonstrate the Gospel.
In the late second century, the church faced much greater hostility than we do today, yet the church grew dramatically. Tertullian explained why in his Apology: “See, [the unbelievers] say, ‘How they love one another.’” The loving community Christians portrayed stood in stark contrast to their culture and became a beautiful testimony of the gospel’s power. This echoes Jesus’s words in John 13:35: “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
Lesslie Newbiggin once said, “The only hermeneutic of the gospel is a congregation of men and women who believe it and live by it.” We demonstrate the gospel by our love for one another, and we interpret the Bible’s message as we live it openly before others.
Let’s be honest: Evangelicals don’t look so great to people outside the church right now. It’s time to focus less on what we’re against and renew our love for one another. When people see us loving one another in community, we’ll find talking about Jesus is easier.
As the church becomes less an institution bent on maintaining our past and increasingly reflects the kingdom of God, maybe what’s old will become new again.
2. We Need to Shift to Community-Centered Evangelism.
Over the past 50 years, most of our evangelism could be called invitational or congregational evangelism, where we mostly invited people to church services. In the future, it’s going to be easier to invite people into our smaller communities in our everyday lives than to church services on Sundays.
One reason for this change is the growing negative perception of the church in general, and evangelicals in particular. As the culture becomes more secularized, the church is increasingly seen as intolerant, homophobic and judgmental. However, people don’t necessarily think that way about their neighbors.
Christians who consistently share their faith will tell you that on a personal level people are as open to discussing spiritual matters today as they were years ago, though they typically know less about the gospel. As we invite people into our Christian communities, we can more effectively share Christ personally.
3. We Need to Take a Fresh Look at the Engel Scale.
The Engel scale, developed by James F. Engel, shows how our witness moves a person closer to responding to the gospel the more we share. Here’s a summary:
-8 Awareness of supreme being, no knowledge of gospel
-7 Initial awareness of gospel
-6 Awareness of fundamentals of gospel
-5 Grasp implications of gospel
-4 Positive attitude towards gospel
-3 Personal problem recognition
-2 Decision to act
-1 Repentance and faith in Christ
+1 Post-decision evaluation
+2 Incorporation into body of Christ
+3 Conceptual and behavioral growth
+4 Communion with God
People today know the Bible less than they did a generation ago, so they start earlier on the Engel scale. We can’t start gospel conversations assuming people have the same knowledge about the gospel we do. We have to start where they are, much like Paul at Mars Hill, and take them from there to Jesus. This means shifting from evangelistic presentations to gospel conversations, from inviting them to a service to inviting them into our lives.
All three of these shifts tie together. We show people how the gospel makes a difference in our faith communities, we invite them into our lives through these communities, and we share Christ with an understanding that it may take longer to help them move to the point of trusting Christ.
For this to happen, we need a renewal of love toward God, one another and to all people. We live in an exciting time when it comes to having a countercultural message and being countercultural message-bearers of transforming news. Let’s lean into working together to be the people we need to be to see more people come to trust in Jesus this year and in the decade to come.
THE ENGEL SCALE OF EVANGELISM