Aligning what we say with what we do
I recently had the privilege of interviewing Terry Erickson. He served for 37 years with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, the last 14 as the national director of evangelism. During this time, he also earned an M.Div. from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He later was on the staff of a local church overseeing outreach, and he helped build a citywide movement that brought churches together so they could better reach their community.
For the last several years, Erickson has been coaching senior pastors through a process of changing the DNA of their congregations so they might become conversion communities. What follows are a few insights he shared that can lay a fruitful foundation for church and ministry leaders who share his passion.
Since many churches are sensing the need to revitalize and become outwardly focused, I asked Erickson what he thought was necessary for church and ministry leaders to make that shift. He said the starting point is honest self-assessment of their personal evangelism temperature.
While professionally many pastors have unique opportunities to talk with unchurched people about faith through events like premarital counseling or funerals, the more reliable indicator of their passion for evangelism and their ability to influence a congregation is the degree to which they engage in spiritual conversations outside of their professional duties, since that is what others in their congregation can imitate. He recalled a pastor he was coaching who felt he couldn’t do evangelism effectively except within his pastoral duties. However, the man readily admitted his failure to himself and others, and in this humble place of honest self-assessment, God provided grace to change.
LEARNING FROM OTHERS
“We are not going to have an impact until we are honest about where we are regarding our personal evangelism passion and effectiveness,” says Erickson.
However, the pastor Erickson was coaching admitted that he was stuck and he was in a learning community. He was willing to take a risk because other pastors encouraged and prayed for him. They also modeled growth in personal outreach that challenged him to try. Through that process, he realized that he could leverage a rejuvenating personal hobby in a creative way to build relationships with people outside of his church. He joined a model train club that met in a bar, something he would have never considered before joining that learning community.
His heart was awakened and this pastor said his outreach influence temperature was no longer zero or 1 on a 10-point scale, but had now risen to a 3 or 4. By learning from others and pursuing a hobby that he enjoyed in a new way, this pastor was able to model for people in the congregation how to get out of a Christian bubble and build new genuine and meaningful relationships.
GOD’S ROLE VERSUS OURS
According to Erickson, it is critical to understand that we convert no one. Only the Holy Spirit can do that. However, we are called to love people and have genuine relationships with them. Evangelism is coming alongside people and helping them spot when and how God is working in their lives.
“You have never locked eyes on anyone whom God is not working with,” he says, but it is hard to take that role if you do not genuinely care about the person. It requires listening and paying close attention to what they are saying and experiencing.
While some misunderstand evangelism and try to turn people into projects, love creates genuine interest in people. As ministry leaders, Erickson says, we need to understand that people in our churches have brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers, children, co-workers, neighbors and friends whom they deeply love. They want to see their loved ones come to faith in Christ, and they need church and ministry leaders to help them engage in evangelism in doable ways.
As Erickson spoke, I began thinking back to something I learned during my doctoral studies. In a sociology of religion course, researchers talked about explicit and implicit theologies. Explicit theology is what a pastor says when preaching, as well as church creeds, what is written in bulletins, etc. Implicit theology is how pastors and church people act, all of the nonverbal forms of communication.
Sociology of religion experts found that in congregations when the explicit and implicit theologies align, people transform and grow significantly in positive ways. However, when the explicit and implicit theologies send different messages, researchers found people believe and are shaped by the implicit messages.
May we lean into God’s grace and become people whose lives are marked by humble and loving practices so we can help and not hinder those we are leading.