“The megachurch era of the ’80s, ’90s and early 2000s, founded on a desire for anonymity, is shifting because people are longing to be known and seen.”
Alpha USA runs on the simple idea of providing a great meal, a short talk and a meaningful discussion about life and faith over the course of 11 weeks. As executive director, Craig Springer oversees operations in more than 6,000 churches and 450 prisons throughout the United States, and helps mobilize more than 50,000 volunteers and 350,000 participants in the U.S. And there are more than 1.5 million involved with Alpha globally. In his new book, How to Revive Evangelism: 7 Vital Shifts in How We Share Our Faith (Zondervan), Springer shares the importance of listening and creating an environment that welcomes questions; offering a place to belong, even before you believe; providing an experience of what faith looks like, not just an explanation; and living the potential of unity, even in the face of our differences. Here he discusses strategies for more effective evangelism.
Was there a particular experience that helped shape your concept of evangelism?
I had done some summer mission work in central Europe and Poland. I was captured by this post-communist setting where so many people, educated and passionate, had never heard the gospel of Jesus. I remember standing on a subway platform in Prague, Czech Republic, and having an epiphany. I saw thousands of people jam-packed, getting on the subway. I could sense them crying out to Jesus. I knew it because I, too, knew what it was like, searching for living water. Ecclesiastes 3:11 says, “The Lord has placed eternity in the hearts of everyone.” We all have that hunger and desire. Because of that experience, my wife Sarah and I ended up church planting in the Czech Republic.
How did that go?
It was a study in contrasts. I had come out of ministry at Willow Creek, the leading megachurch in America at the time, on the cutting edge of evangelism; we could hardly sneeze and people would say yes to Jesus. So I thought, I know how to do this. I believed I could go to the most atheist nation on the planet, .01% Christians, and start an evangelism movement. After three years of hard labor, I baptized and led one person into faith.
That taught me the difference culture makes in evangelism. Because of the culture I grew up in, I was predisposed to the seed of the gospel. I showed up to a church service, listened to the preacher, said yes at an altar call, and the seed germinated. In Prague the culture was much different. Proclamation alone could not bring in the masses. Evangelism required a tremendous amount more cultivation, building friendships and credibility. Because Christian culture and spirituality in the U.S. lags about 20 to 30 years behind Europe, it was a prophetic time for us.
What happened when you returned to the States?
I became a lead pastor at one of the campuses of Willow Creek. In those years, things looked great on the outside, but on the inside all the stats were showing a decrease in effectiveness, particularly in evangelism. Our ability to reach younger generations was in decline. The church was aging. We’d throw more money, more evangelism training, more attractional event-oriented strategies at the issue, but it didn’t slow the decline. It became clear to us: Simply proclaiming the gospel wasn’t bringing people into faith in the same way as before.
You quote an astonishing statistic from the Barna Research Group in your book: Forty-seven percent of millennial Christians think it is wrong to share the gospel. How can a Christian believe it is wrong to share the gospel?
Millennials, in many people’s minds, should bear the lion’s share of the blame for the decline of the church in Western society. We don’t need to play the blame game, though. Millennials, in many ways, have cracked the code. Ninety-four percent of millennial Christians think the best thing that could ever happen to someone is for them to come to know Jesus. But 47% think it’s wrong to share the gospel. What does this apparent discrepancy tell us?
What if millennial Christians are disengaging from evangelism not because their faith is wavering but because they understand the static characteristics of our evangelistic approaches are not as effective in today’s dynamic culture? What if millennial Christians have a better understanding of the polarized, inflamed, disagreement-equals-judgment environment that culture has devolved into and are trying to find other ways to navigate and influence it besides simply proclaiming the truth indiscriminately? Our primary question should be, What do millennial Christians know that we can learn from to reach our world for Jesus?
In your book, you quote John Mark Comer: “We live in a post-everything culture.” What do you mean by that?
In terms of the growing ineffectiveness of our evangelism strategies, it’s not enough to say that we live in a post-Christian culture, where the current generation is growing up without exposure to Christianity or church attendance. We also need to acknowledge that we live in a post-family, post-technology and post-supersize context. The breakdown of family, not just single-parent homes, but the loss of family spaces (e.g., eating around a table) has resulted in the loss of meaningful relationships. Technology overwhelms our social lives with a tremendous number of friends and connections, but little intimacy or influence. The technology revolution is changing our psyche, our ability to find real connection and belonging. The megachurch era of the ’80s, ’90s and early 2000s, founded on a desire for anonymity, is shifting because people are longing to be known and seen.
So, living in a post-everything world requires a change in our evangelism strategy.
I believe that’s exactly what millennials are telling us. They find the evangelism methodology we are handing them untenable. They desire conversation more than proclamation. Rather than creating a place to be told the truth, they believe in creating spaces for conversation and belonging. In their context, evangelism occurs through the process of listening.
And that’s a profound difference from our current prevailing strategies?
Currently, our No. 1 strategy is to proclaim. We are focused on the answers and not the questions. Jesus was asked more than 370 questions, and he only answered eight of them directly. Instead, he asked 182 questions in return. In his approach to someone seeking spiritual truth, Jesus was far more likely to create space for conversation than to pick up the hammer of proclamation. That’s likely the most important shift in my mind in terms of evangelism training. Of course, we still need to proclaim the truth. Romans 14 tells us, “How will they hear unless we tell them?” but in what context does that proclamation best happen?
So, back to this present moment and the challenge of the emerging culture.
A millennial Christian understands that we live in a culture of tribes, diatribes and echo chambers. In our polarized reality, we fight over everything. If you start with proclamation, apologetics or facts, it shuts down the conversation before it begins. Their non-Christian friends often feel hostility toward Christians; they see the Christian way of life as extremist and no longer helpful to society.
The critical reality necessary to effectively engage in evangelism is the need to rediscover the skill of Jesus for listening. Are we, say, 40 times more likely to train evangelists to be great listeners? Do our churches create 40 times more space to be heard than told? What people are seeking is not a set of intellectual answers but a hungering for the Lord—an overwhelming sense of his presence that resonates in and out of our lives.
In Part 2 of the interview, Craig Springer talks about radical hospitality how Alpha has adapted during the pandemic, why young people are distrustful of the church, and why questions are an effective inroads for evangelism.