To evangelize is to “share the good news.” Marketers know this. If you want to sell your product, ensure that your consumers like your product so much that they want to tell others about it. This is word-of-mouth marketing. In a digitally saturated world, social media and sites like Trip Advisor, Airbnb, Reddit, and Yelp capitalize on this principle.
We know sociologically that word of mouth marketing is the third most effective source of growth for congregations in North America, after having children and transfer growth. But evangelism is the number one source of growth among those who have no religious background or who convert to one religion from another – and generally more effective the younger a person is.
People who join a religious group do so because they know someone in that group who invites them in.
While evangelicals are known for being more active and effective in evangelism compared with other sectors of Christianity, research suggests that we should have cause for pause on this front. A recent book, A Culture of Faith: Evangelical Congregations in Canada, by Sam Reimer and Michael Wilkinson confirms what sociologists of religion have long suspected is the case: many evangelicals claim to believe in the importance of evangelism, some even talk about it (especially pastors), but few do it. Best estimates suggest that in most congregations, approximately 10% are “converts” – those with no Christian background.
Among the reasons for why more evangelicals do not evangelize is the negative stigma that exists towards evangelicals, especially among Millennials. After all, research shows that many have left Christianity or stay clear altogether because of negative images of televangelists, the fusion between evangelicals and politics, and various “anti”-stances against culture (see my book, The Meaning of Sunday).
Few evangelicals thus want to come across as exclusive, intolerant, or offensive about their Christian beliefs and values in an age where inclusivity and tolerance reign supreme – particularly in Canada, though to a certain degree in the United States too.
This, in part, is why more evangelicals take hold of St. Francis of Assisi’s reported claim to, “Preach the gospel, and if necessary, use words.” Rather than telling others about the gospel, more, it seems, prefer to show others the gospel by being kind and generous, possibly hoping that someone will ask them why they are nice. It sounds nice, but does it work? When is the last time someone asked you why you were a nice person, and how effective was this approach to evangelism? It seems a both/and scenario is more suitable than either/or …
Church planting has been one response to evangelism over the course of history, providing fresh innovative ways of “doing” and “being” church. Evangelism is a key narrative in many of these settings – at least initially – evident in part with an active and vibrant presence in the community. This is good. Church plants seem to have more success with evangelism than mainstream congregations (see various studies by Lifeway Research), yet here too such congregations are mostly filled with transfer growth of one kind or another. If we apply the earlier logic of low evangelism activity by the rank-and-file evangelicals, then this observation about who attends church plants is not terribly surprising. Few people suddenly become active evangelizers simply because they are at the cusp of a new church form or context.
Another reason that few evangelize is because they do not believe they know how to, particularly in a progressively secular context.
Here is where church leaders, as resident theologians and theological practitioners, have a great opportunity and responsibility – to adequately equip and empower the laity with the basics of evangelism, starting in a person’s younger years.
In my own research on flourishing congregations in Canada, a common refrain is that church leaders teach about evangelism, they equip their members to evangelize, and they provide outlets such as Alpha for the church community to invite their friends to.
In the end, the age-old sociological finding comes to the fore again – congregations grow because people in them invite their friends and family. The question becomes, are congregants doing this? Are people de-cluttering their lives to give space and time to foster meaningful relationships with neighbors, coworkers, and family? Are churches adequately equipping its members toward these tasks – particularly its younger members – and giving space in church life for people to invest in relationships? Are churches clearly articulating the theological importance of evangelism, providing culturally relevant outlets to express these beliefs, and suitably walking alongside people in this journey?