Evangelism: Knowledge and Openness

You may have heard of the Engel Scale, which measures the journey from no knowledge of God to spiritual maturity as a disciple of Jesus Christ.

Frank Gray has modified the Engel Scale to include not only the knowledge of the Gospel (similar to the Engel Scale), but the attitude towards the gospel.

Our challenge is to look for people who are open but lack knowledge. It is also to winsomely lead people from being closed to being more open towards the gospel as they grow in their knowledge.

A lot of our evangelism and church planting supposes that many people are open and need only a small amount of knowledge. A recent book on evangelism challenges this notion:

Research suggests that when people put their faith in Christ, on average it’s taken two years from the point when they came into meaningful contact with a Christian who witnessed to them — and that time period is growing. Witnessing is a long-term commitment to invest in a relationship, to pray tirelessly, and to speak the gospel over and over again, patiently and persistently. It is a journey of gospel conversations. It really does take effort. (Honest Evangelism)

Some implications:

  • We need to look for those who are open and need more knowledge of the gospel. I suspect that their number is shrinking, but they are still there.
  • We need to redefine success. Success is not just someone moving from unbelief to belief; it is also someone moving from being closed to being open, and from little knowledge of the gospel to a greater knowledge of the gospel.
  • While I’m sympathetic to those who think we should focus on the ripe fruit (people who are open and need only a little more knowledge), we cannot afford to ignore the growing numbers of those who have less knowledge. Nor should we ignore those who are closed.
  • We need to adjust our timelines. While some will respond quickly, many will not. That will affect how long it takes to see churches planted and for churches to grow through evangelism. This, in turn, will likely affect our models of ministry.

Missing What's Right in Front of Me

We had a Grand Opening for our new location as a church plant this past Sunday. We invited hundreds of people from the community. Our people stood out in the rain inviting people to attend and put hours of work into the event. We had events planned for a hot day, including free ice cream and a dog wash.

The day came on Sunday, and it was cold and wet. Some people showed up, but far fewer than we’d expected. It was still a good day, but I admit that I was a bit disappointed. I was encouraged, however, by the number of people who showed up for our worship service later in the afternoon.

On Monday I saw the pictures from the event. I thought I had a good grasp of what had happened at our Grand Opening, but I was stunned as I looked at the pictures. It looked amazing. I wish I had been there — except I had been there. I just hadn’t noticed everything that had been going on around me.

photos compliments of Rodolfo Prata — more photos here

Pastors and church planters — actually, everyone — ride the waves of emotions based on our perception of what’s going on around us. I was reminded again this week that my perceptions are fallible. I’m only catching a fraction of what’s going on around me. That’s not even counting the things that are happening that nobody knows except for God. Who are we to be able to make an accurate assessment?

God is often at work, even when we don’t see it. I’m glad we get glimpses of this, even if we miss it at first.

Christianity in Canada

If you want a picture of the state of Christianity in Canada, consider the following:

  • Weekly religious service attendance in Canada is in a free fall from 67% in 1946 to 11% in 2013.*
  • The categories “never attend a religious service” or “have no religion” are the fastest growing categories between 1996 and 2013. In fact, they are the only categories that are growing.
  • 24% in Canada claim no religion, compared to 10% who identify as evangelical — the latter number being one that would be unimaginably high in my community.
  • 3% read the Bible daily. An additional 5% read the Bible once a week or more.
  • 66% generally support the legalization of euthanasia.
  • According to sociologist Reginald Bibby, immigration accounts for most of the growth in our churches.
  • You’re more likely to meet a Buddhist than a Baptist in Toronto.

Toronto used to be called Toronto the good, the city of churches. Now many of those churches are being converted into condos and lofts. Nobody would say that the church is much of an influence on society anymore.

But that’s not the whole picture.

I’ve never met so many church planters in Canada before. I’ve never seen so many denominations working together to advance the gospel. I’ve never seen networks like C2C start with a burden for revival, and a lack of concern for who gets the credit. Then there are the pastors who are doing the hard work of revitalizing churches that were started in a very different context.

I attended a small meeting yesterday at Exponential, an annual church planting conference in Florida. The meeting was organized by Church Planting Canada. Exponential usually has a very American flavor to it — not a bad thing, but very different from Canada. But yesterday it took on a Canadian feel as church planters and network leaders met to talk about what God is doing in Canada. Though the spiritual climate is challenging, and our numbers are small, I sensed optimism in the room, and a hunger for God to do something new.

Canadian Church Planters bonus session at Exponential

Canadian Church Planters bonus session at Exponential

Pray for Canada. God is doing something. Someone yesterday compared it to the small raincloud that Elijah saw when he prayed for rain (1 Kings 18:44). It’s small, but maybe there’s more coming.

I hope to see it in my lifetime.

*The stat about 1946 church attendance came from George Gallup, as reported by Reginald Bibby in this article (PDF). However, it seems unbelievably high.


Losing Our Location

I knew the day would come. I had just arrived at a conference when I got a phone call with some bad news. It was the owner of the dance studio, the spot where we rent space for our new church plant. Due to some changes, we would no longer be able to use the studio, she said. We would lose the space within a matter of weeks, or even a matter of days.

This isn't the phone call I wanted to get right before Easter.

Church plants aren't about buildings. Still, having a space has been useful to us. While we could continue to function if we lost our building, I also believe it would have set us back in our efforts to plant a church in our community.

We began to look at options. We're committed to Liberty Village, and I quickly discovered that some had space they wouldn't rent; some had space they would rent but that wouldn't work, and that some had space that they would rent but that would barely work and was astronomically expensive.

We did find one location. It's a former restaurant in the community. We looked at it and began to get excited. It was the right combination: good space in a visible location at what seemed like a fair price, and the owner seemed willing to rent to us.

We made an offer. Days went by, and we heard nothing.

On the Thursday before Good Friday, our church gathered for a potluck and prayer. As people arrived I told them we still hadn’t found a place. Now that it was Easter weekend, I didn't expect to hear back until the next week.

While we prayed, I finally received the email that hadn't come all week. “We are interested in moving ahead and would love for you to be a part of our building,” it said.

I signed the lease last Tuesday. We got the keys last Friday. We moved in and cleaned the place on Saturday. We held our first service there on Sunday.

I've been reminded of a few things over the past few weeks:

  • People are praying for us. I'm encouraged that so many prayed for us from all over Canada and the world.
  • People in our community helped us. I was also encouraged by the people in Liberty Village who aren't part of our church, but cared and offered their support.
  • Models are important, but they're not everything. I found it useful to rethink why we think we need a building, and to evaluate why we do what we do. The occasional crisis may actually be helpful.
  • Finally, I find it interesting that God answered our prayer in the middle of our praying. Maybe I needed to learn something about prayer.

Please pray for us. You can even sign up to get our email updates so you'll be reminded to pray at least once a month. Who knows what adventures will be coming next?

Honest Church Planting

Although all the chapters in Rico Tice’s new book Honest Evangelism are good, one chapter in particular stood out to me. It’s chapter 7, called “Getting started (or re-started).” It outlines the changes that have taken place in culture over the past few decades, and how this affects the way we evangelize.

Tice writes in the context of the United Kingdom. He argues — correctly, I think — that the U.K. is a couple of decades ahead of the United States in these trends.

In the 1950s, people generally believed “in a Creator God, the notion of sin, and in the truth that Jesus is God’s Son.” When people heard the gospel, many were ready to respond.

By the 1990s, people were hardening against Christianity. It was harder to get them to come to a special service, or to hear a visiting evangelist. Some blocks (objections to Christianity) had to be removed first before the gospel could gain a hearing. In particular, Tice describes four: Christians are weird; Christianity is untrue; Christianity is irrelevant; and Christianity is intolerant.

When people met Christians, saw the way that they lived, and heard answers to their intellectual issues, trust would build. People would then sometimes be willing to give the gospel a hearing.

Twenty years later, Tice says, “people are on a totally different road.” Our culture is now defined by tolerance and permissiveness. People no longer engage with faith in order to accept or reject it. They simply dismiss it out of hand.

As a result, Tice says, two things are true. First, witnessing takes time and effort:

Research suggests that when people put their faith in Christ, on average it’s taken two years from the point when they came into meaningful contact with a Christian who witnessed to them — and that time period is growing. Witnessing is a long-term commitment to invest in a relationship, to pray tirelessly, and to speak the gospel over and over again, patiently and persistently. It is a journey of gospel conversations. It really does take effort.

Second, it takes us bringing the gospel to them. “It’s harder and harder to take people to hear the Bible taught; you need to take the Bible to them…Evangelism takes time, and evangelism takes friendship.”

These are great insights, and they make a lot of sense to me. I would add an additional note, though. How do you plant a new church in light of these realities? You plant relationally, and you plant patiently.

  • Plant relationally — Many will not come to a church event. Relationships are key in sharing the gospel.
  • Plant patiently — Growth will probably not be rapid. Our expectations need to be realistic. We need to be in it for the long haul.

We need to be honest about how evangelism and church planting are changing. Both are still important; in fact, they are more important than ever. But they will both look different than they did even a few years ago.