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From Carnivals and Bridges to Sharing the Journey
A few years ago, a well-known evangelist rolled into Minnesota's Twin Cities for a two-day evangelistic rally designed to reach teenagers for Christ. The event was a blend of concerts, extreme sports, junk food, t-shirt stands, and a series of gospel messages all in a carnival-like atmosphere.
I remember strolling with a colleague and friend through the capitol grounds in downtown St. Paul where the event was being held. We agreed that things looked rather positive. We saw thousands of people having a good time-interacting with one another, playing games, eating, and buying t-shirts with stupid sayings on them. There were lots of families hanging out together, which is always a cool thing to see. And there was a part of each of us that wished we had taken more of a leadership role in the planning and organization of the event, as we'd been invited to do nearly a year earlier.
But the other part of us was incredibly glad we hadn't taken a leadership role. It wasn't just that our joining the leadership team would have meant expending excessive amounts of time, energy, and effort to make the event happen-although that was certainly true. The primary reason we were glad we hadn't taken a larger role in this event was because that would havecommunicated to the rest of the leadership team and the wider evangelical church community that we considered event evangelism to be effective in revealing the kingdom of God. Nothing could be further from the truth.
As we continued to reflect after returning home from the event, my friend Tony and I realized that the part within each of us that wished we'd taken a leadership role on the task force was the self-seeking part. It was the part of us that covets the applause for big things getting accomplished. Do you ever do things for that reason?
It's not that I don't believe the event was good for the city. It was good because it brought short-term jobs to people and revenue to the local businesses. It was good because Christians poured into the downtown area where many of them confronted (perhaps for the first time) the thousands of homeless people living there. It was also good because hundreds of churched people were able to rally around a common ambition, and a sense of partnership was established among churches in the metro area. And it was also good because people heard about Jesus from a very good communicator and a snapshot of Jesus' story was told on local news stations. By and large, I think the event was good. But was it effective in its goal of making new disciples? I am not too sure about that.
I wonder how many of the counted "conversions" at this event were genuine. I wonder if all the time spent was worth it. I still speculate with friends about what other things might have been done with the thousands of dollars spent to pull the event off. So many of the students and parents I talked with thought the event was a great experience. They got a thrill seeing the best Christian skaters in the nation do their thing and hearing some mediocre Christian musicians act like superstars. But few of them invited any of their not-yet-believing friends, neighbors, coworkers, teammates, or relatives to join them.
All of which causes me to ask questions like: Should we put our efforts into event evangelism any longer? Do people who are not-yet believers even come to our events? Do Christians even invite not-yet believers to attend? Considering all the time, money, and effort spent on event evangelism, how much is really accomplished?
While driving through southern Georgia recently, I saw a series of billboards advertising a "Mega-Revival." The billboards stated a desire to see "thousands of youth from southern Georgia" united together to see the "magical illusions" of a magician I'd never heard of. (I'm sure he had a huge bag of tricks ...) Of course, the billboards also featured another guy who appeared to be a preacher (chubby face, glasses, mustache, slicked-back hair, and sweat dripping down the side of his brow) who was going to share with these thousands of youth a "once and for all" story that could give them "life forever."
Most youth ministries in North America favor a more relational and personal method of evangelism over this mass revival style. Rightly so, I contend. We have learned that students in many of our contexts need a connection to the gospel being proclaimed-and that connection needs to be real and relational. For many ministries, that has meant primarily a combination of friendship evangelism and event evangelism.
This is a model I followed through much of my own ministry over the last decade. I've emphasized the importance of providing "strategic exposure" for the not-yet-believing students in our communities. The idea behind "strategic exposure" events is quite simple. We challenge students to bring their friends to an event that we plan, organize, and pay for. We always assure our students that the event will not humiliate or embarrass them in any way. Such events are usually built around a theme designed to attract and entertain students from all walks of life, such as themes built around sports, holidays, movies, or music.
We sought to plan events that would include: 1) an engaging activity (such as a movie, a competition, a race, or a horror house); 2) a talk that plants the gospel message in the minds and (hopefully) hearts of the youth; and 3) a chance to discuss that gospel message around some kind of food. In theory, this method of combining friendship evangelism and event evangelism works. Students from all walks of life-jocks, gear-heads, nerds, greenies, and geeks are all welcome. And sometimes they come.
We normally consider these events a success if youth bring their not-yet-believing friends and their friends have a good time. If those visitors come back and participate in retreats and other church-based events then you are right on. Success!-especially if a few of the students "cross the line" from unbelief to belief along the way and become Christians, right? And even better if the senior pastor mentions those decisions during the service the following Sunday. That is the true measure of success, right?
Maybe. But after ten years of leading events like this, I'm not at all convinced that they are effective. I have witnessed thousands of students coming to events and just as many students who are excited to share their faith. These events were a doorway into the church for some young people who later decided to explore the faith and are now following Jesus. I don't doubt that at all. Most of those who have made a decision to follow Christ at our events became involved in our ministries in an ongoing way. So what's the problem? Well, there are several:
1) The students who graduate from our ministries know how to do evangelism only in the context of an event we have planned, organized, and paid for. We've never really modeled for them what it means to make disciples and invite and welcome people to follow Jesus.
2) Most of the students have relied on someone else to communicate the gospel. Even though we've raised up a few young emerging servants who are capable and passionate enough to share their connection story at an outreach event, we leave the majority of our students ill-equipped to share their faith.
3) This method of evangelism, the event/friendship combination, allows students to act in ways that are not at all Christ-like outside these events, yet still feel they are honoring God by bringing friends to these events. Since students are obedient to that aspect of the Great Commission, they feel as though they are doing what a Christian is supposed to do. They never really face the challenge and discomfort of someone finding out how they really live with and love others.
4) Typically, youth ministries measure these events by the number of participants or the number of salvation prayers spoken. This unfortunate but common greed-producing fallacy pushes youth ministries to continually try to do more and more in order to get bigger and bigger. We end up living like "human doings" instead of human beings.
5) Students who have made a genuine commitment to submit their lives to Christ at these events are seldom followed up on and discipled. Most ministries just absorb the newbie into their existing discipleship-oriented programs and never offer specific help to the new Christian embarking on a journey of spiritual growth and discovery. We know the importance of discipling new believers, but let's be honest: True discipleship is not happening enough, is it?
6) In this model, we leaders are not held accountable for our own commitment to evangelism. In other words, students rarely if ever see evangelism modeled by their leaders. The planning and organizing of events can become the only "evangelism" we do.
7) The more events we plan and organize, the harder it is to break free from their gripping demands later down the road. And those pressing demands leave little space for reculturing-especially if your volunteer youth leaders, students, and the leadership of the church view the continual offering of more and more events as healthy. Most churches operate under the "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" mentality. This can make it extremely difficult to adjust to meet the spiritual needs of future generations.
I'm sure there are youth ministries in North America and elsewhere around the globe that are effectively reaching students for Christ using this combined event/friendship method of evangelism. But I tend to think the ministries that use this method effectively are few and far between.
A lot of youth ministries killed event evangelism a long time ago and now focus entirely on a friendship evangelism method. And there's a lot to be said for this. It calls for Christian students to build bridges between themselves and their friends who are outside the church. This bridge is usually built on a common interest such as sports, academics, goals and dreams, family backgrounds, or employment. This bridge connects believing students with not-yet-believing students for the sole purpose of leading those not-yet-believing students to Christ. Friendship evangelism calls students to live like Jesus in the context of their relationships and care for their friends in a Good Samaritan kind of way.
I love bridges. My favorite bridge is a foot-and-bicycle bridge that Leonardo da Vinci designed 500 years ago. This bridge was recently built in Norway, after it had long been deemed impossible to build. One of the most beautiful sights I've ever seen was when I was on a plane taking off from the San Francisco airport early one morning and my eye caught the Golden Gate Bridge rising through the top of the morning fog. When I was attending college in New York, I used to stare at the Tappan Zee Bridge from my dorm room. There are a number of covered bridges across New England that my wife and I would stop the car and get out for. I love bridges.
I hate the analogy of bridge-building when we talk about evangelism, though. A bridge connects two places or points that are otherwise unable to connect. So what does it reveal when the church needs to build a bridge into the culture? It reveals a disconnection-a large separation between the culture and the church. On a more personal level it reveals a large separation between those who follow Christ and the not-yet-believing. But how long are the bridges we are building? How far are we from those in our lives who have not made a commitment to Christ?
A new kind of youth ministry is not about building bridges. It's not about constructing some artificial connection to others in a distant land. A new kind of youth ministry is committed to time and proximity. It means getting into the canoe and crossing the "waterways of life" together, in community, with your sphere of relations.
Obviously, there are many methods of evangelism. Some are effective for a season and then become irrelevant; others have been part of the fabric of the church for many years. You and your youth ministry may be using a method totally unlike the event or friendship methods. Maybe you are using the seeker small group method or the Sunday school method or the summer camp/retreat method. That's fine. It's up to you to decide what methods are best in your particular ministry context. As long as the gospel message of Jesus' life, death, and resurrection are being proclaimed and lived out effectively in your context, then do what you have to do. But if you aren't sure that your evangelism methods are effective, it may be time to reculture. It may be time for you to critically assess your current methods and incorporate new ideas and practices to see more students engage with Jesus.
THE HEART AND SOUL OF EVANGELISM
If we are going to effectively lead not-yet-believing students into a relationship with God through Jesus, I don't think it will be through the efforts of event evangelism or even friendship evangelism as we currently understand it. Instead, it will be through calling our students and leaders to a commitment of life-dynamic evangelism.
If you and I are going to join God in his global movement of transformation, we must do it through the moments of life that each of us experience and live. A life-dynamic approach to evangelism involves sharing the truths of God in the context of our everyday lives. It involves each of us connecting our heart and soul with the hearts and souls of those within our sphere of relations. It is faith sharing through the cycle of situations and circumstances we share with those in our world. It is an explanation of our faith both verbally and in our actions as the events of our lives unfold.
Life-dynamic faith sharing is authentic. It is a hide-nothing, tell-everything, and share-anything mindset that seeks to echo Christ's life and shine some light into the darkness of our world. Life-dynamic evangelism is not about them and us. It is not about other people or the people out there. Life-dynamic evangelism is about seeing people as people. Life-dynamic evangelism doesn't need bridges-just committed people who love God and others so much that their entire lives become missionally connected to God's plan to use us, the church, to join him in restoring the world.
Consider the following characteristics of life-dynamic evangelism:
1) Life-dynamic evangelism involves sharing our lived faith with those around us in the midst of the continuous change, activity, and progress of our lives.
2) It requires living in community with people who are not yet followers of Christ. This means being seen as Jesus-like, a friend of sinners.
3) It requires the wisdom, humility, and honesty to open our lives to others, including the elements of fear, doubt, and confusion that are part of our own journeys of faith. 4) It is faith sharing as Jesus did. It is about allowing others to join us in our journey, discover the truth, and then allowing them to come to their own decisions and understandings about following Christ. 5) It means allowing not-yet-believing people to speak into our lives and impart their own wisdom, knowledge, and skill. Are Christ-followers the only ones who can help you move through the trials of your life? 6) It is the faithful sharing of the story we find ourselves in now, not the story of our conversion then. Of course, the moment you accepted Christ is essential. But what is your story like now? Are you living a God-honoring life today? If so, invite others to share the journey with you. And if you are struggling, invite others to share that part of the journey with you. That's the point. It's about now. It's about authenticity-so let's take off our masks. 7) Life-dynamic evangelism is not just about a single occurrence like a special event or a friend-level act of service. It is about immersing ourselves in something way bigger than any of us-God's restorative plan. 8) It is not necessarily about a high volume of people. It is about the two or three people who are closest to you and do not yet know Christ-people for whom you can be Christ in a genuine way. 9) It does not come exclusively from a commitment to the Great Commission. It flows also out of a Great Commandment love of God and a love for people. 10) It is living your faith, not just talking about it.
Excerpted from A New Kind of Youth Ministry by Chris Folmsbee Copyright © 2007 by Chris Folmsbee. Excerpted by permission.
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