Home » News & Views »

Evangelism and Outreach in the Uniting Church

I was encouraged by the presentation at our Presbytery meeting on May 29 [2019], signalling a renewed commitment to evangelism.

One of the things I’ve noticed doing consultations over the years is that most of our people believe that faith sharing is something that they should be doing and they tick the box in congregational mission plans, but 99% of the time they simply don’t do it. This is evidence of a cognitive dissonance, where the beliefs we profess do not align well with the beliefs we live, which generally indicates a conflict in the area of our key values. In other words, we think we should be doing evangelism but negative feelings arising from value conflicts undermine our best intentions.

Over the years I’ve identified three distinct value conflicts that I believe undermine the Uniting Churches capacity for evangelism.

1. The UC struggles with evangelism because deep down it feels too difficult

2. The UC struggles with evangelism because deep down it feels wrong

3. The UC struggles with evangelism because deep down we feel uncertain

I also believe that there are concrete steps that can be taken to alleviate these conflicts and help the UC community to feel more able to engage with evangelism.

1. The UC struggles with evangelism because deep down it feels too difficult

The value conflict is that we believe we should do evangelism but deep down we suspect that we actually can’t do it, and we are more than a little afraid of the whole idea.  The research suggests we are not alone in this. According to NCLS data the denomination with the highest proportion of members actively seeking out opportunities to share their faith (Four Square Pentecostal) only make up 30% of all members of that denomination. In the Uniting Church that figure dips to 8% (Mission under the Microscope: 2000, p62). Which is to say that generally most believers find evangelism difficult, but we find it a bit more difficult than most.

Look, I really understand the almost phobic fear that sometimes grips a person at the thought of sharing faith because that’s the way I used to feel. For some time, I refused to admit it to myself and while I refused to admit it to myself I simply practised avoidance. The breakthrough came when I confronted the simple truth that my Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ commissioned me and others to make disciples and that prompted me to confront my fear. Naming that fear and making it the focus of spiritual reflection and prayer helped me to discover what most people discover about fear, that it’s mostly smoke and mirrors, it’s imagined more than real. What also helped me was clear and helpful group training in faith sharing that reduced my fear and grew my confidence in baby steps.

Moving forward

a. Congregations engaging in honest conversations about how people feel about evangelism.

b. Training and exposure challenges that de-mystify evangelism and break down the practice of evangelism into clear and achievable steps (this was what the old “gossiping the gospel” program was seeking to achieve)

2. The UC struggles with evangelism because deep down it feels wrong

The value conflict is that Australians live in a hyper individualistic culture in which the wider communities’ highest value is individual freedom including the freedom to believe whatever one wishes to believe. Anything that challenges that central value feels wrong to us and evangelism feels like it challenges the beliefs of others. However, like fear, this value conflict is more about perception than reality and is driven mostly by a bible bashing caricature of evangelism that fails to respect people’s personal beliefs. There is no reason why the good news about Jesus cannot be shared in ways that are totally respectful of people’s beliefs.

But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, (1 Peter 3:15)

Moving forward

a. Congregations engaging in honest conversations about the morality of sharing beliefs in our culture

b. Training that helps to frame respectful faith conversations.  

3. The UC struggles with evangelism because deep down we feel uncertain

Of the three value conflicts this is the trickiest to get a handle on. This conflict is between the gospel imperative to share the good news and the theological culture of the Uniting Church which casts doubt on how confident we can be about the foundations of our faith. The tricky part is that we are talking about our own theological framework and frameworks are notoriously difficult to critique because they are the tools by which we critique things. 

For the last century or so the main educators and culture setters of our church, i.e. “Ministers of the Word” have been trained in a biblical theological methodology we call the historical critical method which in turn has drip fed  our people through the weekly sermon and is the foundation of our shared theological culture. One of the essential characteristics of the historical-critical method is its use of doubt as a methodological tool. Expressed simply we have examined scripture through the lens of unflinching doubt. For example; did Jesus say such and such or was that the voice of the early church? Was there ever a Davidic kingdom or was that a mythologising reading of an ideal Kingdom? Can we possibly accept Matthews’s view of a virgin birth? These are all interesting questions but when you use doubt as a methodological tool it leaves a distinctive mark on your theological discourse and culture.

As a result of generations of theological educators telling people they are not sure about a whole lot of things in the scriptural record, it is always going to be difficult to convince UC people to do something like evangelism that already feels difficult and even a little wrong and then you add a sense that our foundations are a little uncertain, then you end up with a whole lot of disincentive to do anything brave like sharing your faith.     

For the last 25 years I have served in the congregations of Turramurra and Pittwater, two congregations who have actively and successfully encouraged personal faith sharing as well as programmed evangelism such as Alpha and MOPS. One of the reasons why these two churches have been able to find some traction with evangelism is in no small part due to the different nature of their theological culture which has given people a greater sense of confidence in the foundations of the gospel and that we have something worth sharing.   

Moving forward

a. Congregations engaging in honest conversations about the trustworthiness and importance of the gospel message

b. Preachers and teachers getting together and discussing ways of building people’s confidence in the gospel 

c. Exposing people to courses like Alpha and NUA (Irish Scripture Union course) that present a clear and memorable enunciation of the gospel

Finally, culture change is always difficult because culture is powerful, and it eats our best strategies for breakfast. I have observed that those who have been effective in changing and re-creating church cultures, people like John Bell (Iona), Nicky Gumbel (Holy Trinity Brompton), Craig Groeschel (Life Church), Andy Stanley (Northpoint Community Church), Tim Keller (Redeemer Presbyterian), and Erwin McManus (Mosaic) are all people who do four things very well:

1. They empathise with people and help them feel understood

2. They develop coherent and compelling rationales for why we cannot keep on doing what we are doing

3. They cast coherent and compelling visions for what the new community looks like and why it’s worth risking everything.

4. They do all this within a biblical/theological framework that helps the community plot its life in vital connection with the big picture life of God and God’s Kingdom.

Steve Everist is a Minister of the Word at Pittwater Uniting Church, Sydney.