Back then the Bible was taught in schools. It was a regular part of the curriculum for high school students to memorize John 3 or Romans 8 as part of their Bible classes. Church attendance was way up, too. Culturally, America was much more Christian than it is today.
The roots of most of what we call “evangelism” today are tied to this heritage. It’s all built on the premise that most Americans have a working knowledge of the Bible, that they believe in God. and look at the world through a somewhat Christian worldview. I’ve never attended a evangelistic rally, youth event or church service where the Gospel was presented, or anything in between that didn’t have these as working assumptions.
In proclamation evangelism the role of the speaker is to connect the dots in people’s heads. They’ve heard of God. They know who He is. They have read parts of the Bible. They’ve attended church in the past so are comfortable with the format. The speaker and evangelistic rally really puts it all together and creates an emotional, religious experience, and then calls them home.
I’m not going to say that the proclamational evangelistic rally doesn’t work anymore. But if you attend one today you’ll see that most of the people who go aren’t regular Joe’s– they are Christians who came to see a Christian band but are willing to hang out to hear the speaker. And for some of those perhaps the proclamational-style is what they need so they respond?
But take someone completely unchurched? Say, a neighbor whose parents didn’t take them to church and they think Christianity is a crock? Or, like the Average Joe in America believes that if they are a good person they’ll be OK in the end. It’s too weird for them. I know because I’ve done it. A bunch. And I’ve had to go back and apologize one-too-many-times to the point where I’d never invite another friend.
It’s not that I don’t believe, as an evangelical, that I need to share my faith. It’s that I think that for the people in my life the proclamational gospel message should be replaced with a methodology that reflects today’s culture– one that is three generations removed from the Bible being taught in schools and 50% of Americans attending church each Sunday morning.
Here’s what I’ve learned
We live in a post-Christian world. We live in a pluralistic society where Christianity is one of several religions on every block. (Go ahead, walk down your block and ask all of your neighbors what religion they’d ascribe to. I dare you.)
And every day another person, claiming to be a Christian, is deemed newsworthy because they have defrauded people, or gotten away with child molestation, or supported some right-wing cause in the name of God. For skeptics or self-proclaimed agnostics or leavers or even members of other faiths… each of these reinforces a stereotype or an idea that Christians are ____.
They simply don’t know any Christians who are legit, like you.
The Age of Living the Gospel
In a post-Christian world you are going to have to live the Gospel before your friends, family, and neighbors to the point where you are asked, “What is it about the way you live that I can have?” Or “I don’t know any other Christians like you. What makes you different than what I see on TV?”
Within pluralism, experience trumps information. Experiencing the Gospel through a neighbor’s goodness, kindness, grace, and love cuts through the stereotypes and defies logic’s last stand. It’s not that information isn’t important. It’s that information isn’t trusted until the source is trust and that trust is validated through experience.
You see, it’s not that I don’t proclaim Christ. It’s that I let my very life do the talking.
In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven. ~ Jesus said this in Matthew 5:16
We now live in a world where the person with the microphone and the big crowd is less trusted than the guy who mows his lawn every Saturday morning. You are legit while the person on the platform is a potential suspect.
In a post-Christian world, people will hear Good News only after they’ve experienced Good News from you.
The challenge for you is this: Do you have the guts to live a life that reflects Christ?
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Then how are you measuring what people are learning?
As a youth worker I’m always aware of leakage in my teaching. That is, the difference between what I am teaching and what learners are learning.
There is a naughty little educational word called “retention” we need to deal with. If there isn’t, what is the point of my teaching if my pupils aren’t learning?
Questions I ask myself as a communicator of Biblical truth:
Why am I teaching them?
How do I measure if they are learning?
How do I teach all levels of learners, interest levels, and learning styles at the same time?
Those who have sat under my leadership know that I do a lot of repetition and context to my regular teaching.Why do I do that? Because I want some things to stick. It doesn’t matter to me if you write it down in your outline or talked about it in a small group, I believe the Bible has incredible value for believers, we are called to know God’s Word, and we as leaders as told that one of our qualifications for biblical leadership is an ability to teach. I repeat and quiz because I want to burn an image of God’s Word on your heart. It’s not enough to know about the Bible… the teachings of Jesus have to be in your heart to impact your daily life.
I also know, as a leader, I’ll be judged by what people actually learn and what people actually do with what I am teaching them.
As the years have gone by I’ve become less enamored with perfecting my lecture-styled teaching and more enamored with a discussion-based, conversational-style.
Why? Because I’ve found, for me, that method to be a solid way to engage with the middle 70% of my audience. Folks in the top 15% aren’t my target. And folks in the lower 15%… I hope to teach them with other methods that work for them.
Some commenters took the post as an attack on the church, going to church, and those who lead at church. Others seemed offended that I’d even bring up Sunday morning as something we could collectively improve upon.
My intention was to the contrary. It was an attack on doing something that is largely ineffective for the sake of doing what we know in opposition to what might work better. For all of the thousands of hours the average church goer has listened to we should have seen so much more fruit. Let’s not forget that the church is on decline.
That pushes questions to the forefront of my mind:Is it the hearer who is disobedient to the teaching? Or is it the teacher who is failing to teach truth in a way that influences action? Probably some fault lies on either side.
It is my hypothesis that the primary method we are using for educating our congregations on Sunday mornings needs alteration. Church leadership is full of brilliant minds. We should show off our brilliance in our ability to lead people in innovative way: Not just talk about leadership but do it. Not merely preach a message that doesn’t move people, instead allow the message we preach to move us.
At the end of the day results are all that matter. Jesus isn’t going to look at you and say, “Awesome preaching, my good and faithful servant.” He will look at your body of work and judge you by the results & intention of your heart.
What are the physical restrictions to learning on Sunday morning?
Nearly all churches are constructed the same way. Rows of seats all facing forward with a person on stage or behind a podium. That person lectures, sometime passionately, sometimes you fill out an outline, sometimes words are put on a screen.
But the Sunday morning experience is typically based on a single teaching method: Lecture.
Is that how you learn best? It isn’t for me. I learn best by hearing, discussing, and practicing. Passive-learning bores me. I need something to do!
And when I look around on Sunday morning I don’t see a lot of learning going on. (Bear in mind, my pastor is off the charts good at what he does, he is my favorite preacher. Week in and week out, he’s just as solid as people who have sold as who we have at our conferences.) Instead, I see a lot of polite nodding, the occasional taking of notes, and virtually no way to respond.
Sunday morning is highly assumptive.
There is an assumption that people in the pews are going to live this teaching out in their lives.
There is an assumption that people are going to talk about what they heard at lunch or with a small group, or somehow try to knead the message into their lives.
There is an assumption that the church staff spends the majority of their work week living that message out.
There are no checks and balances to make sure anyone is putting anything into practice. (Staff and attendee alike.)
The proof is in the pudding. There are hundreds of thousands of churches in America. Most use the same methods, few grow. Conversely, where the church is growing around the world and even here in the United States, different methods are in play.
The “It’s not about Sunday morning argument.“
I’ll be the first to admit that the Christian life isn’t 100% about Sunday morning. But, for most people, it’s the centerpiece of their walk with God. People aren’t just whining about being busy, they are. And they are sitting in your pews, bored, and saying to themselves… “You kind of waste my time on Sunday morning, why should I trust you with more of my time? We don’t need another program. We need this program to work for us.” If it isn’t about Sunday morning than why do we even do it? Of course Sunday morning is very important! Let’s not fool ourselves with double talk.
Are the methods we use on Sunday morning “sacred?“
Sure, Paul preached until a young man fell from a window and died. (Then Paul healed him.) And Jesus preached both at the temple and in public. No doubt, he was taught by rote memory as a boy growing up attending the synagogue. At the same time, oral tradition and discourse were both forms of education and forms of entertainment. We see from the New Testament that Jesus didn’t instruct his disciples to build churches and hold meetings. Instead, he taught them while they were on the road from place to place. Or by sending them out in pairs to do ministry in His name. Or using parables. Or by asking them questions. In truth, we see a variety of teaching methods to communicate biblical truth in the Bible.
While the way we’ve always done church is held as sacred, the methods we use aren’t Biblically sacred. But what is sacred is the simple command to teach.
I want to challenge you to try something. Maybe it’ll sound crazy. But maybe it’ll just be crazy enough to change your church. (And maybe you don’t have access to try this with the whole church, so try it with your youth group!)
Conduct a six-week experiment.
Week one: Teach a normal Sunday service. On Thursday, send out a 5 question email (or Facebook) survey for Sunday morning attendees, asking them 4 basic questions about your message, and one open-ended question about how they applied the message on Sunday morning. (What was the passage? What was the main point? Which of the following was an illustration? What’s one way you are applying last week’s teaching today?)
Week two: Teach, again, in your normal fashion. This week, acknowledge after the sermon that they will again receive a survey via email on Thursday. This will tip them off that it is coming, so expect the results to be higher.
Take weeks three & four off from the experiment. You’ll be tempted to peak at the results so far. Show discipline!
Week five: Try a different teaching method on Sunday morning. Maybe teach by discussion. Or get people into work groups. Do anything that isn’t one person up front teaching. Don’t warm people that this is coming! That’ll mess up the experiment. Then send out the same 5 question survey again. (Expect some negative comments, people coming on Sunday might hate any type of change.)
Week six: Use the same method one more time. Send out the same survey. Just like in week two, tell them to expect a short survey on Thursday.
At the end of the six weeks unseal the results and meet together as a staff to look at them. Did retention scores increase or decrease? Did the change in method cause more people to apply teaching? Did the workgroups hold each other accountable? Overall, what was the net change? (Heck, maybe the old method was statistically better!)
Week seven: Send out one last email sharing the full results.
This will serve two purposes. First, it’ll communicate to your congregation that you are taking your biblical role as a teacher seriously and being professional by sharing the results of an experiment which involved them. Second, it’ll invite the congregation into the problem solving. Chances are good that you’ll get a lot of feedback simply by conducting the experiment.
Of course, I’d love it if you shared your results with me as well. Email me a Word document and I’ll share them on my blog.