John at Locusts & Honey asks a great question that is likely better understood in an American context of training for ministry rather than a British one. He asks, ‘If you could change anything about the UMC seminary education system, what would it be?‘ Good question and most responses have answered in the practical/apprenticeship area. But one response, styled in language my wife used when preparing lesson plans, based the entire answer on evangelism and that effectiveness of the minister’s evangelism ought to be examined. Rather than write a lengthy response on John’s website, as it doesn’t have much to do with the initial question, I would post here my questions that this person’s comment raises (actually, I have heard much of this elsewhere, so I don’t mean to sound like I am picking on this one person, but more of the logic that many have and that undergirds this thinking):
- I have no problems with evangelism being studied in the context of training for ministry. The United Methodist General Conference in 2000 (General Conference is often called the policy making body of the UMC), which was the GC before I began seminary, stated that all candidates for ministry would need to take a class in evangelism. I chose Dr. Geoffrey Wainwright‘s class on the theology of Lesslie Newbigin. It was fantastic, in particular reading Bishop Newbigin detail the changing western culture in light of his time as a bishop/missionary in the Church of South India. Never in all of Newbigin’s writing (or in Dr. Wainwright’s lectures) did we ever discuss a means of evaluating the effectiveness of our own our someone else’s ministry. In fact, the old models western Christians have used to present ‘the gospel’ have all but lost their usefulness and indeed what we call presenting the gospel has changed – at least for many of my fellow Divinity Students at Duke.
- The Job of the Minister: Is evangelism in the church the chief responsibility of the minister? At the cell church conference I attended Saturday, the minister there made a comment I found funny and true. He said, ‘As a minister, I live in the church ghetto. I don’t come across many non-Christians.’ That’s true in my ministry, too. The average church member will come across many more non-Christians in a day than I will. I see my responsibility as preparing church members for the task of mission, evangelism, and outreach to the world rather than I take care of them and allow them to pay me to do their ministry as Christians for them.
- Evaluation of the Presentation of the Gospel: I have a sneaky suspicion that we would disagree on what presenting the gospel means and what a ‘decision’ would be. His line seems telling, ‘Students would be required to demonstrate personal experience in winning adults to faith in Christ.’ What message was the person presented with? How is it evaluated as good or bad? At what point has one been ‘won’ to Christ? How long is one given to make a decision (whatever that is)? Churches can be evaluated on their presentation of the gospel, but I don’t think points for style and flair can be given to see how persuasive one is. The church’s faithfulness to the gospel (i.e., how well we are following Jesus’ commands to bring the kingdom where we live) can be looked at, but I have serious doubts this can be identified on some form of check list and then compared to the results gained.
- The Inherent Individualism Suggested: Evangelism that evaluates one person (and in this case, the minister) and how well she wins people to Christ suggests that the primary mode of evangelism is a one-to-one transaction. I have come to realise that evangelism works better in a community context. This factors out in a number of ways. At a church I previously served saw a family join us, starting with the young person coming to the group. Then, I paid a pastoral call on the parents. The parents had been overwhelmed by the way the youth group took in their son. They began to come and were immediately welcomed in. This took over a period of 12 months or so, but then again, I think ‘decisions’ by this family were made over time. Also, I think the church can proclaim the gospel by its mere presence. The fact that I have some very faithful communities still willing to make it on a Sunday testifies to the God they serve, even when all our motives may need to be worked through. Also, our circuit’s commitment to the Asylum Seekers in Blackburn also testifies the importance we believe God places on people, and not as a number to be monitored by immigration services.
- Mentality that the Gospel Can be Quantified: I get tired of feeling like I have to have some sort of quota that demands I speak to so many people or need so many people ‘won for Christ’. It appears even Luke got tired of doing it Acts, as he stops giving figures part way through the book. I don’t think this McDonald’s approach is the way to go. Especially since people may spend a lifetime working through what it means to be a Christian. Our faith cannot be boiled down to a set of propositions that are either taken or left, but a faith is best understood when lived out in the context of a worshipping community and decided in a single moment on a street corner when one has the 4 Spiritual Laws pointed out to them. I don’t want to say there is no moment of commitment (which I would primarily identify in baptism), but how it looks getting to font may be much different in every case.
As with anything, even my motives here are likely not pure. I wonder if part of my reaction against this particular comment also raises questions within myself and how I might be evaluated. So, maybe this response is out of fear in a way. Still, I think part of the issues I raise are valid, despite my own mixed issues. Also, I am working out what evangelism means today. I do swing both ways and sound contradictory when it comes to making a commitment (as I said, in baptism) while also maintaining that it works out over time.