Have we been doing evangelism (and discipleship) all wrong?…

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about evangelism and the challenges that the church faces at the moment. We live in days when most people know next to nothing about the Christian faith, and next to nothing about godly living and morality. People don’t know the Ten Commandments, the Lord’s Prayer, people have no understanding of what sin is, what Jesus came to do … you could just go on and on.

I’ve come to this realisation through interacting with people in our parish – both people who’ve come into the church and people who are still outside. I hadn’t really appreciated before how far away many people are, and I’m not sure that our evangelism (and discipleship) is really prepared for it. For example, a few years ago we ran an Alpha course and a few of those who came joined the church and we started a new home group for them. I rather naively assumed that a Bible study in the way that we did every other Bible study would be what people needed, so we started working our way through Mark’s gospel – and I think it went a little over the heads of those who’d just come in. That’s not to say they didn’t need to hear Mark, I’m glad we did it, but rather that it may have been more beneficial to do some catechesis with them first, simply to teach some of the absolute basics. I just didn’t realise what their needs were.

Recently we ran a Christianity Explored course, and by the grace of God we had a few people come on it who want to continue learning afterwards. I’m meeting with them once a week to work our way through the Heidelberg Catechism. Before we started, I just went through the duties of church membership with them – and it struck me that it was maybe the first time they’d really seen laid out what being a Christian was supposed to look like (even in a short, summary form).

All of this has got me thinking. One of the most popular ways to do evangelism at the moment is to hold fairly low-commitment events and groups – e.g. toddler groups, messy church, etc. Things which people can come along to without committing to too much – with the idea that relationships will form, they’ll hear about Jesus, and want to come back to more. Messy Church is phenomenally popular at the moment – the Church of England seems to be pushing it at every opportunity. (I wrote about Messy Church a while back – part one and part two).

But here’s the thing: when are people hearing the message that Jesus requires us to make a commitment to him? Are our evangelistic efforts sending out the message (unintentionally) that you can be a Christian without making too much of a commitment? 

And when people do come to faith – through an outreach course, or however it may be – when are they learning about the basics of Christian living, e.g. coming to church, giving, Bible reading, prayer, etc.?

I sometimes wonder if the church is so keen to emphasise the message of grace that we don’t ever tell people that they really should be doing certain things. Now obviously we don’t want people to get the message that being a Christian is only about coming to church – that if you come to church every week and pay your dues, then you’ll be right with God. But I wonder if we’ve gone too far the other way: we’ve started preaching what Bonhoeffer called cheap grace. I apologise for the extended quotation but it’s probably the best thing Bonhoeffer ever said:

Cheap grace means grace sold on the market like cheapjacks’ wares. The sacraments, the forgiveness of sin, and the consolations of religion are thrown away at cut prices. Grace is represented as the Church’s inexhaustible treasury, from which she showers blessings with generous hands, without asking questions or fixing limits. Grace without price; grace without cost! The essence of grace, we suppose, is that the account has been paid in advance; and, because it has been paid, everything can be had for nothing. Since the cost was infinite, the possibilities of using and spending it are infinite. What would grace be if it were not cheap?…

Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.

Costly grace is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it a man will go and sell all that he has. It is the pearl of great price to buy which the merchant will sell all his goods. It is the kingly rule of Christ, for whose sake a man will pluck out the eye which causes him to stumble; it is the call of Jesus Christ at which the disciple leaves his nets and follows him.

If people are not confronted with a genuine message of grace, grace which is like the pearl of great price for which a man will sell everything he has, then they are being given cheap grace. Cheap grace looks like grace, but it’s available at much less a cost – and so it’s much more attractive to people. “Come along to Messy Church once a month, hear a Bible story, and you’ll be OK with God.” It’s the kind of grace people like which doesn’t involve too much effort. It allows you to basically carry on living the same kind of life you’ve always lived with a bit of “spiritual stuff” thrown in. It allows you to ignore God most of the time except when you really need his help.

The real kicker is, cheap grace is not real grace. Real grace is costly, as Bonhoeffer said. Jesus was uncompromising about what it cost to be his disciple:

‘Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves their son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. Whoever does not take up their cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Matthew 10:37-38

These are hard words for us to hear, but necessary. It struck me recently that Jesus never ‘sugar-coated’ the message or made it easier to bear for people – right from the beginning, he called his disciples to leave everything and follow him. His message sometimes was so tough that many people turned back and no longer followed him (John 6:66). Jesus was patient with people, he loved them at every stage (how often did Jesus call his disciples unbelieving and faithless? and yet he never gave up on them!) – but he never made the demands of discipleship easier for them.

So what does this mean for how we do evangelism and discipleship? I have one or two thoughts but I’d appreciate any comments or suggestions people have.

1. It’s not wrong to do low-commitment events / groups. Lest I be misunderstood, I’d like to make it clear that I think it’s a good thing to do low-commitment events / groups. They’re a great way of getting to know people and serving the local community, for one. And people who are seeking need to have low-commitment ways of finding out more about Jesus. I’m not asking we only do events where we ask people to make an instant commitment to Christ before we even let them in the door!

2. God uses our efforts, no matter how faltering they are. None of our evangelism or discipleship would be of any use unless God was at work. One of my key verses is Psalm 127:1: “Unless the Lord builds the house, the builders labour in vain.” Ultimately, our success does not depend on our own efforts but on God. We mustn’t use that as an excuse for poor efforts, but trust that God will use our efforts despite their flaws – while we are still trying to find ways to improve!

It’s easy to be critical – and I hope that I haven’t been unfairly critical here – but the fact is that the church has always got things wrong and always will. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t address things when we find them, but rather that God is bigger than our flaws!

3. We need to be challenging people at every stage. One of the biggest problems I see with things like Messy Church (and its equivalents) is that they don’t challenge people to move to the next stage. People can become very comfortable in their once-a-month service, quite happy, and feel absolutely no need to move forward. I think we need to be more active in helping people to see that Jesus requires a greater commitment.

One of the ways I think we can do that is by presenting real grace even at low-commitment services – in others words, preaching repentance for the forgiveness of sins. But I think we also need to be showing people what a life of trusting Jesus looks like – the commitment that he asks of us. One of the things which has struck me recently is that most people – around here at least – seem not to join the dots and understand that being a Christian actually means you need to live in some ways and not others. They’re never going to know, either, unless we tell them.

I was struck recently that even Christianity Explored – as great a course as it is – doesn’t really go into any detail about what the Christian life actually looks like. What does it mean to become a Christian – how does your life change? It doesn’t really spell it out – which is why it’s good to have other resources such as Chris Green’s little book From Now On.

I suppose a lot of it comes down to being more explicit and intentional about the cost of discipleship and what it means to follow Jesus. Do our evangelistic efforts reinforce the idea that you can be a low-commitment Christian, or do they challenge it? Perhaps the best thing we can do is think through our activities with the question, ‘when are people hearing the challenge to lay down their lives for him?’

I think we have far too much of the attitude: “If we tell people what following Jesus really means, they’ll run away scared. Let’s only give them a little bit now, so they don’t run away, and then tell them the full truth later.” Jesus didn’t have this attitude, and neither should we. We should be bold in proclaiming, along with our master, that following him is not something you can do comfortably without making any real adjustments to your life. We should be proclaiming, In the words of Isaac Watts – “Love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all.”

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