Wesleyan Accent


From The Margins by Rob Haynes

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Occasionally, a friend or family member will send me a piece they’ve found in the media about the “decline” of the Church. These articles, videos, podcasts, books, etc. talk about the increase in the notion of the irrelevance of the church in the lives of many in the United States and/or Europe. Usually, this is accompanied by some degree of anxiety from the one who shared it. We should, no doubt, pay attention to the trends in which people seem to be turning their backs on the gospel of Jesus Christ. Numbers shown in such statistics are not merely benign figures. They represent real people whose lives matter to God.

The changing demographics in many parts of the world will cause, and are causing, some significant challenges for churches. This comes not only in the financial realm (fewer participants means less money in the offerings, presumably), but also in terms of ministries offered, lives impacted, and resources available. Things are changing and will continue to change. This changing landscape provides us with the opportunity, and responsibility, to rethink and restructure our approaches to evangelism. 

We need to admit that we are not the first generation to face challenges in our efforts to bear witness in the public arena to the great things that Jesus has done and to do so in a way that is faithful to the gospel. This is not the first time that the church has lost the privileged voice. Today’s Christians are living on the margins, just as many have done in the past. Yet, the Church continues in her mission throughout time and through the world. This gives us hope that we are not responsible for inventing something new to solve the problem. Rather, we look to the witness of the Scriptures and the saints who have gone before. We do, after all, stand on the shoulders of giants of the faith today. Standing on such a witness, let’s looks at some at some opportunities and responsibilities that the shifts in our culture might bring for evangelism:

  • We cannot assume that the “public good” will assist us in making disciples of Jesus Christ. In the past, we could rely on the general culture to be conversant in the principles of the Christians message and, by and large, embrace them. At least this was the way the prevailing winds were blowing.
  • With this in mind, it’s important to point out that the answer is not a full-frontal attack in the culture wars. That has been tried and found wanting. Rather, it’s going to need to begin with humility and repentance. It’s okay to admit past mistakes. It’s okay to admit that you may have questions too. These make the message even more welcoming.
  • That doesn’t mean compromising the Message or seeking to do some sort of acrobatics to make it more “relevant.” The gospel is always relevant. Open the message of Jesus to others in a way that shows love and compassion. God will fill in the gaps. 
  • The world is increasingly complex and changing at an even faster pace each day, it seems. 

This means that, as those living on the margins, we need to learn from those who are shaping the culture. Learn how to speak the language. Learn what questions the culture is asking. The gospel has the answers to those questions. But you will never know how to answer them if you don’t know what the questions are in the first place.

  • At the same time, don’t get sucked into selling a bill of goods to the culture who only wants to measure usefulness in terms of individual gain, national prosperity, or economic advantage. The gospel does not fit into those frameworks. Rather, Jesus challenged all of those “advantages” and declared them all to be worth nothing compared to what He was offering.
  • It means that we need to take time to get to know our neighbors. I mean, really get to know them. They are not just another “soul to be saved.” Rather, they are people who have hopes, dreams, wants, and longings. The gospel is the only thing that will fulfill those in a meaningful way. Others will be open to hearing the gospel when they know that you actually care about them for who they are, not just an accomplishment in your evangelistic mission.
  • We must increase our practical ministries. We can learn well from the early Celtic Christian movement who embraced serving their pagan neighbors while sharing the Good News with them. They were hometown missionaries before we even had the term.
  • We must be open to the Holy Spirit leading. We need to admit that there is no single method of evangelism that works everywhere for everyone. Don’t be too quick to criticize others for how God has called them to serve. 
  • Evangelism must expect the ongoing discipleship of those who accept Jesus’ offer of Life and Life abundantly. Be prepared to take the long journey with others who express a desire to grow in their faith.

And above all else: what’s more important than HOW we evangelize is the character of the Christians who share their faith. Holiness matters. People not only need to hear that God is alive, but they need to see His followers live in such a way that they demonstrate the love of our Living God. This is a good place to recall John Wesley’s words about the Methodist movement in the West, its expanse in his lifetime:

I am not afraid that the people called Methodists should ever cease to exist either in Europe or America. But I am afraid lest they should only exist as a dead sect, having the form of religion without the power. And this undoubtedly will be the case unless they hold fast both the doctrine, spirit, and discipline with which they first set out.” (Thoughts on Methodism)

 We need not fear for the future of the Church. The Kingdom will Come and God’s Will shall be done. If we fail to fulfill our role, God will raise up another. However, remembering that Palm Sunday admonition, I don’t want a rock to take my place in crying out – or in showing and sharing the love of Jesus as He commanded us to do. If we must do that from the margins, so be it.

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