Written by Michael Green
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Has your church considered – visiting the homes in your neighbourhood?
A disenchantment with visiting the homes around our church marks so much modern Christianity. It’s both understandable - and misguided!
It may not be true any longer that a `visiting pastor` produces a church-going people. But it is certainly true that a church which does not visit in its neighbourhood becomes more and more of a ghetto, and its members more like patrons of a club than soldiers of Jesus Christ.
Visiting pays off in all sorts of ways, especially if it is shared between the staff of a church and its members. It shows people that the church cares. It reminds people of God in an age when it is all too possible to squeeze him out. It begins to build relationships in the locality between churchgoers and those who do not go. It opens the eyes of church people to the needs around them. It reveals some areas where help can be offered. And it draws some people into the church!
Christian youth movements have shown the way in visiting. Two of the most vigorous parachurch organisations are Youth With A Mission and Operation Mobilisation, and both make great use of visiting and street work. They do it with young volunteers from the West moving into Europe, Asia or the Americas to work with local young people from indigenous churches. This brings a tremendous infusion of confidence to local Christians who might never have ventured on such a bold and direct approach. Often it is very simple: giving or selling Christian literature in the streets and shopping malls. On each of those pieces of literature is an address where the reader can learn more. And this apparently crude approach is proving one of the most effective ways of reaching into countries dominated by other major world religions. And the enthusiasm rubs off on the local Christians: the leadership of OM in India, for example, is wholly in the hands of Indian Christians now.
In the USA, Evangelism Explosion is an evangelistic method based on visiting. It hinges on two basic questions, which receive slight modification from time to time. But the first is: ‘Have you reached the point in your spiritual life where you would be sure of going to heaven if you died tonight?’ And the second is: ‘Why do you think God should allow you into heaven?’ These are brilliant diagnostic questions, for they enable the visitor to learn a lot about the assumptions and real faith - or lack of it - of those who are visited. This works well in a culture where there is still a residual belief in heaven and hell. In strongly post-Christian cultures such as Canada, and to a large extent Britain, it is a less effective tool; nevertheless it has had very good effects even here. It has given a simple but shrewd method of approach to ordinary Christians, which they can introduce into conversation at an appropriate point and see it produce a reaction. It gets Christians out visiting – minister and people together. It produces results. And when it fails, it drives the visitors back into renewed prayer and research so as to be better at it next time.
A useful and less heavily structured approach has been devised in Britain by Michael Wooderson, Vicar of Chasetown. He discovered it by accident. It all began with a man at a funeral at which he was officiating saying, ‘I would be interested in finding out more about the Christian faith’. That man was totally outside the ambit of the church, and his question got Michael thinking. How could such a man find out what he wanted to know? He was not the sort to read books. Church would be a totally alien world to him. How could he find out?
And then Wooderson hit on an idea which he has developed ever since. It is highly successful, and he has written about it in The Church Down Our Street and Good News Down Our Street. He was influenced by some aspects of Evangelism Explosion, seeing that that was a method which mobilised the whole church for evangelism, was built on the concept of learning by doing, took the good news to people in their homes, and made evangelism a continuous activity and a normal part of church life. He was also influenced by the Jehovah's Witnesses visiting on his estate. They embodied three important principles. One was systematic visiting, aimed at uncovering interest. A second was setting up study groups in the homes of interested people. And the third was immediately sending out new converts visiting, giving them no time to become lukewarm.
He developed these principles into a very simple method. Michael himself has a flair for making relationships, and discovers people in the area who would like to learn a little about the Christian faith in the course of a home visit, and would be willing to welcome a small team coming to their home. Michael trained the congregation in running a simple course for six visits in the homes of interested people, giving them enough information about Jesus to enable them to make a decision for or against him. It was all very informal. In home contexts, questions flow and misunderstandings are cleared up. People are surprised to see lay folk like themselves feeling so enthusiastic about the gospel that they are willing to take the time and make the effort to share it. They go in threes in order to train inexperienced people on the job, to incorporate new converts immediately, and to deepen fellowship among church members.
This is an evangelistic strategy that is making solid headway in some of the most unchurched parts of England. How effective it has been can be seen from the figures. Of the first two hundred people visited (by eighty-nine teams comprising 120 members of the congregation), five completed the six-week course, fifteen were already Christians, 136 made a commitment to Christ, four made a commitment subsequently and forty made no positive decision. They have now reached the point where church members regard evangelism like this as a normal part of their Christian life, and feel deprived if they are not assigned to a visiting team fairly frequently. As Roy Pointer of the Bible Society said in his foreword to The Church Down Our Street, ‘This story reads like the Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles all over again!’ But there is nothing here that any local church could not emulate - if it had the will and the commitment.
Has your church considered - community service?
The good news of Jesus is communicated not only by word, but also in action. It is when people see the difference Christ makes that they begin to listen to what he has to say.
It was when he saw water gushing from the drill which TEAR Fund had brought into his parched village in Sudan that the headman said, ‘Now I believe the gospel of Jesus’. It is likewise not accidental that there are a great many conversions in the refugee camps set up after disasters in Thailand and the Sudan. Roman Catholic Christians have been far ahead of their Protestant brethren in this matter, as a rule. I recall the terrible shanty towns spreading all around Lima, Peru, where a mass of humanity flowed down from the Andes to seek illusory wealth in the capital, and ended up on the streets with homes made of little structures of sticks and corrugated iron. In the midst of all this misery a genial Catholic friar made breakfast free for all each day, and Catholic teachers started a school for the shoeshine boys, the poorest of the poor. That is very attractive. It is very like Jesus.
Service to the community is also one of the best ways in which a local church can make an impact on its area. It must discover what the real needs are, and set out to meet some of them, however weak it may feel and however scant its resources. It may be to run a coffee house for unemployed youngsters. It may be to visit in the local prison on a regular basis, and perhaps to inaugurate a halfway house for prisoners upon their release if they have nowhere else to go. I know of one prison chaplain, who is also a Baptist minister, who shares his chaplain’s responsibility with a dozen members of his congregation. How he has got this past the prison authorities I do not know, but I have seen them at work in that prison, and it is highly impressive to witness the love of Christ being communicated so naturally and so relevantly in a very difficult situation like that. The very success of one ministry like this led to the creation of a halfway house, so that those who had come to faith had some initial nurture and continuing Christian teaching and fellowship in the early days after their release, and were not simply turned loose one morning on the street.
I once knew a group of doctors who wanted to make Christ known through meeting a genuine need. They were unwilling on principle to take innocent life, by performing abortions on their patients. But they did not leave it at that: they set up an adoption agency for unwanted pregnancies.
I was with a friend the other day whose church wanted to do something about the unsavoury reputation that the local beach was getting. So they are proposing to run open-air services there all summer, and to provide food for penniless youngsters who haunt the beach, or the old men who doss down there. A church like that has the right to be heard.
Many churches run youth clubs and gyms. But what about running your own restaurant? Church like St Michael's Chester Square in London, and St Aldate’s in Oxford, do just that. It is a lot of work and continuous hassle! But it meets a local need and provides a warm, welcoming atmosphere in which friendly conversations of all kinds can go on.
My predecessor sensed the need for overseas students to have some much-needed accommodation in the heart of Oxford, where the church was situated. And his initiative achieved housing for more than sixty. There was a small but steady trickle of conversions within that housing complex, but that was the secondary aim. The primary aim was to relieve need, and when the church does that, the hearts of people are often open to what the church has to say… and they often are not!
Another aspect of community service which is appropriate in some areas is to hold community events like street parties and, fiestas. These fun occasions catch the spirit of the community, and they show that the church has a heart which beats with the heart of the people all around. There may well be no immediate result in spiritual terms. But in due course it would be surprising if some people did not start moving into the life of the church, perhaps becoming part of it gradually, by osmosis.
The same is true when the church initiates marches to protest against injustice, or inhuman conditions for the people. The prime moving of the Catholic Church in Poland in the rise and success of Solidarity, or in the Philippines through the bloodless expulsion of the notorious president Marcos, is not only a mark of moral leadership in the respective nations, but is a powerful spiritual attractor, as the passionate Christian commitment of the Poles and Filipinos amply demonstrates.
Has your church considered – outreach in the open air?
Jesus Christ was an open-air preacher. Most of his followers are not! The infant church was born in the streets on the day of Pentecost. Most church members these days would not be seen dead in the streets! We are very different from our founder and our forebears!
And we are impoverished as a result. Churches like the Pentecostals, who do make a big thing of getting out on the streets, win both respect and converts. I remember teaching on evangelism one Sunday afternoon in a large Australian city. The church had glass doors, so that it could look out on the busy world passing by. A good number gathered for this teaching session; I made it very short, and got them out on the street to join me in open-air witness to the crowds outside. We had song, some basic drama and dance, and preaching along with testimony, and they were thrilled to bits. This was a red-letter day.
But later that afternoon my wife and I walked a little further along the street and found a Pentecostal open-air witness in progress. It was ragged, loud, and theologically illiterate. But it was passionate. I enquired how long they had been Christians, and for most of them it was all very recent. I enquired how often they did this. The answer was every day. No wonder they grew. They deserved to!
But there are many ways of using the open air effectively. One is to have a Christian concert in a sunny climate on a Sunday afternoon, when everyone is out enjoying themselves. Another is to have a walk of witness, say on a Good Friday or at Pentecost, preferably binding all the churches in a town together for this act of witness. If somebody is carrying a great cross, the point is made a lot the more sharply. There is power in the cross of Jesus! One of my erstwhile colleagues, Canon David Hawkins, actually held an open-air service in a shopping precinct one Good Friday when a member of the congregation was erected on a cross, with hands and feet bound to it. You can imagine the impact that made, and the way the preacher's words went home. In a lighter vein, he had been known to lead a procession down the street while dressed as a clown and playing his violin. On his front was ‘A fool for Christ’, on his back ‘Whose fool are you?’ There are many ways of using the open air!
Another way is a public eucharist in a large football arena, or a public baptism in the sea or river. Most baptisms used to be conducted in this way, and the habit of doing it within the four walls of the church is in some ways rather regrettable; it misses out on one of the most dramatic acts of witness that a Christian can ever give. We would sometimes conduct open-air baptisms in the river in Oxford. A procession would start from the church, growing in size as it moved down the towpath on a busy Sunday afternoon. When we reached the appointed place there was a large crowd in attendance, drawn by the spectacle and by the singing and joy of the participants. Each of the candidates would give a testimony to what Christ had come to mean to him or her, and then my colleague and I would immerse them in the river in the name of the Trinity, and there would be great praise and rejoicing as each emerged from the water. It was unusual if other conversions did not spring from those public baptisms.
There are many other ways in which the open air can be captured for the gospel. It may be a quiet giving out of leaflets advertising some event: that often leads to profitable conversations. It may be going on to the streets, two by two, with a simple questionnaire. It may be going with love, literature and a guitar, to work the bus queues in the centre of some town. It may be a major procession, a Praise March, when hundreds or thousands of Christians combine to march through the city, singing the praises of God and flowing with his love to passers by. Such marches make a major impact both on the local population and on the television station sent to report them! These are all opportunities for evangelism which derive from an imaginative use of the open air.
But the sort of open-air work which I love most is the most basic of all. It consists of a group of Christians proclaiming the good news of Christ in a very earthy way in the shopping malls or market squares of a city. It can, of course, be disastrous, especially if you choose a place where people do not normally go. But if you go to a populous area and are loving, happy, relaxed, self-effacing, and confident in the message you are charged with, many people will listen.
It can be done in a wide variety of ways. Drama is perhaps the most important ingredient. It always draws a crowd, and if your group performs a sequence of short street playlets, each lasting a few minutes and making one clear, arresting point, it is only too easy for a compere to draw out the implications of what has been seen and apply them to the crowd which has gathered. Meanwhile members of your congregation are mingling with the crowd, chatting with onlookers. Singing can help, but curiously enough it often drives people away in the open air. A visual aid, progressively unmasked if possible, is a big attraction, and some people are brilliantly gifted at painting in the open air while they preach. Sometimes a juggler or karate expert can be invited to operate first of all, and that is guaranteed to draw a crowd. The secret is a fast-moving, attractive, relaxed presentation of the heart of the gospel in terms that people really understand. I often find myself preaching from the road signs or the names of shops, turning them to advantage in what I want to say!
The main value of such open-air operations is to heighten the Christian presence in the community, to sharpen the courage and zeal of those who take part, and to broadcast the good news that was intended not for the church person but for the person in the street. But often it goes further than that. I have seen many people quietly put their faith in Christ when hearing in the street of his love and sacrifice and his claim on their lives. I have seen people kneel down on the pavement and ask the Lord to accept them. And I have seen many people drawn from such meetings to hear the gospel in another place which gave them more opportunity for a considered response.
I think of May Morning in Oxford, when all the city is alive and on the streets by 6 am. So were we, complete with jugglers and singers, speakers and dramatists! It was such a joy to proclaim Christ in the historic main street of that ancient university city with hundreds of people clustered round. And it was a further joy to invite them back to the church hall where we offered all and sundry a free breakfast and a talk on Christian commitment. An operation like that led people to the Lord year after year. And we did not restrict it to May Morning! The gospel is good news. It is too good to confine within the four walls of a church!
Has your church considered - how to use neutral ground?
One of the important lessons the modern church needs to relearn comes from the school of Tyrannus!
We know nothing about this Ephesian pedagogue, except that the apostle Paul made daily use of his school at a time when Tyrannus had no use for it. One ancient manuscript tells us when he did it: ‘from 11 am to 4 pm.’ When you consider that in Ephesus more people would be asleep at 1 pm, during the midday siesta, than at 1 am, that says a great deal for the attractiveness of Paul's dialectic!
But the most noteworthy thing is Paul's use of secular ground. People would feel quite comfortable in going to cross swords with this tentmaker-teacher in the lecture hall of Tyrannus. That is the point. And we need to take it very seriously. Many of our attempts at evangelism are doomed before they start, because we insist on doing them on our own property, where many unchurched people feel very ill at ease. We Christians believe that Jesus Christ broke down all barriers between the sacred and the secular by his own incarnation. Right: we should therefore carry out that principle in our evangelism. We should reach out to where people are, not expect them to come to where we are. In a word, much of the best evangelism will not happen in church at all.
There now follow some suggestions for evangelism on neutral ground. They are not by any means exhaustive, but I hope they may prove suggestive for your own creative thinking on the subject.
Debates are a marvellous way of stirring interest, which can ripen into commitment. They are particularly valuable as a centre-piece in a mission or campaign. They are attractive because Christians come out into the open and are not afraid of having their position exposed and criticised. They are attractive too because there is opportunity for many believers to get up and say their piece from the floor. They lend themselves to refreshments afterwards, and the chance to take things further at a more personal level. They are easy to publicise, and readily draw a crowd which would not normally attend a religious meeting.
The more well known the person with whom you are debating, the better. I have found that when debating with politicians, celebrated atheists or well-known local personalities, all manner of people turn up for the fun, and stay out of interest. The danger in this sort of enterprise lies in the very nature of debate. It is `eristic`: it is designed for victory. And if you gain victory in argument about Christ, but alienate or fail to show love to your opponent, you have lost everything. Consequently, great courtesy is called for, along with rigorous logic, and if it is possible for you and your opponent to have dinner together beforehand it is all to the good in building some relationship between you.
Jesus engaged in a stringent debate, and on neutral ground at that. We are neglecting a wonderful opportunity if we fail to do likewise. And it is so profitable for the cause of the Kingdom of God. I think of one occasion in Australia where a friend and I took on all comers for several hours one night - and there were hundreds of them. The outcome? Much interest, the continuation of the genre, and six people signing up for a Discovery Group.
Only the other day I debated with a remarkable New Age artist, a delightful character, and very well known locally. This encounter packed the hall and provided an excellent opportunity for two very contrasting world-views to meet head on, with great grace and goodwill, but with considerable trenchancy. It was broadcast, all two and a half hours of it, the next night, and without doubt it stirred the interest of the city where it took place more than almost anything else we did all week.
If Christians often shy off debates, they are even more cautious about bars and pubs. Yet this is where so many normal citizens go for recreation without any thought of getting drunk. Should Christians not be among them? Conversations move very easily in such a setting: people are not wary and defensive, and it is not hard to move discussion on to things that matter. Alternatively, by arrangement with the management, it is sometimes possible to bring in a singer who can communicate the gospel with occasional comments, and that tends to open things up for talking about Christ.
If the local minister goes in, and becomes trusted, he will have endless pastoral opportunities opening up before him. On one occasion I sat myself down in a pub, was asked what my job was, and that developed into a marvellous conversation about Christ. Soon the whole bar was involved, either taking part in the discussion or watching. One man came to put his faith in Christ then and there, as he sat on a bar stool. I think of the sportsmen's club in Oxford, and of the many evenings I spent there with university athletes, speaking on some aspect of the Christian faith, and then repairing to the bar, where the whole conversation all round the room was about Christ, and where twice in succession somebody came to Christian commitment then and there in that bar. Sometimes some music, drama, or poetry helps. Bars can be places of great opportunity in the cause of the gospel, if we will have the courage and imagination to make use of them. You don't have to drink. You do have to be at ease — and then others will feel at ease with you.
Public lectures are another way of drawing a crowd to think about the claims of Christ. It helps if the lecturer is well known, if he is speaking on his subject, if the event is well advertised, and if Christians are primed to bring friends. It may be a Christian bishop or a Christian trade unionist, a Christian cabinet minister or a clean-up-TV activist. I have invited all four, and a good many more, to relate the Christian faith to some aspect of life in which they were expert. It has always drawn a crowd and proved a very valuable evangelistic or pre-evangelistic enterprise. I am sure a lot more could be done in that way.
Luncheons are very popular. Business people use them regularly in the course of their work, so for them it is a very natural form of meeting. A local church can host such luncheons for the leaders of management or labour in any local enterprise with which they have any links, or for the police or lawyers. It is simple enough for a few committed Christian lay people in business to get together across denominational boundaries and put on a monthly Christian Businesspeople's Luncheon. I have known towns where this was so much the thing to belong to that there had to be a waiting list for people longing to join! If speakers are chosen with discretion, and the proceedings kept strictly within time, and if literature is made available, and the opportunity to talk things over is regularly offered, there can be a continual trickle of people coming to faith through such means.
Recently in the USA I met a lady who had felt it right to start women's lunches across the country, and they are spreading like wildfire. But it does not even have to be an `event`. When you take a friend out to lunch, or entertain him or her in your home, it is an ideal opportunity to talk about Christ if the conversation moves that way. You can always stop if your friend does not want to pursue it. But all too often they will want to talk, and will be thankful that at last they have found someone willing to listen, able to help them.
If lunches work well in the midst of a busy day, it stands to reason that dinner parties are even more fruitful, coming at the end of the day when people are more relaxed. I have often found that professional people like to meet others in their own walk of life to hear a talk on the Christian faith. Lawyers, doctors, and teachers especially come to mind, but I shall never forget a town hall reception full of builders who had come to hear Sir John Laing, the architect of the British motorway system, speaking simply and powerfully on building your life on the rock of Christ. Some years ago a dentist, a hotelier, a doctor and I planned a series of evenings during the course of a winter, when we would welcome a hundred or so of our friends into a large private home for a dinner and then to listen to a Christian in some walk of life speak about how his faith interacted with his work. On another occasion my wife got called in to speak to a gathering of doctor's patients, young mothers who wanted to teach their children about God and prayer, but had no idea where to start. The evening gatherings begun there led several of them into Christian commitment. The point is clear. Evening events in private homes are very useful in evangelism today, just as they were in the first days of the church, when homes were all they had.
Music is such a powerful medium. There are all sorts of ways in which it can be deployed in the cause of the gospel. One way is to get a popular singer who writes his own songs, to come and sing and explain why he wrote the songs he did, and what is most important in life to him. People flock to carefully chosen events like these. They pay good money to come in, which looks after the finances of the enterprise and allows you to concentrate on making the most of the impact. Complimentary tickets need to be given to people who are thought to be not far from the Kingdom! If the artist himself has not got the gift of evangelism, an appropriate evangelist may be sought to draw things to a conclusion, though this is a particularly delicate task after such an evening and if done badly it can easily backfire. If done well, it can be extremely productive.
Carol singing is another very popular musical medium which many churches do not make enough of. Let it take place by candlelight. Let there be drama and dance as well as song. Let there be an address about the one who came at Christmas and still seeks access to the hearts of men. And it will remain as popular as ever: but it will be far more fruitful.
The same applies to something like Haydn's Creation or Handel's Messiah, especially if sung by an all-Christian cast who really mean what they sing. The effect can be immense, and the drawing power is formidable. It is sometimes appropriate to weave a challenge into the ending of such an evening, especially if it is closely related to the Christian commitment of the composer. And with Handel that is not difficult.
Dancing is one of the most popular of all recreations. It can get out of hand: hence the common Christian distrust of dance. But it need not. And why, when people are rejoicing and celebrating together, should it be inappropriate for the world's greatest cause for joy and celebration to be mentioned? It takes a very charming and relaxed evangelist to draw people together in the middle of a dance and speak of the Lord of the Dance. But it can be done. It has been done. And it has led to firm conversions. I like it! It shows initiative and imagination, and they are often sorely lacking in evangelism!
If dancing is one of mankind's favourite recreations, sport is another. That area, too, needs to be permeated by the gospel. Top sportsmen are so wrapped up in their sport that they are very hard to reach except by those within it. In recent years this has been recognised on both sides of the Atlantic, as well as in Africa, and organisations like Christians in Sport and Athletes in Action have gone a long way towards spanning the yawning gap which normally exists between sports people and Christianity. In America now there are Christian ‘chapters’ in many of the top-line football, basketball and baseball clubs. At the international level, Christians are getting together in the athletics, soccer, cricket, tennis and golf worlds, to name but five.
Just before the Olympics, representatives from more than 120 nations met together in Seoul with the purpose of setting up sports ministries at pool, club and national level throughout the world, and I believe that since then more than ninety nations have begun this type of outreach. It is something in which the local church can get fully involved. Athletes and sports people are no more important in God's eyes than anybody else, but it is undeniable that they are high among the cult figures of modern society, and if Christian values and faith are represented widely in sport it is going to make a great difference to the views which the man in the street has about the faith.
Holidays are of great importance to us all, and yet we are sometimes at a loss to know what to do with them and whom to go with on holiday. This is where the parish holiday or youth camp comes into its own. There is a tremendous amount to be said for a parish organising its own holiday for all ages. This brings members of the congregation together in the most relaxed and natural of circumstances, and the fellowship of the church will benefit from it for a long time to come. But a holiday like that also gives every opportunity to invite people who are on the edge of the Christian community, or not part of it at all, to come and join in. It is a very attractive and effective way of making use of neutral ground.
These are only a few suggestions in an area which is limitless. We are called to use our imagination in the cause of Christ. One church I know did it by gaining possession of a shop in town, and making that a drop-in centre for coffee: it was thronged by youngsters. Another church had some gifted musicians and dramatists who found a regular welcome in the local schools, places that are so often devoid of any positive Christian teaching these days, but often are not averse to a Christian message in a fresh medium. I think of another church that was always making new contacts for Christ through hiring a space in the local market and taking a barrow of Christian books down for sale there each Saturday. Others find that a simple crèche and investigatory Bible study for hard-pressed mums (and exuberant toddlers) is not only a service to what can be a lonely sector of society: it is also a very natural way for people who already have so much in common to find Christ as the one who binds all life together.
Perhaps the last word is this: We should cultivate godly opportunism! If we are people who are not dominated by church buildings and religious hours, but are free to talk about our Lord and seek to introduce others to him wherever we are, then the opportunities will come. Willingness is the key to usefulness. If we get into the habit of praying, `Lord, use my life and lips as you want to today,' more often than not he will. And he may not wait until we are in the church on Sunday to provide the opportunity. For there are many ways than one to communicate the good news of Christ; and most of those ways occur on neutral ground!
© Michael Green 2013.