ALL THINGS must come to an end sometime, and this will be my final Sharing The Joy column for the Journal. It has been a wonderful privilege for me to have written this column about evangelism for the past several years. In the new year I will begin writing a column on congregational leadership and development for the magazine MinistryMatters.
Throughout the years of the Decade of Evangelism my conviction that we live in a culture that is wide open to hearing the gospel and responding to it has not changed. Looking at the crowds coming to him for help, Jesus once commented to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful but the labourers are few.” I believe he would say the same thing to us today in this spiritually curious and spiritually hungry country of Canada.
I am more convinced than ever that our current condition of dwindling and aging congregations has more to do with our unwillingness to adapt our methods in reaching people than it does with people not being interested in the spiritual life.
It was Jesus who referred to the crowds as a “harvest.” George Hunter III of Asbury Seminary, commenting on the inability of the mainline churches to connect with contemporary culture, observes correctly that the harvest has changed. If the harvest changes from wheat, or corn, to grapes, he says, the harvesters have to change their methods. What worked well in harvesting wheat or corn will not be effective in harvesting grapes. The harvesters have to learn new skills and new methods.
This is exactly the situation we are facing in our church. The changes taking place in our culture are so radical that what was once effective and appropriate in connecting with people and sharing the gospel doesn’t work anymore. The people in our communities have pronounced their judgment on our congregations as boring and irrelevant, and have voted with their feet. We need to be willing to find new ways of connecting with people who see the world much differently than their grandparents or parents did, or even in many cases, than their older brothers and sisters do.
The solution is not to tamper with the content of the gospel, seeking to make it more intelligible to modern people, while retaining the old forms – this is the way of certain death. (I love William Willmon’s comment on this point: “Do not water down the gospel in an attempt to make it intelligible to modern people; rather, teach it in all its fullness in order to help modern people understand why their lives are so often unintelligible.”) The way ahead lies in holding fast the historic gospel, while finding new forms in which to communicate and celebrate it.
To be sure, this is a daunting challenge. The magnitude of the change required amounts to nothing less than changing the DNA of our church. For many, this will be scary. But it is the way of life, and it is the adventure of being the people of God.
I pray that we will be up to this challenge, and that for many of our congregations, and our church as a whole, it might turn out that our best days are still in the future. May God bless you.