Evangelism. It's about programmes, right? Special meetings, Christianity Explored, Life Explored. Centrally organised by the church. Partly, yes. Those things have value. But Mack Stiles' book is not about getting churches to buy the latest off the shelf programme. Results guaranteed. Rather, he wants to encourage what he calls a 'culture of evangelism'.
But first of all Stiles needs to define what he means by evangelism. Which he does:
"Evangelism is teaching the gospel with the aim to persuade."
The author then unpacks what that means, beginning with the gospel, the evangel we are meant to be ising.
You don't need to run a church programme to evangelise, or bring in an expert Evangelist. Evangelism so defined is a discipleship discipline for every believer. Just as much as prayer, Bible reading and faithful Christian living.
A culture of evangelism means every church member will be looking to 'teach the gospel with the aim to persuade' as part of their daily lives. They will take it upon themselves to reach the unreached, build meaningful relationships non-Christians, offer to study the Bible with people who want to know more about the Christian faith, bring friends along to church where they will hear the gospel preached, and so on.
Where a culture of evangelism isn't embedded in the life of a church, people will tend to think that it's the responsibility of the organised church to do evangelism for them. An example is given of well meaning believers stuffing shoe boxes full of essential things a disadvantaged group of people. And then expecting a pastor with links to that community to dish them out. Why didn't they go beyond stuffing shoe boxes and make the effort to engage personally with the needy community? Someone else's job.
I certainly agree with Stiles on the importance of creating a culture of every member evangelism. But church-organised programmes can sometimes help to prime the pump. We have a 'Door to Door' Evangelist working with the churches I serve. Members accompany him to visit people in our community. As a spin off from that a church member has organised coffee mornings where men get together for a chat at a local cafe. A mixture of Christians and non-Christians. That was his initiative, not the result of a directive from the church leadership. Similarly, there have been a number of opportunities for developing relationships with parents who attend our Parent and Toddler Group and other church-run activities.
It's not a matter of either/or.
In fact, I picked up my freebie copy of this book at a Grace Baptist Partnership day conference on 'Evangelism and the Local Church', aimed at supporting a week of mission in the South West of England.
The task of the 'organised church' is to equip the 'organic church' to live as everyday disciples of Jesus. An everyday disciple will also be an everyday evangelist. Organised activities can serve as a powerful catalyst for spontaneous, organic outreach by church members. But centrally organised activities can't be the be all and end all. The 'organic church' can and must go to places the 'organised church' simply cannot reach.
From the book it seems as though J. Mack Stiles is one of those 'speak to anybody about Jesus, anytime' extroverts. Not all of us are in that category. But the writer provides some practical hints and tips on Actually Sharing Our Faith that even the most shy and retiring introvert will find useful.
If we are to succeed in the urgent task of winning people for Christ in this generation, we are going to need churches with a deeply embedded culture of every member evangelism.
This title would be a useful aid for stimulating discussion in a Home Group, or a Bible Study series on how the whole church may speak for Jesus.