The Methodist Church’s official beginning in America might have been when John Wesley sent Thomas Coke and Francis Asbury to the young nation saying the words, “Offer them Christ” (there is a famous picture of him saying these challenging words to Asbury and Coke while standing by a small boat). Another famous line around that same time was “nothing to do but save souls.” I have a little book with that title that tells this story. It wasn’t too many years ago when the Methodist Church celebrated with the mantra “A Church a Day,” meaning the church was planting a new church every day somewhere in the nation, often neighborhood churches or churches in small rural towns. Many of them now are on their last legs or have already closed.
I think there are many reasons for this, some simply logistics and organizational-aging patterns. But I think there is a deeper reason. There was a season the Methodist Church was the largest and fastest growing denomination in the nation. In fact, the numbers in those years (decades ago) are pretty much amazing and something every Methodist can be proud of. Few churches influenced America more than the Methodist Church has.
What happened? There have been many books trying to explain it. But I think one of the reasons is that we put the practice of evangelism on the back burner, and what had once been the center of the church was either neglected or ignored. It was felt that the church did not need to do that; we already had success. People were coming just because they grew up Methodist. We began an attempt to maintain that success and began to decline. Trying to maintain success is guaranteed to birth failure.
Church became an accepted form built around traditions — nice traditions, but traditions. The denomination as a whole operated as a process rather than mission. The local church was dominated by rotating pastors who often moved or were moved before a significant change could happen or vision develop. Seminaries working to theologically form pastors with an academic center rather than a Holy Spirit center that often left them ill-equipped to serve a church, much less grow one. Mission and outreach might have been elevated in some churches and annual conferences, but few emphasized evangelism. “Methodist churches don’t do that kind of thing, that’s what Baptists do.” As a young pastor, I was even discouraged from using the words “saved” and “conversion.” “Profession of faith” was okay to use and “joining the church” was popular, but the idea that Christ worked in the human heart and life in a form such as conversion or that the good news might save a soul or a life, could transform someone in a miraculous way, this often was not central to the mission of the church.
The DNA of growing churches almost always has a focus on evangelism — a focus that everyone needs Jesus, that the good news can save souls, lives, marriages, families, even communities. These churches believe in Jesus Christ. They believe there is a supernatural component of how Christ works in the hearts and lives of people beyond just the techniques we hope will work. These churches have a strategy, staffing, worship, groups that understand this is a core value of the church. They feed hungry people, they do mission, they serve the local schools, but they don’t allow the mission to supplant the great mission (go make disciples of all the world). If mission is the heart of a church, evangelism is the soul. Too many Methodist churches have lost their souls.
When we plant a new church or seek to revive an existing one, the conversation about evangelism must be on the table if we are to be successful.
I think it is very beneficial for everyone who wants to grow a church to do some work on a serious theology of church growth and evangelism. It’s a great benefit to work through a personal and church-wide theology of mission, of worship, which I believe we do well as Methodists. Few of our churches aren’t serving their community in some way or another. But we often don’t have a real theology of evangelism for us and the church we lead. Spending some time here could open the door to transforming our ministry as well as the church we serve and lead.
What is your theology of evangelism? The Bible and our own personal experiences with Christ are good places to begin. And, take a look at John Wesley’s “Twelve Rules for Preachers” (I have abbreviated and summarized):
- Be diligent; this is serious business.
- Be serious; holiness is a choice.
- Don’t let moral failure wreck you.
- Get advice before marriage; ministry is hard for both of you.
- Believe evil of no one; mercy is a choice.
- Speak evil of no one; build up those around you.
- Hold others accountable in love.
- A preacher of the gospel is the servant of all.
- Be ashamed of nothing but sin. Nothing else is beneath you. Be humble.
- Be on time.
- You have nothing to do but save souls. Spend your life in this work.
- Act in all things, not according to your own will, but as a child of the gospel. Preach, visit, read and meditate, pray, labor in our Lord’s vineyard.
Building a personal and church-wide theology of evangelism is often the first step in growing a church.