Methods Matter in Both Outreach and Criticism
One of the things I enjoyed this past Easter was paying attention to how the larger Christian world celebrated the resurrection of King Jesus. Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram (the platforms I have accounts with) allowed me a glimpse into how churches around my state, my country, were worshipping Jesus on Easter. It was a joy to see and join the many who were celebrating.
Yet social media platforms have the uncanny ability to build up and tear down, to charge your batteries and drain them. Particularly draining during the days leading up to Easter was the issue of missional methods, or evangelistic endeavors, and how churches were trying to reach their communities. That issue discouraged me in two ways. First, some were employing means that seem to work against the genuine flourishing of the gospel. Second, the online debate between “supporters” and “critics” reminded me of how far we have to go in thinking through issues like this in ways that are both thoughtful and kind.
Now, my central concern in this post is to challenge both the “supporters” and the “critics.” In the end, my hope is that we are more thoughtful in the methods we employ to reach people and in how we respond to those who do things differently than we do.
At the outset, I want to affirm the evangelical impulse to bring people to Jesus. I’m thrilled to see Christians moving out to win the lost. At the same time, we must affirm that how we reach people certainly matters. What we win people with is what, in the end, will keep them. If people in our communities come to our churches because we’ve promised health, wealth, prosperity, or a new car, then when sickness hits, cash doesn’t flow, and the new car goes to someone else, most people will walk away. Following Jesus is hard, and when hard things come, or hard things are promised, those who don’t have the Spirit find somewhere else to go and something else to do (see John 6:66).
Simply put, we should evaluate how we do outreach. We take every thought and idea captive. Nothing is unimportant when it comes to thinking about our evangelistic endeavors. That means when you think about doing this event or employing that strategy, you should pause and consider whether or not a particular approach is actually helpful and wise.
I know it’s popular to quote D. L. Moody here, and I saw more than one person quote him this past Easter season. Sometime around the turn of the 20th century, Moody told someone who questioned his evangelistic methods that he liked his way of doing it rather than their way of not doing it. That’s funny, punchy, and makes a good point. Yet, we can take that idea too far. We can throw that quote out in an attempt to try and kill honest and helpful conversation about methodology. In other words, we can use Moody to imply that conversations about missional methodology are unimportant. I do not believe that’s a good way to use Moody!
Instead, we should be able to talk about egg hunts, Easter bunnies in our churches, and a host of other things without hating one another or finding such conversations silly. The reason we should be able to discuss these things is because methods matter. Questions about whether or not we are highlighting Jesus or paying homage to the cultural captivity of one of the most important holy-days on the Christian calendar are worthwhile. Getting up in arms because someone raises an issue is just as silly as condemning every pastor and church who employs methods that are different than yours.
Disagreeing as Christians
At this point, it seems something needs to be said about Christian disagreement. I do not believe every church that held an egg-stravaganza abandoned the gospel or sold the evangelical farm. Neither do I think those things are the most prudent. Yet, we should be able to disagree without painting each other as archenemies.
When we can’t disagree charitably, we look like the world. Our current culture is in a place where disagreement abounds. In many instances, if you disagree with someone it too often seems to mean either you are being hateful or you are an absolute idiot. Clearly, this is not a Christian way to respond to those with whom we disagree. No, we should disagree as brothers and sisters. Perhaps we disagree vehemently, but at the end of the day, we do so while working hard to understand those on the others side, to speak in loving ways, all the while being eager to maintain our gospel unity.
We need to do better work in this realm. Social media has not helped us and, for the most part, I do not think my tribe (the SBC and evangelicalism) have fared too well when it comes to engaging in public disagreement (whether it is over outreach methods, politics, racial issues, or social justice matters). I know I have tons of work to do in this area and desire, by the power of the Spirit, to respond better to disagreements and criticism while learning how to speak the truth in more loving and humble ways.
Building Up: A Word for Supporters
Now, back to our methods. One of the responses to the critiques over the ways certain churches were seeking to reach their communities was for some pastors to (a) brush aside critics as keyboard happy theologues and (b) to encourage those being critiqued to simply press on.
First, I’m sure there were plenty of keyboard happy theologues who needed brushing off. Yet, I read a number of articles and Tweets on the methodology that were well-written, humbly approached, and warranted a listening ear.
Second, it is right to encourage pastors as they seek to be faithful. I’m grateful there are pastors and Christians out there that are cheering each other on. We need more of that, not less. However, that does not mean we do so in a way that implies how you are doing outreach is irrelevant. I noticed more than one pastor offer words of encouragement that were stated in such a way that the implication was inescapable: methods do not matter. As long as you are doing something to reach people, “I’m for you.” Honestly, that sounds more like the spirit of our age than biblical wisdom.
I have had to give that some thought here in my own context. I live in a town where we have one particular church that believes the best outreach strategy is to buy poster board, write hateful messages on them, stand on a corner, and yell at people. Would anyone look at them and say, “Pastor, whatever you’re doing to reach people, I’m for you!”? I hope we’d look at their methods, filter them through biblical and missiological wisdom, and say, “No!”
So, those of you who were prone to cheer on others who were seeking to reach people with the gospel, keep leaning into encouragement. Yet, don’t lean that way to the neglect of wisdom.
Tearing Down: A Word for Critics
Now, for the constant critic. Stop. Take a breath. You do not have to worry about everything and every church. We need constructive criticism in evangelicalism. We need iron to sharpen iron. We do not need a continual barrage of criticism that never lets up, never encourages, and always beats down.
I wonder why we feel we need to worry about everyone else all the time. Why do I feel the need to pastor the church down the street? One of the things I’ve tried to get into the habit of doing is cutting off conversations about what this church or that church is doing when it turns to criticism. There have been times in my own church where people have started to speak negatively of other churches. I listen for a moment, but try as quickly and clearly as possible to remind the person talking to me that I am not the pastor of the church down the street. What I’m called to do is lead my church in the healthiest direction I can. Again, that doesn’t mean we don’t level critique in appropriate ways and in the proper settings, but I do not feel the need to pastor everybody else’s church.
To those who looked at the various methods employed to reach communities this Easter, I believe you are right to evaluate what you see. At times, offering critique (even in written form) is appropriate. Yet, in so doing, make sure you are not becoming a source of constant discouragement and continual beatings. In the end, you’re not helping.
Conclusion: The Aim is Gospel Flourishing
In the end, I do think how we reach our communities matters. Our methods are not necessarily issues of indifference. There are certainly ways we could go about our mission that work against the flourishing of the good news. We could confuse the gospel by the very means we are using to clearly proclaim it. Therefore, we are right to debate and discuss and critique how we do outreach.
At the same time, we can critique so often and in such ways that we also hurt the cause. We can sow division, discourage Christians, and lose the chance to offer a thoughtful critique that gains a hearing. Just as how we do outreach matters, how we do criticism also matters.
In the end, what we all should want is to see the good news of Jesus Christ run and flourish. The careful and honest critic should aim at helping us think carefully about our evangelistic strategies so that the gospel is clearly and faithfully proclaimed and many come to saving faith. Those who employ creative outreach methods should continue to take their thoughts captive and welcome humble and honest critique. As we work together, cheering each other on, our deepest desire is that those in our neighborhoods and among the nations would hear and believe the gospel, for their joy and the glory of Christ.
Toward that end, may the Spirit of our Lord help us link arms and work together for the fame of his name.