According to Ed Stetzer in ‘Planting Missional Churches‘, people in our postmodern culture are open to all sorts of ‘spirituality’. We certainly see this in Niddrie, particularly in our community cafe. People talk about all sorts of things: horoscopes, Ouija boards, tarot cards, spiritists, mediums (still trying to work out the difference between the last two), witches, magic, aliens and mysticism etc.
It can often seem that non Christians are more open about their (so-called) ‘spiritual lives’ than many Christian believers who sometimes seem to shrink from publicly espousing their beliefs. Yet, this mishmash of ‘pop culture spirituality’ can give us a real connection point in schemes for engaging people in conversation about the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. If it’s that easy then why aren’t we seeing more success in our evangelistic endeavours in the UK? Stetzer writes:
‘Postmoderns want a spirituality that is applicable to all areas of life, not one that only lasts for an hour on Sunday morning but one they can rely on all week. They eschew a spirituality that doesn’t “work” – bring peace, improve relationships and quality of life’. (p136)
That’s a hard one isn’t it because it can sometimes appear that Western culture has, largely, reduced the faith to an intellectual series of prepackaged studies, groups and meetings rather than a living relationship with Almighty God. Stetzer’s words ring true if our evangelism is a “course” or an “event” that we invite our friends and neighbours along to. Much of what passed for evangelism in Niddrie when I first came was the usual: tracts, maybe some door knocking, the odd “special guest speaker event” and an invite to a Sunday service. None of these things were and are necessarily wrong but they were just not working in our context. Christians were doing what Christians do and that was to import these so-called tried and tested means of evangelism and apply them to an area which they did not understand culturally. Because people didn’t respond it was therefore disregarded as “the day of small things” and believers went about their business happy in the knowledge that they were doing their part and the worldly were just being hard-hearted, rebellious and, well, worldly.
The battle, in the early days, was to get people to see that evangelism as a natural way of life and daily conversation, and it was not easy. When we stopped handing out tracts, knocking on doors and singing Carols in the street, I was accused (by a vocal few) of killing “evangelism and the gospel”. Yet, when I encouraged these same believers to engage with locals, find out what questions they were asking (and still are), get involved in their lives and share their faith with them naturally, I was treated like some sort of modern day liberal, emergent, tree hugging leper. The point is, that when I first came to the scheme I was told by many believers (inside and outside of Niddrie) there that it was a ”hard” place spiritually, “a spiritual graveyard”. Why? Generally, because local people weren’t responding to the church’s “evangelism”. Yet, the reality, as Stetzer points out, is that people were spiritually hungry and were, in fact, chasing after any old mumbo jumbo in an effort to assuage their culturally, supernaturalistic bent (ignored as worldliness by those who bothered to even discover this bit of information). Sometimes we forget that evangelism is just as much about listening and observation as it is about declaration (Acts 17).
In Niddrie we find that much of our evangelism (and discipleship) gets done in giving a lift home, or to the supermarket or post office or outside the cafe having a quick cigarette and a 10 minute conversation. It happens on the way to the footie or at the gym. It takes more than an ‘event’ or a piece of literature – it requires actually engaging with people and getting involved in the mess of their lives. How much of our Christianity in the West is about that? How many people in our churches even have the time to pursue active relationships with people outside of their busy lives and schedules? I recently attended a meeting in Scotland and was asked why churches aren’t more active in housing schemes. My response was that there were a number of reasons, fear probably among them. One member became very agitated and felt I had overstepped the mark. ‘I’m not scared,’ he blustered, ‘I work 80 hours a week. I’m just too busy!’ (Tragically, he seemed proud of this statement rather than abashed by it).
In my experience people in schemes are extremely spiritually hungry and their ears do prick up when they begin to see that the Bible has got some really good things to speak into their lives. The problem is that evangelism and discipleship require huge amounts of time and effort that many believers are just not prepared to give. Many courses on the market can be done in a matter of weeks but the average time we have needed to spend with our recently converted has been about 12-18 months going over the basics again and again. That’s just the start of our spiritual journey in Christ together!
Does that mean we eschew Bible study or don’t use course? On the contrary, we positively revel in studying the Bible. We find verse by verse study to be one of the most effective means of evangelism and discipleship on the scheme. There are also some great courses/books we have adapted to suit our context. I just think that when we are evangelising we need to make sure we are evangelising and not treating the gospel like a seminar presentation. Look at the people around you? Who are they? What do they believe? How are they living their lives? Why are they acting as they do? How does the gospel come to bear into those situations? What has happened in their lives that has caused them to believe what they do today? Are we even addressing real, cultural defeater beliefs or just imagined and imposed ones from our own understanding of the world? Big questions we need to be constantly asking ourselves as we seek to evangelise in our communities.