“If we don’t make evangelism a priority, we will slowly but surely revert to the easier position of adopting a silent strategy of relying on transfer growth. That in itself is a massive issue – albeit hardly a new one. But when this mindset creeps into church planting networks, it is even more toxic.”
13 years ago, I made my first trip to Sydney. I came at the invitation of John Chapman and David Mansfield to spend a month working with the Dept. of Evangelism in the Sydney Diocese. It was a real eye-opener for me. Everywhere I went, it seemed like people were doing evangelism. Guest events in church. Dialogue dinners, evangelistic barbecues, men’s events, women’s events. You name it, it was happening. Everyone was learning Two Ways to Live, and new courses were coming out regularly. I went back to Dublin humbled, challenged and refocused on getting the gospel out more courageously and effectively. But 13 years on?
It could just be me, but I’m pretty sure that evangelism has slipped down our agenda. Church planting has, it seems, taken up the headspace that was once occupied by evangelism. And much as I love church planting (it’s what we did in Ireland), it does provide more places for people to hide who don’t want to talk about Jesus to their friends. Similarly, I don’t hear of many churches who are doing evangelism training these days. So what are we to do? We need to get evangelism right back on the agenda. We really do.
Of course, church planting and evangelism aren’t opposites – or at least they shouldn’t be. Any church planting worth its salt is based on getting the gospel out to new people in new areas or new demographics. The church planting we all long to see is about seeing new people added to the kingdom, not transfer growth. But I wonder if there is something we need to face up to here?
We all know that transfer growth is something we should be seen to be against (even if we quietly say ‘But you know what? They’ll be much better off in our church anyway!’). But our real attitude to transfer growth is seen in the priority and energy and focused prayer we give to evangelism. If we aren’t pouring ourselves into the work of evangelism, then by default, we are just doing church in the hope that people show up. If we are honest, we’ll know in our heart of hearts that the people most likely to show up aren’t real outsiders, but those who have moved to the area, or who are on the lookout (for all kinds of admirable and not so admirable reasons) for a new church home. This is the default setting of most established churches – if we don’t make evangelism a priority, we will slowly but surely revert to the easier position of adopting a silent strategy of relying on transfer growth. That in itself is a massive issue – albeit hardly a new one. But when this mindset creeps into church planting networks, it is even more toxic.
One doesn’t to have read hundreds of books on church planting to know that in a church plant, the pressure is on from day one to grow. The key question, of course, is how are we going to grow? And this is where it gets really tricky. None of us wants to steal people from other churches (although a little bit of recruiting key people from other ministries is almost always necessary in the start-up phase). But on the other hand, for the church planter, numbers are (very nearly) everything.