23 March 2012
When We Reduce Evangelism to Membership
Former ELCA Presiding Bishop, Herbert Chilstrom, has commented on how the word "evangelical" has been hijacked by more conservative religious and political traditions.
I don't disagree. However, I think the greater threat to our understanding of what it means to be "evangelical" is not a hijacking at the hands of outsiders, but how the term is being reduced by insiders - by us.
We have reduced "evangelism" to one meaning - the conversion of visitors to members, and the metric of successful evangelism as the rate at which these conversions take place.
Gospel: A Means to an end
Of course, the words "evangelism" and "evangelical" has nothing to do with membership. It comes from the Greek word meaning "good news" - as in the good news of Jesus Christ. Evangelism is about announcing God's grace - setting people free in the Gospel, in the love and grace of God - not for anything they have done, but by what God has done in Christ.
Our conversations about evangelism rarely have to do with the Gospel. Or, equally disappointing, the Gospel is only seen as means to an end.
Perhaps this is inevitable. Instituions, at least as they have been structured, are hungry creatures, which need to feed themselves with ever more new members and new resources, in order to make new programs and attract more people. As money gets tight in this economy and attendance declines this tendency becomes even more pronounced. But when we think of evangelism only through this lens we diminish the Gospel and tend to see people as resources for the church rather than fellow sinners and saints who need the Gospel too.
The ROI of Digital Ministry
People apply this same mindset to digital ministry, reducing the goal of digital ministry to simply adding members. They calculate the return on investment by dividing the amount of time spent online by the number of members produced.
There is no doubt that an effective use of social media and websites can and does lead to new members in our congregations. We've seen it ourselves. However, the benefits of digital ministry are much broader than that.
At a recent adult forum at Redeemer, I outlined these major benefits to our work in social media:
- Sharing the Gospel
- Community Building
- Newcomers and New Members
- Helping and Learning from the Larger Church
- Cultural Fluency
At the top of the list is sharing the Gospel without regard for how it translates into numbers - because as soon as you start playing the numbers you veer into marketing and can find yourself undermining your own digital ministry presence.
Ultimately, the ROI (return on investment) in digital minsitry is people set free in the Gospel. If they become a member of my or some other church, that's fantastic, but ultimately it is the Gospel at stake and that's what I've get across in the way I relate and the content I share.
Sellers and Designers
In his biography, Steve Jobs (who I realize is becoming a recurring character in this blog) said that the reason companies - even great companies - die is that, at a certain point, they take the company out of the hands of the designers and put it in the hands of sales people. He says, “The company does a great job, innovates and becomes a monopoly or close to it in some field, and then the quality of the product becomes less important. The company starts valuing the great salesman, because they’re the ones who can move the needle on revenues.”
This eventually reduces the mission of the company to selling rather than caring about creating a great experience for customers.
The church needs to shift out of its sales mentality when it comes to its evangelism and digital ministry and embrace the spirit of design, where we are crafting meaningful relationships and experiences, whether they are on Facebook, in worship, or in the neighborhood. Indeed, some of the most exciting ministries within the church are the places where the emphasis is on designing or redesigning community, worship, spiritual practice, and what it means to be the church now.
There is very little we can do about the way people beyond our tradition use or misuse the word evangelical, but there is a lot we can do to start reclaiming the full and deep meaning of the word for ourselves, our congregations, and our church.
Do you see this in your ministry setting? How do you try to broaden your ministry's understanding of evangelism?