About Eric Hoey

  • Eric Hoey

  • Eric Hoey is the Director of Evangelism and Church Growth for the General Assembly Mission Council of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). He hopes to build a culture of faith sharing among individuals in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) who have a passion for church growth. This blog considers what the gospel asks of the church in the 21st century.
  • Evangelism and Church Growth

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November 11, 2010

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Robert DeFazio

I come from a background in which evangelism was understood to be a declamatory action directed toward sinners in need of salvation. While the need was technically true, the method was off putting and did more to discourage genuine seeking than it did to bring people to an awareness of their spiritual state. Now 40 years later, it is painfully obvious to me when I look back at the history of confrontational Christianity that what is needed is not necessarily conciliatory Christianity but rather a befriending Christianity that does not exhibit spiritual xenophobia when a woman with a headscarf approaches or when a one encounters a person with a thick foreign accent. The church in which I was raised was very big, very well off, and very white. I don't mean to say that it was racist because it wasn't. It was, however, not friendly to the surrounding neighborhoods which were largely filled with people of color. Each Sunday the congregation sang hymns like "Stand Up, Stand Up For Jesus" and "Onward Christian Soldiers," but when 12 o'clock came, everyone went directly home. They did not pass GO, and they did not collect $200. They bypassed entire blocks of people who would have welcomed friendships, and perhaps they could have taught us a thing or two about faith and commitment.

Being a friend has to come first. I realize that there are some whose sense of urgency with regard to the state of others' souls makes them feel that the touchy-feely aspects of friendship require too much time, especially when one's soul is at stake, but often the offer of friendship can fill a massive void in a person's life and create a receptive environment for a Christian to articulate his faith in a meaningful way.

I don't believe that friendship leads to conversion any more than taking a deep breath in a pine forest leads to having good breath. I have friends who are avowed atheists, and my friendship has done nothing to change their minds, but there seems to be a confluence of friendship and conversion throughout history. So I take the path shown to be most successful in history with respect to persuasion, and I leave it to the theologians argue over whether salvation is purely a work of God's grace or whether a person can cooperate in his salvation.

What I think is most important is that people discuss their beliefs and their faith with others who do not share the same perspective. Perfect candor and the vulnerabillity of exposing one's private thoughts about God and life and consequences of actions assist not only those to whom we speak. They also assist us, the speakers, in examining our own beliefs; when we have to say out loud what we think in our minds, it sometimes can become an occasion to become more honest with ourselves.

At the heart of the question of evangelism (and I do believe it is a real question in today's world) are two competing ideas in the Christian church. One is that the object of faith is to yield a peaceful life; the other is that faith should be a disruptive element in human history that provokes mankind to come face to face with the living God. For those who are advocates of the peace agenda, evangelism that creates lines of demarcation can be and is often construed as a threat to that objective. For those who adhere to the disruption agenda, such evangelism is highly desirable. As a result, the definition of "evangelism" is itself a matter of debate because the underlying rationale for its existence in the vocabulary of the church is very much undecided. In the wake of having chosen not to decide the question for fear that the decision making process itself may cause "division" in the church, many denominations look to other areas to engage in activities that can be said by others to be the fulfillment of the church's mission. Feeding the hungry, pursuing social justice, and so forth, frankly, are much softer targets since they don't really involve changing someone else's mind. Delivering meals or marching in a protest are things that can be quantified and analyzed. The results can be displayed in a PowerPoint presentation, and everyone can agree on the success or lack thereof of meeting stated goals. Evangelism's results are not as easy to measure, and to be honest, we are probably not equipped to measure its success. That we have to leave in the hands of God.

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