Dear Sisters and Brothers,
As I travel around our Diocese, I hear the same question in many of our congregations. How can we make our church grow? What are some techniques we can employ to get more people like us into our pews?
Another group of congregations tell me--sometimes intentionally, sometimes unintentionally--that they are resigned to stagnation or to decline. They say, "We cannot get more people like us into our pews."
While we should never be driven by numbers like Average Sunday Attendance, our common lives as faith communities should be animated by the teachings of Jesus. Chief among those teachings is the Great Commission. Jesus himself defines our communities as disciple-making organisms. (Matthew 28:19-20)
Evangelism is a core Christian practice. But our practice of evangelism is not well-developed. I don't mean to say that we're not out there pounding on doors and handing out pamphlets. Instead, we often misconstrue just what evangelism is.
Here are some key key misconceptions about evangelism:
- Evangelism is fundamentally a process of
convincing people to share our beliefs.
- Evangelism aims to attract more people like us into our Sunday services.
- The chief measures for the success of evangelism are average Sunday attendance and membership numbers.
Evangelism is a ministry of hospitality. Our chief purpose is to help people feel at home in the family of Christ. Before anything else, we freely offer an invitation to the stranger to belong.
The key to issuing such an invitation is our own openness to let a stranger into our lives, and by so doing inviting them to share in the life of Jesus Christ. Being hospitable begins with listening. Not with telling people what they have to believe or how they have to act. Hospitality begins by listening to the lives of others.
The Henri Nouwen Society sends a daily email, and Monday's email contained these winsome words about listening:
Listening is much more than allowing another to talk
while waiting for a chance to respond. Listening is paying
full attention to others and welcoming them into our very
beings. The beauty of listening is that, those who are
listened to start feeling accepted, start taking their words
more seriously and discovering their own true selves.
Listening is a form of spiritual hospitality by which you
invite strangers to become friends, to get to know their
inner selves more fully, and even to dare to be silent with
In addition to assuming a listening posture, followers of Jesus do not sit around waiting to for people to show up in church so that we can listen. We go out into the world seeking to hear the world's needs and sorrows, joys and triumphs.
Congregations become listeners to their surrounding community. Vital congregations listen to their surrounding schools, neighborhoods, town councils, homeless population, families. Many of these people are probably not like those of us already in the pews. But when we listen to them, they begin to experience that they belong to us.
Some will experience that belonging in the outreach we provide to them. Others will experience that belonging more deeply as they attend programs at our church, Bible studies in our homes, or an occasional worship service. Still others will take hold of that belonging most deeply by becoming members and even leaders of our congregations.
If church becomes for any of us merely a destination for our own personal worship, we have simply missed the point. We have also missed the point if we think that evangelism is about convincing other people to make our own church their destination for their personal worship.
Church is not a worship destination. It is a living, active, disciple-making community. Evangelism is a core practice that defines that community. We are the community whose mission involves extending hospitality to the stranger right where the stranger lives. Our hospitality helps them to realize that they already belong to Jesus Christ.
In Christ's Love,
The Rt. Rev. Jacob W. Owensby, PhD, DD The Diocese of Western Louisiana
P. O. Box 2031, Alexandria, LA 71309