There’s a big Evangelical church in most communities. Multi-site. Well known lead pastor. Prominent location by an interstate. I imagine you may have a church like this near you.
The church implements a lot of very aggressive evangelism strategies. Maybe they distribute posters in the folders at elementary school inviting the whole school to a bible study, circumventing district policies.
The church unapologetically evangelizes everyone all the time, regardless of church affiliation, often using youth events as a primary evangelical event.
I have not done an exhaustive study of Evangelical strategy using the children of their congregation as primary evangelists. But I do see the effects of their strategy. It’s effective. It sometimes leads to disappointment or awkwardness. It’s very common.
Employing children as evangelists is an astute strategy, since the second most common reason adults attend church is so their children will have a moral foundation (although, and I report this with considerable trepidation, it may be the case that there is actually a negative affiliation between religiousness and child altruism, for example). Whether it’s ethical is another question.
How (Not) To Be An Evangelizing Hypocrite
It’s a tricky thing, evangelizing in a context where the majority of folks are already connected to a church. Heck, I’m the pastor of a smaller church ministering in the shadow of multiple mega-churches, but I still struggle with this. I don’t want to draw anyone away from their current faith community, but I know that some of our publicity and evangelism still ends up inviting the already affiliated.
So… you can see why a large church would just decide to evangelize everyone, including active members of other congregations. Statistically this is how most megachurches grow, by drawing members from other churches (estimates are as much as 96% of church growth is by transfer).
As the pastor of a smaller church (and specifically, a smaller church who understands discipleship in the way of Jesus VERY differently from the way Evangelicals understand it), much of this can be frustrating. I can feel envy, because oh my gosh they’re spends incredible amount of time and money on production values! I can feel defensive, because it’s my own children, and the youth of my congregation, who are targeted. I can feel self-righteous, because we’re not doing what they’re doing.
It’s then I realize our way of evangelizing may not appear so different. We do invite and publicize our events.
I do want to invite children into another way of being church, and I do want to reach people who are currently disconnected from a community of faith.
So then I scold myself for the hypocrisy of my judgmentalism. Maybe I’m just a sore loser, because this church, and other mega-churches, are the ones growing at the fastest clip in the new church economy, siphoning off the largest share of worship attendees.
So What Can We Do?
There are a few things we can do as response to aggressive evangelization. As a pastor, I recommend the following.
- Talk in advance with your children about some of the reasons you are committed to your faith community, and why although you hold no ill will towards other faith communities, you won’t necessarily allow them to attend events at churches whose ministry departs so significantly from your values.
- Encourage them to attend, but give them some critical tools while they attend. Maybe do a break-down of the event after it’s over. Treat it like an interfaith visit to a community outside your tradition.
- Go talk to the leaders of that congregation. Let them know what it is like to be the target of such evangelization.
- Familiarize yourself with methods of sharing the good news that accompany the neighbor in their need. Know the difference between sharing faith, and proselytization. Basically, if you’re sharing the good news simply because it’s good news to you, you’re doing it right. If you’re sharing it to convert somebody, you’re doing it wrong.
- Volunteer to coordinate and lead youth ministries in your own church that are even better, and more consonant with your values, than the mega-church events. I think it was Cyprian who said if the Romans get everyone attending gladiatorial combats, it’s the churches job to put on a better spectacle.
- Learn your own tradition’s comparable understanding of salvation and baptism. For example, if you’re a Lutheran, remember that each time you go forward for Communion in worship, it is like a call to conversion. And remember that you don’t need to be re-baptized to be saved, because God’s promises are for real the first time. As one who trusts God’s grace, you don’t have to accept Jesus into your heart to be saved, but rather even faith itself is a gift from God. You can trust that Christ has claimed you as God’s beloved. Etc.
Get A Giant Slice Of Gender Conformity With Your JesusReturning to that youth event poster (above), the primary reason I would not encourage anyone to let their children attend events at many Evangelical churches is rather simple: they preach and teach complementarian gender dogma, “the view that a wife should ‘submit herself graciously’ to her husband’s leadership and authority, as a declaration written up and adopted at the SBC meeting in 1998 put it.”
Much of the Evangelical world is also not simply a participant, but a leader, in the war against full inclusion of the LGBTQ+ community in the church, and LGBTQ+ equality more generally. Remember that at their big assemblies they preach something like this. They think same-gender love is a sin to be fought rather than an orientation to be stewarded in relationship. They finds it unfathomable that Christians might celebrate same-gender love as beautiful and beloved of God. In 2015, in the linked speech at the SBC national convention, the preacher calls the Obergefell decision a “Bonhoeffer moment” for Christians. Good Lord.
They write books with titles like The Gay Agenda. Really.
So when my own children are being evangelized, it isn’t just that they’re being invited to a friendly event with cool games and great music. No, they’re potentially being invited to an event where they will learn their baptism wasn’t the right kind of baptism, their faith isn’t the right kind of faith if it didn’t include certain special forms of saving prayers, and their gender identity or sexual orientation have to conform to the Evangelical version of such.
That’s a lot, y’all. That’s really a lot. I mean, it’s one thing to be over here minding my own business while the Evangelical folks do their thing over there.
It’s a whole other thing when they start recruiting our children, pressuring my parishioner’s children to attend their events, and invading our public schools with their specific religious agenda and events.
A Bonhoeffer Moment
How about this? If this is really a Bonhoeffer moment, might I encourage those who think it is to learn from Bonhoeffer’s actual theology and ministry? Bonhoeffer was an amazing ecumenical theologian who learned from and engaged Christians of different views from his own. When he came to the United States to attend Union Theological Seminary, he didn’t go to the Bronx in order to make German Lutherans out of the African-American churches there. Instead, he sat with them, listened to them, allowed his own faith to be shaped and deepened by the engagement.
I really wish evangelicals would pause and read my friend Andrew Root’s book Bonhoeffer As Youth Minister, then adapt some of his practices to better reflect Bonhoeffer’s winning approach.
The only time Bonhoeffer dug in his heels and stubbornly said, “No” was in order to protect Jews from the damage that was caused by the Aryan clause introduced into the church. If and when such a moment might come up in the United States, certainly churches would need to take a similarly firm stand, but it would be for the sake of a minority threatened by the state, not to keep the state from expanding protections for an historically marginalized group.
Especially when you are the elephant in the room, if you are going to accompany others in faith along the journey of faith, you’re going to need to walk carefully. You’ve got big feet. Each step you take has a massive impact. So instead of trying to make an even bigger impact on the community along the lines of your clear (and frequently problematic agenda) maybe you want to show up among other Christians in our community and listen for a while?