Recently I was reminded of an old Peanuts cartoon. Linus and Sally are walking together with their lunch boxes. Over the first three frames, Sally says, “I would have made a good evangelist. You know that kid who sits behind me at school? I convinced him that my religion is better than his.” In the final frame, Linus asks, “How’d you do that?” to which Sally responds, “I hit him with my lunch box!”
Most Christians I know have desperately missed their church during the COVID-19 pandemic. But one thing most mainline Protestants don’t seem to miss is evangelism. And part of the reason they don’t miss it is that many imagine that evangelism is pretty similar to Sally’s understanding. The result is that many mainline Protestants have been more than happy to embrace an idea falsely attributed to St. Francis of Assisi, “Everywhere you go preach the gospel. If necessary, use words.”
For Wesleyans and Franciscans, this sentiment is entirely problematic. Franciscan scholars find no evidence Francis ever said these words. Furthermore, the phrase goes against the overarching sentiment of his ministry, the focus of which was preaching. Remember St. Francis thought proclaiming the gospel with words was so important that he preached to the animals! As for Wesleyans, the phrase cuts against the heart of the church’s evangelistic task to announce the good news of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection, and his coming kingdom.
In this series, I’m exploring how various aspects of discipleship may change after COVID-19. In the previous article, I discussed the Methodist practice of family worship. Family worship was the Methodist practice of gathering all in a household, be it family, guests, or farmworkers, whoever was in the house that day, to pray, sing, read the Bible, and hear a short exhortation. In many ways this practice was as important to Methodism as society meetings, class meetings, and field preaching, for it was in family worship that people first learned to discuss their faith, to pray out loud, and to preach. The Christian life was learned in the Methodist home and then confirmed in society and class meetings. Today many Christians seem eager for local churches to facilitate the bulk of discipleship and family nurture. As more people are vaccinated there will be a rush to return to “normal” church life. But Methodists would be wise, I argue, to reimagine what family worship looks like today and stop outsourcing key aspects of family discipleship to local churches.
In this article, I want to think about how evangelism may shift after COVID-19. For Methodists, the heart of evangelism has always been the announcement of the gospel story. In early Methodism, evangelism began in field preaching. Field preaching, the practice of preaching anywhere outside a church pulpit, is often seen as the archetype of Methodist evangelism and it was the setting in which most people first encountered Methodism. Importantly, people who came to field preaching were invited to engage the gospel in a deeper way at the smaller and more personal society and class Meetings where they were further evangelized. But the most personal place for conversation about the gospel and what it means to be a disciple took place in family worship and in pastoral visits by preachers and class leaders.
Evangelism after COVID will still model this move from large and impersonal gatherings toward more intimate conversation but I think the emphasis may shift. Over the past fifty years, the emphasis in mainline Protestantism has been either to ignore evangelism entirely or to emphasize large group evangelism. Denominations that continue to denigrate evangelism will continue to decline in membership and become more and more irrelevant on the religious landscape. But movements that embrace the imperative to evangelize may shift in three key ways after COVID.
First, the place of initial encounter of the gospel will become more digital. The Holy Spirit is still alive and well, inviting people into a relationship with the living God. But most people will shift to an online exploration of Christianity instead of in large “Billy Graham Crusades” or even in visiting worship services. Churches and movements that thrive in the coming years will have vibrant online evangelism that exposes people to Christianity and sets the stage for further exploration.
Second, vibrant churches will offer a user-friendly process into a more personal conversation in small groups, both digital and face to face. Zoom has transformed Christian small groups forever. While many groups will go back to in-person small groups, my guess is vibrant churches, instead of just leaving an open chair at small groups for guests, will leave an open Zoom meeting for any who want to check out a group as well as for regular attenders who are either sick or traveling. Furthermore, many churches will keep some Zoom-only meetings for people who want to explore Christianity but who are apprehensive of the in-person setting.
Finally, vibrant churches will train their members to share their faith well. Instead of leaving personal evangelism to pastors, laity will claim their role as the church’s primary evangelists. They will be able to articulate what and why they believe and also be able to invite people into the life of faith. This most personal and important type of evangelism has and always will be personal, but it too may become more digital after COVID. But my guess is it will remain primarily a face-to-face activity.
In summary, evangelism will remain a process of engaging the Christian story in ever more personal settings, but digital formats and intentional training will become increasingly important to vibrant churches.