Evangelicals Today — Evangelicals and the Great Commission: Lessons for Catholics

The center of gravity for evangelical Protestant world mission is southern California. It was here that a group of evangelical foundations and wealthy donors gathered to discuss “world strategy” for promoting evangelism in developing countries, Eastern Europe, and the Pacific Rim. While not entirely free of problems, the focus, commitment, and sophistication of these evangelicals has much to recommend it. A little practical ecumenism with these evangelicals might just help to move the much discussed “new evangelization” among Catholics to a new level of implementation.

The funders gathered at the conference, like many evangelicals, have been much influenced by “church growth” thinking, a strategy, as the name indicates, for promoting the numerical growth of evangelicalism. The church growth movement was pioneered by Donald McGavran, Ralph Winter, Peter Wagner, and others at places like the Fuller Theological Seminary, and the U.S. Center for World Mission, in Pasadena, California. The church growth approach is characterized by a heavy use of social science, researching the most effective means of evangelism through empirical testing, and by a focus on reaching “unreached” people in their social group.

Although originally held in suspicion by many evangelicals, church growth ideas now appear to have permeated evangelical thinking far and wide. The various strategies described by different evangelists at the conference, e.g., “Indonesia One, One, One” (one church in every one village, in one generation), “Taking Our Cities for God,” “DAWN” (discipling a whole nation), “Saturation Church Planting,” all directly build in various ways on church growth principles.

The truly impressive feature of the evangelicals that engage in church growth strategizing is their single- minded devotion to spreading the Gospel of Christ wherever any signs of openness can be discerned. This devotion was much in evidence at the conference. These people and others like them are putting their fortunes, some large, some small, at the service of worldwide evangelism. The formula of one evangelical foundation epitomized the general attitude toward dispersing income: “Be strategic = greatest impact for Christ’s Kingdom; Be leveraged = greatest multiplication of your money.”

Planned giving is taken to a new level. By controlling personal expenditures within planned limits, and setting levels beyond which capital for retirement and provision for children does not continue to accumulate, even moderately well-to-do people can give vast sums over the course of their lifetime. Some of these evangelicals, using the tools of financial and estate planning, are really giving it away, often 50, 60, or 70 percent of their annual income.

Donors are encouraged to do more than just contribute funds, they are challenged to be actively involved. The focus of the conference was on giving these donors a chance to hear directly from people “on the frontline” of evangelism and learn about ways that they can participate. The frontline is generally regarded as territory outside the western world. Indeed, it is from areas outside the First World that most of the numerical growth of evangelicalism is taking place. The success rate of evangelical evangelism is a source of great confidence and excitement. Speakers described advances in Nepal, Indonesia, Argentina, the republics of the former Soviet Union, and other areas. Even accounting for inflated numbers, the fact of extensive evangelical growth in many parts of the world is empirically indisputable.

The attitude regarding developed countries was considerably less optimistic. Everyone was in agreement that the United States, for example, has become a very difficult place to evangelize and is becoming more so. In fact, Charles Colson of Prison Fellowship told the conference that church growth in the United States is often achieved at the expense of the integrity of the message. A longer-term focus on apologetics, moral education, and the kind of practical service of the needy that witnesses to genuine faith is needed.

 

Away from the West, the pace of evangelical missionary activity is quickening. One speaker, from Hong Kong, admiringly described the new advance of the Gospel as proceeding by “holy chaos.” Earlier efforts were the province of the “Holy Orders,” Franciscans and Jesuits. Evangelical evangelistic activity over the past 30 years, however, has been an explosion of disconnected efforts, some indigenous and some directly spurred by missionaries coming from the United States. While this overall confusion, not to mention outright competition, leads to a considerable “circulation of the saints” between evangelical churches, it leaves the vineyard open to any and all laborers who feel called to attend to the harvest. A free market in evangelistic opportunities has spurred a tremendous level of creativity and activity in reaching an ever expanding number of “people groups.”

“The days of paternalism are over. Christians in the Third World expect to be seen as partners in taking the whole Gospel to the whole world.” These words are from one of the speakers’ foundation policy handbooks, which he distributed at the conference. A commitment to partnership with local Christians by the U.S.-based organizations seemed genuinely present. None of the jingoistic Americanism that is so often associated with evangelicals was felt.

On the other hand, evangelical mission efforts seem imbued with American attitudes and approaches. One Third World participant jokingly referred to the American desire for instant results. Yet the longest phase of his own program to “take for Christ a city” of 8,000,000 was two-and-a-half years.

 

By chance, an article was published during the week of the conference by the theologian Avery Dulles, S.J., on “John Paul II and the New Evangelization.” The “new evangelization,” a phrase of John Paul Ts, building on the Second Vatican Council and Pope Paul VI, refers both to the primary evangelism of those who have not heard the Gospel and to the re-evangelism of those Christians who no longer have a living sense of the faith. The concept and its implications are carefully laid out by Dulles in his exegesis of the pope’s writings. What kept coming back to me during the conference, however, were the few actual efforts being made to implement the new evangelism. Of the U.S. efforts cited by Dulles, all were either statements by the hierarchy, or the formation of bishops’ committees. While such statements and committees are necessary and by no means exhaust evangelistic efforts by Catholics in this country, being among the evangelicals I could not help wondering where the Catholic fire is. How many well-heeled Catholics are meeting and strategizing about how to disperse the bulk of their income for the new evangelization?

The witness of the evangelicals has much to teach Catholics. Some of the lessons are positive, some negative. Among the positive elements, for example, are the commitment, enthusiasm, and willingness to sacrifice for the cause of evangelism; the de-centralization of effort that allows for broad participation and bold new endeavors; the partnership approach with Christians of other countries; the efficiency of administrative procedure; and the creative use of the mass media. Among the negative lessons, the bean-counting focus stands out. Excessive concern with growth saps enthusiasm as soon as results slow, and leads to avoiding areas where growth is not quickly forthcoming. Slowed results or competition for souls can lead to over-aggressive proselytism, marketing, and fundraising techniques unworthy of the Gospel. Hurried conversions can easily fail to deepen; the converted are racked up as so many statistics for the hastening of the Second Coming, while pastoral care and sanctification is left to take care of itself.

Before worrying too much about such negative elements, however, the first need is to appropriate the positive. Perhaps through a new ecumenism between evangelicals and Catholics, as Fr. Dulles suggests, Protestant evangelicals can help Catholics come to a renewed and vital focus on evangelization, while Catholics can help evangelicals overcome some of the pitfalls of their imbalances. Anti-Catholic and anti-sect attitudes are all too real on the respective sides, yet pockets of genuine openness exist. An ecumenical convergence would foster the spread of the Good News, “world mission,” and “new evangelization” together. And, as John’s Gospel indicates, Christian unity and the credibility of our witness are intertwined.

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At the time this article was published, Joseph E. Davis was program director for a Catholic foundation.

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