Promoting Christ-centred Biblical Ministry

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What is Working Overseas?
reprinted from the May 2003 edition of Essentials


   In the post-modern, post-Christendom cosmopolitan Western climate openness to spiritual matters abounds in many, though decidedly not all, contexts. Wherever I recently visited in the U.S. and Europe, a vast range of opportunities in evangelism presented themselves for those with eyes to see, energy and a willingness to "have a go". Response is far from revival. Rather, it is deliberative and thoughtful, over significant time - usually years. Adrian Lane reflects on models of evangelism and church-planting witnessed in the North American and European contexts.
   The non-Christians and new Christians I met were wary of "quick fixes" and slick presentations that had little room for the ambiguity, complexity and pain so obvious in our world, and so inherent in the post-modern mind and character.
   This seems especially so after September 11. On the other hand, where the faith is explained and lived out with integrity, vulnerability and transparency, acknowledging limitations and unknowns, where it relates to the whole person in conversation with the broken and confusing world in which they dwell, people are drawn to God. They begin a journey that ultimately leads to seminal faith, to a "making sense" of their life in the context of the world and to a process of healing from numerous bruises. Adrian Lane lectures at Ridley College in evangelism, preaching and pastoral care. 
   This calls for a more integrated, honest and risky commitment to faith sharing on the part of Christians, together with constant prayerful thoughtfulness, creativity, hard work, skill and experience. While the gospel stands as an objective truth (speaking in "modern" terms), its presentation needs to be accompanied by the "subjective" experience of transformation it calls for and has wrought in believers' lives - just as the first apostles testified in Acts 3:1216; 11: 1 - 18; 22:1-21 and 26:2-29. Of course, for this to occur, a prerequisite for believers is to be real and honest with themselves about their own faith and persons.
   Traditional approaches   
  I was pleasantly surprised to see the fruitfulness of traditional approaches, albeit with a freshness and contemporaneity which took seriously engagement with the local context and pertinent local issues. Congregations that were growing were "doing the basics well". In particular, all did Sunday well,  
   with careful attention to both the "vertical and horizontal" dimensions of their worship, especially the former. They were unafraid of the numinous. Indeed, they loved to worship God, and it showed. There was a flow and smoothness to the Sunday worship and a lack of self-consciousness about meeting with God. The congregations expected to do business with God at the Sunday meeting and, furthermore, expected God to do business in the lives of unbelievers in their midst. These congregations attracted outsiders who were looking for something deeper than the superficial, fragile and difficult world they lived in for the rest of the week. However, their attendance was no escapism. Rather, church offered something that might help order and navigate their world, and meet a spiritual hunger.   
   Thoughtful preaching which brought the Bible and the newspaper together was thus key. Interestingly, and not surprisingly, I noticed a distinct trend to make greater use of the wisdom literature, especially Psalms and job, in both evangelistic preaching and in all components of the Sunday service. Other forms of Biblical narrative, such as the creation account, were also commonly used. Indeed many forms of narrative were standard: personal testimony from congregational members and from Christians serving cross-culturally, historical sketches, and the testimony or story of the congregation as a whole.   
   In growing congregations the Sunday service was complemented with some form of Christian education/discipleship program which integrated faith with the day to day issues members were struggling with. This was achieved in a highly relational context. A high standard of care and expressed commitment to children and youth was also key, as was a real and felt sense of pastoral care and community.   
   Churches that were growing were of all sizes. They were not necessarily large. However, they all had a readily sensed culture of mission and purpose. They were fresh, vital and healthy. They were fuzzy-edged: welcoming, friendly and easy to join, yet respecting those who wanted anonymity. In particular, they were appropriately enculturated to their community.   
   To these churches God kept bringing seekers. I was amazed at how often I met people who literally walked into their local church simply because of a local newspaper advert, a flyer or a sign. One woman in England called the pastor after finding the number in the phone book and asked how much it was to join! Notwithstanding this, contact through an activity, or an invitation from a friend or neighbour were still the chief means of connection.   
   Children's Holiday Programs were remarkably successful, especially in the U.K. In Bangor in Northern Ireland, over 400 children attended daily, in morning and afternoon sessions ( At Whitefriars in the English Midlands, the programme had a waiting list! With youth, adventure activities and camping remain extremely popular and effective. High tech (and expense) were not required, although a contemporary and creative edge, together with plenty of relational time and careful, focussed, skilful attention to gospel presentation was. Not surprisingly, two highly effective activities I saw were paintball in New Jersey and a guerilla - SAS themed camp in Denmark.   
   Alpha continues to be well used, with many non-evangelical churches, including the Roman Catholics, now asking for programmes. As with all evangelism, the high levels of time and skill required, especially relationally, means that leaders need considerable support and time. This was not always forthcoming from congregational leaders.   
   In Copenhagen, Stockholm, and at a number of places in the U.K. I saw very competent street work - usually based around a musical/drama programme or a booktable, with an invitation to church and well trained conversationalists. While usually ignored by the majority culture, this work was particularly effective with internationals and led to attendance at local churches ( Student work continues to be very productive, especially that which is able to build friendly communities for exploring the faith and discipleship. The Princeton Christian Union for example holds an open house in a converted main street shop, from 9.00pm to I.00am each evening ( Specialist international student work is bearing much fruit. Notable was the work at Colchester with David Beales and in the larger North American cities, such as the Pittsburgh Region International Students' Ministry (PRISM) (, and International Students Inc ( and Focus at Park Street Church ( in Boston. PRISM, for instance, holds a massive second-hand furniture give-away at the beginning of each academic year in the nave of the University Church, thus creating a momentum for the ensuing year.   
   A whole new wave of church planting is occurring in the U.K. and the U.S. and, in patches, in Europe. A plethora of models is being used. Some are quite prescriptive, whereas others are amorphous. Some are initiated by denominations or mission agencies, such as the Presbyterian Church of America, the Evangelical Free Church, the Southern Baptists, the Conservative Baptists and even the Church of England! Many are independent, with an ethnic base, such as is occurring in Melbourne and Sydney. A surprising number are independent, initiated by one or two with a strong sense of call, usually for a particular locality. David and Janie Beales' work in Colchester, the International Christian Fellowship churches in Switzerland (, Reid and Steve Dolly's work at Santa Barbara Community Church ( and even Tim Kellor's Redeemer Presbyterian in New York ( - NB the church planting pages) fit this category, although this last work is a denominational partnership.   
   In the second half of 2002 I visited at least 10 different church plants. A dominant theme and key issue in each is the location of the Sunday meeting. The identification and establishment of a public, visible and "safe" location is paramount. While most have a home- or office-based administrative location open throughout the week, a constant theme of church plant leaders is the importance of a public location for Sunday meetings, preferably a church. This trend is quite different from that seen in the 1970s, where private homes were considered ideal venues for embryonic church plants, in an anti-institutional age. Furthermore, even a school, college or community hall currently does not seem as attractive or natural to outsiders, who, when thinking about church want to go to a church building. One church plant I visited in suburban Pittsburgh, for instance, met in a large and comfortable home basement, complete with kitchen. Many outsiders visited as parents, friends or neighbours, but did not join, citing location as the primary reason. In order to avoid the massive costs and distractions of building in their embryonic phase, church plants are using other churches' buildings on, for example, Sunday afternoons, or reopening previously closed buildings.   
   One of the fastest growing networks of new church plants in Europe is Switzerland's International Christian Fellowship ( These churches have attracted thousands of young Swiss by using an adapted Willow Creek model: a stylish post-modern multimedia presentation. Key components of the Sunday morning and evening meetings are testimony, drama, local bands, film, graphics and an address strong on relating the Scriptures to pertinent life issues. Given the concert/stage format, each meeting is a major production, requiring high levels of commitment from many, as has been found in other Willow Creek adaptations. The creativity, faithfulness and prayerfulness of the team are superb, with great fruitfulness. However, moving from "concert to congregation" is the next challenge.   
   In many places, good use was being made of Christian dramas and carol services. Even coffee shops are making a strong revival! Guitars and fishing nets are back - but with style and professionalism instead of the '70s grunge. And, of course, real espresso machines. Lambertville is a New Age town on the Delaware River, the border of Pennsylvania and New Jersey. The local churches have hired a shop and open 2-3 nights a week, featuring Christian musicians and art exhibitions. It was very impressive and encouraging to see senior pastors learning to be bariste and having fun serving in this role.   
   Innovative Forms   
   In addition to being pleasantly surprised by the continuing effectiveness of more established models done well, with a contemporary freshness, it was exciting to see emerging innovative forms. Most of these focussed around the use of creative gifts, especially, though not necessarily, music. At Redeemer in New York City, for instance, "a single topic of common interest (sex, religion, gender issues, death, race etc) [is] explored through artistic expression, lecture and an open-mic question and answer session." The program has an evangelistic edge and the art form may be jazz, drama, folk, rock, poetry etc. Thus the issue of love and sex was addressed in conversation with familiar operatic pieces on these themes sung by congregational members. A rented church was packed to standing capacity (over 800) twice, in back to back sessions. The music was good, but so was the gospel. Or, the Princeton Seminary Choir presented a Fall Concert: "`All Nature Sings!': Music and Readings in Praise of the Creator." This free program, widely advertised in the local community, consisted of songs, poems, Bible readings and prayers from a broad spectrum of cultures and traditions, followed by supper. Again, it was exciting to see Christians using their gifts in song and speech to declare the good news in an enjoyable, positive and culturally appropriate form.   
   Many Christians are now privately producing their own CDs. Pub nights, coffee shops, jazz and dance gigs and the web are all used for promotion. Plenty of CDs are simply given away to friends. Some readers will know Raewynne Whiteley, who has recently completed her PhD in preaching. Through various U2 websites she has linked with a number of other preachers who have interacted with U2 songs in their sermons. Together they have contracted with Chalice Press to publish these for distribution in popular bookstores, using the U2 sites for promotion. These models of synergistic interaction between the web and another media are noteworthy for their ability to identify and engage with a significant "people group", many with little contact with the faith.   
   The American appetite for The Inklings and other Christian authors continues to grow, fuelled by Christian liberal arts colleges. Related to this is renewed interest in writing: poetry and story in particular. Service sheets and church bulletins typically feature poems. Poetry and book reading groups provide natural contexts to invite unbelieving friends, simultaneously giving Christians environments to explore the outworking of their own faith.   
   These more innovative forms give opportunity for the use of a wide range of gifts by congregational members. Members are often evangelists without realising and without the usual self consciousness! Non-threatening participative contexts can also be provided for outsiders while they explore the faith. In addition, Christians work through and express their faith in forms best suited to their personality. These forms and issues often naturally resonate with the experience of unbelievers and can assist faith development. The form that our evangelical commitment to the word is expressed in may have been inappropriately narrowed by the influence of modernism, so that we neglect the Word's less "propositional" forms. These forms, such as song, poetry, narrative and apocalyptic may resonate better, at least initially, with the loss of confidence, skepticism and uncertainties of a deconstructed age, suspicious of ideologies. Moreover, if we believe God speaks using these forms then surely we, in the imago dei, to some degree reflect His creativity within us as we give similar voice. Indeed, to limit our understanding of evangelism to a particular literary form may in fact be negating the imago dei within us and limiting our discipleship and sanctification as whole persons.   
   Some key themes   
   Whether using established or more innovative approaches, congregations effective in evangelism had identified appropriate and natural vehicles that harnessed and developed the skills of congregational members. Those involved were enjoying the work. They were excited. It was "them". The work was appropriately contextualised and enculturated: jazz and opera in New York City; post-modern stylish presentations in Switzerland; traditional activities in Northern Ireland. There was renewed interest and expectation in preaching, both at Sunday services and at evangelistic events. However, this was only so when preaching interacted with the issues of those listening, exhibited integrity and was real. Congregations were healthy, fresh and welcoming - not pretending about the issues they were wrestling with. The sharing of personal testimony was especially effective. Linked to this, the affirmation, encouragement and use of creative forms conveyed a breadth and honesty in the gospel message to many who were searching,   
   while simultaneously growing (and healing) Christians. Numerically, congregations were growing incrementally as new members were slowly gathered in, often "accidentally". Those seeking valued a pressure-free context allowing anonymity, yet opportunity for participation when ready. Like the growing seed, their growth in faith was often imperceptible, day to day. Work with internationals was especially productive. I doubt we are committing the necessary resources in Australia to this and we are, to our shame, "missing the boat". Perhaps this is a ministry the Church Missionary Society could develop. Those set apart for more focussed evangelistic work needed greater support. However, wherever resources were applied, harvests were indeed seen. It's a great time to be evangelising! May the Lord so transform each one of us so that we would know how best we can harvest, and do so willingly, with great joy and fruitfulness.   

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