by David F. Watson
Christians are rightly concerned with the decline of the church in North America and Western Europe. Is this a permanent trend? Can we reverse it? Are we in the postmodern West inevitably headed down the path toward secularism?
I don’t believe that secularization is inevitable. That said, the church must reclaim her evangelistic mantle. How do we do this? I’m no expert on evangelism, but I know someone who is, so I interviewed him for this post.
Matt Reynolds is the President and Founder of Spirit & Truth, a Wesleyan-minded ministry helping to equip a new movement of churches and Christians who are awakened by the Spirit, rooted in the truth, and mobilized for the mission. As a United Methodist pastor Matt served for 13 years in various local church roles, including as lead pastor of a growing multi-site church in northwest Ohio. He has spent the past several years helping train and equip Christians around the United States to engage in the Great Commission in new and practical ways. He is also a student in the “Living the Historic Faith” DMin group at United Theological Seminary.
I think you’ll find his answers quite helpful. Let us know what you think!
Why do you think we’re seeing such a precipitous drop in the number of people in the U.S. who self identify as Christian?
This is an interesting time for Christianity in North America. I actually believe we are not seeing a major change in the number of deeply committed Christians and recent studies seem to back that up. Rather, I believe we’re seeing the falling away of nominal and cultural Christianity. There is no longer any societal pressure to attend church or engage in other religious practices. If anything, Christianity is on a clear trajectory toward being a status-lowering mark in someone’s life. With that shift in our culture there is no need for people who are not deeply committed to identify as Christian. When you combine that reality with the prevailing church growth methods of the last 50 years which have been perfectly suited to produce consumeristic, Christian-when-it’s-convenient, type of church-goers, it’s a perfect recipe to see the massive dropoff that we are now witnessing.
Are there new ways that churches should think about evangelism?
What I’m passionate about, and much of what drives our ministry at Spirit & Truth, are not so much new ways of evangelism, but historic principles of evangelism that you find at the heart of every great move of God all the way back to Jesus. Whether you’re thinking about Jesus’ approach to ministry in episodes like the woman at the well, or the massive importance of field preaching in the Wesleyan revival, a key premise of effective evangelism is that we take the Gospel to the people rather than expecting unbelievers to come to us. This stands in stark contrast to the prevailing church growth methods of our day which are built entirely on the idea of attracting people to the church.
I believe in our post-Christendom culture we have to regain a sense of the missionary nature of the church. We have to stop thinking about North America as a bastion of Christian influence and start seeing it as a mission field. When people are not just showing up at the church for services any longer, we need to stop looking for a silver bullet program or style and get serious about going to them. For this reason the evangelism focus of our ministry with Spirit & Truth is all about training everyday Christians to share Christ. I fundamentally believe that there will never be an evangelism strategy, marketing ploy, or attractional gimmick that can replace everyday Christians seeing themselves as missionaries planted by God right where they live, work, and play. Right now, every single one of our churches includes people in nearly every sort of societal sphere of influence. If more of those people started living as missionaries the impact would be tremendous.
Do you think people are still open to hearing the gospel message today?
Yes! I think there is a great misconception in our culture that people are just closed off to the Gospel. Over the past several years I’ve done lots of street ministry and had conversations with hundreds of unchurched people. What I find is that people are more spiritually curious than ever. They simply don’t know where to look for their answers and many times are skeptical to look in the institutional church, which they often view as corrupt.
I do, however, find that the ways in which the Gospel is presented may need to be adapted. People do not respond to abrasive questions like, “If you died tonight, would you go to heaven or hell?” Even the categories of guilt and shame are not what carries weight as much for people in a culture where ethics are so personally fluid. But there are other entry points that help illuminate the beauty of the Gospel today. For example the issue of loneliness is a great starting place for the Gospel invitation into eternal community with God. Or people’s overall sense of chaos and evil in the world news cycle really connects with God’s grand redemptive plan. Beyond those issues of how the Gospel is communicated, though, I do find people very receptive and spiritually hungry today. People are coming to see the dead-end of pure hedonism. They are looking for real depth, real authenticity, and real meaning. We have all that to offer in Christ, but we have to be willing to go and offer the Gospel on their turf.
What are the most effective ways you know of to bring people to Christ?
I think the key context is relationship. People long to be loved and known. When Christians just immediately invite non-Christians to church services or other programs many times it comes off like they’re some kind of project. I have seen powerful things happen when Christians start by inviting someone they meet in their workplace, or even just a stranger in the grocery, to have a cup of coffee and start talking about life. I also have seen the tremendous impact of God showing up in prayer or the miraculous. When you offer to pray for someone and the request is answered, or the Holy Spirit just shows up in power, it gets people’s attention and they want to meet the source of that power. We do a lot of prayer outreach with Spirit & Truth. We train people and then take them out into the community to discern where the Spirit may lead us, and then we just offer to pray for people. You would be amazed at the stuff that can happen when you ask a stranger the very simple question, “How can I pray for you?” Ninety percent of the people you ask are totally open to prayer. Again, most people are hungry for something supernatural, but they just don’t know where to look.
Why did you start Spirit and Truth?
Well the short and cliche answer is that I believed the Lord asked me to. But beyond that it’s really about what I see as a real need connecting with a real opportunity. I pastored in a more traditional local church context for many years and loved it. We did some good things and by God’s grace even grew a decent amount. But one thing I became continually convicted of was that almost everything we did as a church was something we could plan or produce on our own. I had a growing desire to see God do more than we could manufacture. Into that longing I had a powerful encounter with the Holy Spirit in 2016 that led to all kinds of new ministry and eventually the formation of Spirit & Truth.
I grew up in the Methodist church and I am desperate for the Wesleyan/Methodist stream to get back to our roots. We desperately need more Christians and churches who are serious about evangelism that (1) takes the Gospel to the streets like early Methodist preachers, (2) is committed to robust intentional discipleship like early Methodist class and band meetings, and (3) expects that God can still show up in supernatural ways like the folks who used to get accused of enthusiasm. I believe the Wesleyan stream has all the ingredients to be one of the primary catalysts that God uses for the next great awakening, but it’s going to require us waking up, abandoning our pursuit of cultural acceptance, and doing some radical stuff again. That’s why Spirit & Truth exists, to help agitate for that kind of movement. We really focus on three core components: doctrine, Spirit, and discipline. Or, to put it differently, we focus on the stuff we believe and teach, the power by which we live, and the practical stuff we do as churches and Christians. That’s why our vision is to see people awakened by the Spirit, rooted in the truth, and mobilized for mission.
How can people get in touch with you if they want to connect with Spirit and Truth?
We offer a number of resources (many of which are totally free) for individuals and churches. We regularly offer online study groups and teaching through our Spirit & Truth Institute. We also launched an annual conference last year that is a powerful opportunity to expose folks in your church to this kind of vision. Our next conference is in March 2020 and we have some amazing speakers coming this year. Our bread-and-butter ministry is something we call the Church Equipping Process, where our small team comes for little to no cost and helps your church get more focused and practically engaged in evangelism and discipleship. All of those opportunities are outlined on our website: www.spiritandtruth.life. We also can be found on all the major social media platforms and people can email us directly with any questions at firstname.lastname@example.org. We are sold out on helping more of the folks in our pews live as full-time, on-mission Christians, for the sake of reaching our decaying world with the Gospel.