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Musings on Missions and Evangelism: Setting Goals

11/07/2012

I am planning on writing a few posts about missions and evangelism on our blog. (No promises on frequency or follow through.) It will in no way be systematic or comprehensive. These are reflections in light of my own experience and my perceptions of trends in the larger Christian world. (Side note: I would rather read someone else’s thoughts on missions and evangelism, but these topics are rarely the subject matters of books these days. I hope that changes soon.)

I have to admit I have conflicting reactions when I hear about a church, or missions organization, setting a numerical goal for conversions/church growth. One part of me is excited and grateful that these churches want to share the gospel of Jesus Christ and are intentional about leading others into the life of God. A desire to connect people to the God of love, mercy and justice is praiseworthy. So, I want to encourage churches to proclaim the good news of Jesus and invite others into the good life that is found in him.

However, there is also a big part of me that cringes when I hear this rhetoric, specifically the idea of setting a numerical goal. I want to suggest that this practice, while possibly derived from good intentions, is unhealthy for a variety of reasons.

First, the notion of setting goals implies that the objective is attainable and the person setting the goal has the ability or means to achieve it. Thus, this is the crux of the problem. The ability to convict someone’s heart and draw her/him into the life of Jesus Christ belongs solely to the Holy Spirit. This is at the heart of the Christian tradition. Therefore, we place ourselves in the wrong part of the equation when we set goals for ourselves that only the Spirit can accomplish.

Second, the practice of setting goals is indicative of the larger concern that churches often function more like businesses than communities. I am not saying that churches shouldn’t adopt some business practices that are helpful for fulfilling their purpose, but the scale is often tipped way too far on that side. A business necessarily has to have goals, methods for achieving those goals, and mechanisms in place to measure its success. On the other hand, success for the church is not decided by its degree of productivity but by its faithfulness to the way of Christ. Thus, the only “goal” the church has is to be like Christ and glorify God.

Third, a potential pitfall in setting goals is that people often make achievement of those goals the ultimate good. The church has set the goal, so we must make sure it happens. And the temptation at this point, often in subtle ways, is to use manipulative methods to ensure success. The end becomes more important than the means. But, for the church, the end (being like Christ and glorifying God) is the means.

Fourth, the situation can easily arise where visitors and new Christians begin to feel like stats in the church’s agenda. While this is not the intention when setting goals, the reality is that our language makes this a likely outcome.

Finally, setting goals for church growth fails to give proper weight to the fact that, as Bonhoeffer wrote, when Jesus calls us, he calls us to “come and die.” This is not a very marketable idea. This isn’t trendy. The reality is that, in certain contexts, the more we evangelize, the more the gospel will be rejected. We can have a desire to proclaim the gospel to more and more people and a hope that they will give their lives to Christ, but it is the Spirit who will enable them to take up their crosses and follow him.

In conclusion, I want to encourage churches and missions organizations towards passionate and intentional evangelism. I hope that we can be bold in how we proclaim and embody the gospel for the sake of friends and strangers. However, I think it is critical to put the emphasis in the right place. Our role is to proclaim the kingdom of God and invite people into the way of Jesus. May we be faithful in that call and pray that the Spirit will, as only she can, draw people into the life of the triune God.

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2 comments

  1. Well said, my friend. As you stated, there has been precious little written about this matter, so we appreciate your courage in putting these important thoughts into print for us.
    Love’s prayers.


  2. We may not be able to control the response, but we can control ourselves. Might I suggest asking God to bring to your mind 5 (any number) people who do not currently have a relationship with God, and then asking others to hold you accountable to proclamation rather than accountable to the person’s response. For me, looking at evangelism this way has transformed the pressure I feel to cause people to change their minds. If we more take the approach of having the bread of life and bringing it to people in order to find the hungry ones, even those who have this need to check something off of their list can be satisfied.



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