Discipleship Resources International

What We Can Learn About Evangelism from Central Conferences

By the Rev. Dr. Stephen Bryant

Mark 1:14-20

“What can we learn about evangelism from Central Conferences?” Kathy Noble, a reporter with UMCOM, asked me this question in an interview for an article in Interpreter where she points out that “between 2003 and 2013, membership in the central conferences in Africa, Asia and Europe increased 4 to 212 percent, while the count in the United States decreased by 12 per cent.” Thus, the question: What can the US churches learn, and what can central conference churches learn from each other?

Holding the Balance

The first thing I’ve observed is how well United Methodists around the world hold the balance reflected in Mark 1:14-20 between the gift of the kingdom and the call to discipleship. Despite all our differences, we are together in this. I just don’t often find UM churches “fishing for people” with the cheap promises of “pie in the sky when you die” and material prosperity in the here and now. We know for the most part that the way to heaven is not direct but is in and through the world God loves and calls us to love as well.

Our evangelism is offering the Christ who came to show us the way to live with God in this world as in the world to come. The good news in Jesus that “the kingdom of God has come near” (v. 15) contains a call to “Come, follow me” (v. 17) in a life of transforming discipleship. Jesus’ invitation, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden…” (Mt. 11:28) goes hand in hand with his commands to “Go, therefore...” (Mt. 28:19)

Context Matters

The second thing we learn is that evangelism is for us contextual, not cookie-cutter. While we share a common vision for “why” we do evangelism, the “how” take many forms.

In Secular Europe: Evangelism Involves Knowing Why Faith Matters

In secular Europe, where some people associate “church” with “museum” more than “ministry”, we learn that evangelism must be relational. During a tour of vital churches a few years ago, I was struck by the counsel of Rev. Matthias Fakenhauser, a young Swiss pastor who is regularly among the wall-to-wall people in a coffee shop in Bern, where he makes himself available for conversation, relationship, and eventually faith-sharing.

“In this work I am doing,” Fakenhauser told me, “if you cannot honestly answer the question, ‘What difference does Christ make in my personal experience?’, then don’t even go there.” Evangelism is not about getting the words right or speaking well of faith in general. “You’ve got to be ready to say how faith in God has impacted your life, why they should take it seriously.”

Evangelism is about making connections based on authenticity and friendship in a land where loneliness can be epidemic. It happens where the people go: coffee shops, pubs, even street markets. Rev. Barry Sloan and team lead “tent ministry” evangelism in Germany, but it’s not like the tent revivals of American past. Rather, with a large tent in an open area, they create a welcoming public space where curious people of all ages gather to listen to music, have fun, meet, engage in conversation, and explore invitations to a deeper life in what becomes a sacred space.

The Rev. Marc Nussbaum, a leader in the Switzerland-France-North Africa Annual Conference, developed a vibrant church in an unlikely place—an out of the way industrial building. Contrary to typical church growth counsel, he and his lay leaders chose to forego signage! Why? As Marc put it, “ The word ‘church’ in our land is identified today with old buildings that are mostly empty and that many people avoid. Yes, we meet in a building, but we want to remember that we are the church, the church is the people, and its vitality depends on our relationships with God and others. People find us through relationships, not signage and marketing.”

In the Philippines: Evangelism Requires A Congregational Commitment

In the Philippine context where Catholicism is strong and Pentecostalism has begun to abound, we learn from our United Methodists brothers and sisters that evangelism is congregational in character as well as personal. At a recent board meeting, Rev. Francisco Bilog told inspiring stories of how our churches in Mindanao and the Visaya, for example, become missionary in their outreach to villages that cry out for the gospel. As the bishop’s assistant in the Davao Area, Rev. Bilog spends time with these churches and sees first hand how God is working through their commitments.

The fact that Mindanao and the Visaya are still a vast mission field for Methodists is a long lasting result of the Comity Agreement (1898-1941) made by early missionaries that for decades restricted Methodist activity to the north populated by people who speaks the Ilocano dialect. After the agreement was dissolved, Methodists grew rapidly in the southern Philippines but only along Ilocano language lines, which is not the language of Mindanao and the Visaya. So when UM churches with a foothold in these islands hear the “Macedonian call” from a neighboring village to “Come on over”, they “send missionary teams to live in the villages for a while”, according to Rev. Bilog. They become faith friends, nurture the emerging fellowship, and eventually help them build their first church building with the backing of the larger neighboring church.  

In the Manila Area, the congregational character of evangelism manifests in a different way. Bishop “Rudy” Juan challenges his churches to embrace a method of evangelism that truly delivers on the new life it promises by getting on board with UMC.DOC (United Methodist Church, Disciples of Christ). UMC.DOC is a way for a congregation to reorder its life around offering Christ and a path for spiritual transformation.

Bishop Juan and his team did the hard work of taking a familiar discipleship movement that originated in Latin America and contextualizing it for United Methodist churches in the Philippines.

The basic methodology of UMC.DOC follows along these lines. Pastors and lay leaders call members and all who seek a deeper life with God to join “care groups” of 10-12. Like Methodist class meetings, care groups “watch over one another in love” (John Wesley) as they practice a pattern of meeting, mutual care and prayer, Bible study and witness. They encourage one another to regularly reach out to share their journey with friends and colleagues, to invite them and to form new groups. Over time, care group members participate in a series of “encounter with God” experiences that deepen their faith and prepare them to become shepherds for new care groups.

People testify that God is working in a powerful way through this experience and that their churches are growing in vitality and numbers, in members and faith leaders.

In Africa, Evangelism Means Embodying the Gospel

In Africa, where God and the world of the spirit have always been quite real to people, we learn the centrality of evangelism to the vitality of the UM church. The energy of evangelism is evident in everything the church does, ranging from starting new churches to field preaching to class meetings to digging wells. All of these are ways the Spirit breathes life into congregations and inspires the people to embody the good news on the frontiers of faith. 

“New places for new people” is more than a slogan in North Katanga; it is an appointment for most newly ordained pastors.  At a recent annual conference session, over one hundred pastors were ordained. “Where will they all be appointed?,” I asked. “To the churches they will start,” replied my friend Rev. Dr. Kimba Evariste. “They are appointed to go back to their villages” and neighboring areas to give their witness and form new United Methodist fellowships. “Their ministry has to bear fruit in order to successfully do this work.”

Revival meetings are a favored means of engaging the public. In Malawi, a Saturday revival in the Mpena circuit involved setting up an outdoor platform alongside the school building and bringing in gasoline powered generator for a sound system. The day played out in a repeating pattern of music, preaching, and praying in small groups.

In Zimbabwe, a revival called “convocation” involves several hundred church people with invited friends camping in the open for 4-5 days at sites like Old Mutare Mission. Music and teaching for all are mixed with small group bible study, honest talk about personal struggles, and bearing one another’s burdens with mutual counsel and prayer.

In Cote d’Ivoire, “evangelistic campaigns” in the north, where Christians may account for no more than 2-3 percent of the population in places, take a different form. A campaign may begin with an evangelism team of 10 people going into a village. “They start with one-to-one evangelism.” explained Rev. Sachou who directs the evangelism department. “By evening they are in an open-air café where they preach the gospel”, invite people to respond, pray for those in need, and give thanks for evidence of God at work. Team members sometimes remain in the village for a few weeks to develop relationships and form a fellowship that becomes a Methodist church.

Class meetings are key. Rev. Sachou points out that giving support in class meetings of 10-12 to those who respond to their evangelistic campaigns is the heart of the Methodist movement. All across Africa, this is true. Class meetings are key to the vitality and fruitfulness of UMC evangelism. They are the small group incubators in which people find Christian support, learn to follow Jesus, find courage to reach out to others, and in some cases spin off new groups and start new churches.

In Zimbabwe, class meetings are called “section meetings” because churches will organize them geographically. They typically meet in homes. A section meeting in Harare was in a member’s backyard. 20-25 adults gathered on a weekly basis for singing, teaching and discussion, intercessory prayer and food. Neighbors join in quite naturally.

Relief, social development and justice ministries are another important means through which the UMC proclaims Christ and his kingdom in Africa.

The East Africa Annual Conference (1998-) came about partly because of the relational evangelism that transpired naturally among refugees in the Great Lakes region, such as in the refugee camps of East Congo, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, and Tanzania, and that gradually extended to South Sudan, Ethiopia, and other areas.  

Evangelism and social development go hand in hand in North Katanga. In Kamina, the headquarters of the North Katanga conference, the UM church proclaims Christ through a carpentry shop that trains former child soldiers, an orphanage, a small university for village men and women, a medical clinic, and more. According to Kimba Evariste, president of Kabongo Methodist University, the area chief, who had already granted land for the university, asked them to also take responsibility for the nearby lake in order to teach locals the business of fishing because “Methodists are the ones who get things done.”

Last month, my sermon in a UM church in Uganda included what was supposed to be an inspiring story of the “new kind of people” that even Roman persecutors found in Christians “who shared their food with people who were hungry, cared for people they didn’t know, took in widows and orphans and treated them as family.” As I preached, it dawned on me that this was nothing new to the people before me; they were doing these very same things!

The United Methodist movement grows in vitality and in numbers wherever we embody God’s love, make Christ real, and become a blessing in the communities we are there to serve.

Holy Conferencing

So what can we learn from one another? With whom or in what area of the UM connection would you like to “go to school”? The living Christ may show us the way through one another. So let’s begin a global conversation.

Categories: Journal